History of Blackjack
The world’s most widely played casino game, blackjack, traces its roots to card games that emerged in European during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Some historians contend that the Italian game Thirty-One is the true progenitor of today’s blackjack. The game was first mentioned in a 1440 sermon against gambling preached an Italian monk, St. Bernardine of Siena.
Its purpose was to get a three-card hand totaling 31. The game got considerable mention in its day. Between 1532 and 1542 it figures in Francois Rabelais’ famous work, “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” as one of 100 games played by the giant Gargantua. Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, considered the father of the modern novel, also wrote of Thirty-One in a story called “Riconete and Cortadillo” published in 1613.
Following the popularity of Thirty-One, the Italians invented another card game known as Seven-and-a-Half. The game was played with 7s, 8s, 9′s and face cards and the goal was to reach 7-1/2 points.
The King of Diamonds was wild and could substitute for any other card. Its “half-portion” came because face cards counted as one-half. Any player whose hand totaled higher than 7-1/2 went bust automatically.
These and other features eventually made their way into the game that most gambling scholars now consider the direct ancestor of blackjack, a 17th century French card game known as Vingt-et-Un, or Twenty-One (21).
Vingt-et-Un closely resembled blackjack. Its goal was to obtain a total of 21 using the same ranking system employed by contemporary blackjack.
In the French version, only the dealer was allowed to double the bet, although betting took place after each round of dealing as in today’s game. When Vingt-et-Un crossed the English Channel, the British gave it the nickname “blackjack” because the winning combination of a Jack and an Ace of spades earned a special payout.
After the French Revolution in 1789 the game migrated to North America, which at the time had strong ties with France thanks to French support during the American Revolution.
From the early 1800s through 1910 America had no laws against gambling, and blackjack continued to gain in popularity. Professional gambles soon understood how much winning potential there was in blackjack, and so began devising the earliest known strategies for winning at blackjack.
During the Progressive Era in the early 20th Century, however, the United States outlawed gambling as a practice that corrupted the citizenry, leaving them prey to organized crime. Restrictions tightened even further during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, driving blackjack underground.
However, in 1931 the state of Nevada decided to legalize gambling throughout its environs, and blackjack emerged from exile. The legislature’s action transformed a sleepy desert town known as Las Vegas into one of the world’s great gambling meccas.
Las Vegas was incorporated on March 16, 1911. Initially the town drew much of its local economy from “dude ranches” where people stayed while fulfilling the six-week residency requirement to obtain a divorce under Nevada’s liberal law. The “dude ranches” were the forerunners of the hotel casinos the grew up along the famous Strip.
After World War II, science began to take notice of the mathematical aspects of gambling. In 1953 mathematician Roger Baldwin and his associates made the first attempt at applying statistical theory to the turn of the card in blackjack. Using their calculations, they played the game in an effort to reduce the house’s edge and win more money.
They published their findings in 1956 as a scientific paper, “Optimum Strategy in Blackjack,” for the American Statistical Association. This is considered the first strategy guide to playing blackjack.
However, the science of statistics and probability was still developing, and blackjack was poised for the biggest explosion since the first atomic bomb had been detonated north of Las Vegas in 1951. The man who set off this bomb was another mathematics professor, Edward O. Thorp.
In 1962, Thorp wrote a book, “Beat the Dealer,” in which he outlined his blackjack research gathered since the late 1950s. Thorp had been helped in his research by a professional gambler, but he had used new probability calculations and the equivalent of an early computer to come up with a system to improve the odds of winning by counting the cards in a blackjack game. His system became known as Thorp’s Ten-Count.
Thorp’s Ten-Count was hard to learn without concentrated effort. It assigns each card a numeric value in order to track the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck. Each card is counted as it is dealt, and the player must keep a running count in his or her head of the cards. Thorp’s system is known as a “balanced” count because upon completion the running total should be zero.
Whether or not readers understood it thoroughly, by 1963 Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer” sat firmly atop the New York Times’ best-seller list for nonfiction. Amateur and professional gamblers were excited by Thorp’s strategy, while casinos were terrified. Initially casinos both legal and illegal tried to defend against Thorp’s Ten-Count by changing the playing rules of blackjack. This strategy proved to be a bust when gamblers in droves boycotted the casinos, especially those in Las Vegas, for changing the rules. Eventually all business got so bad at the casinos that they were forced to revert to blackjack’s original rules so that players would return.
