Blackjack is one of the best known and most played card games in the world. It’s easy to pick-up and play, it offers great odds, can be played professional, and is perfectly suited for casino play as well as home play. But where did this game come from, when was it first played and what made it so popular?
In this guide we will look at the history of blackjack, which also goes by the names “21” and “Pontoon”.
The early history of blackjack is a hotly debated one and no one really knows for sure when it was invented, how it was invented, or whom to credit with that invention. We do have a rough idea though and we also have a vague idea of when playing cards were invented.
These cards were likely first invented by the Chinese, who used them to play a number of games prior to AD1,000. Early playing cards were nothing like what we know today, and not until they reached Europe in the 14th century did modern designs being to take shape.
They began with designs created by the Egyptians, who split the cards into suits consisting of goblets, coins, swords and sticks. The Italians and the Germans then changed these designs, after which the French added their own touch. Modern cards are essentially the result of simplified French versions of German designs that were then Anglicized by the English.
A variant of the modern playing card was probably being used as early as the 15th century, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that they began to be used for blackjack.
The Invention of Blackjack
While we don’t know who invented the game of blackjack, we do know that it was being played in French casinos throughout the 1700s. They knew it by the name Vingt-et-Un, or “21”, with experts suggesting that it was developed as a variant of other card games. This is actually quite common with casino games and other games, even today. Just look at Texas Hold’em, a game that was created from Stud Poker to allow for quicker and more exciting play when a number of players were involved.
At the same time that “21” was being played in France, a game known as “31” was being played in Spain. This game used similar cards and had similar rules, but instead of trying to reach 21, players aimed for a total of 31. These games grew quickly because they allowed for fast play and easier bets, thus making them popular with casual players as well as casinos.
The Spread of Blackjack
Prior to the 19th century, blackjack wasn’t that well known. This changed when the game was introduced to the United States, after which it became popular throughout saloons, card rooms and casinos, eventually helping to shape the success of cities like Las Vegas alongside roulette, a game that was also introduced from France.
The name “blackjack” or “black jack” was actually born in the United States. It came from a special bet that casinos offered to draw players onto the tables. They paid out as much as 10 to 1 for all players who scored a 21 with a hand that consisted of a Jack of Spades. This didn’t last, as it was a payout that casinos simply couldn’t afford to cover, but it lasted long enough for the name to stick and then to spread around the world.
These days, several cards can score a “blackjack”, which is also known as a “natural”, but the name still remains.
It was in the United States that the game of blackjack enjoyed its biggest success, as the casinos of the Las Vegas Strip helped to propel it into a truly global game, one that is now played in casinos all over the world and one that can also be found on all online casinos.
Pontoon vs 21 vs Blackjack
No one knows for sure what the early rules of blackjack looked like, but we do know that the goal was to get to 21, and beyond that the rules were likely very simple. We also know that the game looked more or less the same when it arrived in the United States and, except for the addition of side bets, insurance, and other features, it probably played the same too.
There are a few differences in how this game is played around the world though and these stem from slight changes in how the game evolved around the world. The name “21” remains one of the most well known in parts of Europe thanks to the French, while the name “blackjack” is used throughout North America and in large parts of Asia (countries that borrowed a lot from the American gambling scene).
In the UK, Australia and Malaysia, it is often called “Pontoon”. In this game only a single deck is used and there are some tweaks to how it plays, including the addition of a “twist” option that lets the player “buy” (which doubles the bet) on any hand that contains between 2 and 4 cards.
Spanish 21 vs Blackjack
As discussed when looking at the early history of blackjack, the Spanish were some of the very first players of this game and may have even played a role in its invention. You could therefore be forgiven for thinking that this game is as old as blackjack itself, but that’s simply not the case. In fact, it was invented in the mid-90s and is one of the more recent gambling games to make it into online and offline casinos.
Spanish 21 is typically tweaked to ensure the casino has a greater chance of winning than they do with games like Classic Blackjack. There are always 6 to 8 decks used, Splits and Double Downs are allowed, and a number of side bets are also usually added. These bets include Perfect Pairs, where players are paid for matching pairs; and Match the Dealer, which is basically a version of the classic children’s game “Snap”.