Since the earliest days of the development of card games, players have been pitting their wits against one another in games that combine chance and skill. Blackjack is just one of those games, representing an ideal balance between the two that makes it easy for new players to pick up.
While the origins of the game are still hotly debated among gaming historians, it seems likely that it was first played in French casinos around the turn of the 17th century. Those original players named the game vingt-et-un, which translates as ‘twenty-one’, but other names for the game have emerged over the years, including pontoon, ochko, and ventiuna.
The earliest reference to blackjack is thought to be in the short story ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’, which was published in the collection Novelas Ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes. The story follows the fortunes of two card cheats in Seville and describes the game they are playing as having rules that are now familiar as those of blackjack.
This story would have been written between 1601 and 1602, demonstrating that the game had become known in Castile by that point and the game proliferated around Europe over the coming years before being shared with players in the US and the rest of the world.
The name of the game
There are two main theories about the way that blackjack got its name, but the truth may have been lost to the mists of time. Some people believe that casinos in the US offered players an additional bonus if their winning hand was the ace of spades and a black jack.
However, games historians believe that the term was already in use during the gold rush. Prospectors used the term to describe the mineral zincblende, a geological marker that often indicated the presence of gold or silver and was therefore associated with the winning hand.
As the most widely played card game in the world, blackjack is perhaps also one of the simplest – while there are different versions of other casino games, the rules for blackjack are consistent and players can pick the basics up within a couple of minutes.
One of the things that makes blackjack a popular choice is that everyone at the table is playing against the dealer. This means there’s no need to worry about trying to psyche out opponents or bluff your way to success, you only need to play the cards you have and see how they stack up against the dealer’s hand.
The rules are simple – to beat the dealer’s hand and achieve as close to twenty-one as possible with your hand, without going bust. Players can see one of the dealers’ cards, and the dealer will follow a set of rules based on mathematical probability when playing their hand, so there is an element of predictability to the gameplay.
Players have various options on their turn, depending on their cards, which are:
- Hit – take another card
- Stand – complete their turn without doing anything
- Double down – double their bet, take another card and end their turn
- Split – if a player has two of the same value card, they can ‘split’ the pair and play each as a separate hand
- Surrender – sacrifice half their wager and retire from the game
If a player’s hand exceeds twenty-one points, they lose and all bets on the hand lose. The dealer plays their hand, but cannot double, split, or surrender. If the dealer busts then any player still in the game wins.
Betting on blackjack
Players that want to take a mathematical approach to playing blackjack can calculate the odds of any given hand coming up and use that to inform their betting.
If the dealer has an ace showing, then players may be offered an ‘insurance bet’, a side bet that the dealer has blackjack. Players will be given the opportunity to wager up to half their original stake and if the dealer does have blackjack, their insurance pays out two to one.
In the long-term, players will lose out if they take insurance bets, as the dealer will only have blackjack a third of the time, but it can be a good strategy for a player that wants to minimise the risk of a total loss with a poor starting hand.
Perfect pairs is another side bet that players can take that the first two cards dealt to them will be either a mixed, coloured, or perfect pair of cards, with pay-outs that vary according to the likelihood of them occurring. Twenty-one plus three is a bet that the player’s initial two cards and the dealer’s up card will make a flush, straight, three of a kind, or straight flush.
Because there are only so many different potential starting hands in blackjack, it is possible to work out the optimal way to play any of them and base your choices on the probability of winning. Some hands make it easier to win than others, but if you have a consistent strategy, then you can maximise your likelihood of winning.
Every casino game has a ‘house edge’ which is the degree to which the odds fall in the casino’s favour, and the house edge in blackjack is one of the lowest of all casino games. Combined with the fact that it is a fun and fast-paced game, it’s easy to see why blackjack is such a popular choice with casino-goers the world over.