Despite its popularity today, the history of blackjack is full of gaps and speculation. No one quite knows who first invented it, or even where the first game was played. The standard rules requiring a total equal to or less than 21 points from multiple cards can be found in many games across the globe. Blackjack may have begun in its earliest form with the first numbered playing cards in the 1400s, and the concept of paper cards themselves dates back more than a millennium. Based on the numerical values of the tarot deck, the target sum of 21 would have been readily apparent to players even in the medieval era.
No matter when it was invented precisely, blackjack, or 21, has been a favorite of gamblers for at least 400 years and can be traced with greater accuracy after its initial spread throughout Europe. The game soon developed into multiple local variants, but the core goal of reaching 21 stayed the same. Over time, it became the most popular card game in the world and its own industry in strategy and statistics. The story of blackjack is one that stretches back through some of the most important pieces of human history, and an understanding of how it came to be will benefit any enthusiast.
Origins of Blackjack
Card games are thought to have been invented in either India or China around 900 CE, when paper money was shuffled in certain ways to represent symbols and values and then turned into a game soon afterward. Playing cards traveled to Europe through Africa and the Middle East and was picked up by the aristocracy as an amusing pastime. At the time, these cards were hand-cut and painted, making them very expensive. They did not trickle down into the general population until printing methods became widespread in the 15th century. After that, the games took off and there was a sudden explosion of new rules and deck styles on the streets. The Italian tarot introduced cards with four houses and numbers, as well as the concept of “royalty.”
The first recorded mention of a game similar to blackjack is found in the work of Miguel Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote,” in 1601. In “Novelas Ejemplares,” Cervantes described two cheating gamblers in Seville playing the game veintiuna, or 21 in Spanish. They even go so far as to describe the rules, and that the ace could have two different values, but they were not playing with the deck used today. A few other key differences included how often bets were made and the dealer’s advantage of forcing the player to pay triple upon losing.
Veintiuna, or vingt-et-un in French, was likely the ancestor of modern blackjack. It spread throughout Europe and gained particular prominence in Spain and France. The French, fleeing the wake of their own revolution, sent the game and the 52-card deck on ships to the Americas in the early 1800s. Americans renamed it 21 and proceeded to largely ignore it in favor of poker and craps. Then a sudden rash of gambling laws left card games on the sidelines, played only in family homes and secret backroom affairs. The game that would eventually become blackjack was now in danger of going extinct in America and most of Europe.
In 1931, Nevada was the first state to legalize gambling in the large casinos that are a staple of the state today. It was there, in the casinos of Las Vegas, that dealers and managers attempted to stir interest in 21 by offering incentives on card combinations. For example, a black jack and the ace of spades would pay back 10 times the initial bet. The promotions died out once Americans began playing in earnest, but the name blackjack stuck.
The exact point at which the game of veintiuna turned into blackjack is difficult to pinpoint, and it may not even exist. Instead, like many games, it was a gradual process that, over time, ended with the adoption of the most basic and palatable rules for mass use.