Blackjack History

Everything has a beginning. Your family tree, the company that made your car or even your favorite TV show. And as time passes there are events that take place that shape what these things are today.

Blackjack is no different. Since it’s beginning more than a couple hundred years ago, there has been events, people and books that has molded it into the sophisticated game it is today – one of the most popular card games in any casino that you walk or log in to.

And given that our site is all about blackjack, we thought it’d be fitting to include a page that discusses these events and people in more detail. That’s what we’ve done below.

So let’s get to it.

A Brief History Lesson on Blackjack and its Origins

There isn’t a lot said about the origin of blackjack. No one can decide on exactly when the game was created or where it first surfaced. There are 3 theories, though, as to when and where blackjack was first played.

  • Italy (1440) – Monks give a sermon against gambling and mention the game of 31. The objective was (is) to get 31 points from a 3-card hand.
  • France (1600-1700) – The book, Ejemplares, written by Miguel de Cervantes, contained a tale titled Rinconete y Cortadillo. This story contains the first written text of twenty-one, known at that time as ventiuna. It mentioned that the game was played earlier in the century, if not before the turn of the century.

During this time there was also a game played called Vingt-en-un, which is French for 21. This game was similar to the blackjack game we play today.

  • Italy (1600-1700) – A game called Seven and a Half was played at this time. Players would go out or “bust” if they exceed 7.5 points.

The theory that other websites and books agree on most is France during the 1600s. It makes sense, too, because Vingt-en-un is the most similar game to blackjack today. It also made it’s way to America in 1789, following the French Revolution, which is only a few decades later than when the game was said to be created.

Blackjack in Las Vegas

Blackjack didn’t make it’s way to Las Vegas until after 1931. Gambling was prohibited in the United States up until that point because the government thought that gambling encouraged organized crime. That pushed the blackjack games underground.

They didn’t surface until Nevada legalized gambling until 1931, which was more or less a way to bring in revenue and create jobs. Something that was not in abundance during the Great Depression.

Thorp Changes the Way Blackjack is Played

Blackjack was a popular game in Las Vegas in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But I don’t think the game experienced a ‘boom’ until Edward Thorp got involved and developed strategies for how to beat it.

Now, to be clear, Thorp wasn’t the first to figure out how blackjack works and how to improve the edge in your favor. There were 4 guys in the 1950s that created what’s known today as basic strategy. They wrote an article on it titled, The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack, in 1956.

However, Thorp was one of the first (if not the first) to create a card counting strategy that not only improved the house edge in favor of the player, but improve the edge to the point that the casino was taking a loss.

The problem with Thorp’s strategy, though, was that it was difficult to learn and use. His 10-count strategy required you to start off at 16 and 36, which represents the number of 10s and non-10s in the deck. For every card that is dealt you needed to subtract it from either count. Then you divide the two numbers to get the Thorp Ratio, which tells you your advantage and how much to bet. This was a more involved system than the counting systems used today.

That didn’t stop anyone from picking up his book, Beat the Dealer, which was written in 1962. It spent some time on the New York Best Sellers list, which should give you an idea as to how popular it was. In fact, so many people took their newfound knowledge to Las Vegas, that for a short period of time Vegas casinos altered the rules and payouts to offset the losses they were taking. However, that hurt them more in the short run and they eventually switched back to the old rules. And instead they added more decks, started to shuffle sooner and would cap how much any one player could bet.

Thorp ultimately created the path that so many blackjack players would follow. Many of which that would go on to create card counting systems of their own and even earn hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars as advantage players.

The Birth of Online Gambling

Edward Thorp changed the way blackjack was played. However, computers and the internet affected the reach that blackjack had. Players that didn’t otherwise have access to a brick and mortar casino were now able to play online. Those that were new to blackjack were able to play it for the first time.

But online casinos did more than introduce people to blackjack – they changed the way people gambled. Online casinos allow players to stay and play in the privacy of their own home. They don’t have to deal with crowds, smoke or the loud and constant noise, nor do they have to deal with time and costs of traveling either.

The games have changed, too. More variations have been introduced, and because the overhead is so low casinos don’t have to charge $5 or $10 per hand, but instead can charge as little as $1 to $2 per hand. This opens the doors for players with smaller budgets to play.

The internet has definitely changed the game of blackjack. There are hundreds of online casinos that offer blackjack, or some form of blackjack, for as little as $1 to as much as $10,000 per hand. Players can also do a quick Google search and come across basic strategies and a number of card counting systems that they can use to beat the casinos. Anyone with the time, dedication and effort can become a card counter today.

Don’t forget the revenue, either. Back in 1998 online casino revenue exceeded $830 million. In 2008 it was assumed that revenue exceeded $21 billion. You can bet that a large portion of that came from us blackjack players.

The Game of Blackjack Today

Blackjack today is more sophisticated than it was 50 years ago. Hell, it’s more sophisticated than it was 5 years ago.

