The History of Blackjack
The earliest incarnation of card games dates back to first millennia when the Chinese began to shuffle paper money into different combinations. To the precise origin of blackjack however, the answer still eludes us today. That being said, it is widely agreed that it is likely to have evolved from various European incarnations as far back as the early 1600s. In this guide, you will learn about the history of blackjack, the development of the modern game and what the future holds for players who love the game.
The Origins of Blackjack
The true origin of blackjack is still unknown but the game ’21’ is thought to be the start. The earliest recorded reference to game of 21 was in a novel by Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes in 1601. He cites a disagreement between his two central characters who excel at cheating at a game of ‘Veintiuna’ which is Spanish for 21. Despite this, it is actually the French who are credited with inventing the game 21 (Vingt-et-Un in French) which is believed to be a variation of two other French card games, ‘French Ferme’ and ‘Chemin de Fer’. Rising to prominence in the 1700s, Vingt-et-un shares many similarities with modern blackjack, but is still quite different. Rounds of betting followed each time a hand was dealt and only the dealer could double.
Quinze, like Blackjack with Bluffing
Another earlier variation of blackjack was the French card game known as Quinze. However, in this game the objective of the player is to score a total of 15 points, as opposed to the modern 21. Unlike most casino games, Quinze was not house-banked. Each bet was made by the dealer and the casino merely took a percentage of the win. Similar to modern blackjack, the player acts first and if he or she goes bust, the dealer wins. Quinze became very popular in English casinos in the mid-1800’s with politicians and royalty known to have played the game. It was also common for Quinze players to wear masks to hide their emotions during play.
Pontoon, the Working Man’s Bridge
Widely known as British blackjack, Pontoon is more accurately a variant of the French game Vingt-et-Un which later became the Americanised version of blackjack. The name was said to originate during the First World War as a humorous association with crossing a river. In brief, while the Army Officers played Bridge, the lowly infantry was left to play pontoon. The game makes use of different words such as ‘twist’ and ‘buy’ which share the same meaning as ‘hit’ and ‘double’ do in modern blackjack. The game is still widely played in the United Kingdom and around the Commonwealth as a both land-based and an online version.
Why Is the Modern Game Called Blackjack?
The catalyst for this move from Vingt-et-Un to blackjack was the French colonisation of America during the 1800s. The game slowly became popular in established settlements such as St. Louis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans before gradually spreading out across the country. It was not an instant hit though. In 1931, casinos had to introduce bonus payouts to entice more players to play. This is when the game became known as blackjack. It is so named because the player who drew the Jack of Spades and the Ace of Spades would receive the highest bonus payout at 10 to 1. These days, a Jack is no longer necessary to obtain the winning hand as any 10-card paired with an ace will make up a winning hand. That said, in the history of blackjack, the fact that the name has stuck is a testament to the importance of these bonus payouts to the lasting popularity of the game.
How the Game Achieved Its Fame
When reviewing the origin of blackjack, it’s important to understand what makes the game different from other casino games such as roulette and poker. In a normal game of blackjack played with a single deck of cards, the probability that the casino will win is essentially nil. This means that you don’t have to be lucky to win this game, you can actually improve your odds of winning through mental arithmetic. In 1962, Edward Thorp’s book, Beat the Dealer brought these revelations to light and blackjack exploded in popularity. Beat the Dealer was on the New York Times best-sellers list the following year, and card counting was born.
Thorp’s discovery quite literally changed the game. Casinos everywhere were under attack from amateur card counters and new defensive measures were put in place. Single deck games were abolished and raised upwards of four to eight decks to thwart the counters arithmetic. Random deck re-shuffles, dealer changes, stopping players entering half-way through the game. All countermeasures to battle the card counting players. But as history has always shown, if you change the game, people will adapt. Two years later, Harvey Dubner brought out the first of many new card counting strategies to come. Dubner’s was called the Hi-Lo system. This led to decades of battle between the card counters and the casinos which saw many individuals become millionaires, and this is what ultimately made the game so successful. People believed they could beat the game and become rich.
From Blackjack History to the Modern Game
There is no doubting the influence of Edward Thorp’s book, Beat the Dealer, in the rapid rise of blackjack. However, there are certainly other key events which contributed to the game’s growth over the years. Let’s have a look at the biggest milestones in blackjack history.
1931: The First Las Vegas Casino Opens
In 1910, the US government decided to outlaw gambling, often seen as a habit tarnishing the local morale. This drove a lot of players underground, similarly to Prohibition laws which gave way to speakeasies and other secret channels for trade. Unfortunately, this had the undesired effect of handing the industry over to the hands of organised crime bosses. Realising their error, the government decided to legalise gambling two decades later in the state of Nevada, along with the creation of new laws to protect gamblers.
The first Las Vegas casinos were opened in 1931 and the popularity of blackjack grew. Along with this new legislation for gambling, a new clear standardised rulebook for the game was needed. The federal government founded the Nevada Gaming Commission who went on to define the rules of blackjack, most of which are still used in modern blackjack today.
1978: Atlantic City Launches as an Alternative Gambling Destination
Nearly 60 years after the first Las Vegas casino opened, Atlantic City followed suit, establishing a gambling hub on the east coast as well when Resorts International opened its casino doors. The Atlantic City casinos initially welcomed the competition from blackjack card counters who believed that, over the long run, they stood to make more money than they lost.
This welcoming attitude did not remain for long. Eventually the Casino Control Commission gave casinos the right to ban known card counters from entering their establishments. Whilst this was later overturned, it only served to make the pit bosses more radicalised in their ploys to derail card counters in any way possible. That said, where there is a will, there is a way, and the popularity of blackjack continued to soar despite – or perhaps because of – its notoriety.
1996: Online Casinos Becomes a Thing
At the height of the dot-com era, casinos began to move online, and this was the next big development in the history of blackjack. Initially, it was the classic version of the game that was made available. However, demand soon grew for new and innovative versions of the game to appear.
This is where we saw the introduction of variants such as Blackjack Switch, Double Attack Blackjack and 21 Duel, each with their own unique set of rule, innovative features, and strategies. Nowadays, most major online gambling sites offer at least a handful of variants, while some have upwards of ten. If you are interested in learning more about our recommended online casinos for popular blackjack variants and other casino games, you should check out our guide to the top 10 online casinos in the UK.
2006: Evolution Launches and Takes Live Games to the Next Level
The success of online casinos was clear, however, there remained one major drawback. How could they re-create the atmosphere and thrill of playing at a real-life land-based casino through a computer screen? This question led to the next development in blackjack history, the introduction of live gaming with real dealers. The first iteration of live blackjack play was far from ideal. Games were initially streamed straight from the casino floor which often resulted in a restricted view and poor picture quality. There was a turning point in 2006, when newly designed, purpose-built studios were implemented exclusively for live games. With this, video quality vastly improved and players were finally able to interact with a live dealer. Live gaming led to the creation of Blackjack Party which is a more social variant of the game played with two dealers. Check out our guide to the best live blackjack casinos in the UK if you want to learn more.
The State of Blackjack Today
If blackjack history has shown us anything, it’s that it has been integral to the evolution of the gambling industry. By 1987, 76% per unit share of all games being played on the Las Vegas strip was blackjack. The closest rival that year was craps with 11%. Today, the proliferation and availability of new games has gradually eaten away at that dominance, however, there is no doubting blackjack still remains a casino favourite. There has never been a better time to play blackjack than today.
There are so many different variations and options for all players to choose from, no matter what your blackjack background is. We have touched on many of these different variations throughout this guide but if you would like a comprehensive review of all the best blackjack game variations available in the UK today, you know where to find them.
The Future of Online Blackjack
Whilst mobile gaming is trending heavily for all online casinos games right now, there are still plenty of new directions the industry can go. Blackjack was featured prominently in Rockstar North’s 2010 title, Red Dead Redemption, an adventure game set in the Old West. The next logical step would be to re-create this environment within a virtual reality game where players can enter any Old West Tavern and challenge a whole range of fictional characters to a game of blackjack. Likewise, they could create a blackjack origin game where players are transported through the history of blackjack from the king’s courts in 16th century France to the founding of cities like New Orleans. With companies like Facebook pushing the boundaries of social VR, it feels like only a matter of time before players will be able to enter an entire virtual casino and interact with other players online. One thing is for sure, the future remains exciting for the game of blackjack.