Blackjack is certainly one of the most popular card games in the world. Almost every person on the street knows what blackjack is, even if they have never stepped foot into a casino or gambling parlor. Blackjack’s popularity is largely due to the need for both chance and skill to succeed at the game, and the notorious element of card counting that has surrounded blackjack for the past few decades. The popularity of blackjack has spread even more in the past ten years due to the explosion of the online gambling market, and with it, the globalization of blackjack.
Blackjack in its classic form, as it is played today, puts the players against the dealer. A player’s cards need to total as close to 21 as possible, without passing that number. Whichever player (or dealer) gets over 21 has lost the round, while the person that has reached 21 or the closest thereto has won the round. The player is dealt two cards to begin with and the skill of blackjack is to decide whether to stick with the cards in hand or to request another. The decision is based on the cards in hand, as well as the cards of the other players (the dealer). The balance between trying to reach 21, and not passing it (going ‘bust’) is the true art of the game. Click for information on how to play, strategy charts, terminology/glossary, table layout and blackjack card counting.
Blackjack as played today, however, is quite removed from the style of game that was said to originate in Middle Ages Europe. There are no documented records of the game originating in one particular time period or country, but the game is said to be made up of several similar games that were played during the period.
Quinze, One-and-Thirty, Trente-et-Quatre, Vingt-Un, Seven-and-a-Half and Baccarat are all possible origins of blackjack as we know it today. These games all have one thing in common – they all require the player to reach a certain number in order to win. Following different variations and styles, this is how the current game of blackjack emerged.
Standardized decks of cards were first printed in 1440 by Johann Guttenberg and within a few years, card games were hugely popular amongst the rich and royalty. Most of the new card games required players to reach a certain card-count total. Baccarat first emerged in Italy in the 1490s and required players to reach a total of 9. Another one of blackjack’s ancestors known as Seven-and-a-Half was played with 8s, 9s and 10s and face cards counted as a half. This was the first game in which a player automatically became ‘bust’ if their cards totaled over the required number – seven-and-a-half.
Another card counting game which emerged in the late 1500's was a Spanish game called One-and Thirty. The player was dealt three cards and then three community cards were dealt to the center table. Each player took one community card in exchange for a card in their hand, and this motion continued until each player was content. The card totals were then counted and levels of points were given according to the cards’ values: 31 was the ideal score.
A number of French games are also said to be part of the originating roots of blackjack. In the early 1880s a game called Quinze became very popular, which was also a card game requiring the reaching of 15. Another, titled Trente-et-Quarante, was played with six decks of cards in which the dealer set out a row of black cards and a row of red cards, with players betting on each row. When each row totaled over thirty, the row was closed and the bets on the row closest to 31 won even money.
The closest contender to the title of the true grandfather of blackjack is no doubt the French card game known as Vingt-Un (21). The original Vingt-Un was played quite differently, however, while the goal of the game was to reach a ‘natural’ 21. In the early version of the game, the cards were dealt in rounds, followed by betting in each round. Only the Dealer had the right to double and if he got a ‘natural’ he would be paid triple by the other players.
From Vingt-Un to Blackjack
Vingt-Un arrived on the shores of the United States in the late 1800's and its first appearance is recorded in 1875 in “American Hoyle” and in 1905 in “Foster’s Hoyle”. The game was originally popular as a private leisure activity, but Twenty-One (as it became known) finally made its appearance in American gambling halls in the 1910's. The game was reportedly first seen at a gambling hall in Evansville, Indiana around that time.
When the game of Twenty One was originally introduced in America it was not as popular as the gambling hall owners had hoped. The gambling houses decided to try to entice players to the tables by offering bonus schemes and payouts. One of the very attractive bonuses offered was a 10-1 payout if a player’s hand consisted of the Ace of Spades and a black Jack (Jack of Clubs or Jack of Spades). This hand became known as the blackjack hand and the name stuck, even though the bonus payout was abolished after a few years.
Blackjack Becomes American
As soon as the changes had been made to the original game and the type of blackjack as we know today was formed, the game became immensely popular and its fame began spreading. Part of the popularity of the game was its flexibility and freedom and professional gamblers soon began realizing that blackjack was great for manipulating the odds and bets.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's there was no government regulation on betting and gambling, which provided perfect breeding for the widespread growth of gambling in general, and blackjack in particular. This all changed in the 1910's when the government decided that the gambling industry was leading to corruption and was also encouraging organized crime. Decent law abiding blackjack players were, in essence, collectively punished for the neurosis of the government and were forced to play underground if they wanted to continue their passion for gambling.
In 1910, the State of Nevada decided to make gambling illegal and thus put an end to the honeymoon period of blackjack and other forms of gambling in the area. For two decades the country hopped between fighting organized criminal elements, dealing with the Prohibition and considering whether to re-legalize gambling. Finally, after the Great Depression, it was decided that the legalization of gambling in specific areas would be a good way to boost some of the destroyed economies. Laws were also created to protect the gambler and government monitoring committees were set up.
