The History of Blackjack
Blackjack History: Birth of the Most Popular Casino Card Game in the WorldBy Arnold Snyder
(From The Big Book of Blackjack , Cardoza Publishing, 2006)
© 2006 Arnold Snyder
John Scarne, gambling’s most prolific author, had little to say about the origins of blackjack. In several of his books, he mentioned a number of the older European games that had similar structures, and vaguely concluded that the Italian game of seven-and-a-half was blackjack’s most likely forerunner.
Most other gambling writers never went beyond Scarne. As Richard Epstein put it in The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic, “The exact origin of the game of Blackjack is rather murky.” Epstein was not a historian, however; he was a mathematician. The attitude of most gambling writers was that if Scarne doesn’t know the history of the game, who does?
In Playing Blackjack to Win, Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, and McDermott said it this way: “The origins of the game have been lost in history.” As we’ll see, however, Roger Baldwin did turn up a sixteenth century Spanish game that sounded suspiciously like blackjack to him.
More modern authors never even gave it a shot. Thorp, Revere, Wong, Uston—all have little to say on the origins of the game. Others simply echo Scarne. Lance Humble and Carl Cooper, in The World Greatest Blackjack Book, stated, “The origin of the game is unknown.” And Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs, in Knock-Out Blackjack , agreed: “The exact origin of the game of blackjack is unclear.”
So, for me, this is going to be a fun chapter to write because it gives me a chance to reveal a lot of information about the history of this game that I’ve learned through the years, but never really had an opportunity to disclose. I’ve never read about the origins of this game anywhere. And there is a reason for this.
In researching history, we must rely on the records of human beings—a species not particularly known for either accuracy or honesty—whose statements often contradict one another. When it comes to researching the history of gambling, we are even more confounded by the facts at our disposal. Gamblers have always survived by subterfuge and deception, and the movers and shakers in the microcosm of the gamblers’ world include a vast array of scoundrels, liars, crooks, cheaters, braggarts, egomaniacs, and downright lunatics.
But then, for me, that’s why studying the history of gambling is a pleasure. The story is like a puzzle that you have to solve by figuring out which con artist was actually telling the truth. I might have actually enjoyed history class in high school if, instead of boning up on the naval career of John Paul Jones, I could have studied the three-card-monte career of William Jones, an Englishman who plied his trade on the Canadian railways throughout the mid-eighteen hundreds.
Books that Deal with the History of Blackjack
Most books that deal with the history of casino gambling are written by moral crusaders who want to expose the evils of gambling and the casino industry. Among the big sellers, The Green Felt Jungle by Reid and Demaris, Temples of Chance by David Johnston, and The Luck Business by Robert Goodman would all fall into this category.
I’m not saying I disagree with these authors’ conclusions, as the casino industry has always been controlled by some pretty slimy bastards. But these are one-sided histories. Just look at the subtitles printed on the covers of these books. In the same order as above, we have: How Politicians, Mobsters and Big-Name Talent Work Hand-in-Glove Running Las Vegas, Corruption Capital of the World; How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business; and The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America’s Gambling Explosion.
On the other hand, any gambling history penned by a casino owner—be it Donald Trump, Steve Wynn, or Harold Smith, all of whom have given us their two cents’ worth—is just as one-sided, from the opposite perspective.
So, let’s do something different. Let’s look at the history of blackjack from the perspective of the player. Hey, I like to gamble. I make my living gambling. I don’t want the casinos to be put out of business by morality crusaders.
The Early History of Blackjack
Gambling scholars have argued for decades about the origins of many modern gambling games. When it comes to the game of blackjack, the most popular house-banked card game in history, many modern texts tell us that the origins of the game are “uncertain.”
Hey, just about everything in this universe is uncertain, but the origins of blackjack are not. The game can be traced to a number of popular European card games from as far back as the fifteenth century. That’s right around the time when Gutenberg invented the printing press, and cards themselves became popular (and cheap) enough to play games with. Prior to that, cards were hand-painted by artists and calligraphers for royalty only, and they were primarily used for religious, educational, or ceremonial purposes.
