Blackjack has its roots in its alias - 21. Though historians and experts have tried to trace the game’s roots, the starting point seems to be a novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.
It probably did no harm to the game’s reputation that Cervantes himself was an avid gambler, and his main characters are two crooks trying to win a round of 21 by any means necessary. Whether the two manage to win by hoodwinking the others is something you will have to find out for yourself.
The novel had an impact; the characters did too. Cervantes’ story set the ground rules for 21, which then evolved into blackjack. The characters in the story also set the precedent of gaming the system to win; something we will get back to a bit later in the read.
One thing that amazes those of us who analyse the roots and origins of gambling is how America, or the New World as it was known back then, is a melting pot for games that travelled from various parts of Europe. Blackjack is no different.
The game was still known as 21 when it entered gambling houses in the United States. The promoters were a bit sceptical as to whether it would catch the interest of the playing public. You must remember that these were the early days, long before Las Vegas and regulation.
To increase the appeal of a sophisticated card game imported from Europe, the gambling houses offered bonuses and promotions. The most popular among them was a 10-1 payout if the player held an ace of a dark suit and a ‘black’ jack.
The trick worked. More and more players began taking up the game. Soon, the bonus and promotions ceased, but the one thing that remained was the title of the most popular promotion - blackjack.
Since time immemorial, all those who have indulged in a bit of gambling have had one objective: beat the house. Blackjack is one of those rare card games where you can actually manage to do that. This is where statistics and math combined to give players that elusive glimpse of opportunity. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that this opportunity presented itself.
The year was 1956. A paper appeared in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. No-one imagined that a scientific journal would carry the recipe for success at a casino game.
The paper, titled Optimum Strategy in Blackjack, was presented by four up-and-coming statisticians - Roger Baldwin, James McDermott, Wilbert Cantey, and Herbert Maisel. What these men, and the playing public, did not know at this point in time was how influential this publication would become. In fact, it became the foundation stone on which all future strategies were devised.
Cut to 1963. Ed Thorp, a mathematics professor and avid blackjack player, was so impressed by Roger Baldwin’s calculations pertaining to a player’s hand, that he used them to first verify the strategy and then upgrade it to a more advanced version.
The result was the seminal book and blackjack guide, Beat the Dealer. Before the book, there had been no concrete strategy based on hard science that allowed a player to get one over the house. Beat the Dealer, however, was not without its issues.
Counting cards has now gained such a reputation that, if you are caught doing it, you will be ejected from the casino; plain and simple. But when the strategy was first devised, it was seen as an ultimate skill to have; something that bordered on genius. This has been ably represented in popular culture in movies such as Rain Man.
There’s really nothing unethical about having a knowledge of the odds, however. Blackjack wins are possible if you play your cards right and keep track of what’s going on. Many players wrongly assume that getting 21 is the sole aim, but as long as your hand is better than the dealer’s, you’re in with a chance of some blackjack winnings.
This is a fun game to play with friends for matchsticks or money, and with online blackjack now widely available at reputable casino sites, there are plenty of ways to practise your best blackjack strategy. The combination of luck and skill make this an ideal game for any level of casino game player.