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Blackjack has developed from its origins that date back at least as far as the early 17th century into one of the most popular casino games – both online and in bricks and mortar establishments – of them all. As with many casino games, the true history of the game we now know as blackjack is murky, surrounded by myth and – ultimately – speculative to a large degree, but here we will piece together the strands to bring a brief history of this beguiling card game.

Early History of Blackjack’s Precursor, “21”

One thing about blackjack that is certain is that it evolved directly from the game of “21” which was popular in France (where it was called “vingt-et-un”) and Spain (“ventiuna”) from the early 18th century onwards. The great Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes referenced the game in a short story in 1601 or 1602 in which he described a card game that involved players trying to reach a total of 21 without going over that total and in which aces were counted as either one or 11. Sounds familiar, eh?

There have been suggestions that the Romans – who famously indulged in gambling activities regularly between battles – invented the game that came to be 21 (and hence, eventually, blackjack) by using wooden blocks with numerical values on, but the evidence for this is patchy to say the least. The more likely precursor to 21 was a Spanish game called “Trente-Un” (meaning “31”), which was referenced by a priest way back in 1440, and was played broadly along the principles of blackjack, that is that players attempt to get close to a given value (in this case, 31) based on the combined value of their cards without going beyond the desired total.

Speculation suggests that the game of 31 was probably combined with the French games that were popular at the time such as “chemin de fer” (which developed along a separate path into baccarat) and morphed gradually into 21.

The Spread of 21

The game of 21 increased in popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries as merchants, soldiers and dignitaries travelled far and wide. And though it quickly made its way into the casinos of Paris and the gambling dens of other European cities and towns, it took a little longer to make the journey across the Atlantic to America. Probably introduced to the United States by immigrants fleeing persecution after the French revolution in the late 18th century (or any number of other European upheavals around that time), it took a while to gain popularity in the US.

The Rise of Modern Blackjack

It was not until the early part of the 20th century that the modern game of blackjack really started to take hold as rewards for drawing what was termed a “natural” 21 (an ace plus a card whose value is 10) were increased to payout at odds of 3/2. When gambling was legalised in the United States in the 1930s things really started to take off, and casinos in Nevada tried (successfully) to increase the popularity of the game by paying bonuses if you hit an ace of spades and either a jack of spades or a jack of clubs, a hand that became known as “blackjack”. Initially casino paid out massive odds of 10/1 for hitting a blackjack – hence the increase in popularity and the adoption of the new name. But while such generosity didn’t last too long (as they reverted to odds of 3/2, as for any ace and 10-value card combination) the name blackjack endured and replaced the old name of 21 forever more.

Modern Blackjack Today

Various features of the modern game of blackjack were brought in gradually by the casinos who always wanted to retain their “edge”. For instance the dealer playing last and the introduction of doubling down and splitting, but even so the house edge was still very low compared to other games (which might account for a large part of the game’s popularity!). As a result casinos started to introduce more decks (instead of playing with just a single deck, as had been the norm) in order to make it statistically harder for players to beat the dealer (an eight deck game has almost a 0.5% higher edge for the casino than does a one deck game).

As players tried to devise strategies books were written on the subject, including the influential “Beat the Dealer” by Edward O Thorpe. Published in 1962, the book advocated and extolled “card counting” techniques to help players gain the edge over the house. But it was a book written five years earlier in 1957 by four mathematicians, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott, that really came closest to devising the mathematically perfect strategy that has become known as the “basic strategy”, which tells players what call to make in every given situation in a game of blackjack to give them the best (mathematical) chance of success. These days many casinos have basic strategy cards freely available to players at blackjack tables (as even playing the optimum strategy, players cannot full eradicate the house edge).

Thanks to the rise of the internet and online casinos, there are now many new variants of blackjack available to play, with rules and bonuses that come in all shapes and sizes. Overall though, the simplest forms of the game tend to be those with the lowest house edge, and hence are the ones to play if you want to give yourself the best chance of making a profit. In bricks and mortar casinos, however, it is the classic blackjack (that was born and grew in Europe but refined in the United States) that is as popular as ever today.