Virtually all card games are based on some specified number of cards being dealt, with a winner determined by some happenstance of rank, suit, match, sequence, or total.
In the simple children’s game of war—which in recent years has been modified into a house-banked casino game—the only determining factor of the winner is rank. In more complex card games, like poker, various combinations of rank, suit, match, or sequence may decide the winner.
Blackjack is more complex than war, but much simpler than poker. The winner at twenty-one is decided almost entirely on the basis of total, with the cards’ numerical values being added together.
In the Beginning . . . Vingt-Un, Napoleon’s Favorite Game
There is little dispute that the first twenty-one games appeared in France in the early-to-mid-seventeen hundreds. The game was called vingt-un, or “twenty-one,” when it was initially introduced, and was later more commonly called vingt-et-un. The name “blackjack” was not used until the twentieth century, when the game was being played in the mostly illegal casinos in America.
Because vingt-un first appeared as a private game, and was not banked by the casinos, we will never know in which French casino the game was first played. It was the custom of the time for the casinos in Europe to bank various popular games—notably roulette, hazard, trente-et-quarante, faro, and baccarat. Roulette was the most popular house-banked casino game in virtually all casinos where the game was legal. Hazard was a dice game that was the predecessor to craps. Faro was a variation of an older card game called bassette.
But the casinos also allowed players who wanted to gamble in other popular card or dice games to do so if one of the players was willing to deal and bank the game, with the house taking a commission (usually 5 percent) on the banker’s winnings. This was most common with baccarat, the player-banked variation being called chemin-de-fer.
According to historian Rev. Ed. S. Taylor (The History of Playing Cards, 1865, London), “Vingt-et-un appeared in about the middle of the eighteenth century and was to number amongst its early enthusiasts such unlikely bedfellows as Madame Du Barry and the Emperor Napoleon.” Madame Du Barry was Marie Jeanne Bécu, a comtesse and mistress of Louis XV. She died in 1793. So, in seeking the origins of vingt-un, we must look for card games that predated the mid-to-late seventeen hundreds, with a similar structure in which the winning hand was determined by the total numerical value of the cards.
Still Earlier History. . . Quinze, Like Blackjack with Bluffing
One such game is a French gambling game called quinze, which means “fifteen.” This game appeared sometime in the sixteenth century, and was popular in European casinos up until the mid-eighteen hundreds.
Here’s how quinze was played:
As a casino game, quinze was not house-banked, but was banked by the player who dealt the cards. The house merely took a percentage of the dealer’s win.
All players bet against the dealer/banker, and bets had to be placed prior to the deal. A standard fifty-two-card deck was used, with each card counting as its face value. Aces counted as one, and all court cards counted as ten.
The deck was shuffled, and each player and the dealer were dealt one card face down. Players had to play their hands before the dealer played his. Each player in turn had the option to hit or stand, and any number of hits was permitted.
If the player achieved a total of exactly 15, he immediately turned up his cards, and provided the dealer did not also make a total of 15, the player would be paid off at 2 to 1 on his bet. If both the player and the dealer made 15, the hand was a push. The only exception was that a two-card 15, a natural 15, would beat a 15 total comprised of more than two cards.
You can easily see the similarities to blackjack. However, unlike blackjack, if the player busted with any total of more than 15, he did not have to declare his bust. He was permitted to simply tuck his hole card and wait for the dealer to complete his hand. If the dealer busted as well, those players who busted before the dealer did not lose their bets. When both the player and dealer busted, the hand was a push.
Also, unlike blackjack, the quinze dealer was not bound by house rules in the play of his hand. Just like the players, the dealer could hit or stand at his preference, provided his hand total did not exceed 15.
Still, as in modern blackjack, the house had an edge at quinze based on the dealer’s not having to play his hand until the players completed their hands. Even though a player did not have to declare a bust in quinze, it was often obvious when a player had busted because the player’s hit cards showed a total of 15 or more. The dealer could then stand without hitting, on any card, even a lowly ace, and assure himself a win.
This game had some interesting strategy features we don’t find in blackjack. Consider...
