Blackjack History

Blackjack History

I provide this historical background information about Blackjack because I find it rather fascinating and it also provides some insight into the contemporary rules and play of the current day version of Blackjack.

Gambling with playing cards is thought to have started sometime around 1440 in Germany after Johann Gutenberg printed the first deck. Although it is obscure, Blackjack is said to have been derived from many of the first card games created at this time.

Baccarat, appeared around 1490 in Italy and was followed by the game of seven and a half. It appears with seven and a half the player automatically lost if he went above the desired number.

Around 1570 or so in Spain a game called one and thirty was first played. In addition, the duke of Wellington, the marques of Queensbury, and the Prime Minister Disraeli where thought to have played a game called quince (fifteen) which was popular from 1827 to 1844.

The history of the Blackjack card game itself is still disputed but was probably spawned from other French games such as “chemin de fer” and “French Ferme”. Blackjack originated in French casinos around 1700 where it was called “vingt-et-un” (“twenty-and-one”) and has been played in the U.S. since the 1800’s. Blackjack is named as such because if a player got a Jack of Spades and an Ace of Spades as the first two cards (Spade being the color black of course), the player was additionally remunerated.

This brings us to the late 1800′ and early 1900’s. During this time gambling was legal out West (United States) from the 1850’s to 1910, at which time Nevada made it a felony to operate a gambling game. However, around 1919, tables covered in green felt and emblazoned in gold letters announcing “Blackjack Pays Odds of 3 to 2” were being manufactured in Chicago and began appearing in illegal gambling halls across the country.

For whatever reason, money, or public pressure, in 1931, Nevada re-legalized casino gambling where Blackjack became one of the primary games of chance offered to gamblers. As some of you may recall, 1978 was the year casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1989, only two states had legalized casino gambling. Since then, many more states have had a number of small time casinos sprout up in places such as Black Hawk and Cripple Creek, Colorado and in river boats on the Mississippi. Roughly 70 Native American Indian reservations operate or are building casinos as well.

In addition to the United States, countries operating casinos include France, England, Monaco (Monte Carlo of course) and quite a few in the Caribbean islands.

The first recognized effort to apply mathematics to Blackjack began in 1953 and culminated in 1956 with a book called ‘Playing Blackjack to Win’ written by Roger Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel and McDermott. Their book contained a near perfect Basic Strategy. These pioneers used calculators, probability and statistics theory to substantially reduce the house advantage. Although the title of their paper was ‘optimum strategy’, it wasn’t really the best strategy because they really needed a computer to refine their system.

Continuing the trend was Professor Edward O. Thorp. He picked up where Baldwin and company left off. In 1962, Thorp refined their basic strategy and developed the first card counting techniques. He published his results in ‘Beat the Dealer’, a book that became so popular that for a week in 1963 it was on the New York Times best seller list. This book was also the reason for some very unpopular rule changes to the game of Blackjack.

The casinos were so affected by “Beat the Dealer” that they began to change the rules of the game to make if more difficult for the players to win. This didn’t last long as people protested by not playing the new pseudo-Blackjack. The unfavorable rules resulted in a loss of income for the casinos. Of course, not making money is a sin for a casino, so they quickly reverted back to the original rules. As Thorp’s “Ten-Count” method wasn’t easy to master and many people didn’t really understand it anyway, the casinos made a bundle from the game’s newly gained popularity thanks to Thorp’s book and all the media attention it generated. Beat the Dealer is rather difficult to find these days, although I managed to pick up a copy at the library recently. Blackjack became the number one table game in the 1960’s, ’70’s and ’80’s.

Another major contributor in the history of winning Blackjack play is Julian Braun, who worked at IBM. His thousands of lines of computer code and hours of Blackjack simulation on IBM mainframes resulted in ‘The Basic Strategy’, and a number of card counting techniques. His conclusions were used in a 2nd edition of ‘Beat the Dealer’, and later in Lawrence Revere’s 1977 book “Playing Blackjack as a Business”.

Lastly, let me mention that as of today, the casinos are experimenting with new and different forms of Blackjack (Spanish 21, Multiple Action Blackjack, Double Exposure Blackjack). You can find discussions of these variations within this website. These different forms of Blackjack have rule changes that appear to favor the player, but are in reality, a way to part the player from his money faster. It is unclear if these forms catch on, but from my point of view, if they do, your chance and my chance of ever winning, let alone making a living from this game will evaporate. However, as long as there are people who like to play the original form of Blackjack, the casinos will have to offer it, or risk losing the money.