Like many classic card games, the origins of blackjack are shrouded in mystery and often dotted with several other stories that are very closely related to one another by circumstance. Fortunately, there are plenty of researchers who have invested their lives in putting that mystery into context. We can look to the evidence to determine that the lineage of the game reaches into Europe. Also, it seems that even in its earliest forms it was a game preferred by aristocrats who enjoyed a bit of risk and excitement and those who had the money to spend at the time.
The Romans and 31
One of the more interesting theories surrounding the origins of the game reaches back to the times of the Romans, who played the game with wooden blocks with differing numerical values. The Roman Empire had a fondness for gambling that was so much a part of their cultural identity that the game was played right outside of the coliseum. Over time, this version of the game evolved into a more recognizable game called ‘One and Thirty’ which was played with cards, with a minimum of three in the hand.
Twenty-One in Literature
Blackjack’s origins were closely tied to literature at the time. The author Miguel de Cervantes, who was a respected gambler as well as the man who brought Don Quixote into the world used the game in some of his most recognized tales. Amongst his many works was the story “Rinconete y Cortadillo”, which centered on a pair of expert cheats, whose game of choice was ventiuna (twenty-one). In Spain at this time the game was played using a baraja deck, a deck lacking cards 8-10. The story was published between 1601-1602, giving us a very precise point in the time line of blackjack’s evolution.
The French Casino
The first evidence of a game that resembled blackjack as we know it was during the 1700’s in France and at the time it was known as Vingt-et-Un or twenty-one. This name is a familiar phrase to many of us today as it is currently a synonym for the game. As to the origins of Vingt-et-Un itself, it is believed that the game came from Chemin de Fer, a classic game that was played throughout Europe in circles with a more refined sense of culture, another game that influenced the earliest version was the game French Ferme which was fashionable if a bit more rustic.
21 on the United States
The name blackjack is an American affectation that was the product of the gambling houses dotting the nation in 1789. At the time, these houses offered players bonuses, and the most important was a ten-to-one bonus payout if the winning hand contained the infamous ace of spade and either the Jack of clubs or the Jack of spades cards that would eventually become known as blackjack. As a result, the hand was referred to as blackjack by gamblers and those who ran the gambling houses at the time. Though the bonus and the color requirement disappeared the name stuck.