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Blackjack’s Colorful History

The game of Blackjack has a history rich in intrigue, deceit, and redemption (for both the house and the players). Of course the long and short of it all is that the game was invented several hundred years ago and was mildly popular until a Professor of mathematics (Edward O. Thorp) hit Time Magazine and the New York Times Bestsellers List with a book proclaiming that players could actually beat blackjack in Las Vegas and make a profit!

Before the dozens of newspaper and magazine articles about Thorpe’s book hit the newsstands, blackjack was a game enjoyed at casinos and home games around the world. All it took was a deck of cards and some chips, or matchsticks. In Europe it was tolerated as a necessary evil for those who weren’t as enamored with roulette as the masses, and those who had no interest in Fruit Slots.

Originally mentioned in author Miguel de Cervantes’ (think: Don Quixote) Rinconete y Cortadillo in 1601, the game was dubbed ventiuna (21), and the main characters spent their time knocking about the town of Seville, beating the game by cheating. Of course that’s just what the casinos of Nevada thought card counters were doing in the 1960’s when they used Professor Thorp’s methods to extract wins from the blackjack games. Read more on the history of card counting here.

In Spain and France, the game of 21 was played with a baraja deck, consisting of just 40 cards, with no eights, nines or tens. However, the intent of the game has changed little since then, since the whole point of playing blackjack is to get as close to a point total of 21 without going over, using cards that hold their face value with the exception of aces, which can be used as 1 or 11.

Vingt-Un was played in Europe, including casinos in Germany, in the late 1800’s, but players preferred Trente et Quarante (Thirty and Forty) as a card game for its similarity to roulette. However, the game was adopted easily into the Riverboat delta’s of the United States at the same time, where 21 or Blackjack became a staple of mining town saloons. In its infancy, at least one bar or dance hall offered a 10 to 1 bonus for a two-card hand consisting of the Jack of Spades and the Ace of Spades, but the offer was soon withdrawn and replaced with a 3 to 2 payoff for any two-card 21.

Expansion to the United States

Steamboat and paddlewheel patrons along the Mississippi and the town of New Orleans were hardly ever given much chance of breaking even, much less winning at the game of blackjack, as dealers were most often card mechanics who plied their trade against inexperienced farm hands and land owners. When the players showed any proficiency, the rounders’ simply used false cuts and dealt from the bottom of the deck to win.

However, as with roulette, where players in the US were willing to accept a double-zero wheel as standard, even with a higher house edge, blackjack players didn’t seem to mind that the house usually won, and the game was third in popularity to craps and roulette. And, since blackjack took just a deck of cards to play, the game was dealt in bars all over the country. When casinos opened by the Purple Gang in Detroit and Toledo became popular in the late 1920’s, they rivaled what could be found in the southern mansions of Louisiana and Texas as well as the skyscrapers of New York.

The Mob took a healthy cut of the profits, either running the casinos themselves or settling for thirty-percent of the profits, and players in places like Hot Springs, Arkansas bet hundreds of dollars per hand as the riches of the Roaring Twenties flowed across the green felt from gamblers to casino owners.

By 1925, laws in countries across Europe had been enacted to reduce or prohibit gambling, and players were forced to gamble in underground casinos or visit the few places like Baden Baden and Monte Carlo where games were legal. In the US, where slot machines were as much a thing of bars and roadhouses as whiskey was, the populace finally convinced legislators that gambling should be outlawed.

Underground casinos still flourished in many places like Steubenville, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky, but the state of Nevada held-out against the growing tide of sentiment against gaming, and legalized open gaming in 1931. The town of Reno soon became synonymous with not just easy divorce, but gambling, and of course you could get a drink in speakeasies all over town, even if alcohol was illegal everywhere else.

Nevada Casino Blackjack

Most casinos in Nevada offered a craps game and a roulette wheel, plus a few slot machines that had small jackpots of about 100 coins. Blackjack, on the other hand, grew in popularity as a game where the players could spend their time talking with the other gamblers while risking just 10-cents per hand.

