It’s a seemingly simple game, but Blackjack has numerous intricacies and strategies that set it apart. The game is regularly seen as gamblers’ favorite table game and can be found at casinos around the world as well as in numerous online casinos.
Players seem to love the fun vibe at the table and the smooth, quick-paced play. The game offers plenty of action and a decent chance at lowering the house edge with strategic play – and even better for those who can count cards. Along with plenty of fun, the game has a deep history that traces this card game back to the 15th and 16th century.
Table of Contents
- The Basics of Blackjack
- Early History
- Moving into Modern Casinos
- Basic Strategy and Card Counting
- Alternate Versions of Blackjack
- Spanish 21
- Blackjack Switch
- Blackjack Double Exposure
- Online Blackjack
1 – The Basics of Blackjack
For those new to the game, Blackjack is a fairly simple game to understand. All players are squaring off against the dealer and are dealt two cards face up.
The dealer deals himself one card face up and one face down. The goal for players is to get as close to 21 as possible without going over. Players can take a “hit” to get another card or “stand” when they’ve reached a number where they don’t want any more cards. Here’s the value for cards in the deck.
- Number cards (2-10) – the numbered value of each card
- Face cards (K, Q, J) – all are worth 10 each
- Aces – can be used either as a 1 or 11
A player who is dealt an Ace and a 10-card has hit a Blackjack (a natural 21) and is an automatic winner. There are some other nuances along the way, but this is the general concept on how to play.
Along with the fun atmosphere, Blackjack can also work in a gambler’s favor when it comes to the house edge. Those practicing basic strategy, a set of mathematical rules for hitting and standing based on the dealer’s up-card versus the player’s hand, can greatly reduce the house edge compared to most other games in a casino.
A player using basic strategy perfectly can see the house advantage lowered to just 0.5% in some games. That gives a player a nice chance to turn the tables on a casino at times.
2 – Early History
Many gaming historians believe Blackjack probably came from an earlier version of a Spanish game that became known as Vingt-Un in England and France. The goal was to accrue 21 points and that game is believed to have derived from the Spanish game veintiuna (literally Spanish for “21”).
This game was probably being played by the 16th Century and is first mentioned in print by famed Spanish author and early gambler Miguel de Cervantes. His short story “Rinconete y Cortadillo” from 1601 features card cheats involved in a game where players hope to achieve 21 points with Aces worth 1 or 11 as in today’s modern Blackjack. The games used a Spanish baraja deck, which made use of either 40 or 48 cards.
Other early references to a similar game can be found in Britain and France. Exactly which country did the most to originate the game is difficult to determine, but versions started popping up in all these countries. An even earlier game known as Thirty-One was popular in Europe by the 15th Century as well.
Italy gave the western world its first casino for the general public when the Ridotto (Italian for “The Private Room”) opened in 1628 in Venice. One of the gambling house’s most popular games was basetta, described as a cross between blackjack, poker, and gin rummy. The Ridotto remained open until 1774 when city leaders put a stop to legal gambling “to preserve piety, sound discipline, and modern behavior,” as one reformer noted at the time.
As gambling became more popular in the 17th Century, games like Blackjack grew in popularity. Much of the royalty and aristocracy grew accustomed to gambling late into the night. Many of the games popular today in casinos gained considerable popularity in France and eventually transitioned into what one might see in a Las Vegas or Monte Carlo.
“Though the casino was born in Venice, most of today’s popular casino games, including roulette, baccarat, and blackjack, originated in France, a testament to the Gallic eagerness for the 1650 – 1800 European gambling craze,” author David Schwartz notes in Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling. “In these years, gambling received the sanction of the French monarch, and, for a while, became the sine qua non of country life at Versailles. From there it became a national obsession.”
By the early 19th Century, even Napoleon Bonaparte himself was hitting the tables hoping to beat the dealer and pull in some winnings.
“The emperor himself was a noted gambler, though he was slightly ahead of his time in the relatively new game of Vingt-et-Un, better known to English speakers as ‘twenty-one’ or ‘blackjack,’” Schwartz notes in Roll the Bones.
3 – Moving into Modern Casinos
While not as popular as games like Roulette, Blackjack continued growing into the 19th Century. As western expansion continued in the United States, gamblers could play some 21 at saloons, local gambling houses, and riverboat casinos along the MIssissippi River.
Gambling some of their wages became a regular part of life for many cowboys, miners, hunters, soldiers, shop keepers, and others in the Old West. By the early 1900s, the game transitioned a bit more with bonus payouts including the popular 3-to-2 payout for landing a Blackjack.
“In 1917, printed signs began appearing above the Twenty-One tables reading: ‘Black Jack pays odds of 3 to 2,” Scarne’s New Complete Guide to Gambling notes. “Early in 1919 a Chicago manufacturer of gambling equipment began selling tables with this announcement printed in bold black letters on the green baize playing surface.”
