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 Blackjack History


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Blackjack History


Blackjack Origins

Italian and French predecessors in Blackjack History

Blackjack History in the United States


Blackjack Origins

It is impossible to pinpoint one card game in the history of gambling and declare it the ancestor of Blackjack. To do that is to focus on one characteristic of the game and to ignore the rest of them, which are important elements of the game make-up. Blackjack inherited all of its distinct features from the few games that had been played in Europe from 15th to 19th centuries. The concept of the game, which Blackjack is built on and all the details of principle were borrowed from the earlier Italian and French games. Some historians think that Spain also made a contribution.

To dig out the genealogical roots of Blackjack we have to trace in history all the distinct features of the game and see what games they were borrowed from. The features that we love and sometimes hate Blackjack so much for and which make Blackjack what it is now obviously are:

1)      The concept of the target number – 21 in Blackjack case - , which, in order to win, a player must be closer to with a numerical value of his hand than his opponent;

2)      The “Bust” rule – the rule of an immediate loss in case of going over the target number regardless of what happens later with a dealer’s hand;

3)      A double value of the Ace, which can be counted as one or eleven at player’s choice;

4)      An Insurance option.

The Concept of the Target Number in Blackjack History

There were few games in different countries of Europe that used the concept of the target number as the core idea of the game. Those games were “Thirty-One”, “Baccara”, “Seven and a Half”, “Vingt-un”, “Quinze” and few others. In “Thirty-One” the target number was 31. In “Baccara”, which was the ancestor of Baccarat, the number was 9. In “Vingt-Un” the players were looking at 21 and “Quinze” had 15 for its target. The historical records prove that the game “Thirty-One” was the earliest card game that required a player to add up the numerical values of the cards and get a hand closer to the target number than his opponent. The first reference to that game appeared in 1440 in the anti-gambling sermon by the Italian monk Bernadine of Siena (1377-1444), who was later canonized by the Church. The result of that sermon was public burning of tens of thousands of dice, cards and backgammon boards. The second reference, according to Ed S. Taylor (The History of Playing Cards 1865) was made in the 1526 when Berni mentioned “Trentuno” in his list of Italian Games. These two references not only put “Thirty-One” chronologically in front of the pack, but also establish the nationality of the game. Two earliest references connect the game with Italy – one through the actual historic event and the other through the specific historic document. That means that more likely than not “Thirty-One” is an Italian game. Some historians of the game considered it to be of Spanish origin probably because one of the personages of the Miguel De Cervantes’ (1547-1616) novel “Riconete and Cortadillo” talked about the game. The novel, however, was written in 1613 and that is more than 150 years later than Bernadine’s sermon in Italy. Other researches thought that the game belonged to French because of the reference by the French Renaissance classic François Rabelais. In the Chapter XXII of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” he listed “Thirty-One” among more than 100 games played by Gargantua: “… Then the carpet being spread, they brought plenty of cards, many dice, with great store and abundance of chequers and chessboards. There he played at flush, primero, the beast, trump…one-and-thirty…..”  This reference is also a bit late to make a French case, because that literary classic was done between 1532 and 1542. Thus, until proven otherwise, we accept Italian nationality of the game “Thirty-One”.

St. Bernadine of Siena

Francois Rabelais

Miguel De Cervantes

“Baccara” was invented by Italian gambler Felix Falguirein around 1480-1490. The Italian game “Seven and a Half” appeared, according to Scarne, in the middle of the17th century. The French game of “Vingt-Un” was introduced in the middle of the 18th century and the game of “Quinze” at the end of the 18th century.

The “Thirty-One” game spread out from Italy into different countries and became very popular in France, Spain, England and Ireland. The rules of the game are very simple. The players take turns drawing the cards trying to get the best numerical value for the hand. A player, who has a total hand value of 31 in the cards of the same suit or closer to 31 than the opponents, wins the hand. Ace value is 11; King, Queen and Jack have a value of 10 and the rest of the cards count at their face value. If the few players have the same total value, the hand that includes the card of the highest rank is a winner. There is no bust rule, insurance option or a double value for the Ace.

Thus, in terms of the game concept, the forerunner of the modern Blackjack is the 15th century Italian game of “Thirty-One”.

The Bust Rule in Blackjack History

According to Scarne, the dreadful rule of busting when going over the target number was seen first in history among the rules of the 17th century Italian game of “Seven and a Half” (“Sette e Mezzo”). The target number in this game is 7½. The game is played with 40 cards with eights, ninths and tens taken out of the deck. Ace value is 1; face cards are all 1/2 in value and the rest of the cards count at their pip value. The King of diamonds is a wild card that can be assigned by a player any value from ½ to 7. The players draw until they are satisfied with the numerical value of their hands. The goal is to get 7½ value or closer to it than other players without exceeding 7½. If a player has a value of the hand equal 8 or more he is busted and loses his bet. If he has 7½, a player is paid at the better than even money rate. The cards suits don’t play any role in this game with the exception of a joker being the king of diamonds. Unlike in Blackjack, the dealer has the same options in drawing or standing as other players.

The Bust rule was inherited by Blackjack from its 17th century predecessor the Italian game of “Seven and a Half”.

A Double Value of the Ace in Blackjack History

The first game that counted Ace as 1 or 11 at player’s choice was a French game “Vingt-Un”. “Vingt-Un” in French means “Twenty One”. Most game historians agree that “Vingt-Un” grew out of “Thirty-One” when the players decided to speed-up that game. They did it by changing the target number from thirty one to twenty one, which made it possible to make a hand with two cards only. I haven’t found any explanations for assigning a value of one to the Ace in all available to me sources. I would assume that the players, while trying to shorten the game, at the same time, did not want to exhaust too fast their drawing possibilities because of the smaller target number of 21. Giving the Ace an additional value of one would obviously solve that problem and keep the game interesting by increasing the flexibility in drawing options within the decreased limits imposed by the smaller target number.

