The history of blackjack and why it so popular

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Jeffrey | Poker Strategy

Very few entertainment activities truly stand the test of time, with public preferences rarely remaining the same for too long.
However, some popular pastimes have been around for hundreds of years and are still going strong today.

Blackjack undoubtedly falls into this category, with historians reporting that a written reference to the game was made by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes in the early 1600s.

Later mentions of the game were recorded in Spain and France, with the first official records of blackjack found in the latter country in 1768.

Blackjack rules later appeared in Great Britain in 1800, and the game soon found its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.

Blackjack continued to grow in popularity after that, becoming a staple part of brick-and-mortar casino venues in the US and Europe.

In 1956, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott published a paper in the Journal of the American Statistical Association titled ‘The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack’.

This was the first mathematically sound optimal blackjack strategy and became the foundation of future efforts to make a profit at the game.

Their work caused a sensation in research circles, most notably when tested by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor of Mathematics Edward O Thorp.

He tested their strategy on the university’s IBM computers and found it to be accurate ‘within a couple of hundredths of a percentage point’.

Thorp subsequently formulated the first-ever card counting strategy and used it to great effect in several Las Vegas casinos.

His work inspired many players to follow in his footsteps, with the infamous MIT blackjack team one of the most notable examples.

The introduction of online blackjack games around the turn of the century saw a new wave of players attempt to adopt perfect strategy in the game.

Fast forward to today and blackjack remains one of the most popular entertainment activities around, with millions of people regularly playing online and in land-based venues.

Types of blackjack

Blackjack’s appeal is largely rooted in its simplicity, with each variant requiring players to get as close to a total of 21 with your cards without going over that figure.

If the player gets closer to 21 than the dealer or the dealer busts, the player wins the hand. As simple games go, it’s tough to find something to beat blackjack.

There are several different types of blackjack, each of which involves the player making a series of decisions after being dealt their starting hand.

American blackjack is the most commonly played variant of the game and is generally played with up to eight decks of cards in land-based casinos.

This version is classified as a ‘hole card game’, which allows the dealer to check for blackjack on ace and 10s, thus saving the player potential side bet losses later in the hand.

By contrast, in the European version of the game the dealer receives the second card after the player’s hand has been completed.

Another rule unique to this variant is if the dealer gets a natural blackjack it beats any other 21-value hand. Players can also only double down on hands with a value of nine, 10 or 11.

Other popular variants include Vegas Strip blackjack and Multihand blackjack, each of which have subtle rule differences that set them apart from the American and European versions.

Why blackjack is so popular

As mentioned earlier, blackjack is popular because it is easy to understand. However, there are plenty of other reasons that contribute to the game’s success.

Most importantly, blackjack offers players the best chance of consistently making a profit when compared to other casino games.

Every casino operator builds an edge into every game, which effectively guarantees that their business will be profitable over a sustained period.

The house edge does not prevent players from winning, but it does ensure that the casino can keep its head above water.

Lowering the edge the casino holds over you improves your chances of winning, and this can easily be achieved in blackjack.

Employing perfect basic strategy reduces the house’s edge to just 0.5 percent, thus significantly increasing your chances of winning.

This element feeds into another reason why blackjack has stood the test of time as a mainstream entertainment activity – it is a game of skill.

Whereas games such as roulette and slots rely purely on luck, blackjack players have an element of control over their destiny in each hand.

The decisions a player makes during a game directly affect the outcome – choosing the right times to make certain moves is in your hands.

Another key factor in blackjack’s popularity is its fast-paced nature. Whereas poker games can take hours to complete, you know the outcome in blackjack in a matter of seconds.

Blackjack is also an affordable game to play. Whether you are a newbie or a high-roller, there will be tables available to suit your budget.

The social nature of blackjack has also helped it to stay in vogue, with the game providing the perfect platform to interact with others at the table.

It can be a great way for friends and family to socialise, either by visiting a land-based casino together or meeting up in a digital environment.

The final word

Given that it has been around for hundreds of years, it is impossible to deny blackjack’s status as a popular entertainment activity.
Its fortunes have clearly been helped in recent years by the shift towards online play, which has introduced the game to a new audience.
With live online games becoming increasingly prevalent in recent times, blackjack is unlikely to lessen in popularity over the coming years.

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