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The History of Blackjack

September 17, 2010

Blackjack as we know it evolved from a number of different games that were played in Europe in the 17th century. Most of these games had one thing in common and that was the objective of reaching a total of 21.

The first reference to one of these games is in a story by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes in 1601. Two of the characters are proficient at cheating at a game called “Ventiuna”, which is the Spanish for 21. Like in modern day blackjack, Ventiuna has the aim of reaching 21 points without busting and aces have values of 1 or 11. The game was played with a Spanish deck that does not have 8s, 9s and 10s. The French version was known as Vingt et Un, which is 21 in French. In this version the dealer was allowed to double and players bet after each round. The Italian version was called Seven and a Half. This game was played with face cards, 7s, 8s and 9s. This game was different because the objective was to make a hand of seven and a half points. The 7s, 8s and 9s were valued at one point while the face cards were valued at half a point. In Seven and a Half the king of diamonds was a wild card. If a player went over seven and a half he busted.

Blackjack was introduced in the United States sometime after the French Revolution. Initially it was not popular in the gambling houses. Therefore the owners offered a variety of bonuses to draw players to the game. The most popular of these was a payout of 10 to 1 for a hand consisting of the ace of spades and a black jack. This hand was called a “blackjack” and gave its name to the game. Later this payout was withdrawn and a payout of 3 to 2 was offered for a hand consisting of any ace and any ten value card. However this hand and the game continued to be called blackjack. Soon gambling on blackjack was outlawed and the game had to be played in secret. This continued till 1931, when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas.

Blackjack is a game of skill and not many players could figure out the optimum moves. In 1953 Roger Baldwin published a sort of manual outlining blackjack strategy, which brought down the house edge considerably. In the early 1960s Edward Thorp took blackjack strategy to the next level. He began to count the cards that were discarded and hence was able to fine tune the strategy so as get an average return of over 100%. He published his findings in a book called Beat the Dealer, which was an instant bestseller. Initially the casinos were apprehensive but they soon realized that only a minuscule number of players could actually count cards and this would not dent their overall profits. Then in the early 1990s a team of players from MIT embarked on card counting in a professional way. They recruited and trained players and were able to track tables that were in a situation favorable to card counting. The casinos responded with a few changes of their own. They increased the number of decks and introduced early shuffling.

In the mid 1990s casinos went online over the Internet. Players started gambling on blackjack from their homes. Online gaming software developers continue to release new blackjack variants with innovative twists thus keeping the interest in blackjack alive.

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