The History of the Game of Blackjack

The History of Cards

The earliest card games are believed to have been played in China sometime around 900 A.D., when the Chinese started to "shuffle" paper money into various combinations. The general term for playing cards meant "paper tickets".

Paper tickets evolved into playing cards, some of the first versions invented by followers of Islam and adorned with intricate patterns. When the cards were introduced to Italy and Spain, the patterns were replaced with the Royal Ranks of Men, such as Kings. In 1440, Johann Gutenberg of Germany printed the first official full deck of cards. The Queen appeared in the 1500's, when the French replaced one of the traditionally male cards with the female Queen.

This became the groundwork for the traditional 52-card deck, which appeared in the 1600's, known as the "French Pack", and later adopted by the English.

The History of the Game of Blackjack

The French are usually credited for inventing Blackjack, believed to be an offshoot of French card games "chemin de fer" and "French Ferme". The game "vingt-et-un" (twenty-and-one) originated in French casinos around 1700 A.D., and migrated to the United States in the 1800's.

Vingt-et-un (21) while sounding similar to Blackjack, was actually quite different. The goal was to reach a "natural" with cards totaling 21, but the cards were dealt in rounds followed by betting on each round. Only the dealer could Double and if he got a Natural, the other players would pay him triple.

Another game which may have contributed to Blackjack as we know it is the Italian game "Seven and a Half". This game was played with only 8's, 9's, 10's and face cards, with face cards counting as the "half". The King of Diamonds was wild. This is reputed to be the first game where the player would automatically "bust" if the cards totaled over the desired number of "seven and a half".

The Spanish game "One and Thirty" had similarities to Blackjack, though the desired total was 31 rather than 21, and the game was played with 3 cards instead of 2.

Vingt-et-un crossed the ocean from Europe to America in the 1800's, and appeared in American Hoyle* in 1875 and Foster's Hoyle* in 1905. The game appeared in gambling halls in 1910, first reported in Evansville, Indiana.

Initially the game was not very popular and gambling houses tried various bonus payouts to entice players. Blackjack is so named because if a player got the Jack of Spades and the Ace of Spades as his first two cards, he received one such bonus payout. The original payout for this Blackjack was 10 to 1. Some houses recognized both the Jack of Clubs and the Jack of Spades for the 10 to 1 payout.

While a Jack is no longer specifically required and any ten-value card with an Ace now makes up a winning hand, the name Blackjack remains as a testimony to the game's origins. Casinos now traditionally offer a payout of 3 to 2 on a natural Blackjack, regardless of suit or color.

In Russia the game is called "21" or "Ochko" (The Hole). Other card games similar to Blackjack include Pontoon, which may be one of the early variations of the game. California Aces is another variation, as is Spanish 21.

The Men Who Beat Las Vegas

1960's - Edward O. Thorp

One of the most famous mathematicians who developed a lifelong fascination with the game of Blackjack and the mathematics of risk was Edward Thorp. In 1961 after receiving his PhD., Thorp was hired as a lecturer at MIT. He wrote a paper titled Fortune's Formula which he presented at the American Mathematical Association yearly meeting. This paper described some of Thorp's early Blackjack models, which he ran on an IBM 704.

To test his theories, Thorp joined forces with Emmanuel Kimmel, a New York businessman, to undertake a financial Blackjack adventure. The two took a trip to Reno, Nevada, to play Blackjack using card counting techniques never before heard of. They started with a $10,000 bankroll. By the time Thorp and Kimmel finished their great Blackjack adventure, they had more than doubled their money. This was a pivotal moment in history for the game of Blackjack, and the seeds of card counting were sown.

1970's - Ken Uston

Ken Uston gained his infamy as a Blackjack player who became notorious for using card counting techniques to earn a windfall in the casinos during the early 1970's. A mathematics genius with an IQ of 169, Ken attended Yale University at the age of 16 and later got his MBA from Harvard University. Not long after he became the Vice-President of the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco.

After enjoying several years of success throughout the world's casinos, Ken encountered Keith Taft, an electronics engineer who had developed a computer that played a perfect game of Blackjack and could be worn without detection. This computer became the prototype for a device named George, and Team Play was borne.

Ken's team had won hundreds of thousands of dollars in Las Vegas and millions in Atlantic City before being barred from the casinos. Soon after, a court case assured the right of card counters to play in Atlantic City casinos. Ken was one of the leaders of this challenge and was featured on Sixty Minutes in 1981.

1970's - 1980's - Stanford Wong

Stanford Wong continued where Thorp left off, further expanding on the theories of the Blackjack gurus who came before him. He is oft referred to as the Godfather of Blackjack, and was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. He is considered an authority on casino blackjack tournament play. The term "wonging", as it relates to card counting, stemmed from Stanford Wong and his many years of Blackjack success.

Wong was one of the first to beat the Continuous Shuffle Machines (CSM's). When the first generation of Continuos Shufflers were introduced at the Mirage, two teams of professional card-counters, one led by Stanford Wong, beat the casinos, making off with tens of thousands of dollars before the casino removed the machines. Needless to say refinements have been made to the Continuous Shuffle Machines since then. Many believe they are still beatable, however, if you learn their shuffle patterns.

1990's - The Infamous MIT students Blackjack Club

In the 1990's, a team of MIT students took on the Las Vegas casinos, and came home with millions of dollars. Engineering students by day, they became high-rolling gamblers on the weekends and proved that it was possible to consistently beat a casino game. The MIT Blackjack Club was borne.

The game was blackjack, and the students were from the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their audacious winnings marked the climax of an arms race between casino and player that began 40 years earlier with maths professor Edward Thorp. He realised that the one feature of blackjack that made it different from other casino games also made it possible to beat.

Read the full story on these men and other pioneers of Blackjack fame.


The History of Gambling

The History of Blackjack

The History of Poker

Blackjack Tutorial

Blackjack Terminology

Counting Cards

The Odds of Winning

The Men Who Beat Las Vegas Blackjack

Gambling Inventions

Blackjack Legends and Strange Casino Tales


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