Historic Card Games by David Parlett
Ancient but flourishing family of card games

Ace & Jack Blackjack is the casino version of the game formerly known as Twenty-One and in that capacity is probably the most popular gambling game in the world. Furthermore, in one form or another, and under various alternative names, it has been so for nigh on 300 years. In fact, if you count its immediate ancestor Thirty-One as being essentially the same thing, it goes back more than five centuries.

The reasons for its popularity are not hard to find. On the surface it's a simple game: a child can pick it up in less than a minute. Deep down, it's one of the few casino banking games that a dedicated player can join in with something of an edge, so - provided you have the time and patience for complicated card-counting - you can play it at a profit, though for most of us it's more like hard work than real play.

Despite the player's theoretical edge, most people lack the patience or ability to do the calculations, so the game remains equally popular with casinos, who do very nicely out of it, thank you. The advent of on-line gaming can only have expanded its popularity in astronomic proportions. This doesn't make Blackjack uniquely a casino game. It has long been equally popular in private, domestic and even family circles, with children playing for matchsticks or paper-clips, and in between these levels it is well-known for its popularity with university students and the armed forces of all the western nations.

We'll start by defining some terms and describing the simplest form of the game. I will refer to it by its traditional and generic name "Twenty-One", except where I specifically mean the modern casino version.

Twenty-One is a banking game. That is, one in which the players all play against a single player, called the dealer, who also deals, rather than all against one another, so it's more like a series of simultaneous two-player games. This distinguishes banking games from vying games, like Poker, where the dealer is just one of the players and the outcome depends more on player interaction (notably that elusive concept of "bluff") than on the luck of the draw and playing in accordance with the probabilities.

In Twenty-One, as in most banking games, the dealer has the inbuilt advantage of being accorded a win in the case of tied hands. In domestic or informal circles the bank rotates among the players, or is awarded to a player dealt a particular winning hand, or can be purchased by a player off the current dealer. In casino play, the house puts up the bank and a house employee is the permanent dealer. This gives the house a permanent advantage, which is offset to some extent by the fact that the casino dealer has no choice of play but must follow house rules as to when to stand or draw more cards. Equally predictable play is performed by the automatic and impersonal "dealer" of Blackjack slot-machines, computer software and online casinos.

Twenty-One is first recorded in the 18th century under the name Vingt-Un or Vingt-et-Un, showing it to be of French provenance. In Britain and Ameria it was played under its French name throughout the 19th century, though at some time in England it was pronounced in such a way as to be occasionally spelt Van John. The Oxford English Dictionary describes this as university slang, but it can hardly have survived much into the 20th century, as the name by which it has been best known in Britain since the First World War is "Pontoon". This also sounds like a corruption of an English pronunciation of Vingt-(et)-un, via something like "vontoon"; but, as there is no normal process by which a V becomes a P, we may suspect the intrusion of some sort of jocular association with a temporary device for crossing a river. In other words, the officers played Bridge, while the "poor bloody infantry' had to make do with a pontoon. Pontoon remains the name of the informal and domestic British game, and, as a two-card count of 21 is called a pontoon, the term has come to be used for a prison term of 21 months (or years, if you're not careful).

In America the name Vingt-(et)-un was replaced by Blackjack early in the 20th century. The explanation for this is said to lie with a particular casino that paid extra for a natural consisting specifically of the spade Ace and a black Jack - which sounds plausible and is often repeated, though no one has yet offered any documentary evidence for it. John Scarne claimed that as early as 1919 the inscription "Blackjack pays odds of 3 to 2" was to be found on felt table layouts supplied by a Chicago gambling equipment distributor, but acknowledges only hearsay evidence for his assertion.

uplink downlink


More of them than meet the eye

A major problem in describing Twenty-One to anyone who doesn't already know it, such as a Martian emerging from a life-long coma, is that, despite its basic simplicity, it is played in so many different ways. Or perhaps this is not so surprising after all, though, as the hallmark of any simple gaming idea is that its very simplicity allows of creative variations of individual detail. The basic essentials of the game, albeit subject to elaborations and variations, are as follows.

The players place their initial bets, in accordance with agreed limits, and the dealer deals everyone two cards each. Whether they are dealt face up or face down is one of many variables.

