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 History of Blackjack

The origin of the game Blackjack is still in dispute to this day, but can be traced back to several European card games. The French “Vingt-Un” (21), “Trente et Quarente” (20 and 30), “Chemin de Fer” (Railroad); Spanish “One and Thirty”; and Italian “Baccara” and “Seven and a Half” all have some similarity to modern Blackjack. Blackjack came to the United States in the 19th century.

Gambling was legal in the Western part of the United States from the 1850’s to 1910. From 1910 to 1931 gambling was illegal in Nevada. In 1931 Nevada legalized casino gambling and Blackjack became very popular. The most common type of Blackjack game was played with one or two decks.

In 1956, Roger Baldwin published a paper in the Journal of the American Statistical Association titled “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack”. The paper explained how to reduce the “House”, or casino, advantage based upon probability and statistics. The strategy outlined proved confusing for non-mathematicians.

In 1962, Edward O. Thorp, a Mathematics Professor at New Mexico State University published “Beat the Dealer”. Dr. Thorp used an IBM 704 computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computation Center to refine the strategy in Edward Thorp’s paper. He also developed the first card counting techniques. In 1963, “Beat the Dealer” spent one week on the New York Times bestseller list.

Due to the popularity of Dr. Thorp’s book, there was a huge increase in the amount of Blackjack players at casinos trying to implement his strategy. This caused some consternation among casinos. Many casinos changed their Blackjack rules fearing losses from people using Thorp’s system. This caused a noteable backlash among Blackjack players and a huge dropoff in the amount of people playing Blackjack. The casinos subsequently changed their rules back. Thorp’s book ended up making money for casinos, as it increased the amount of Blackjack being played. His system, however, was hard to understand and difficult for players to implement.

One of the most important contributors to modern Blackjack strategy was Julian Braun. Mr Braun was an IBM employee who improved Dr. Thorp’s code and ran simulations on IBM mainframes. His updated strategies and card counting techniques were included in the second edition of “Beat the Dealer” and numerous later books.

The work by Thorp, Braun and others transformed Blackjack from a little-played game stuck in the corner of most casinos into the most popular casino table game in the US today.

The name Blackjack comes from the “natural” hand winner of the early version of the game. If a player was dealt a Jack and Ace of Spades in his initial two card hand, he was an automatic winner and was payed a bonus. In modern Blackjack, any Ace combined with any ten value card (excepting after a Split) counts as a “natural” Blackjack.



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