The game of “Vingt-Un” appeared on the French gambling scene in the middle of the 18th century. According to Ed S. Taylor it became the rage at the royal court of Louis XV when his mistress Madame du Barry fell positively in love with the game. Poor king had to organize “Vingt-Un” parties on a regular basis just to keep his mistress happy. Napoleon, who generally disliked the card games all his life seeing them as a distraction for his soldiers, played “Vingt-Un” on a daily basis to kill time during his exile on Elba.

Madame Du Barry could not live without "Twenty-One"

Napoleon played "Twenty-One" to kill time on Elba

In an essence the rules of “Vingt-Un” are the same as the rules of modern Blackjack. The only missing link between two games is the insurance option. Ace counts as 1 or 11, the face cards are counted as ten, and the rest of the pack according to their points. The target number is 21. The bust rule is implemented. “Natural” vingt-un (two-card 21) is an immediate winner, which is paid double. Busted hand is an automatic loser. A player who has a hand of a total value of 21 or the value that is closer to 21 than the hands of the rest of the players is a winner. “Vingt-Un” was not a banking game and every player could be a dealer.

The game of “Vingt-Un” was the ancestor of Blackjack that introduced a double value for the Ace. Due to the biggest number of points of similarity between “Vingt-Un” and modern Blackjack, it is possible to say that “Vingt-Un”, more than other games, is the direct predecessor of Blackjack.

Insurance Option in Blackjack History

Insurance option was offered for the first time in history by the “Trente et Quarante”. The banking game of “Trente et Quarante” (“Thirty and Forty”), also known as “Rouge et Noir” (“Red and Black”), appeared around 1800. It is a popular game played today in Monte Carlo and other French and Italian casinos. The bets are placed on the two rows: first represents a red color and the other one – black. The cards are drawn for each row starting with “noir” followed by “rouge”. The drawing stops when the numerical value of the cards on a row equals or exceeds 31.  The winning row is the one that produces a total numerical value of 31 or a total that is nearer to 31 than the opposite color. It can’t be more than 40 otherwise it’s a loss. The bets are paid off at even money.  If both rows have the same values, it’s a tie, which is called “refait”. If a “refait” happens when the value equals 31, the banker takes half of all bets. The game allows the players to take insurance against a possible “refait” at 31 when they lose half of their bets. The insurance option costs 5% of the amount wagered.

The French game of “Trente et Quarante” is the Blackjack predecessor responsible for the insurance option in modern Blackjack.

Thus, our fast excursion into the history of card games revealed four godfathers of modern Blackjack – two Italians and two French – that provided all distinct features of the game.

Blackjack History in United States

There is no doubt that “Vingt-Un” was brought to United States around 1800 by the French refugees running from the reign of terror of French Revolution. New Orleans was their destination. The town was America’s first gambling center since the early 1700s. In 1823 New Orleans municipal authorities passed the law legalizing six gambling houses. “Vingt-Un” was among the games played along with roulette, faro and few others. New Orleans was a starting point for “Vingt-Un”, from which the game under its English name of “Twenty-One” spread into the rest of the country. It was very popular in the middle of the 19th century in the mining towns of California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Arizona. The famous “Twenty-One” player of that era was a female expert Eleanor Dumont known in her later years as Madam Moustache. She was a player, dealer and owned few gambling houses in her 25-year long gambling career.

Over the course of the 19th century the game of “Twenty-One” remained a private game. It became a banking game, according to Scarne, in the period from 1910 to 1915. Supposedly, the first “Twenty-One” banking game was played in Evansville, Indiana. In that game new rules were introduced. The payoff for a natural 21 was 3 to 2 instead of 2 to 1 as it was in “Vingt-Un”.  Also, in order to boost the popularity of the game, casino operators offered a short-lived 10 to 1 bonus for a natural twenty-one made of Ace of spades and a black Jack of either spades or clubs. That bonus prompted the players to call natural twenty-one “Blackjack” as opposed to 21 made of three or more cards. Eventually the game itself changed its name from twenty-one to Blackjack.

The modern Blackjack history started when Nevada Gambling Act of 1931 legalized gambling in the state and Blackjack became a permanent feature in all Nevada casinos. In the 1930s and 1940s Blackjack was behind Roulette and Craps in popularity. Over the years the interest for the game was growing steadily and reached its peak in the early 1960s when Thorp’s book “Beat the Dealer” gave a mathematical proof that, at least in theory, the game could be beaten. If you are interested in playing Blackjack and other online casino games , look no further than 21Nova Casino. This site offers top notch customer support service and a great online gambling experience.
Copyright Progress Publishing Co. 2006

Selected References:

William A. Chatto  Facts and Speculations on the Origin and History of Playing Cards  1848 Carl Sifakis  Encyclopedia of Gambling
Ed. S. Taylor  The History of Playing Cards  1865 Alan Wykes  The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling
Hoyle First American Edition  1857 David G. Schwartz The History of Gambling /Roll the Bones
Foster's Complete Hoyle 1930 David Parlett   The Oxford Guide to Card Games
John Scarne  New Complete Guide To Gambling Henry Chafets  Play the Devil /A History of Gambling in USA
John Scarne  Encyclopedia of Card Games Francois Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel