THE HISTORY OF BLACKJACK

Blackjack is the most popular table game at North American land-based casinos as well as a very popular offering online. The reasons for its enduring popularity are fairly obvious—it’s an easy game to learn, it gives the player a fighting chance against the house and offers strategies and tactics both simple and complex. A beginning player can quickly assimilate the rules (if he doesn’t know them already), learn some basic strategy and give himself a chance to walk away from the table having earned a profit.

We’re going to start at the beginning and assume that many readers are new to blackjack. More experienced players might want to read over the ‘basic’ content as they might learn something new about the history and evolution of blackjack:

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THE ORIGINS OF THE GAME

For many years, gambling historians accepted the origin of blackjack as being an Americanized offshoot of the French game Chemin de Fer. Chemin de Fer—which loosely translates to ‘railroad’ or ‘the railway’ is considered to be the original variation of the game of baccarat. Although casino historians never quite determined how it morphed into what we now know as blackjack everyone was comfortable with its origin story.

Now, no one is really sure. The latest theory is that it originated in Spain approximately 500 years ago. The first known mention of what may have evolved into the game of blackjack is in a short story by Miguel de Cervantes, best known for writing Don Quixote. In the short story Rinconete y Cortadillo, from a compilation called Novelas Ejemplares Cervantes told the story of a couple of grifters very skilled in cheating casinos.

Since Cervantes was himself an enthusiastic gambler there are plenty of related references in his works. In this particular story, however, he describes how the protagonists are especially adept at cheating a game called Ventiuna. Ventiuna is the feminine version of the more familiar Ventiuno which means ‘twenty one’ in Spanish. Cervantes continues to explain the object of the game—to reach 21 points without going over. He also notes that aces are worth 1 or 11. As described by Cervantes, the game is played with the Spanish Baraja deck which is similar to the card decks familiar to everyone except without 8s, 9s and 10s. Although there are references about this time in other French literature and later in Spanish literature, this description is of a game almost identical to modern day blackjack.

When the game was brought to America, casinos wanted to make it more exciting to their players and introduced a ten-to-one bonus for a dealt hand comprised of the Ace of Spades along with a ‘blackjack’ (spades or clubs). This bonus was short lived but the terminology remained and as a result ’21’ became better known as blackjack. There’s one major exception—in Nevada ’21’ is still the official casino industry parlance for the game, much in the game way that ‘gambling’ is euphemistically referred to as ‘gaming’.

BLACKJACK IN MODERN TIMES

As a commercial casino industry developed in the United States—first in Nevada, later in New Jersey and other states–’21’ or ‘blackjack’ became a staple among table games. It’s popularity remained fairly consistent for most of the twentieth century. During this time, the casino floor offered an almost even split between real money slot machines and table games. Casinos loved slot machines—they offered more of a ‘house edge’ and required less labor to operate—but the players still demanded table games. Of these, the most popular was blackjack.

Blackjack completely ‘blew up’ in popularity during the 1980’s. The explosion in interest is credited to one man—Ken Uston, who became a media superstar due to his gambling prowess. Uston was a very interesting character, to say the least. Educated at Yale and Harvard, he worked for awhile in corporate American before joining the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. He would eventually become Vice President and was fascinated by the role of computers in finance and investments at a time when most people considered it a pipe dream.

With plenty of money in the bank and a taste for a more hedonistic lifestyle, Uston began to spend time attending to his outside interests. He was a very accomplished musician and would occasionally play jazz piano in San Francisco nightclubs. At one point, he was considered to be the best in the world at the Pac-Man video game. In the late 1970’s, however, he turned his attention to the game of blackjack. After he wrote the bookMillion Dollar Blackjack and appeared on “60 Minutes” he was a rockstar and blackjack was the most popular game in the casino.

Ken Uston’s 60 Minute interview

Part 1

Part 2

Uston popularized card counting which posed a dilemma for casinos. On one hand, they wanted desperately to take advantage of the growing demand for blackjack games. On the other hand, they were terrified that a wave of Uston disciple card counters would bring financial devastation. They need not have worried—for every adept card counter there were dozens, if not hundreds of ‘wannabe’s’ that thought they had the skills but didn’t. Casinos never got comfortable with legitimate card counters but they had no problem accommodating the aspirants in the general public.

About the time of Uston’s premature death in 1987, the popularity of blackjack began to wane and it faded back to its role as just another casino game. Even as the popularity of video poker and digital slots exploded, blackjack still has a very solid niche in both land-based and online casinos. It has become more of a challenge to find blackjack games that offer rules favorable to the player but it is possible. Oddly enough, the most difficult place to find a player-friendly blackjack game is on the Las Vegas strip. The best place? For land-based casinos, you’re better off heading to remote outposts like the border town of Wendover, Nevada. Better still—take advantage of the player-friendly rules offered by the highest rated real money casinos.

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