The origins of the game of blackjack have been “lost in history” according to the authors of Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21, but most attribute the start of the blackjack game story to the popularity of gambling card games in Spain and France in the 17th century. Far less likely is the suggestion that blackjack origins date as far back as Roman times.
Originally known as Twenty-One, the first written reference to the game of blackjack is included in a book by Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish author famous for writing Don Quixote. Cervantes, a gambling man himself, set his tale Rinconete y Cortadillo, from Novelas Ejemplares, in Seville, where his main characters were cheats proficient at the game of ventinua (Spanish for twenty-one). The main objective of that game was to achieve 21 points with cards; the ace has a value of 1 or 11. Apparently this game was played with the Spanish baraja deck of cards, which lacked eights, nines, and tens. Cervantes's story was written in 1602, implying that this early form of blackjack was played in Spain since the beginning of the 17th century, or possibly earlier.
Most gaming historians agree that the game of twenty-one was played in France under its French name “Vingt-Un” or “Vingt en Un” in the mid-1700s. The game developed from other French games, including Chemin de Fer, French Ferme, and quinze, all of which were popular in those days.
“Vingt-et-un appeared in about the middle of the eighteenth century and was to number amongst its early enthusiasts such unlikely bedfellows as Madame Du Barry and the Emperor Napoleon,” wrote historian Rev. Ed. S. Taylor in The History of Playing Cards (London, 1865).
The French game quinze and the Italian card game “Sette e Mezzo”, or “seven-and-a-half", which predate Vingt-et-Un, are very similar to blackjack, although the object of these games is to achieve different point values with your cards. An even older Spanish card game “Trente-un” (thirty-one) was first mentioned in a sermon in 1440 by a famous French monk, Bernadine, and in this game the objective was to attain a score of 31 with a minimum of three cards.
According to Arnold Snyder in The Big Book of Blackjack (2006), “Both quinze and seven-and-a-half are so close to the modern ‘home’ version of blackjack, where dealers may usually draw or stand at their preference, that other than the target totals of 15 or 7 1/2, there is no major difference between these games and blackjack.”
From its European origins, blackjack made its way to the United States and its popularity spread, especially in the 1930s when Nevada legalized gambling, allowing for the establishment of casinos and betting rooms where players could play their favorite card games in a comfortable manner. The game was still called 21 at the time.
To make the game more enticing some casinos and gambling clubs began offering players who hit specific card combinations with a ten to one payout. These special hands were often an ace of spades paired with a black jack, either the jack of clubs or the jack of spades. This led to the game being called blackjack, a name which quickly caught the imagination of card players everywhere. The payout was later discontinued, but the name blackjack became synonymous with the game.
In 1956, American Roger Baldwin, who had received a master's degree in mathematics from Columbia University, published an 11-page article entitled "The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack". During Baldwin's service in the U.S. Army, he had first considered the mathematics behind the game of blackjack, developing strategies and advice that included the first legitimate card-counting system. This system actually gave blackjack players an advantage over the house.
In the early 1960s, Edward O. Thorp used early computers to keep track of cards, based on the assumption that this how a player could gain an advantage over the game. He devised a "ten-count system" for keeping track of the cards in the deck. Like other well known blackjack books and movies, Thorp's book Beat the Dealer was a huge success, and gamblers everywhere hurried to implement Thorp's card-counting advice.
As a result of these strategies going public, casinos changed their blackjack rules, implementing multiple deck play and frequent shuffling to throw card counters off balance. Casinos needed to assure that the popular game of blackjack would still be offered, but that they, the house, would maintain the advantage in the game.
With the advent of the Internet, the game of blackjack went online, leading to the introduction of new varieties with slightly different rules and prizes. The game also grew in popularity after the publication of Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich (2003) and the release of the film “21”, both of which told the story of a gambling ring of six M.I.T. students who beat the system and took Vegas for millions.
Blackjack continues to reign as possibly the most popular casino card game of them all, and this is, in part, due to the strong belief that players have a better chance at winning than in any other sort of gambling.
All of this blackjack history has probably made you eager to play blackjack. Get to the tables now to instantly play a blackjack game in your web browser, but don’t forget that there are many other exciting casino games to play at Europaplay!