That popular payout continues today, although some properties have reverted to a payout of 6-to5, a much less favorable payout for players.
Legalized casinos in Las Vegas then helped fuel the game’s popularity with Blackjack introduced in Nevada in the 1930s. The game saw great gains with Americans and other visitors. Women in particular began heading to the tables for their own opportunities to beat the house and try to hit some winning hands. The new casinos were much more inviting to the general public than previous rough saloons and gambling houses.
“Prior to this it was a man’s game because it had only been played in sawdust joints and horse rooms, dives which women did not frequent,” Scarne’s notes. “Now women began to play Blackjack.”
4 – Basic Strategy and Card Counting
Learning basic strategy only fueled the efforts to beat the house. In 1956, the American Statistical Association published The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack in the group’s academic journal. For the first time, the article’s authors Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott outlined the mathematical analysis of the best strategy at playing Blackjack.
“The fixed and known nature of the dealer’s strategy is vital in reducing the mathematical and computational problems in analyzing Blackjack to manageable proportions,” the article notes.
“The player’s strategic problems are analyzed with the objective of finding the strategy maximizing his mathematical expectation. A mathematical expression is derived giving a general solution to the player’s problem of standing pat with a given hand versus drawing additional cards.”
Basic blackjack strategy allowed players the best chance at winning, although the house still had a small advantage in even the most ideal circumstances. The authors’ theories were expanded on in Ed Thorp’s Beat the Dealer in 1963. His book, however, moved beyond basic strategy and outlined for the first time how a savvy and trained bettor could turn the tables on the casino, beating the game and moving the odds to the player’s advantage.
Not only did Thorpe outline the math behind his card counting theory, but created the point system that made counting possible. Generations of players have used the system to some degree to “beat the dealer” with others fine tuning the system in the intervening years. While most players can’t or don’t count cards, the notion that a player could actually use his own skills to beat the house at the game appealed to many gamblers.
A kind of romanticism developed with many, fascinated by the possibilities. Card counting isn’t illegal, but properties can bar players who make use of the system if caught. This element of mystery only added to the practice’s appeal.
Author Ben Mezrich added to the mystique of card counting with two bestselling books, Bringing Down the House (2002) and Busting Vegas (2009), about card counting teams of whiz kid students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The students hit it big with the aid of a professor at the school who taught them the ins and outs of counting.
Bringing Down the House inspired the film 21, which was released in 2008 and starred Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey. The film was a box office hit and put the game in a major spotlight on the silver screen. The revelation of basic strategy and card counting helped grow the game even more into the 21st Century. The game is now traditionally the most popular table game in a casino.
5 – Alternate Versions of Blackjack
A person walking through a casino will usually find numerous Blackjack tables with a wide range of stakes and options. In the latter part of the 20th Century, game manufacturers began getting a bit creative and added some alternative versions of Blackjack.
Beyond simply offering unique bets and bonuses, these games featured altered rules and gameplay. While these aren’t as popular as the traditional version of the game, they do offer some interesting options for players looking for something different. Here’s a look at a few of those.
- Spanish 21 – The Spanish 21 game offers several bonuses based on individual hands, card suits, and number of cards a player receives. This adds some interesting twists as players may try to complete winning hand combinations.
- Blackjack Switch – In this game, a player is dealt two hands and can switch cards between them to improve their hands. However, Blackjacks only pay even money and all bets are a push if the dealer busts with exactly 22.
- Blackjack Double Exposure – This game features both of the dealer’s cards being exposed, a unique difference from the traditional game. However, the dealer wins all ties in this version. Blackjacks also only pay even money.
There are other Blackjack versions beyond these as well. It’s important to note that these games may greatly alter basic strategy because of differing rules. It’s important to do some research on how to play and the best strategy at each when playing these games.
6 – Online Blackjack
Beyond traditional casinos, Blackjack is also popular online. Even from the Internet’s first days in the early 1990sm there has been an interest by many to gamble online. By the mid-1990s there were a handful of online gaming sites taking wagers from users.
That greatly expanded in the late 1990s and someone looking to play some Blackjack could deposit a few bucks and hit or stand without ever heading to a casino.
Video games and online sites also offer players a chance to hit the virtual Blackjack tables for free, without even playing any real money. Online players could learn the game and find any level of stakes they desire, often lower than what’s seen at brick and mortar casinos.
Playing a bit of 21 online has only added to the game’s popularity. The global online gambling market was estimated at almost $58 billion in 2021, according to Grand View Research. A major chunk of that came from casino-style gaming, Blackjack included.
Blackjack has come a long way from earlier versions in the 15th and 16th centuries. The game continues to grow and millions of players around the world will continue taking a seat at the table, live or online, and hope to hit that perfect 21.