The evolution of all card games is muddled and mixed, with new games usually arising after adjustments to preexisting games, rather than being created from whole cloth. Such is the case with the world’s most popular card game, as blackjack likely originated as an offshoot of the French baccarat ancestor chemin de fer.
In chemin de fer, as in modern baccarat, cards numbered 2 through 9 were valued as such, while 10s and face cards were worth 0, and aces worth 1. During the 1700s somebody decided to mix the game up a bit, turning 10s and faces into 10-values and making the ace convertible as either a 1 or an 11. Rather than trying to make the hand closest to 9, the magic number was moved to 21. A few more tweaks turned the game from a two-hand affair into the blackjack game we know today, with between 1 and 6 players opposing a house hand held by the dealer.
Most historians trace the roots of blackjack even further back though, as famed Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes wrote about a similar card game as early as 1601. Cervantes, who penned the masterpiece Don Quixote just four years later, wrote a short story called Rinconte y Cortadillo that focused on a pair of card cheats living in Seville, Spain. In the story, Cervantes’ cheaters specialize in a game called ventiuna – which literally translates to “twenty-one” in Spanish. Other references to the game of ventiuna can be found in Spanish and French literature from the 17th century.
Like most gambling pursuits in America, blackjack came to prominence in the Western world during the early 1800s, as waves of immigrants arrived from Europe. These men and women travelled long and far to live freely in America, and along with their worldly possessions, they brought customs and traditions along for the trip. One of those customs was a card game with 21 as the goal, and soon enough it was being played in Old West saloons and East Coast gambling dens.
The name “blackjack” is an American addition to the game’s evolution, as some casinos and gambling houses offered a special provision to lucky players. Anyone who was dealt the ace of spades along with any black jack (either the jack of clubs or the jack of spades) was paid out a bonus at 10 to 1 on their wager.
With players hoping to get dealt the right ace and a black jack, the name caught on and stuck. Eventually, houses figured out that this payout was too high in relation to the odds against making the hand, so the 10 to 1 bonus was abandoned. But the name blackjack remains to this day, with the term being used to describe any hand that is dealt an ace along with a 10-value card.
During the 20th century blackjack was legalized by the state of Nevada, along with several other casino games, and the game immediately became a favorite of savvy gamblers looking to play a skill-based game. Mathematically inclined players soon deduced that there was always an optimal way to play every possible starting hand, and that by doing so, they could reduce the house edge to unheard of lows.
In 1956 a scholar by the name of Roger Baldwin published a paper titled The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack. In this paper, Baldwin set forth a series of mathematical constructs aimed at “cracking the code” of blackjack so to speak. Baldwin’s research was revolutionary, and eventually it was expanded to form the basic blackjack strategy in use by skill players today.