In playing the game of Quinze, any time the player had a hole card of 6 or more, he chanced busting. Also, if he had a hit card or cards showing that totaled 6 or more, he chanced revealing a bust to the dealer if he took another hit.
For example, if a player had an ace in the hole (a total of one), and he hit it with a 6 for a total of seven, it was dangerous to take another hit because by standing he might convince the dealer that he’d made a strong total, in which case the dealer might risk a bust on his own hand.
If the player hit his 7 total and drew a court card, the dealer would see the 16 total on the table and know that regardless of the player’s hole card, the player had busted.
As you can see, the game of quinze had definite psychological aspects to it, similar to poker, where the player could benefit by attempting to hide the strength or weakness of his hand from the dealer.
In any case, the basic structure of this game is undeniably the same as blackjack.
If You Cut Quinze in Half . . . Still Like Blackjack with Bluffing
Sometime in the seventeenth century, an Italian card game appeared called sette e mezzo, or “seven-and-a-half.” This game was remarkably similar to quinze, and is an obvious derivative of the same family of games as quinze.
Seven-and-a-half was played with a forty-card deck, from which all eights, nines, and pip tens had been removed. The object of the game for the player was to achieve a total closer to 7 1/2 than the dealer’s total, without going over 7 1/2.
All cards counted their pip-values, except for the court cards which each counted as one-half. Unlike quinze, but similar to our modern game of blackjack, if the player’s hand total exceeded 7 1/2, the hand busted and automatically lost. The player could not just tuck his hole card and hope the dealer busted also. One card, the king of diamonds, was wild, and could be counted as any value.
As a casino game, seven-and-a-half was not house-banked, but was banked by the player who dealt the cards. All players bet against the dealer/banker, and bets had to be placed prior to the deal.
The forty-card deck was shuffled, and each player and the dealer were dealt one card face down. Players had to play their hands before the dealer played his. Each player in turn had the option to hit or stand, and any number of hits was permitted, provided the hand total did not exceed 7 1/2.
If the player busted with any total of 8 or more, he immediately turned up his facedown card, and the dealer collected his bet. If the player achieved a total of exactly 7 1/2, he immediately turned up his cards, and provided the dealer did not also achieve a total of 7 1/2, the player would be paid off at 2 to 1 on his bet. If both the player and the dealer made 7 1/2, the hand was a push. The only exception was that a two-card 7 1/2, a natural 7 1/2, would beat a 7 1/2 total comprised of more than two cards.
As in blackjack, even if the dealer busted, those players who had busted before the dealer played his hand had already lost their bets. But similar to quinze, the seven-and-a-half dealer was not bound by house rules in the play of his hand. Just like the players, the dealer could hit or stand at his preference provided his hand total did not exceed 7 1/2.
Obviously, sette e mezzo was related to quinze. And like quinze, optimal strategy for seven-and-a-half was based as much on psychology as math.
Since a player could have a very strong total without taking a hit if his hole card was 6 or 7, a dealer might be enticed into hitting his own hand if a player stood pat. And, since any hole card for the dealer other than a court card, valued at one-half, was in danger of busting, a player with a poor hole card, such as ace, deuce, or trey, might get the dealer to bust simply by standing pat. Because there was no fixed dealer strategy, both quinze and seven-and-a-half allowed trickery on the player’s part to try to get the dealer to make losing strategy decisions.
Both quinze and seven-and-a-half are so close to the modern “home” version of blackjack, where dealers may usually draw or stand at their preference, that other than the target totals of 15 or 7 1/2, there is no major difference between these games and blackjack.
I will also note that the old Hoyles describe various methods of playing vingt-un that do not resemble modern twenty-one games. In most of the older descriptions of the game, there was no hit/stand requirement for the dealer.
In some descriptions, vingt-un was played for a common pot, where all players played against each other. In another variant of the game, a natural 21 paid 2 to 1 regardless of whether it was dealt to a player’s hand or to the dealer. In another variation, the jack counted as eleven, and a jack with any other ten-valued card was considered a natural 21.
Doubling down and insurance—common options in the modern game—were not original features of vingt-un, and some old texts make no mention of twenty-one’s pair-split option. In most of the older descriptions of the game, the dealer did not show an upcard to the players. About the only major difference between vingt-un and these older European card games was the target total of 21, as opposed to 7 1/2 or 15.
