THE HISTORY OF BLACKJACK

First, a brief history of cards: Playing cards are believed to have been invented in China and/or India sometime around 900 A.D. The Chinese are thought to have originated card games when they began shuffling paper money (another Chinese invention) into various combinations.

In China today, the general term for playing cards means "paper tickets". The contemporary 52 card deck used in the U.S. was originally referred to as the "French Pack" (circa 1600's) which was later adopted by the English and subsequently the Americans.

The first accounts of gambling were in 2300 B.C. or so, and yes, the Chinese again get the credit. The history of blackjack will actually depend on which story you are currently listening to. There are a lot of versions about it. The only thing that's clear is that it's a very old game-it started hundreds of years ago.

Islam
The Muslims may have taken precedence of the paper tickets that they eventually transformed them into real cards, along with intricate and elaborate designs on every cover. When they set foot in European countries such as Spain and Italy, these cards were then introduced. However, to make them relevant, the "men" in the cards were changed to kings (much like those that we used today). The queens appeared much later when the French changed one of the male cards with queen.

Rome
Rome, along with Greece, was considered to be one of the highly advanced countries when civilization was still new. It doesn't come any surprise if there will be people who would think that blackjack came from here. Added to that, the Romans loved to gamble. Theory states that the Romans a long time ago would play blackjack with the use of wooden blocks. These blocks then had their corresponding numerical values.

United States
Blackjack is very well-known in Europe, considering that most of the places of its origin are found there. However, United States doesn't want to be outdone. There are also plenty of blackjack players in the country, and all Las Vegas casinos have blackjack tables. How did it arrive in the United States?

It all started once the French Revolution was over. It was introduced into North America. However, unlike the Europeans, Americans were very lukewarm to it. Fortunately, as time passed by and more players learned how to play and win the game, blackjack became a household name. It also helped that when the game was introduced, there were no U.S. gambling law.

SPAIN
 

Spanish 31
The Spanish game “Trente-un” (“Thirty-one”) was first mentioned in the 14th century. The aim of the game was to get a hand totaling 31.

The first time this game was mentioned was in an anti-gaming sermon by an Italian monk - St. Bernardine of Siena. This sermon led to public burnings of dice, cards and backgammon boards. This sermon dates back to 1440. Later, the author Miguel de Cervantes mentioned Trente-un in a 1570 text. These stand as some of the oldest references to what eventually became the game of 21.

It is also interesting to note that Miguel de Cervantes, a very well-known Spanish author and gambler, would make reference to twenty-and-one in Don Quixote. The book was published in the seventeenth century. It may only mean that blackjack could have started in France or in Spain. Cervantes is the author of a great feat of literature Don Quixote.

ITALY
The Italian game "Thirty One" has lots of similarities with the current game of blackjack, though the aim of it was to get a hand totaling 31 from 3 cards. The fact the game appeared in the XIV century makes this game the first predecessor of blackjack as we know it today. The first time this game was mentioned was in an anti-gaming sermon by an Italian monk - St. Bernardine of Siena. This sermon led to public burnings of dice, cards and backgammon boards. This sermon dates back to 1440.

Francois Rabelais
The game "Thirty One" was also mentioned in the classic and famous work by Francois Rabelais - "Gargantua and Pantagruel". In references dating back to 1532 and 1542, the game was listed in Chapter XXII as one of the 100 games played by Gargantua:  “Then the carpet being spread, they brought plenty of cards, many dice, with great store and abundance of chequers and chessboards. There he played at flush, primero, the beast, trump one-and-thirty.”

The game was then mentioned in one of the stories of the famous Spanish writer - Miguel de Cervantes, where he described a great blackjack, or "Trentuno", cheat. The story was called "Riconete and Cortadillo" and was published in 1613, which is over 150 years later than the first mention of 31 in Bernardine's sermon.

Johan Guttenberg, of bible printing fame, printed the first decks of cards. The deck had 22 trumps and 4 suits of 14 cards. Each suit had 10 numbered cards, a King, a Queen, a Knight and a Valet (Jester).

Seven and a Half
The Italian game "Seven and a Half" was very popular entertainment pastime with some similarities with the game of blackjack you will definitely notice. According to the rules of the game, it was played with only 8's, 9's, 10's and face cards. The values of cards were the following: Aces were counted as 1; Face cards all counted as a ½ and all the rest cards were counted according their values. The King of diamonds in the game was considered as a wild card. Any player that received a total higher than 7.5 would automatically go bust. The player who got a value of 7 ½ won and was paid more than even money. The dealer unlike in modern blackjack, was allowed to hit and stand when he wanted.