The legalization of gambling in Nevada was the best thing that could have happened to blackjack. The game spread like wildfire and the rebirth of Las Vegas was largely due to the popularity of blackjack and other card games. With so many other states in the US afraid of renewing the gambling industries within their borders, Las Vegas soon became the gambling capital of the country.
Other Names for Blackjack
While blackjack managed to spread and conquer the hearts and minds of players in the United States, it also managed to spread to other countries and become immensely popular there. In Russia, the local form of blackjack is known as Ochko or 21 and is played both in casinos and by everyday folk. Other names for blackjack are Pontoon and California Aces but these are less popular.
As with most popular elements in society, the game of blackjack also became attractive to scientists. The mathematical element of the game served as a source of great interest to scientists of the late 1950's and they were enticed into calculating the best gaming strategies and statistics. The search for the ‘holy grail’ of blackjack forced statisticians to spend much time and effort and finally some results were seen. In 1956, a mathematician named Roger Baldwin and his associates, published the basic strategy of blackjack in the Journal of American Statistical Association. This basic strategy included cue cards with printouts of the ideal blackjack combinations and moves.
The Birth of Card Counting
Inspired by the scientific studies surrounding blackjack, American mathematician, Dr. Edward Thorp, officially introduced the concept of card counting. Card counting was a method referring to the tracking of the ratio of high cards to low cards in blackjack. The reasons behind card counting stem from the fact that high cards, especially Aces are considered a positive element for the player, while low cards are great for the dealer. High cards boost the player’s hand because they up the possibility of a player getting a blackjack. These high cards also increase the player’s chance of winning on other popular blackjack hands. In turn, low cards are considered to be good for the dealer as they minimize the possibility that the dealer will go bust.
In Thorpe’s book “Beat the Dealer” which was published in 1962, Thorpe outlined several betting and playing techniques for optimal blackjack play, including card counting. Thorp’s theories were known to be mathematically sound, but counter measures have subsequently been taken by casinos in order to fight the practice.
Even before the publication of Thorpe’s book, a handful of ‘professional’ card counters were playing blackjack in Las Vegas and sweeping the casinos clean. Notorious card counters of the 50's and 60's were Jess Marcum, Joe Bernstein, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott. Some of these professionals shared their knowledge by publishing books, while others simply kept their strategies to themselves and managed to break the casinos’ banks.
In the 1970's and 1980's, card counting became harder and harder because of the advent of computerized dealing systems. Casinos became aware of the practice and started taking counter measures to fight the trend. Casinos began using more decks which decreases the player’s advantage and even when still using single and double decks, dealers often shuffled cards.
In order to disturb the concentration of a suspected card counter, casinos introduced the concept of free alcoholic beverages and background entertainment such as music or shows. Many casinos also have special staff that monitor betting trends in order to spot playing behavior indicative of card counting. Video surveillance and computer analysis is also part of the new technology being used by casinos to fight this practice.
Technological advancements have not only helped casinos fight issues such as card counting, but have also facilitated an entirely new industry that hardly existed a decade ago. The online casino industry which was not heard of until the mid 1990's has become one of the most fiercely competitive and fastest growing industries on the internet.
Blackjack was one of the first games offered by online casino sites when they were launched a decade ago. Online casinos, which were an entirely new concept, were trying to attract gambling fans away from land casinos and decided to begin by offering games which everyone knew. Classic games such as poker and blackjack, which did not require too many explanations and guides, were part of the opening packages of online casinos.
Online casinos have spread the excitement and thrills of blackjack to the masses. The game was already wildly popular before the advent of online casinos, but the attractiveness of remote gambling appealed to many more people than those who needed to make an effort to reach a land casino. With over 2000 online casino sites floating around cyberspace, all of the sites which offer a wide spread of games will list blackjack as one of their favorites.
Online casinos focusing solely on blackjack have also made an appearance in the last couple of years. Hundreds of online casino portals also exist which help a player find the type of remote blackjack table that best suits their needs. The portals will also provide information of gaming strategies and different betting methods. A survey of certain online casinos might be presented as well as a comparison of different bonus schemes.
With the choice of hundreds of blackjack tables available in one click, the concept of blackjack betting and odds relating to the game have changed tremendously. Previously, in land casinos, there was no choice for the player they had to accept the conditions being offered by the land casinos whether it suited them or not. Online casinos have introduced an element of competition whereby the player comes out the winner before they even play.
Bonus schemes are a regular feature of online blackjack and shopping around for the best blackjack tables that are within a player’s limits is also a great advantage. Beginner players have the chance to practice on low limit tables, without turning the pastime into a costly affair. Online blackjack sites also allow players to practice for free before opening an account and playing for money.
Strategy used in land casinos will not especially work for online blackjack because each site will have its own house rules. These house rules could greatly affect the way that a person plays out his hand – if the dealer is allowed to fold after a certain total or if the player is not allowed to split with certain cards could easily change the outcome of a game.
The future of blackjack, in general and online blackjack in particular, is totally open. Technological changes are occurring at a rapid pace in the online casino industry and exciting updates in the world of blackjack will happen, accordingly.
Posted by Denise Marie
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