Blackjack is a thinking gambler’s favorite, an oasis of skill and strategy amongst the desolate desert offered by pure games of chance.
If spinning reels and watching their random revolution decide your fate offends your gambling sensibilities, you probably prefer to mix it up by playing blackjack. As one of the most popular card games ever created, blackjack has been a gambling hall staple since well before the first casinos were constructed during Nevada’s territorial days.
From dusty saloons in the Old West to royal courts in the castles of European antiquity, blackjack and its predecessors have been played continuously over four centuries and counting.
That’s just one of the fun facts about blackjack, so check out the list below to find six more.
1 – Blackjack Was First Described by the Author of “Don Quixote”
You probably know 17th century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes as the mastermind behind “Don Quixote” (1605), a novel that set the standard for European literature of the era.
But a few years before Cervantes penned his masterpiece, he wrote a short story titled “Rinconete y Cortadillo,” which told the tale of two gamblers residing in the city of Seville. The title characters form a team of card game cheats, and their preferred game just so happens to be called ventiuna — which is Spanish for “twenty-one.”
Based on Cervantes’ typically florid descriptions, ventiuna is a card game in which aces hold a variable value of either 1 or 11, and the objective is to reach a total of 21 or close to it without going over.
Cervantes set his story in the year 1569, which means blackjack’s Spanish ancestor was likely invented at some point in the 16th century.
2 – Regional Variants Dating Back Even Earlier Are Found Everywhere
At the same time Spanish gamblers were enjoying games of ventiuna, their counterparts in France played vingt-et-un — which translates to “twenty-one.”
Italy was home to sette e mezzo — Italian for “seven and a half” — a hybrid form of early blackjack which used a modified 40-card deck. When playing sette e mezzo, the cards ace through 7 hold their numerical rank (1-7), while face cards are valued at one-half a point.
During the waves of European immigration to the New World that eventually produced America as we know it today, gamblers brought their favorite card games across the Atlantic.
Upon settling and spreading across the North American continent, these players and their progeny cobbled their regional games together until the template for modern blackjack was born.
3 – The First American Blackjack Games Paid 10 to 1 Jackpots
If you’ve ever wondered where the modern name “blackjack” originated, look no further than the deck’s jack of spades and jack of clubs.
This low-level royal pair provided the first casinos in Nevada with the perfect opportunity to promote their newfangled European card game. In an era when most card sharps preferred the mano a mano combat of the poker table, saloon owners and gambling hall operators had their work cut out for them when it came to convincing skeptical crowds to bet on blackjack.
Appealing to every gambler’s most precious commodity, their bottom line, early blackjack purveyors came up with an elegant promotion. Whenever the player looked down to find the ace of spades paired with either the jack of spades or jack of clubs, they’d earn an instant 10 to 1 payout.
This provision obviously caused the card playing community to prioritize landing the deck’s two black jacks, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Once the gambling masses became acquainted with blackjack gameplay, operators slowly phased out the 10 to 1 payout and replaced it with a far more house-favorable flat rate of 3 to 2 on any ace + 10-value combination.
4 – Blackjack’s First Written Strategy Analysis Was Produced by the “Four Horsemen”
In 1953, looking to kill time during their downtime on base while serving in the U.S. Army, four soldiers decided to play some cards. The game was dealer’s choice poker, but when somebody asked to make the game blackjack, the caveat that an appointed dealer must hit on 16 and stand on 17 got the group thinking.
As it turned out, the four players — Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott — had more in common than their interest in blackjack. All four were college-educated mathematics majors holding Masters degrees from prestigious universities. Blessed with inquisitive minds, upper-level math skills, and the most advanced adding machines of their era, the foursome set out to determine the most mathematically sound optimal strategy for blackjack.
The analysis took two years of intense number crunching, but in 1956, their paper “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack” was published as part of the Journal of the American Statistical Association.
Known today as the “Four Horsemen of Aberdeen” — after the city where their Army base was located — Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, and McDermott were inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame as a group in 2008.
5 – This Classic Card Game Has Its Equivalent of Cooperstown
Yep, you read that last bit correctly. Blackjack has its own Hall of Fame.
The shrine to 21 is located inside the Barona Casino in San Diego, California, and it was founded in 2002. That year, 21 undisputed blackjack experts assembled to nominate the inaugural class, which included such luminaries as card counting originator and “Beat the Dealer” author Edward O. Thorp and acclaimed strategy analyst Stanford Wong.
Every year since, the game’s greatest players and theorists come together at the “Blackjack Ball,” a combination party and nominating committee that celebrates blackjack’s greatest accomplishments.
To see how the full list of Blackjack Hall of Fame inductees stacks up, check out the list of legends below.
Edward O. Thorp, Ken Uston, Stanford Wong
6 – A Hall of Famer Took Atlantic City Casinos for $15 Million in Just Five Months
In a five-month stretch spanning December 2010 and April 2011, a New Jersey advantage player named Don Johnson lived every blackjack enthusiast’s dream.
Armed with an eight-figure bankroll and the confidence of a true high-roller, Johnson arranged favorable deals with a trio of Atlantic City casinos. In exchange for Johnson betting $100,000 per hand, head honchos at the Borgata, Tropicana, and Caesars offered the whale “discounts” on his losses of up to 20%.
Playing under these player-friendly conditions, Johnson proceeded to clean the house’s clock, winning $6 million at the Tropicana, $5 million more from the Borgata, and another $4 million playing at Caesars, prompting all three venues to quit the game by declining to offer discounts.
For a game that only takes a few minutes to learn, blackjack sure does offer a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment and exploration. Learning the vagaries of house rule variations and deciphering the latest side bets ensures players can never rest on their laurels.
But while you continue your blackjack studies, don’t forget to find a little time to savor the game’s long history — and the many fun facts found buried within several centuries of play by gamblers all over the planet.