As for the History of Blackjack Insurance . . .
One other older European card game probably contributed a single feature to our modern day game of blackjack. The French card game of trente-et-quarante, or “thirty-and-forty,” which was introduced at the Spa Casino in Belgium in 1780, had the same card values as quinze, and a target total of thirty-one, but a structure similar to baccarat, where the players could bet on either of two hands dealt.
But there was one curious feature of trente-et-quarante that later became a feature of modern blackjack. Trente-et-quarante was a house-banked game, and the house edge came from the house taking half of all bets when both hands totaled exactly thirty-one. But players were allowed to place an “insurance” wager against this possibility.
None of the descriptions of vingt-un in various old Hoyles mention anything about an “insurance” wager being allowed. This feature was added to the game of twenty-one much later in its history, most likely in the U.S.
According to Steve Forte, the insurance wager was probably added in Nevada casinos sometime around the late 1950s. Photographs of casino blackjack tables from the early 1950s do not show the familiar “Insurance Pays 2 to 1” signs on the layout, though photographs of tables from the 1960s usually do display this wording.
I’ll also note that in the 1957 analysis of blackjack by Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, and McDermott, in their groundbreaking Playing Blackjack to Win, no mention is made of an insurance wager. Yet Ed Thorp provides an analysis of the insurance option in his 1962 Beat the Dealer.
Since both of these books are very thorough in their descriptions of the player options, we must assume that insurance appeared in Nevada sometime between 1957 and 1962. The similarity of the insurance option at blackjack to the insurance bet at trente-et-quarante is undeniable, and as trente-et-quarante is still popular in the casinos of both France and Italy, I suspect the addition of this rule to blackjack started with someone familiar with trente-et-quarante.
Still Earlier Blackjack History: Before Quinze there was Trente-Un, and a Sixteenth Century Card Sharp
A still older game that was a forerunner to both quinze and vingt-un was a game called trente-un, which was played throughout Europe back in the fifteenth century. Trente-un, which means “thirty-one,” is believed to be of Spanish origin. The game was first mentioned in a sermon in 1440 by a famous French monk, Bernadine.
We know the game was popular because there are recorded references to this game numerous times over the next two hundred years. Unfortunately, none of these references make any mention of the rules of play. Most of the commentary we have on this game came from medieval religious authorities, warning their flocks that trente-un was an evil game, and urging them to put their money into the church collection baskets and not into the hands of the profligate sinners who were running these games for Satan.
Are you getting a distinct feeling that we’re getting close to the origins of blackjack?
One modern author who recognized that trente-un was the likely predecessor to vingt-un was Roger Baldwin, co-author of the first blackjack book with an accurate basic strategy, Playing Blackjack to Win (1957).
After noting that trente-un was referenced by the famous sixteenth century Spanish novelist, Miguel de Cervantes, in a book titled A Comical History of Rinconete and Cortadillo (published around 1570), Baldwin goes on to quote from Cervantes a passage where a professional trente-un player describes his skill at the game (and I love this quote):
“I took along with me this pack of cards, for with these I have gained my living at all the publick houses and inns between Madrid and this place, playing One and Thirty; and though they are dirty and torn they are of wonderful service to those who understand them for they shall never cut without leaving an ace at the bottom, which is one good point towards eleven, with which advantage, thirty-one being the game, he sweeps all the money into his pocket.”
Cervantes provides no details on the rules of One and Thirty, other than various facts we can surmise: 1) the game is played for money; 2) it is hand-dealt from a single-deck after a cut; 3) an ace can count for eleven; 4) making a total of thirty-one will win the money; and 5) the dealer’s ability to control an ace to where he has easy access to it for his own or a confederate’s hand is pretty much all it takes to be a professional thirty-one player.
This trente-un is sounding more like blackjack all the time!
If this were all we had to go on, we would likely conclude that vingt-et-un was derived from the older European games of quinze, sette e mezzo, and trente-et-quarante, all of which were preceded by the Spanish game of trente-un. The problem, however, is that there is a more modern game called trente-un, which is more like rummy, where players attempt to achieve a hand totaling thirty-one in a matching suit by taking and discarding cards from a common pile.
