History Of Blackjack ...


The history of blackjack probably began in France, sometime in the 17th century, with a game called vingt-et-un or “twenty and one.”  The game of 21 may well have been an offshoot of other French card games such as “chemin de fer” and “French Ferme.  There is another possibility in the history of blackjack that it was based on the Italian game of “Seven and a Half,” played with only the 8, 9, 10, and face cards, where a player would bust if his hand totaled over seven and a half.  A third possibility in the history of blackjack is that it was derived from the Spanish game of one and thirty, played with three cards instead of two, and a desired total of 31.  Twenty-one is also played in Russia, where it is called “ochko,” or  “the hole.”   The game of blackjack has many names; however, the original one is the English word for having the Jack and Ace of Spades.


After the French Revolution, the history of blackjack traces the game to the United States, where it was first reported to have been played in gambling halls in Evanston, Illinois.  The game of 21, as such, did not attract much interest; however, so casinos offered bonus payouts for winning with a real blackjack, the Ace and Jack of Spades, or in some cases, of Clubs.  Until the 19th century, gambling was relatively uncontrolled and corruption and organized crime was rampant.  As a result, in 1910, Nevada made gambling illegal and blackjack along with other games went underground.  There were few legitimate blackjack games to be found, and Nevada soon realized it was necessary to legalize gambling if they were to attract honest players to the casinos.


As blackjack became increasingly popular, its flexibility and betting possibilities appealed to mathematicians.  Roger Baldwin developed the basic strategy of blackjack with cue cards in 1956 and published it in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.  He and his associates laid the groundwork for further blackjack strategy devised by Edward Thorpe.  Thorpe, a mathematician with a Ph.D., and his business partner Kimmel, ventured to Reno, Nevada to test their blackjack techniques.  Through more advanced statistical methods, Thorpe developed the card counting techniques in blackjack that we know today.  His ideas were published in 1962 in his book “Beat the Dealer,” based upon the idea that a player can determine if the deck is favorable or unfavorable by keeping track of the cards played and those left in the shoe after the last shuffle.


Ken Uston, called the “Master of Blackjack,” played an enormous part in the history of the game.  Highly educated at Yale and Harvard, he left a career as Senior Vice President of the Pacific Stock Exchange and embarked on an incredible journey of success in blackjack.  For a time, he and his programming partners, using their card counting strategy, traveled from casino to casino in Nevada and Atlantic City.  With the aid of a tiny computer, a device named George, hidden in their shoes, they manipulated bets and analyzed the game, often winning thousands of dollars in less than a month.  Uston ultimately wrote the book “Million Dollar Blackjack,” which is still read by every avid blackjack player.  Uston, considered the Blackjack Player of the Century, has written a more humorous book of his travels and adventures in the early history of blackjack and casino gambling. 


Other notables such as Stanford Wong and groups of students from MIT have used card counting techniques and discovered ways to beat the casino’s continuous shuffle machines.  Blackjack, it seems, is one casino game where it is very possible to beat the house and take home substantial winnings.  Its popularity is evident in casinos around the world, from the United States and Canada to Europe and Russia.


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