The murky origins of blackjack…

The exact history of blackjack is shrouded in mystery and its exacts origins cannot be pinned down to a single date. There are a number of speculations surrounding where the game was conceived and when, however, the general consensus and study seems to agree that it first came to light in either France or Spain between the 15th and the 18th century. It then drifted over the continent to American in the 19th century and around the same time was introduced to the murky world of gambling in the UK, which was prevalent throughout the 18th and 19th century, but was only legalised in the 20th with the introduction of the 1960 betting and gaming act. Its spread, of course, must have come from a single source, and as we cannot pin down the exact date and location, is going to look at the  three most heavily debated suggestions.

In 1440, records show that a popular card game arose in France called trente et un, which is directly translated in English to ‘thirty-one.’ It is entirely plausible that blackjack stemmed from this game as it involved the same process that 21 followed, where players were required to build up a hand up to the value of 31. This theory is further backed up by the fact that 200 years later, again in France, the game vingt-et-un was rising in popularity. This game followed the same rules as modern day blackjack and appeared in casinos up and down the country. It seems a natural progression from one game to the next, however, some believe the game had origins in Spain.

In 1615, a game that is similar to blackjack was mentioned in the short story ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’ by Miguel de Cervantes, as part of the Novelas ejemplares collection. It involved players collecting cards as they attempted to get to 21, or as close as possible. Its connection to blackjack is uncanny and even involved the ability to change an ace to either 1 or 11.

We would like to propose a certain time-line, that brings these events into order:

  •  1440 as trente-et-un: a card game which was similar to 21 was invented in France. You had to build up a collection of cards that valued 31.
  • 1615, the Spanish then refined to the game into a variant of blackjack, which was referenced in the short story ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’ by Miguel de Cervantes as part of the Novelas ejemplares collection.
  • 1700s, news gets back to France about a variant of trente-et-un, and renamed it vingt-et-un, or 21.

Of course, we cannot be sure of the exact origins of the game, but it seems a natural order of progression and as geographically, they are neighbours, news would travel fast between the two countries. This is only speculation though, and without hard evidence, which nobody has, we cannot be sure.

Blackjack Travels To America And Beyond…

Well, in the 16th century, the French started to colonise the Western Hemisphere and establish forts and settlements in a number of key cities. This, of course, explains why a number of now big states in the USA have French-esque names; New Orleans, St Louis, Cape Girardeau, Detroit in America and Quebec and Montreal in Canada.

As with all imperialistic campaigns, France will have tried to instil their ways of life, their culture and their ideas upon the colonised citizens. With that comes their games and pastimes, and of course, vingt-et-un would have caught on after the fighting and bloodshed had stopped. Blackjack was essentially brought over to America as a result of years of war and conquering.

Vingt-et-un was also played in Britain throughout the 18th century, again, reinforcing the idea that blackjack was a French invention. It was only early into the 20th century, around the time of the big gambling boom and prohibition that vingt-et-un was re-named blackjack and became increasingly popular. Towns such as Miami, Gaveston and Hot Springs became major gambling hubs due to their relaxed laws on gambling. Otherwise, gambling was very much an underground operation funded by mob figures and organised criminals, and proved very successful financially for them, as people clamoured into speakeasies and gambled away their money.

Related – Romans Loved Gambling So Much They Banned It!

When the stock market crash of 1929 occurred the Hoover Dam project led to a legalisation of gambling in Nevada.  In 1931, Nevada legalised nearly all forms of gambling when the Assembly Bill 98 was made into law. This provided an excellent revenue stream into the state, which in turn, made Nevada a very popular place for tourists and local residents. This is where gambling, and blackjack really blossomed, quickly becoming the most popular table game in the USA.

Blackjack gains popularity and the first guides are published…

In 1953, Roger Baldwin published his first blackjack guide in an attempt to educate players about the game they were losing so much money to. In 1956, he published his first strategy manual based on statistics, which helped combat house edge. These guides promised to improve the odds when they played blackjack and as a result the casinos got worried and changed their rules.

Unfortunately, many players couldn’t understand the guides as they were filled with complicated mathematics. In the end, people lost a lot more than they gained from these guides, which were genuine, just above the regular thinker’s capacity. Eventually, casinos realised this and changed the rules back to their original state, which pleased a lot of regular gamblers. Between the 60s and the 80s, blackjack remained the the most popular table game in America.

Blackjack finally gets the attention of MIT, blowing it to pieces…

It is human nature to find the path of least resistance in any given situation. If there’s a shorter route from A to B, people will generally work it out and eventually take it. This diligence to find the easiest way when the odds are stacked against you is what makes the talented exceptional.  In the 90s, a group of exceptionally talented mathematicians came together to find a mathematically sound way to improve the odds of blackjack so much that they’d win almost every time.

Bill Kaplan was obsessed with winning. He was a straight A student that was well on his way to Harvard, much to his parent’s admiration. Unfortunately, for his mother and father, Kaplan discovered a book on card counting just before heading off to university and was so sure he could use it to his advantage he begged his parents to let him head off to Las Vegas to make a fortune.

His father agreed under one circumstance; he would have to beat him at blackjack. Kaplan won, of course, and headed off to Vegas with $1000 in pocket. Three weeks later, he returned with over $30,000 in winnings. His parents were, well, rather impressed. What occurred from this point onwards was one of the biggest crushing of casinos in the 20th century.

When J. P Massar overhead a conversation about blackjack strategy at a local M.I.T bar he headed over and introduced himself. This piqued the interest of one person in particular, Kaplan, who was enjoying a casual beverage with friends. After listening to Kaplan about his blackjack success stories, Massar asked Kaplan to observe the blackjack team he set up. Kaplan, after watching the team practice, agreed to join the team and set-up a nationwide expedition in card counting. Soon, a number of their players could be found taking on many dealers across America, implementing their new found card counting techniques. It started off well, however, mismanagement and a lack of organisation cost them a large chunk of their winnings. They barely returned with a profit.

After getting organised with clock-in cards and a clear management structure, and re-branding as Strategic Investments, taking investors money and playing blackjack, Kaplan had a multi-million dollar organisation under his belt. Unfortunately, as time went on, the team broke apart and Strategic Investments was no more by the turn of the 21st century. It was though, the single biggest coup from an organised betting ring in the 20th century, and it was all down to the mathematics of card counting.

Blackjack and the 21st century online revolution…

Whilst the M.I.T blackjack team was taking down casinos across the USA, another revolution was happening altogether; the online casino revolution. In 1994, Microgaming introduced the very first online casino to the world via the internet and it quickly took off. Soon, by the turn of the 21st century, a large population of the gamblers who played blackjack were doing it online. Nowadays, it is the quickest and easier way to play blackjack from the comfort of your own home.

Online blackjack is aeons way from the French colonial states that introduced the game to the country in the 17th century. It is fast, easy to access and loads of fun. The online casino revolution has been attributed to the fact that casino games are quick and action packed. With today’s busy lifestyle, we no longer have time to play blackjack at a regular casino, that’s why online casinos have become so much more popular. It is that and the fact that nearly everybody has an internet connection which has resulted in online blackjack out-doing its physical counterpart, that being, regular blackjack played in regular casinos.

Obviously blackjack has come a long way since its 16th (or 18th) century origins and we should take a minute to celebrate the fact that a game has captured the interests of millions of people, and travelled so far through time, that its origins simply cannot be nailed down. There are very few games that have existed longer than blackjack, and that’s why it has become such an important part of our history.

Five centuries later and it’s still here, stronger than ever.

Why not try your hand at one of our ever games and head on over to Best of luck at the tables!



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