History of the blackjack game
Ask any person to name a casino game and Blackjack will probably come pretty near the top of the list - indeed the simplicity of the game means it's easily picked up by even the newest of players. Yet the game is also played by hardened gamblers thanks to the way the house edge can be reduced to near zero if the right playing decisions are made. Indeed, when you take 'card counting' in to account (where players calculate the odds of good cards remaining in the deck through memorizing the already-drawn cards) it's potentially possible to beat the game, although rarely this is true in the long term.
It's a pretty much agreed fact that the game of Blackjack is derived from Seventeenth / Eighteenth Century France where Vingt-et-un was immensely popular. Vingt-et-un, being French for 21, was a card game with striking similarities to the Blackjack game enjoyed today, although the 3:2 payout commonly associated with a 'Blackjack' hand was not believed to have existed in this French precursor. However, drawing the Jack of Spades and the Aces of Spades was certainly a good move and it is from the turning of this initial card (the Jack of Spades) that the 'Blackjack' name derived.
Although the game is often referred to Blackjack, different countries and cultures have different names for games very similar to Blackjack. In Russia for example, where a variant of the game is hugely popular, "Ochko" translates as "the hole". Similarly, names such as 21, Pontoon and Spanish 21 are often used to describe the game of Blackjack or very-close derivatives thereof.
It was shortly after the French revolution that the Vingt-et-un game found its way to America and before long Blackjack was being played in the casinos and gambling places around at the time. However, this was a period in which there was no gambling legislation and with the government fearing a boom in organized crime and corruption, gambling including Blackjack play was outlawed in the early 1900s. Indeed, in 1910 even the state of Nevada made it illegal for games such as Blackjack to be played.
In 1931, however, the state of Nevada soon realized that prohibition hadn't stopped the problems and indeed forcing gambling underground had simply invited more problems to develop. As such, it was in this year that Nevada legalized gambling, although with tight restrictions being in place. As such, the casinos of Las Vegas soon began to attract players from across America and indeed the world with Blackjack being an ever-popular attraction.
For much of the early part of the 20th century, Blackjack was simply a game of fun which offered pretty good odds and the chance to win some money if lady luck was shining down. However, by the 1950s the game of Blackjack had come under the scrutiny of mathematicians who realized the heavy influence that choosing whether to stand or hit a hand had on the overall profitability of the game. Specifically, Roger Baldwin paved the way in this area with the publication of his article entitled 'The Optimum Strategy of Blackjack'. This 10-page article presented in-depth mathematical analysis that demonstrated how 'correct' plays reduced any house advantage. It was this finding that sits at the heart of 'perfect strategy' and the various blackjack cue cards that are now available both online and offline around the world.
Professor Edward O. Thorp contributed further to the concept of further strategy in 1962 by tweaking the work of Baldwin. He also presented the idea of 'card counting', whereby a player could understand whether the deck was in his favour or not by memorizing the cards already played and discarded by the dealer. His 'Beat the Dealer' book proved so popular that casinos had to alter the game by increasing the number of decks and adding auto-card shuffling machines to tables to ensure players didn't end up with the upper hand.
For the remainder of the 20th century a number of people tried to beat the Blackjack game and some had more success than others. Ken Uston and his team walked away with over $100,000 during the 1970s thanks to small card counting computers that they created and inserted in to their shoes. Although seemingly dodgy, the FBI ruled that the team were not using a cheating device because the computer simply held publicly available information (e.g. perfect strategy). However, when Uston and his team were rumbled casinos increased their efforts to rule out any play of this kind.
Another successful team was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The MIT Blackjack group there realized that card counters were soon spotted because as soon as the deck was in the player's favour the player upped their bet amount. However, this group worked as a team unbeknownst to the casino. As such, one player would constantly bet low but would count the cards. Through clever signals the 'high rolling' players could be summoned to the table to clean up when the cards were in the team's favour. As the team didn't use any devices apart from their cunning to achieve this feat there was little the casinos could do to detect the manoeuvre and indeed the group achieved success valued at millions of dollars. However, once the casinos had realized how the group were operating the members were quickly banned from pretty much every casino in the world.
Today Blackjack continues to be the mainstay of casinos worldwide and even the smallest of gambling establishments is likely to have a table or two. Players will soon find though that there are subtle variations in the game depending on location. For example, in Europe it is not uncommon to find a rule stating the dealer wins all ties. Even in Las Vegas there are differences - Downtown rules Blackjack dictates that the dealer hits soft 17 whereas Vegas Strip rules sees a dealer standing on all 17s. Of course, there are then match-play Blackjack rules and even progressive games that try to take a player's money away. Whatever the variety though, the heart of the game remains the same throughout the world and Blackjack will continue to be much-loved for years to come. Playing online players should make themselves familiar with our article about online blackjack rule variations.