The History of Blackjack aka ’21’

Blackjack remains the most popular table game at North American land based casinos and a very popular component of online casino play. In some market, mini-baccarat games are giving it a run for it’s money but the popularity of the game known as ’21’ in Nevada gaming industry lingo endures. The reasons for it’s continued popularity are varied–it’s a game that is often seen in movies and on TV so it’s very familiar to players. Most players understand the basics of the rules even before their first trip to a casino and, if not, it’s a very easy game to learn. It also gives the player a fighting chance against the house edge and lends itself to strategies both simple and complex. Even a rank novice can quickly pick up ‘basic strategy’ and give himself a decent chance walking away with a profit even if it’s his first session of live play.

IN THE BEGINNING….

So where did this popular casino game come from? For years, gambling historians agreed that blackjack was an Americanized remix of the French game of Chemin de Fer. Chemin de Fer—which loosely translates to ‘railroad’ or ‘the railway’ is considered to be the original variation of the game of baccarat and is still popular in casinos in France. Despite the fact that no one really had a good explanation for it got from one place to another that origin story was widely accepted.

That is no longer the case and now no one is really sure where blackjack came from. The latest viable theory is that it began in Spain around 500 years ago. The first mention of what may have evolved into the game of blackjack is in a short story by Miguel de Cervantes, best known for writing Don Quixote. In the short story Rinconete y Cortadillo, from a compilation called Novelas Ejemplares Cervantes told the story of a couple of proto-wise guys who are very skilled in cheating casinos with plenty of references to ‘real world’ games.

Since Cervantes was an enthusiastic gambler there are plenty of other casino references in his works. In this particular story, however, he describes how the protagonists are especially adept at cheating a game called ventiuna. Ventiuna is the feminine version of the more familiar ‘ventiuno’ which means ‘twenty one’ in Spanish. Cervantes continues to explain the object of the game—to reach 21 points without going over. He also notes that aces are worth 1 or 11. As described by Cervantes, the game is played with the Spanish baraja deck which is similar to the card decks familiar to everyone except without 8s, 9s and 10s. Although there are references about this time of similar games in French literature and later in Spanish literature this description provided by Cervantes is almost identical to modern day blackjack.

BLACKJACKS COMES TO AMERICA

At some point, ventiuna came to America–most likely from a seaman sailing into New Orleans. There are countless elements of American pop culture that took hold in a similar manner and then began to spread outward into the US hinterlands. As for ventiuna, casinos wanted to make it more exciting for their players and introduced a ten-to-one bonus for a dealt hand comprised of the Ace of Spades along with a ‘black jack’ (spades or clubs). This bonus was short lived but the terminology remained and as a result ’21’ became better known as ‘blackjack’. There’s one major exception—in Nevada ’21’ is still the official casino industry parlance for the game, much in the game way that ‘gambling’ is euphemistically referred to as ‘gaming’.

As a commercial casino industry developed in the United States—first in Nevada, later in New Jersey and other states–’21’ or ‘blackjack’ remained the staple among table games. It’s popularity remained fairly consistent for most of the twentieth century. During this time, the casino floor offered an almost even split between slot machines and table games. Casinos loved slot machines—they offered more of a ‘house edge’ and required less labor to operate—but the players still demanded table games. Of these, the most popular was blackjack.

Blackjack completely ‘blew up’ in popularity during the 1980’s. The explosion in interest is credited to one man—Ken Uston, who became a media superstar due to his gambling prowess. Uston was a very interesting character to say the least. Educated at Yale and Harvard, he worked for awhile in corporate America before heading off to San Francisco and the Pacific Stock Exchange. He would eventually become Vice President and was fascinated by the role of computers in finance and investments at a time when most people considered any utility from these ‘newfangled gadgets’ as little more than a pipe dream.

BLACKJACK BOOMS IN POPULARITY

With plenty of money in the bank and a taste for a hedonistic lifestyle, Uston began to spend less time at work and more time attending to his outside interests. He was an extremely accomplished musician and would occasionally play jazz piano in San Francisco nightclubs. At one point, he was considered to be the best in the world at the Pac-Man video game. In the late 1970’s, however, he turned his attention to the game of blackjack. After he wrote the book Million Dollar Blackjack and appeared in a subsequent profile on 60 Minutes he reached rockstar status and blackjack became the most popular game in the casino.

Uston popularized card counting which posed a dilemma for casinos. On one hand, they wanted desperately to take advantage of the growing demand for blackjack games. On the other hand, they were terrified that a wave of Uston disciples would bring financial devastation. They shouldn’t have been concerned—for every adept card counter there were dozens, if not hundreds of ‘wanna-be’s’ that thought they had the skills but didn’t. Casinos never got comfortable with legitimate card counters but they had no problem accommodating the aspirants in the general public.

Around the time of Uston’s premature death in 1987 the popularity of blackjack began to wane and it faded back to its role as just another casino game. Even as the popularity of video poker and digital slots exploded, blackjack still has a very solid niche in both land based and online casinos. It has become more of a challenge to find blackjack games that offer rules favorable to the player but it is possible. Oddly enough, the most difficult place to find a player friendly blackjack game is on the Las Vegas strip. The best place? For land based casinos, you’re better off heading to remote outposts like the border town of Wendover, Nevada and Elko in Northern Nevada.

About the Author: Jim Murphy

For more than 25 years, Jim Murphy has written extensively on gambling theory and practice. Jim Murphy has been quoted in media from the Wall Street Journal to REASON Magazine. Murphy worked as a radio and podcasting host broadcasting to an international audience that depended on his expertise and advice.