FRANCE

French Vingt-et-un
The game Vingt-et-un differed in many aspects from the game blackjack as we know it today, though there are still many common features. The cards in this game were dealt in rounds allowing players to bet on each of the rounds. Though the aim of the game was partly the same - to get a hand of 21, the game was different as only dealer could double and if he got a Natural, all the players would pay him triple. Player's Natural paid double and a busted hand was an automatic loser. In Vingt-et-un the Ace could be 1 or 11 which has carried on to the modern game

As you can see, the game of Vingt-et-un is similar to blackjack game, therefore it is mostly considered to be the true predecessor of modern Blackjack.

The game was loved by the French elite and was even played by the mistress of the king Louis

All in All
In the absence of hard facts, some researchers believe this game has derived from other similar French games, however those games are based on accurate and well-balanced calculations. Also the fact that casino games very rarely mutate into other games is a strong argument that blackjack did not come from vingt-et-un or any other game.

Still, there are such scholars that think blackjack belongs to the family of games that includes Baccarat, Seven-And-A-Half and Vingt-et-Un, 21 and Pontoon.

Blackjack in America
From its origins in Europe, blackjack has spread out throughout the world and came to America after the French Revolution in 1789. The game became hugely popular after casino owners offered amazing bonuses (for a hand of Jack and Ace of Spades the player got a 10 to 1 payout which brings us to the origin of the name of Blackjack).

The first name for the game however was Twenty-One which has been used in New Orleans since 1823.

As in Europe the game of blackjack was mainly a game of entertainment, then professional gamblers in the USA tried to make it a source of gain by manipulating gaming odds and varying bets. There were no specific governmental regulations for the gambling industry and that is why the game developed quickly and became more and more popular. It continued like this until the 19th century when the government of the US found out how gambling, influenced corruption and led to organized crime.

According to many researchers, the modern history of the game of blackjack started with the Nevada Gambling Act of 1931 that legalized gambling in all Nevada casinos.

This led to many changes for blackjack history. As most of US states criminalised gambling, Las Vegas in Nevada attracted gamblers from all over the world to its casinos, and blackjack became one of the most popular games at all casinos. The interest in the game grew and was boosted with the book by Edward Thorp "Beat the dealer", and you can read about it in the History of card counting.

Blackjack in America
Legalized and house-banked games popped up in New Orleans in 1820. Less than legalized and player-banked games were common everywhere else in the early going. There is the tale of Eleanore Dumont, who showed up in Nevada City, California in the mid-1800’s. She banked and dealt the game of 21 to any takers, and whatever her math talents or card handling skills, enjoyed much success as an expert at the game. Truly, during this time it’s hard to peg who was talented at the game, and why. Cheaters and sleight of hand artists abounded as there were little in the way of checks and balances for a game that was not technically legal.

From the early 1800s through 1910 America had no laws against gambling, and blackjack continued to gain in popularity. Professional gamblers soon understood how much winning potential there was in blackjack, and so began devising the earliest known strategies for winning at blackjack.

During early 20th Century the United States outlawed gambling as a practice that corrupted the citizens. Continued movements through the era of prohibition move gambling under-ground.

However, in 1931 the state of Nevada decided to legalize gambling and blackjack emerged from exile. Las Vegas, a dusty desert town, became one of the world’s great gambling meccas. Las Vegas was incorporated on March 16, 1911. Initially the town drew much of its local economy from “dude ranches” where people stayed while fulfilling the six-week residency requirement to obtain a divorce under Nevada’s liberal law.

House-banked blackjack was established in Nevada in 1931. Once its lawfulness was established, the dire need to have game standards and controls in place to regulate the action could finally begin to be met and enforced.

The stage was set. Thirty years would pass before the true birth of card counting. But in those thirty years, there were players who thought about the game and how to play it best. Many of them are referenced by those who came after them and explored the facets of the game after them. There was Jess Marcum, kicked out by many a beaten and confused casino who may have been beating blackjack by counting cards before 1950. There were colorful characters with names like System Smitty and Greasy John. Four players (Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, McDermott) wrote a 1957 book Playing Blackjack to Win with explicit reference to a basic strategy and to keeping track of cards as a way to tilt the game in your favor.

