The Origin and Development of the Game of Blackjack
Blackjack is the most popular casino card game in the world. Nowadays you can enjoy blackjack in the modern luxury of the Las Vegas casinos or simply on your sofa via one of the numerous online sites. It may therefore be surprising to realize that this is basically the same game enjoyed by hardened gamblers in the Wild West and historical figures like Napoleon Bonaparte.
This look at the rich history of blackjack starts by tracing it back to the first recorded games in Europe. After this you can find out how the game was adapted in America and how key mathematicians forever changed players approach to the game.
The History of Blackjack – The Early European Blackjack Games
The actual origins of blackjack is unclear although it is believed to have been played in Europe around the turn of the 17th century. The first written reference to the games was made in ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’, one of a collection of tales by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, himself a known gambler. The story follows two card cheats who were working in Seville and specialized in a game called ‘Ventiuna’, or 21 in Spanish. In the story the rules of the game was summarize including mentioning that the aim was to reach 21 points without going over, and aces were valued at 1 or 11.
Around the same period of time a game also called 21, or ‘Vingt-et-Un’, was also gaining popularity in France. It is widely believed this was where blackjack originated, derived from the baccarat game of ‘Chemin de Feur’, although there had been a number of games in Europe predating this which had closer similarities to blackjack. There was the French game of ‘Quinze’ where the aim was to reach 15, or the Spanish game “Trente-Un” or 31 which was first referenced in text from 1440.
The History of Blackjack – American Influence
Blackjack first started appearing across America in the early 1800s and were typically illegal player-banked games where cheating was rife. The first legal games came to the casinos in New Orleans in 1820 and then began to spread in legal gambling halls.
In order to generate interest in the new game many establishments offered different bonus payouts. One such offer was a payout of 10/1 if a player is dealt the Ace of Spades along with the Jack or either spades or clubs. This bonus was called Blackjack and even after the extra payout was abolished the name stuck.
The game then died off in America as it was banned along with other gambling activities across the majority of US states. It was only when Nevada began legalizing casino games once more in the 1930s that the game saw a revival and massive growth in popularity. Since then it has remained one of the most popular games on the casino floor.
The History of Blackjack – The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen
A key moment in blackjack history happened one night at in 1953 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an army base in Maryland. Pvt. Roger Baldwin was enjoying card games in the barracks when another serviceman introduced him to blackjack. Having a Master’s Degree in mathematics, once he learnt the dealer had to stick to a fixed set of rules Baldwin saw the potential to develop an optimal strategy.
Realizing it would be a much bigger project than he could manage himself Baldwin asked the base’s statistician Sgt. Wibert Canty if he could use the army’s desktop calculators, known as “adding machines”. Canty was intrigued by the project and agreed to help Baldwin and enlisted the help of James McDermott and Herbert Maisel. The four men then began working on this project during every spare hour they had over the next three years.
The result was published in September 1956 in the Journal of the American Statistical Association and was entitled “The Optimal Strategy in Blackjack” which Baldwin later adapted into the book “Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21”.
Despite not having computers to help them the strategy these four servicemen devised is practically identical to the basic strategy used today and is seen as the optimal way to play blackjack. It has since been used as the basis used by every player looking to reduce the house edge and those attempting to card count. During their research another fact was discovered, the house’s edge would always win in the long run.
The History of Blackjack – The Origins of Card Counting
While during the course of their studies the Four Horsemen accidentally uncovered card counting, it was not until the 1960s that the methods were refined. Professor Edward Thorp was the first to use early computers to perform statistical analysis. During his research Thorp was able to prove that the 10-value cards and aces create an advantage for the player while low cards pushes the advantage in the favor of the dealer.
He concluded that by keeping track of the cards remaining in the deck and increasing his bets when the deck is favorable a player could gain a profitable edge over the casino. These were published in 1962 in his book ‘Beat the Dealer’ and led to the basis of modern card counting techniques.