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History of Blackjack

Just like any other casino game, the exact predecessor of blackjack is hard to pinpoint. There’s no credible historical evidence to confirm how the game evolved, with experts not seeing the history of blackjack eye to eye.

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Due to the fact that the game was called 21 before being renamed to Blackjack, there’s a widespread opinion that it evolved from the French game Vingt-et-un.

The History of Blackjack in France?

Vingt-et-un (French for 21) was a French (possibly Spanish) card game referenced in many historical documents. The game most likely evolved from simpler variations known as Quinze (French for 15) or the Italian game Sette e Mezzo (seven and a half).

Most notably, Vingt-et-un was referenced in Miguel de Cervantes’ book (of Don Quixote fame) Novelas Ejemplares, where the two main characters were gamblers and cheats trying to con casinos in Seville. Rinconete and Cortadillo were playing a game called veintiuna (Spanish for 21), where the main goal was to reach 21. The novel also described that the ace is valued either 1 or 11, which is why most historians consider veintiuna to be blackjack’s spiritual predecessor.

Vingt-et-un
Vingt-et-un, better known as 21

Other experts consider it to stem from French card game Chemin de Fer (French Ferme) which was quite popular in French casinos in the XVIII century. Some believe that blackjack originated in ancient Rome where Romans played a similar game with wooden blocks. The Romans were notorious gamblers, but due to the lack of proof originating from that time, this theory can’t be confirmed.

The Extraordinary Rise of Vingt-Et-Un

Since its introduction to French casinos in the 1700s, Vingt-et-un became incredibly popular, probably due to the fact that unlike roulette, it relied on skill rather than luck.

This allowed many skilled players to sit at tables and actually win some money, frequently defeating the casino. In just a short time, Vingt-et-un tables across France were flooded with players who loved nothing more than to play a hand or two at the game every day.

In the beginning, players had the option to either Hit or Stand which gave them the feeling of being in control. After dominating Europe for years, the new exciting casino game made its way to America in the 1800s. The first legalized games in America appeared at the beginning of the XIX century in New Orleans, and from there, 21 found its way all across the country.

Vingt-et-un was popular in America even before the first legalized casino games arrived at the scene in 1820. At the beginning of the 1800s, Eleanore Dumont banked and dealt 21 to anyone interested in Nevada City. She was quite adept at the game but drew a number of players and cheaters. Since the game wasn’t legal, there wasn’t much money to be made.

More than a century later, casinos across the country started offering a lucrative payout for hands with an ace of spades and a black jack – this popular bet was called blackjack and over time, the name caught on, replacing 21.

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The Booming Popularity and Card Counting

Blackjack became a massive hit since it was legalized in Nevada in 1931. With expanding the number of casino games with the introduction of Blackjack, more people visited the casinos. Loosing roulette players changed course and tried their luck at Blackjack. Of course, as it became legal, there was a need for an established set of rules and standards that would protect players and casinos both. Since it relied on skill rather than luck, players have been trying to find different ways to beat the casino. They tried out numerous more or less successful systems that led to the birth of card counting in the 1960s.

Before card counting took casinos by storm in the 60s, there were many blackjack players that were banned from many casinos because they scored massive wins every time they would sit on a table.

Jess Marcum and the Four Horsemen (Cantey, Maisel, McDermott, and Baldwin) obliterated numerous casinos with their skills, with the latter writing a book in 1957 titled Playing Blackjack to Win. This was the public’s first insight into the world of card counting which will soon become a hit.

History of blackjack
An ancient blackjack table

In 1962, the father of card counting Edward Thorpe published the book Beat the Dealer, which is still considered the Holy Grail for card counters. Thorpe was a mathematician who devised a so-called ‘ten-count system’ by using early computers in order to track the cards at the table and gain an advantage over the casino.

His theory proved to work well in practice. The system required a bit of mental gymnastics – players were required to remember two numbers (16 and 36) that represented the tens and the other cards in the deck. As the cards went out, players were supposed to divide the remaining ‘other’ cards by the count of 10s, also known as ‘Thorp’s Ratio’ or the player’s advantage.

At this point, players raised their bets and usually won a lot. This was back in the days, however, when blackjack tables used a single deck. In order to make things harder for card counters, casinos nowadays use 6-8 decks, so Thorp’s system would be quite hard to use. Still, it laid out the foundation for modern card counting.

Card Counting on Fire

After Thorp’s book came out, casinos were running scared. Card counters were at every table, so casinos started making changes, introducing more decks to the tables. After a while, though, they realized that the card counting craze brought them more and more customers, which raised their profits.

In 1966, a revised second edition of Beat the Dealer with a slightly tweaked system hit the shelves, sparking a new generation of card counters. This caught the interest of private eye Robert Griffin, who found a way to identify suspected card counters and sold the list in updated subscription form to every casino. Casinos and Griffin worked together to keep card counting in check, but the results were mixed.

Card Counting Groups

At the beginning of the 1970s, card counter Al Francesco took things up a notch by entering games when his brother, who would play at a blackjack table, posted a big bet. Francesco became the first major player in card counting and soon trained others to keep the count at the table and signal him in.

This led to the formation of many popular card counter groups such as the MIT group, whose legend was immortalized in the movie 21 based on the book about their blackjack escapades titled Bringing Down the House.

Card counting is well alive and breathing, with thousands of players still using it to their advantage. Of course, the security at casinos has introduced top-notch technological systems which can easily spot card counters, so beating the game hasn’t become any easier. Still, with the growing number of land-based and online casinos, card counters can simply find a new ‘victim’ whenever a casino bans them.

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