The casinos next tried to engage the services of a popular stage magician and columnist, John Scarne, as their “expert” to prove that Thorp’s system didn’t work. Since prior to this time Scarne had gained fame for his own books on helping players to win at gambling, his “treason” cost him a great deal of credibility with his public. What’s more, Scarne was never able to discredit Thorp fully. Thorp consistently refused to play blackjack against Scarne using his Ten-Count method because Scarne insisted on rules that clearly tilted the advantage in blackjack to the house.
The ultimate effect of Ed Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer” was to ignite the popularity of blackjack like a skyrocket.
The next big brain to take on blackjack’s mathematics was an IBM employee, Julian Braun, who used his computers skills to create a blackjack simulator. Thorp included Braun’s work in the 1966 edition of “Beat the Dealer.”
After Thorp’s book, the next major strategy work on blackjack was published in the early 1970s. Lawrence Revere’s “Playing Blackjack as a Business” drew thousands of inspired blackjack players who want to try his system.
Revere actually started out in life as Griffith K. Owens, and also used the pseudonyms Leonard “Specs” Parsons and Paul Mann during his gambling career. He spent 28 years as a dealer, pit boss, troubleshooter and professional gambler in casinos. He joined forces with Julian Braun in the research for “Playing Blackjack as a Business,” still considered by some to be the ultimate blackjack strategy book. It included four different card-counting systems, including the Revere Point Count that has become a legendary method of play. There’s also the Revere Plus-Minus Count, another complicated system for keeping track of cards in blackjack.
During the 1980s, no blackjack player drew more attention or won more money than Ken Uston. His books, “Million Dollar Blackjack,” “Ken Uston on Blackjack” and “The Big Player” inspired millions of people to try the game in hopes of winning big money.
Uston was introduced to the concept of team play in blackjack by another gambler, Al Francesco, who taught Uston how to count cards. Eventually Uston put together his own blackjack teams, using computers placed in their shoes to help count cards and compute probabilities. Uston’s teams earned millions during their run at Nevada’s casinos. Uston himself had to resort to a myriad of disguises to get by casino security after he was listed in the famous (or infamous) Griffin Books, a series of volumes containing photographs and information on professional gamblers, cheats and card counters.
The Griffin Books were created by Robert Griffin, a private investigator who capitalized on the casinos’ fear of card counters by setting up Griffin Investigations, a firm specializing in casino security. The firm still operates, although its vast volumes of “mug books” have evolved into an online database that casinos use daily to spot cardsharps.
The next great peak in blackjack’s history came not from an individual, but an entire team of eggheads – the MIT Blackjack Team. This legendary group of players grew out of student games at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and became one of the all-time greatest group of winners in blackjack history. The original team disbanded in 1997 after being “made” by the Griffin Agency and banned from the casinos, but the result was more like a one-celled organism splitting off into multiple new creatures. In the 10 years between 1993 and 2003, MIT teams are believed to have won between $4 million and $5 million playing blackjack at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Besides their prowess at calculating probabilities and counting cards, the genius of the MIT Blackjack Team was to turn the casinos’ own stereotypes against them.
At the time, casinos expected that most big-money blackjack players would be middle-aged white men. In contrast, the MIT teams consisted of young, dark-skinned players from Asia or the Middle East pretending to be the sons of well-heeled international businessmen and oil sheiks. And not only sons; the MIT teams also included beautiful young women, a situation for which casinos simply weren’t prepared.
The final peg in the MIT strategy was a team play unlike any seen previously. It consisted of three roles: the Spotter, the Gorilla and the Big Player. The Spotter’s job was simply to count cards and bet the minimum, signaling to his or her teammates when probabilities for winning turned in the team’s favor. The Gorilla was something of a distraction. Typically male, he was a big-money player who flashed lots of cash and had an outgoing, even abrasive character. The Gorilla might win, but he (and it was almost always a male) always dropped out when the tide turned. The Big Player was the star of the show. He or she could both count cards and play strategically, frequently winning thousands on a single turn of the card.
The amazing run of the MIT Team was recorded in a documentary, a book, and a Hollywood movie, “21,” directed by Oscar winner Kevin Spacey.
The advent of the Internet has revolutionized the game of blackjack. More players are playing online now than ever before. What’s more, casinos have changed the rules on blackjack, with the result that there are fewer standard blackjack tables in casinos with the tradition 3:2 payout for a “natural” win. Some gambling experts now fear that traditional blackjack may soon be gone from Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos, leaving behind low-paying games that only unwary tourists will play. Fortunately, there are still a few 3:2 tables out there, and gamblers urge blackjack players to stick to those games in hopes of maintaining a higher level of player.
Blackjack remains an exciting, fast-paced game of skill and chance when played with rules that give the competitors a real chance to win.