The game of Blackjack has its roots in 18th century France, where a game called vingt-et-un or “twenty-one” was played in casinos. Players would draw cards to obtain combinations of values that were higher than the dealer’s, but without exceeding a total of 21. Bets would be placed after each round of draws, and the dealer had the option to double the wagers, rather like doubling in Backgammon.
The card game made its way across the Atlantic after the French Revolution, but it did not catch on quickly in America. To make the game more enticing, special 10-to-1 payouts were offered for a combination of the ace of spades drawn with a jack spades or clubs on the first two cards. The result was an immediate interest in this new form of “Black Jack.”
The 19th century was a time of adventure, opportunity, and risk-taking in the New World. Soon, the Black Jack game challenged the old standard “Faro” as the most popular card game on riverboats and in private gambling halls. It became a mainstay of the lavish casinos built in the lower Mississippi Valley, and especially in New Orleans, where gambling became a legitimate and organized enterprise.
Black Jack was also played in the mining camps of California during the days of the Gold Rush, from 1849 to 1855. Soon, San Francisco became the center of casino gambling in the United States and the “Blackjack Capital of the World.”
The Civil War of 1861~1865 brought with it lots of changes, not the least of which were calls for the prohibition of gambling. The extensive riverboat gambling network established in 1840~1860 faded as a new mode of transportation brought East and West closer together—the railroad. All “banking games” were banned in California and laws against dealing or playing Blackjack were tightened from 1860 through 1891.
Nevertheless, the game flourished as an underground activity in neighboring Nevada, especially in Virginia City, where the Comstock Lode drew miners and fortune hunters from 1859 though the early 1920s. Eventually, Nevada legalized gambling in 1931 and new casinos in Reno and Las Vegas embraced Blackjack as one of their main table games.
Since then, the game of Blackjack has spread far and wide, from the Salons Privés (private rooms) of the Casino de Monte-Carlo on the French Riviera to the newest gambling facilities on Native American Indian reservations. The popularity of Blackjack has also spurred intense interest in mathematics, where specialists in probability have developed “systems” to help players beat the house odds.
The first breakthrough in developing a winning approach to Blackjack was made by Roger Baldwin, who published a ten-page study of the game in the Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1956. It was entitled “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack,” and it is still referenced by students of the game to this day.
Baldwin’s theories on how to reduce the house edge were even further developed in 1962 by the “Einstein of Blackjack”—former M.I.T. mathematics professor Dr. Edward O. Thorp. He employed new calculating systems to create a “card counting” technique, as described in his landmark book “Beat the Dealer.”
So powerful was the book’s “ten count” strategy, it caused casinos across the United States to begin modifying their Blackjack rules. Greater restrictions were placed on practices such as “doubling down” and splitting pairs. Single-deck Blackjack games were replaced by “shoes” containing four, six, or even eight 52-card decks.
In subsequent years, IBM computer specialist Julian Braun and former dealer Lawrence Revere helped perfect the Basic Strategy and card counting for multi-deck games. In the 1970s, Ken Uston and his colleagues used hidden computers programmed with the strategy to win thousands of dollars a month playing Blackjack at Nevada casinos. And in the 1990s, a group of M.I.T. students allegedly made millions by card counting as a team before being caught and banned from play.
Today, Blackjack can be played not only in the casinos if the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe, but also on the Internet. Legal gaming web sites feature not only “classic” single-deck Blackjack, but also a wide range of variations—no fewer than 113 at recent count—from Blackjack with “surrender” and “insurance” options to Spanish 21, Pontoon Blackjack, Blackjack Switch, Perfect Pairs, and much, much more.