The structure of this game is so unlike any of these other European banking games, however, that we would conclude that trente-un is probably not the forerunner of blackjack. That Cervantes quote from 1570 that Roger Baldwin provides, however, makes us wonder if the Spanish game of trente-un may itself have gone through some changes through the centuries, perhaps transforming as it did to sette e mezzo in Italy and quinze in France, finally becoming vingt-un, though trente-un itself no longer retained its initial structure. Digging a little deeper, we find that there was yet another old European game with the target total of thirty-one.
The Bone Ace Connection . . . where the Ace Equals One or Eleven
Walter Nelson, in Games Through the Ages, Or the Merry Gamester, says he suspects that trente-un was an early variation of a game called “Bone Ace,” of which a very detailed description is provided in a book titled The Complete Gamester by Charles Cotton, published in 1674. As with quinze, the similarities to vingt-un are remarkable. In Bone Ace, aces may count as one or eleven, with court cards counting ten, and other cards counting their pip values. This is the oldest known game in which the card values are identical to vingt-un, including the otherwise unique double value of the ace as one or eleven.
Some features of this game are unlike vingt-un, but the main play of the hands consists of players attempting to draw to a total hand value of thirty-one. A total of exactly thirty-one is an automatic winner, and if a player’s hand total exceeds thirty-one, the hand is an automatic loser. Bone Ace is obviously related to quinze, but we do not know if it predates quinze.
The question is: was the original game of trente-un, which we know to have been an older game than both quinze and Bone Ace, actually the same game as Bone Ace?
Answer: Yes. And our search for the origin of blackjack is over!
In David Parlett’s The Oxford Guide to Card Games (Oxford University Press, 1990), Parlett quotes from the glossary of a book by the famous English lexicographer and translator, John Florio, titled The World of Wordes, published in 1611. Florio translates Trentuno as “One-and-Thirty . . . also called Bone Ace.”
Although game historians insist we do not know where the French game of vingt-un came from, if any casino today started dealing quinze or Bone Ace, exactly according to the rules we know existed hundreds of years before vingt-un appeared, we would conclude that these games were merely derivatives of blackjack. That’s how close they are in basic structure. Do we actually need to know the name of the Frenchman who first said, “Hey, how about twenty-one instead of fifteen or thirty-one?”
So, I will go out on a limb and state emphatically that the French game of vingt-un (twenty-one), which first appeared in the mid-seventeen hundreds, was simply a variation of a Spanish game called trente-un (thirty-one), which had been played since the mid-fourteen hundreds. Based on a passage in a book written by Cervantes in 1570, Roger Baldwin suspected this was so before anyone else, and he was right. Trente-un is where our modern game of blackjack came from.
But why has blackjack become so immensely popular? Is there something about the number twenty-one that is particularly appealing? In our twenty-first-century society, in most jurisdictions, twenty-one years is the age at which people can legally drink and gamble, but this is just a happenstance of the age we live in. Numerous other games, however, from beach volleyball to ping-pong, have 21 target totals, and for some reason possibly known to military history buffs, when a soldier dies he gets a twenty-one-gun salute. That magic just doesn’t seem to exist for seven-and-a-half, fifteen, or thirty-one.
Vingt-Un Makes a Splash in Europe
At the time vingt-un was introduced in the casinos of France, neither quinze nor seven-and-a-half were being played as house-banked casino games. Trente-un and Bone Ace were long forgotten. The only popular house-banked casino card games prior to the eighteen hundreds were baccarat and trente-et-quarante.
The game of faro, which had been the most popular house-banked card game in the European casinos throughout most of the nineteenth century, fell into disfavor by the late eighteen hundreds because of the ease with which a crooked dealer could cheat. There were many faro scandals in the casinos of Europe in which dealers were discovered to be cheating the players.
Both baccarat and trente-et-quarante eased the gambling public’s fears of cheating, since these games allowed the players to bet on either the bank or the player hand. Plus, both games were dealt from a shoe, allowing the potential sleight-of-hand artist less control over the cards.
