Blackjack has been a mainstay of casinos worldwide for longer than anyone alive today can remember. The famed card game where a player plays a game of chance and wits against a dealer to see who can come closer to totalling 21 without exceeding it, is undoubtedly the most popular card game in any casino that is accessible to anyone.
The reasons why it is so popular aren’t much of a mystery. It’s an incredibly well balanced game that mixes skill and luck; simplicity and challenging gameplay. It’s the sort of game that’s easy to play and hard to master, but it also offers a far higher chance of winning than the vast majority of casino games. It’s also much more accessible than something like poker, which is both more exclusive and more difficult to get really good at.
It’s so part-and-parcel of the casino ecosystem that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist, but all things have origin stories and blackjack is certainly no exception. But where and when, exactly, did it begin?
A Matter of Some Debate
The actual origins of blackjack, like so many popular games from the distant past, is a matter of some debate. The general consensus seems to be that it arose from the gaming halls of France somewhere around 1700, as it was directly mentioned as such in the Spanish novel, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Blackjack was known at the time as “Vingt-et-un”, which means “21” – and, indeed, the game is still often known as 21:blackjack in some quarters.
Now, whether it actually debuted in France is another question entirely. Many scholars suggest that a game very, very similar to blackjack was played by Ancient Romans using wooden blocks. So, it’s certainly possible that it filtered down across the centuries to end up in those famous French gambling halls of the late middle ages.
21’s Rise in Popularity
Vingt-et-Un (21) was clearly a huge sensation in those French gaming halls, entirely regardless of where it originally came from. It was enjoyed by all who frequented these halls but was most famously a major favorite of royal courts and drew in the rich elites and socialites of France. This included the likes of King Louis XV’s court, where it was especially beloved by Louis’ mistress and not long after that by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, the infamous general and emperor of France during the height of the country’s military power.
Napoleon played the game regularly as a way of unwinding after a hard-fought victory against his enemies. Ironically, though, it was rumored that he prohibited such card games among his soldiers, believing them to be too much of a distraction.
With French colonialism in full swing at the time, it’s no surprise that the game soon found its way across the world, including the United States sometime in the early 18th century through the French colony of New Orleans, and about 140 other countries that enjoy the game to this very day
So, with all this said, where exactly did the game once known as Vingt-et-Un get its more familiar name from? It comes from the 18th century (the game’s peak in popularity before the modern age of legalized worldwide gambling) where casinos and gaming halls started to offer ‘special bets’ to draw in more customers.
One of the most notable of these was the 10 to 1 odds of a player drawing a Black Jack (the Jack of spades or clubs) with an Ace. This special bet was largely dropped, but the name stuck and all these years later, drawing a picture card of any sort and an ace at the start of a hand is called, as you probably know, “a blackjack”.