The History of Blackjack

Fighting Card Players and Death - Painting by Jan Lievens, 1638The history of blackjack has eluded researchers for a long time. Still today, there is no clear consensus as to where the game started. There is no set point in history where the game originated. Instead, blackjack has developed and evolved over the years into the game we recognise nowadays. Read on for a closer look at how blackjack developed into the game we know and love.

One theory regarding the origins of blackjack, which is widely agreed upon, is that it probably evolved from the French game Vingt-et-un, which translated means twenty-one. This card game was extremely popular from the beginning of the 18th century, and was regularly played in the Royal Court during the reign of King Louis XV.

The Origins of the Game in the 18th Century

Yet there are other older card games across Europe that could have influenced the development of Vignt-et-un, and in turn, can be seen as precursors to blackjack. These games include the Spanish Trente-un (31), the Italian Sette e Mezzo (Seven and a half) and the French Quinze (15).

Sette e Mezzo (Italian)
Sette e Mezzo is an Italian Card Game Which Preceded Blackjack
The Italian game of Sette e Mezzo (Seven and a half) is played with a deck of 40 cards. Face cards count as half a point, and Ace to 7 according to their nominal value.
Trente-Un (Spanish)
The Spanish Card Game Trente-Un was a Precurser to 21
In this game you have to get as close to 31 points as possible. Picture cards do not all count as 10; the Jack is worth 11 points, the Queen is worth 12 and the King counts as 13 points.

The card games Trente-un, Sette e Mezzo and Quinze attributed values to each of the playing cards, and the object was to draw cards in order to reach as close to a certain value as possible, without busting. Some of the games even had a flexible value for the ace, as with the modern version of blackjack. Since these games are much older than Vingt-et-un, having originated in the 15th and 16th centuries, it is very likely they influenced the French game of 21 that was so popular in the 18th century. Yet the reason that Vingt-et-un became so much more popular that the earlier games can be attributed to the element of skill involved. Rather than relying solely on luck, more skill was needed to be successful in the game.

The game was brought to American in the 18th Century by French colonists, where it was called 21. There were several distinct differences between the rules of the game at the time and the modern version. For starters, there was the addition of another betting round between the cards being dealt. In some cases, the dealer’s second card was visible to players from the start. It was also common practice for the dealer to make his own decisions regarding how to play his hand. However, soon after, dealers began to follow the mandatory blackjack rules, where they would hit up to 16, and stand on 17 or above.

19th Century – Development in America Only

Blackjack was called 21 when Gambling was Legalised in New Orleans in 1820Owing to various gambling bans in France, the game did not develop and spread further in the 19th century. Whereas during this time, the game flourished and gained increasing popularity in America. The first legalised and house banked games were seen in New Orleans in 1820. Yet non legalised, player banked games were common elsewhere across the country.

Eleanor Dumont, Otherwise Known as Madame Mustache was a Skilled Dealer of 21The tale of Eleanor Dumont comes from this time. Born in France, she immigrated to America at a young age. She was a skilled card dealer and she banked and dealt the game to any player, with any stake. She made a living moving from place to place, and in Nevada City, California, she opened a gambling parlour on Broad street, named Vingt-et-un. Only rich and well to do men were permitted to enter, with no women allowed. Madame Dumont was renowned for her beauty (despite being nicknamed “Madame Mustache” owing to the line of hair on her upper lip!). Men travelled from all across the country to play against this female dealer – which was a rarity at the time. Eleanor flirted with the men to keep them coming back for more, however, she kept her distance from them. She experienced much success in her business venture, until the gold rush ended. After this, she went back to travelling the country as a dealer, trying to build up her wealth. She was found dead on September 8th, 1879 in Bodie California. It is believed she owed a lot of money, and consequently took her own life.

The 20th Century – The Era of the Great Casinos

The game was still called 21 when it gained popularity in Nevada, following the state legalisation of gambling in 1931. In order to attract more players, some casinos offered a special payout of 10:1, when a player made 21 points with the ace of spades and one of the black jacks (i.e. the Jack of spades or clubs). Although this exceptionally high payout was soon removed, the name “Blackjack” stuck from this point on. Along with the legalisation of gambling came a need for clear, standardised game rules. It is these rules, as defined by the Nevada Gaming Commission which are mostly still used nowadays.

