The earliest recorded reference to a game similar to blackjack was from a sermon given by St Bernadine of Siena in 1440 where he preached against a game known as trente-un (31), the aim of which was to achieve a score of 31 with 3 cards. St Bernadine is now the patron saint of gambling addicts in Italy so it must have been a popular pastime!
In Spain the author Miguel Cervantes (who later went on to write Don Quixote) published a short story in 1570 around two characters who earned their crust through cheating at a game known as vientiuna (21), which followed similar rules to trente-un so the popularity of the game survived St Bernadine’s sermons! Better luck next time Bernadine!
Other theories push the origins of the game back as far as the Romans. The Romans are known to have enjoyed gambling games, using numbered wooden blocks in place of cards, so imagining Roman soldiers enjoying a wager on a game of blackjack in their downtime might not be too far-fetched. They might not have had a range of great mobile casinos to choose from but hey, they barely had sanitation!
What is known for sure is that by the 17th century the game of vingt-et-un (21) was fashionable and popular in French gambling houses and even the mistress of King Louis was said to be a fan. Although the rules of vingt-et-un differed slightly to modern blackjack, the aim to achieve a hand of 21 without going bust clearly makes it a predecessor of the modern game. When French settlers crossed the Atlantic to set up home in the Americas after the French Revolution they took the game with them.
Spread And Rise In Popularity
The game spread across the US, initially played mainly as a source of entertainment, it gradually was played more by people seeing an opportunity to make money. House banked games were recorded as being played in New Orleans in the 1820s. At this stage the game was largely unregulated and provided opportunities for many card sharps to make a quick buck. It was not until the legalisation of gambling in the state of Nevada in 1931 that rules and regulations around the game started to be established.
The legalisation of the game also gave rise to its new name. In an effort to bring people into the casinos to play, the Nevada clubs began a special offer of a 10 to 1 payout for any player that could make up a 21 point hand which included a black jack and the ace of spades. Although this payout is no longer offered by casinos the name stuck and “21” became “blackjack”, with an enhanced payout, usually 3/2, for any two-card 21.
Beat The Dealer
In 1962 a mathematics professor, Edward Thorpe, published a book on a method he had devised of card counting in blackjack. ‘Beat the Dealer’ became a bestseller in the US and led to a rush of people into casinos eager to put Thorpe’s method to the test, alongside use of blackjack basic strategy.
Initially worried by the influx of new customers armed with information to win the game, the casinos quickly realised Thorpe had done them a huge favour. Few of the new customers had the patience or skills to apply the tactics correctly, and with the introduction of a few new rules the casinos were back on top. The popularity of blackjack however had been given a massive boost.
Evolution Of The Game
Blackjack has been a game that has continued to evolve and develop through the ages to reflect the times. Modern blackjack survives as a popular game played in casinos across the world. It has successfully adapted to the internet era with blackjack a popular game in online and mobile casinos. No doubt in the future it will adapt to new trends and technologies and continue to be one of the best loved games in play today.