So, when vingt-un was introduced in the casinos of Europe, as with chemin-de-fer, the casinos simply offered their tables and dealers for a commission from the banker. The precise rules and procedures probably differed based on private agreements between the players and bankers, and the game likely underwent many transformations in its early days. In addition to some of the game’s early curiosities already mentioned, some old texts state that the dealer may take bets on ties. The dealer position, however, was not fixed, but automatically passed to any player who was dealt a natural (two-card) 21.
The major attraction of vingt-un to gamblers was that it was viewed as more of a game of skill than other casino games. The casinos knew that players liked making hit/stand decisions because of the popularity of chemin-de-fer. Remember that the main difference between baccarat and chemin-de-fer was that chemin-de-fer was player-banked, with the house simply taking a percentage of the winning banker bets.
In fact, this should have been a good deal for the house, since the house could not lose money on a game where no house money was ever at risk. The reason that casinos disliked chemin-de-fer, however, was that their potential winnings were always limited by the amount of money that the players banking the game had to risk. Often, the casino could afford to bank a much higher-stakes game than the visiting players, and if no wealthy gamblers showed up to play, then chemin-de-fer was not highly profitable to the house.
Many players, however, preferred chemin-de-fer to baccarat because in chemin-de-fer the players were allowed some hit-stand options. Although these options were restricted to when a player hand totaled 5, they gave players a feeling of some control over their results.
The chemin-de-fer banker had many more strategy options, but many players felt that some bankers made bad decisions. Those wealthy players who could afford to bank chemin-de-fer also often preferred banking the game to simply placing a banker bet at baccarat, because as bankers they felt they had more of an edge by making their own hit/stand decisions.
The casinos did not allow players any hit/stand options on their house-banked baccarat tables for the house’s protection. Based on baccarat’s performance over its long history, the casinos knew that the bank hand had an edge over the player hand, provided the standard hit/stand rules were enforced for both hands, and the house took a percentage on the winning banker bets.
But chemin-de-fer scared the casinos. Many times they saw bankers win money that seemed to stem from “wrong” player decisions, or correct banker decisions. And just as often, they saw players win money that seemed to stem from their “correct” decisions, and/or the banker’s poor decisions. In fact, it is known today that the allowed strategy decisions at chemin-de-fer are fairly inconsequential.
In any case, when vingt-un appeared on the scene, players were being given an opportunity to make hit/stand decisions—and many more such decisions than were allowed in chemin-de-fer—in a game in which neither the bankers nor the players knew what the correct decisions were! But the game proved popular, and the casinos that offered it were making money.
The early versions of player-banked vingt-un never overtook chemin-de-fer in popularity, but by the late eighteen hundreds it had become more popular than most of the other casino card games in Europe. In England, it was called “Van John,” which is simply a pidgin-English pronunciation of the French name vingt-un. In German casinos, it became known as Ein-und-Zwanzig (One-and-Twenty), and in Australia it became “pontoon” (pidgin-Australian for vingt-un).
What the History of Blackjack Teaches Modern Players and Casinos
Some players simply want to gamble. The only decision most slot machines require is, “Which machine should I play?” After that, you just keep pressing the spin button and hope you hit a winning combination. Likewise, the game of baccarat requires few decisions, primarily, “Do I bet on the player hand or the banker hand?”
Making decisions gives players a feeling of control over their results. Blackjack’s popularity is due in part to the fact that player’s always get to decide how to play each and every hand, with no restrictions on how many cards they can take.
The first slot machines that allowed players to make decisions were the video poker machines introduced about fifteen years ago. In many casinos, these quickly became the most popular slots with players.
Games like roulette and keno allow players many decisions, giving the illusion of control, but these decisions have little effect on the house edge. Professional gamblers basically look for games with decisions that matter. Blackjack and poker stand out as the two games offered in most casinos where professional players can expect their correct decisions to earn them a regular income. ♠
This article is an excerpt from Chapter One of The Big Book of Blackjack. For more information on the history of blackjack and professional gamblers, see the links at the top left of this page and the Professional Gambling Library.
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