The Early Days of Las Vegas with the First Major Casinos
Blackjack Gained Popularity when Gambling was Legalised in Nevada in 1931

How Card Counting Changed the Game

It was not until around 1950 that the first blackjack card counters appeared. Yet even before this time, there were probably some players that used such tactics to eliminate the house edge. One famous name is Jess Marcum, whose playing strategy saw him kicked out of numerous casinos. There were interesting characters with unique names like System Smitty and Greasy John. 4 players wrote a book in 1957 entitled “Playing Blackjack to Win”. In the book, the authors Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel and McDermott included a basic strategy to keep track of the cards and reduce the house edge. Even with this interesting insight, the book did not get the same attention from both casinos, and players, as the 1962 book “Beat the Dealer” by Edward O. Thorp.

This book was a huge success, and is still today considered to be the birth of card counting. Thorp, a mathematician devised a “ten-count system”. This comprised of starting with 2 numbers in his head, 16 and 36, which related to the 10’s in the deck, and all the other cards respectively. As the game started, he would count down backwards, and divide the number of remaining “other cards” by the remaining 10’s, to find out when the player had the advantage, and should bet big. This calculation is referred to as the “Thorp Ratio”. However, this system worked at the time when the game was played with a single deck. Nowadays, blackjack is played with numerous decks. This makes the system very complex to use. Say for example you tried to use the system to count cards in an 8 deck game. You would need to count down from 128 and 288 in your head, making it much more complicated.

How Casinos Fought Back Against Card Counting

The casinos took action to try and fight back against the card counting tactics, that had the potential to eradicate the house edge, and consequently their profits. One adaptation was to increase the number of decks used in a game from 1 to 2. Not long after, they increased it further to 4 deck games. Also, the shoe was not played through completely, with dealers shuffling the deck when there were many cards still left. At the same time, the casinos added more blackjack tables, to cater to the surge of new players that wanted to try their luck at winning using these new card counting strategies. However, this ultimately benefited the casinos rather than the players, as many lacked the talent, patience or perseverance to win using card counting.

In 1963, computer scientist Harvey Dubner introduced the high-low method of counting cards, and this was included in the second edition of Thorp’s Beat the Dealer in 1966. With the help of computers, blackjack players were now able to quickly adapt their strategies to any changes implemented by the casinos. Yet around this time, casinos openly embraced card counters. They wanted to ensure that players would keep coming back for more, boosting their profits. In fact, dealers and pit bosses would even hand out basic strategy tables and offer advice on the ideal move to play in a difficult situation. Overall, this approach led players into a false sense of security, as in the long run, the house still won.

Edward O. Thorp – The Father of Card Counting
Dr Edward O. Thorp Created one of the first Blackjack Card Counting Techniques

Yet there were still some players who were experts at card counting, and had the potential to leave the casino out of pocket. It was here that private detective Robert Griffin saw an opportunity to benefit. He published a book with the pictures of suspected card counters, and sold it to all the casinos, which they welcomed with open arms. This enabled the casinos to take a more strategic approach to defeating card counters. Rather than assessing and monitoring all players, they could concentrate their efforts on known culprits. This approach worked well for the casinos, until team strategies began to emerge.

The First Big Player

In 1971, Al Francesco was a blackjack player who would count cards. He tried to find a way to avoid being detected when using such a strategy. His brother would play and Al Francesco would simply stand beside the table and have a conversation. His brother counted the cards, and when he detected an advantage for the player, he would place a big bet. At this point, Al Francesco would place a $100 bet too, knowing that the advantage was with the player, despite not having counted the cards himself. This extravagant betting style drew the attention of the pit boss. However, rather than kicking him out of the casino, the casino was oblivious to his tactics and he was offered a free room. Al Francesco became the first so-called “Big Player” in blackjack history.

Ken Uston Wrote the Book After this experience, the idea came to him to train other players to count and signal him in, so he could play with the biggest stakes and minimal risk. One player he trained in this system was Ken Uston, the president of the Pacific Stock Exchange. In 1977, Al Francesco was horrified by Uston’s publication of a book which centred on this style of playing. The book “The Big Player” influenced many blackjack players and produced the rapid growth of team play. The infamous MIT team and the Tommy Hyland team were created as a result of the book. Al Francesco was banned from all casinos following the publication of the book. Ken Uston was also banned, however, he went on to file a lawsuit against an Atlantic City casino in 1979, claiming that casinos do not have a right to bar skilled players. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with Uston, stating that only the New Jersey Casino Control Commission had the power to rule that skilful players could be excluded. The commission made no such ruling. As such, the casinos went on to employ increased countermeasures against card counting. These included increasing the number of decks used to 8, and shuffling the cards in the shoe much earlier than done previously. Their series of countermeasures ensured that the casino maintained its house edge.

