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Blackjack's elusive history

20 January 2006

Dear Mark,
How did blackjack come into being and arrive at the number 21? Why not 18 or 33? Also, where did the 3 to 2 payoff come from? Nick B.

Just about every card game has a unique history, but unfortunately historians cannot always uncover the full trace of a game. Blackjack is one such shadowy customer. It confounds some researchers even today.

Many scholars believe that blackjack was derived from French games such as "French Ferme" and "Chemin de fer." When a game resembling blackjack first appeared in French casinos around the early 1700s, it was called "vingt-et-un," meaning twenty-and-one, and most likely, Nick, the genesis of the number 21.

The word blackjack got its name from one of its winning hands, a jack an ace, both of spades. If a player was dealt these two cards, they not only won the hand, but also got an additional bonus.

When blackjack was first introduced in America, it wasn’t very popular, so in order to attract players, gambling houses of ill repute tried gimmick bonuses and payouts. One such reward was a 10-to-1 payoff if the player held the ace of spades and any black jack, hence the name blackjack, American style. The name "blackjack" stuck, even though the bonus payoffs were eventually eliminated.

Yet blackjack was still not as popular as either craps or roulette, so to stimulate interest, casino operators offered a 3-to-2 payoff for any two-card count of 21, and a 10-to-1 payout if the 21 consisted of the ace of spades and either the jack of spades or jack of clubs. Eventually the 10-to-1 payout was once again eliminated but the 3-to-2 payoff and the term" 21" remained as an alternative name for the game.

In 1919, tables manufactured in Chicago with the "Blackjack Pays Odds of 3 to 2" motto began appearing in illegal gambling joints throughout America. Then once gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, the popularity of blackjack grew to its No. 1 table-game status that it still holds today.

Dear Mark,
For a home game of poker, should "cards speak" or should the player call his or her hand? We’ve always played that a player must call his hand, but in casinos "cards speak" seems to rule. Please comment. David T.

Played almost exclusively at home, in gamblese you’re playing what’s called a "declare game", where a player calls the value of his or her hand to claim the pot. In most poker rooms, "cards speak," meaning, that the value of your hand is determined solely by your cards. You do not have to declare your hand to claim the part of the pot you win.

Personally, I believe "cards speak" is a fairer rule, even at a kitchen table setting, because the player with the best hand should win the pot. It’s easy enough, David, to pilfer the billfolds of newbie players, so I’m for cutting novices some slack when they overlook a potentially better winning hand. Even on my last outing, a 20-year battle-scarred veteran caught and declared a losing straight on the river that he completely overlooked his more powerful winning jack-high straight flush. The gentlemanly thing to do was to give him the pot anyway.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Some players prefer to rely on hunches and superstition. That's OK, but it's expensive. -- Basil Nestor, "Casino Player"

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Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.