During the later half of the 1940’s science began to take notice of the mathematical aspects of gambling. In 1953 mathematician Roger Baldwin and his associates made the first attempt at applying statistical theory to the turn of the card in blackjack. Using their calculations, they played the game in an effort to reduce the house’s edge and win more money.

They published their findings in 1956 as a scientific paper, “Optimum Strategy in Blackjack,” for the American Statistical Association. This is considered the first strategy guide to playing blackjack. Armed with this as background, in 1962 Edward O. Thorpe wrote a book, “Beat the Dealer,” in which he outlined his blackjack research gathered since the late 1950s. Thorp had used new probability calculations and the equivalent of an early computer to come up with a system to improve the odds of winning by counting the cards in a blackjack game.

Thorp’s Ten-Count became the first published card counting system. Even though few readers understood it clearly, by 1963 Thorpe’s “Beat the Dealer” was atop the New York Times’ best-seller list for nonfiction.

The casinos feared Thorpe’s announcement and tried to defend against it by changing the playing rules of blackjack. This strategy proved to be a bust when gamblers in droves boycotted the casinos, especially those in Las Vegas, for changing the rules. Eventually all business got so bad at the casinos that they were forced to revert to blackjack’s original rules so that players would return.

The irony of the casinos fear was that Thorpe had put the game on blackjack top of mind as the hottest thing to do in a casino. Soon enough the casino realized that Thorp’s book was a new gold mine for them.  Although a flood of players washed into the casinos armed with the information that the game could be beaten, most were not willing, patient, talented, practiced enough or funded enough to actually do it.  In the law of large numbers the new customers made the casinos keep winning big..

After Thorpe’s book and it revised edition, the next major strategy work on blackjack was published in the early 1970s. Lawrence Revere’s “Playing Blackjack as a Business” drew thousands of inspired blackjack players who want to try his system.

Atlantic City Opens its Doors

The first Atlantic City casino, Resorts International, opened its doors in 1978. A favorable early surrender rule resulted in a crush of players, including players from these newly formed teams. Even though the casino was making money hand over fist, they wrestled over how to deal with counters. Ken Uston was a name  they came to know well. . In 1982, Ken Uston won a lawsuit against Atlantic City casinos. The New Jersey casinos could no longer kick out players by law, but it only empowered them to resort to constant suspicion, as well as half-shoeing and shuffling tactics. Another court case resulted in the casinos lobbying for and getting the Control Commission to allow them to restrict a specific player’s bets if they are suspected of counting cards.

During the 1980s, no blackjack player drew more attention or won more money than Ken Uston. His books, “Million Dollar Blackjack,” “Ken Uston on Blackjack” and “The Big Player” inspired millions of people to try the game in hopes of winning big money.

Uston was introduced to the concept of team play in blackjack by another gambler, Al Francesco, who taught Uston how to count cards. Eventually Uston put together his own blackjack teams, using computers placed in their shoes to help count cards and compute probabilities. Uston’s teams earned millions during their run at Nevada’s casinos. Uston himself had to resort to a myriad of disguises to get by casino security after he was listed in the famous (or infamous) Griffin Books, a series of volumes containing photographs and information on professional gamblers, cheats and card counters.

The Griffin Books were created by Robert Griffin, a private investigator who capitalized on the casinos’ fear of card counters by setting up Griffin Investigations, a firm specializing in casino security. The firm still operates, although its vast volumes of “mug books” have evolved into an online database that casinos use daily to spot cardsharps.

The next great peak in blackjack’s history came not from an individual, but an entire team of eggheads – the MIT Blackjack Team. This legendary group of players grew out of student games at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and became one of the all-time greatest group of winners in blackjack history.

The amazing run of the MIT Team was recorded in a documentary, a book, and a Hollywood movie, “21,” directed by Oscar winner Kevin Spacey.

Indian Casinos and State-Approved Casinos come on board

In 1987 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which effectively gave tribes the right to build and regulate their own casinos. Tribes across the country began getting into the gaming business. Meanwhile, states started getting in on the lucrative action. In the Midwest, they began opening riverboat and shoreline casinos to step around traditional restrictions and create gambling zones. By creating a state gaming agency and offering individual cities the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they wanted to open casinos that would be limited in size and scope,

Blackjack Today

This story is still being written. Today, blackjack is a worldwide game and the proliferation of casinos continue to support it life. In the US alone there are over 700+ casinos offering the game.

Stay tuned.