Today, it is still possible in theory to use card counting to overcome the house edge. However, the profits to be gained are minimal in relation to the capital required. What’s more, advanced and complicated counting systems are required, which take a lot of concentration and stamina to master. At the same time, dealers and floor managers are highly trained to identify any potential card counters. However, card counting is still not illegal nowadays, owing to the ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Online Blackjack – The Beginning of a New Era

Despite all the measures taken by casinos to detect and prevent card counters, blackjack continued to be one of the most popular card games played at casinos in Las Vegas and throughout the world. With the boom of the internet, the next big development in the history of blackjack arrived. The first online casinos provided the classic standard version of the game. But very soon after, there were a wide variety of game variants that could be played online, with different rules and unusual and innovative features.

Nowadays, there are hundreds of different blackjack games, with various rules and names to go with them. What’s more, there are numerous new and interesting side bets available, such as 21+3, Perfect Pair or Super 7’s. There are also games with progressive jackpots. There are even some new games which change the game play itself.

New Blackjack Variants Found Exclusively at Online Casinos

One such example is Blackjack Switch. This is one of the most innovative variants of the classic game that can be played online. In this game, you play with two hands simultaneously. Once the cards have been dealt, you have the option to switch the top cards from both hands. This enables you to create the optimal hands with which to play. Another interesting new online game variant is 21 Duel. In this game, 2 community cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table. Both the dealer and the player must select one of the 2 cards to make their own hand. The dealer and the player can select the same community card to play with.

A disadvantage of online blackjack is that card counting is virtually impossible. Although there may be 6-8 decks of cards in the shoe, they are shuffled after each hand is played. Thanks to computer technology, this can be done reliably within a fraction of a second. The same is true for single deck games, which have not existed in land based casinos for many years due to card counting.

Live Blackjack – The Online Game with Real Dealers

With the arrival of the first online casinos, players could try their luck at blackjack anytime, day or night. What’s more, it also offered many different and innovative variants to play. Yet despite the many obvious advantages of online casinos, there remained one major drawback – the lack of atmosphere. Despite the convenience of playing from home, many players missed the ambiance of playing in a real casino. Of course, card counting became impossible, and some players even suspected that the results of the games that were determined by the random number generator could not be trusted to be fair. So overall, despite the perks of online play, there was still a big demand for real games.

The First Live Casino Games
The Quality of the First Streams of Live Games from Real Casinos was Poor
The first live games were streamed from land based casinos, via cameras mounted on the ceiling. The picture quality was poor and interaction with the dealer was not possible.
Modern Live Dealer Games
Specialised Studios are used to Stream Live Blackjack for Optimum Quality
Nowadays, live dealer games are streamed from purpose built studios. There are numerous camera angles and high definition quality can be achieved, creating the ultimate playing experience.

This demand was catered for with the introduction of live games, with real dealers. However, the first live casinos were far from perfect. Games were streamed from real, land based casinos. As such, the view of the games was obscured by other players, plus, owing to the limitations on technology at the time, the quality of the video streaming was poor. On top of all this, interaction with the dealer was not possible. Overall, this led to a rather lacklustre playing experience, which left players unsatisfied. The breakthrough in live gaming came in 2006, with new, purpose built studios which were used exclusively for live games.

This new approach provided distinct advantages. For starters, the quality of the video streaming was highly improved. Plus, numerous cameras were set up, providing multiple views of the game in play, with no obstruction from other players. Also, players were finally able to interact with the dealer, as if in a real casino. Players could see the dealer shuffling the cards, and the introduction of the bet behind option allowed an unlimited number of players to take part in the same game. There is one disadvantage to live blackjack games however, and that is the lack of choice of game variants. This means that you can only play variants with standard rules with real dealers. However, you will find a variety of different table limits, and some providers offer a couple of different side bets.

Blackjack Party – A Unique and Fun Live Game Variant

There is one outstanding game variant – Blackjack Party. The game is essentially the classic version of blackjack, yet there are 2 dealers which provides an interesting twist. Only one of the dealers distributes the cards, but the other is there to interact with the principle dealer and entertain the players. There is a lot of chat throughout the games, and upbeat music playing in the background. What’s more, the very low betting limit of just 50p adds to the relaxed atmosphere. An unlimited number of players can take part, thanks to the bet behind option. This exciting game variant can be found exclusively at casinos with live games provided by Evolution Gaming. The pick of the bunch is 888casino. Not only has Evolution Gaming been awarded Live Casino Provider of the Year a massive 6 years in a row, 888 has also picked up countless awards for Best Casino of the Year, Operator of the Year, plus many more.