After World War Two, thousands of GI’s who had learned the game of craps while traveling for weeks on ships sailing across the oceans, hit Nevada like a storm, and dice games became the most popular form of gambling during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Blackjack, however, was also growing in popularity, and some players had found that their skill at the game could actually have positive outcome on their results.

In 1953, mathematician Roger Baldwin (with a number of associates) looked at the permutations and probabilities at the game of blackjack and published a paper titled “Optimum Strategy in Blackjack” in 1956. By then, players like Greasy John and Crazy Al had found they could alter the houses edge by varying their wagers, especially if they crimped the cards a bit – including those valuable aces.  Small casinos in Nevada were vulnerable to cheating, but soon even the largest casino in the state, Harold’s Club, was taking measures to curb any nefarious activities on their blackjack games.

Enter Professor Thorp

Mathematics professor Edward O. Thorp took an interest in blackjack and enjoyed playing the occasion hand or two of the game. In the early 1960’s he took several trips to Las Vegas and noted the exact rules offered by the big casinos like the Sands, Stardust and Tropicana (each, at the time, owned by the Mob), and played a system he had devised to improve his odds.

Later, in 1962, Thorp took his mathematical formulas, which had been refined with early computer work, and produced a book entitled Beat the Dealer, which was launched on a large scale to moderate success in sales. The book detailed not only a Basic Strategy for playing the game of blackjack, but also a Ten Count, to keep track of the makeup of the deck of cards and take advantage of times when the player had an advantage and should make larger wagers.

It wasn’t just book sales, but the reaction of Las Vegas casino owners that catapulted Thorp to fame as a writer and gambling icon. The Las Vegas casino owners panicked, worried that the little game of blackjack that they had nurtured and turned into a virtual money stream would be decimated by wise-guy gamblers.

Their immediate reaction was to change the rules of the game, including a restriction on splitting aces, but players soon lost interest. Then, the miracle of the media came around a second time, with stories about the great book of blackjack, the fear of Las Vegas casino owners, and the chance for the average Joe to make some cash, but it didn’t happen like that.

Instead, the casinos found that they had to return the game to its original rules to get players back on the games, and when they did, they found to their delight that the average player wasn’t any better at the game than before. And, there were a lot more players! The idea of beating the game was wildly popular, but learning the complicated Ten Count was too much for Thorp’s followers. Sure, there were a few card counters, but the added popularity made up for any additional losses.

Casinos opened in the Bahama’s and became popular tourist traps in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and in the late 1970’s Atlantic City also legalized gaming. Meanwhile, clubs in Europe and Australia found that blackjack was now very popular. In the 1990’s, Canadian casinos in Vancouver, Calgary and Niagara Falls opened, and in the US, casinos have now spread to 38 states, and while single-deck games are mostly a thing of the past, players are more than happy to play on 6-deck shoes.

The popularity of the game of blackjack, or 21, has been enhanced over the years by even more books about the game, like card-counter extraordinaire Ken Uston’s Million Dollar Blackjack and by movies like Hollywood’s 21, which tells the story of a group of MIT students who take-up blackjack to help pay their college costs, and to have a boat-load of fun.

Today, blackjack is the most popular casino table game and there is no chance it will be surpassed by any other game. The only thing threatening land-based casino blackjack is online blackjack.

Online Blackjack

Right now there are thousands of online casinos offering games of chance like blackjack, roulette and craps, but players have learned to stick with well-known names like Bovada, Jackpot City and Lucky Red when risking their cash online.

The ease of deposit and withdrawal from online casinos has made the industry a favorite of gamblers all over the world, and the games have proven to be safe and fun. There are many varieties of blackjack games like Blackjack Switch and Pontoon, and games can be played for as little as $/€1 or up to $/€1,000.

In addition, along with what have become the standard video blackjack game, with good odds and a Random Number Generator to shuffle the cards used, some online casinos now offer Live Dealers. These games have the added security of watching each hand played live via Flash feed. At some casinos, players can even chat live with the dealers or a Pit Boss. The game of blackjack has now literally come a long, long way.

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