On one side of the spectrum you have more casinos, tools and resources. It has never been this fast, easy or efficient to play blackjack, let alone find and use the tools necessary to become a break-even player. Those willing to put in 3-6 months of their time can even learn how to beat the house. In addition to the tools, you have resources like this website and blackjack forums where you can read about blackjack and meet other players just like yourself. All things that will help you learn how to play, play better and make (more) money.

On the other end you have well-informed casinos. They have the computer software, notes, profiles and experience. They also control the games, rules and payouts. And while they may not be able to take you out back and beat your ass for taking advantage of their games, they can ask you to leave and to never return, putting you in a position to go elsewhere or risk trespassing.

It’s definitely a game of cat and mouse, which has only elevated thanks to the technology that we use in this day and age. But it isn’t a bad thing. It’s the same technology that has introduced thousands of new players to the game.

Timeline of Top 8 Blackjack Books

To continue with the history theme, we thought it would be interested to highlight the top blackjack books including what you can learn from them and when they were published. You’ll find our 8 picks below.

Beat the Dealer by Edward Thorp (1962) – Thorp covers the rules of blackjack, basic strategy, how he tested his ideas in Las Vegas, his point counting system and how to beat the casino (even if they’ve spotted you before).

Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong (1975) – This books covers basic strategy, ethics, tips for one or multiple decks, win rates and how to read the tables.

The Theory of Blackjack by Peter Griffin (1979) – Peter covers basic strategy, bet variations, card counting systems, rules for different deck sizes and computing techniques.

The World’s Greatest Blackjack Book by Lance Humble (1980) – Learn what mindset you need to win at blackjack, the basics like rules and equipment, choosing where to play, the hi-opt I card counting system and playing professionally.

Basic Blackjack by Stanford Wong (1992) – This book covers basic strategy, variations of strategy for different games and information on tells.

Blackjack Secrets by Stanford Wong (1993) – Read about basic strategy, the hi-lo counting system and how to play and win without being barred.

Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder (2005) – This is an advanced book that covers shuffle tracking, team play and camouflage techniques to avoid detection in the casino. Several card counting strategies are covered, too.

Big Book of Blackjack by Arnold Snyder (2006) – A very detailed guide to blackjack, including the history, the rules, stories about other players, basic strategy and card counting. Also covers how to beat blackjack variations including super sevens, Spanish 21, super fun 21 and blackjack switch.

Timeline of Top 10 Blackjack Influencers

Blackjack has had a number of influencers – people that have, or continue to push the game forward. Here are our top 10 picks.

Edward Thorp (born 1932) – Edward is a mathematics major, blackjack player and hedge fund manager. He’s known for being the father of the wearable computer and writing Beat the Dealer in 1962.

Ken Uston (born 1935) – Ken was known as a blackjack player, strategist, his New Jersey lawsuit and for making team play popular. Has written a couple of books including The Big Player and Million Dollar Blackjack.

Peter Griffin (1937-1998) – Peter was a mathematician and an original member of the blackjack hall of fame. He was the first to calculate the disadvantage of the average player (which is 2 percent). He wrote the book The Theory of Blackjack in 1979.

Stanford Wong (born 1943) – Wong is known for numerous things including writing Professional Blackjack, his Blackjack Analyzer computer program and his BJ21 website. Stanford Wong is the pen name of John Ferguson.

The Four Horseman of Aberdeen (1950s) – Four players, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, Roger Baldwin and James McDermott invented basic strategy using a simple calculator. They published their results in the Journal of the American Statistical Association titled The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack.

The MIT Blackjack Team (1979-1994+) – This team consisted of many players over the years. They had as many as 35 players in 1984 with backing from Bill Kaplan, a Harvard grad who had run a successful team in the past. With Kaplan’s help the team managed to earn $80 per hour and 250% ROI for their investors. One of the most famous players is Mike Aponte, whom was the foundation for the character Jason Fisher in Bringing Down the House, which later was turned into the movie ’21.’

Arnold Snyder – Arnold is a professional blackjack player and author. He’s known for his books and for being one of the first 7 players to be inducted into the blackjack hall of fame. He also runs BlackjackForumOnline.com.

Al Francesco – Al initially learned how to count cards using Edward Thorp’s system in Beat the Dealer. He did so well with the system that the casinos started to kick him out. In 1971 he started to play with teams, eventually teaching Ken Uston how to successfully play team blackjack. Uston later published a book based on those teachings titled The Big Player.

James Grosjean – James is known as the youngest player in the blackjack hall of fame, as well as for his legal wins over major casinos and investigative agencies. He won $599,999 against Imperial Palace for illegal detention, and punitive damages against Caesars Palace and Griffin Investigations.

Keith Taft – Keith is known for building the first microcomputer. He built his first computer in 1970. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 2004 and died two years later.