The dealer then asks each player in turn whether they wish to be dealt additional cards. A player who is satisfied with their hand will "stand" (or "stick'). Otherwise, they may ask for another card ('hit'), and may keep doing so until they either stand or bust. If you bust, you throw his hand in and lose your stake.

Unless everyone else has bust, the dealer then reveals his cards and also either stands or draws additional cards until he either stands or busts. If he busts, he matches and pays the stakes of those who didn't. If not, he pays those with a higher count, and wins the stakes of those with a lower.

Probably no one actually lays the game in as basic a form as this, but for the purpose of this article there is no point in giving detailed rules of any particular variety: you can find all you want in any current card-game book or relevant online web site. It will be more useful to outline the range of variations and elaborations that you're likely to come across whether playing online, in a casino, or in a private game.

While the private game is played with a single 52-card pack, casinos use anything from two to eight such packs, typically six, all shuffled together and dealt from a box or "shoe". One reason for this is to save time otherwise lost on shuffling; another is to make it more difficult for players to keep count of the appearance of key cards. More often than not, a marker is inserted into the total pack at a point about ten per cent from the end so that not all the cards are dealt before being shuffled again, in order to make card-counting more difficult still. The reverse is the case with online Blackjack games, as cyber-shuffling is so easy that the pack is usually reshuffled after each deal.
In casino play, all cards are normally dealt face up, except the dealer's second card, but in the private game they are dealt face down.
In most varieties of the game you may double your stake after receiving your second card, but casinos may impose certain restrictions. For example, they may only allow you to double a total of 11 or 10, or sometimes 9; or only on hard hands; or they may only allow you to draw one more card. Similarly, the dealer, having privately looked at his second card, may call for all stakes to be doubled.
In most varieties of the game a player (but not the dealer) may, if initially dealt two cards of the same rank, split them into two separate hands, placig an equal stake on the second one and calling for a second card to each. This, too, may be subject to various restrictions.
Some casinos allow you to throw your hand in and retrieve half your stake after receiving two cards.
After facing his cards, a casino dealer has no free choice of play but must follow house rules, which typically require him to hit a soft 17 or under but stand on a hard 18 or over.
Buying and twisting
In the domestic British game of Pontoon, your first two cards are dealt face down, but you may then either "buy" or "twist' additional cards. To buy is to increase your stake and have the next card dealt face down; to twist is to leave your stake intact and have it dealt face up. Once you have started twisting you may not revert to buying.
A tie or push is when you have the same total as the dealer. In casino play there is little uniformity as to whether the result is a stand-off or a win for the dealer, and a trawl through descriptions of the game from the earliest known times suggest that this has always been the case.
A player's natural is typically paid off at 3:2 in casino play, but the traditional proportion is 2:1, and other variations may be encountered.
Special hands
Many informal games, but few casino variants, pay extra for special hands, such as a five-card trick (five cards totalling 21 or less), or a royal pontoon (a twenty-one consisting of 7-7-7, or 6-7-8).
uplink downlink


Reduced from Thirty-One

Vingt-et-un (Twenty-One) first appears as an upper class or at least socially respectable game in 18th-century France, perhaps around 1760. It is not mentioned in earlier editions of the Académie des Jeux, and its first appearance in an English Hoyle is that of 1800 edited by Charles Jones. But this is not the earliest appearance of all, for a much earlier literary reference places an almost identical predecessor in Spain at least a century before. In 1613 Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, published Novelas ejemplares, a collection of twelve short stories about various contemporary characters and social tensions. One such story is entitled Rinconete y Cortadillo, these being the names of a couple of rogues and vagabonds. One of the characters involved says:

With these [cards] I have gained my living at all the public houses and inns between Madrid and this place, playing at veintiuna [Twenty-One], and though they are dirty and torn, they are of wonderful service to those who understand them, for they shall never cut without leaving an ace at the bottom, which is one good point towards eleven, with which advantage, twenty-one being the game, he sweeps all the money into his pocket".

There are two points of interest to note here. The first is social, in that the context reveals the character of the game to be distinctly low class. This would explain why no account of its rules appears before the 18th century, as the earliest books entirely devoted to card games were necessarily written for the literate classes. The second is technical, in that an Ace counts only 1, not 11. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we may speculate that what brought the game into social prominence in the 18th century was the novel idea of ascribing to the Ace its alternative higher value of 11. This makes for a much more interesting game, as it becomes possible to reach 21 on just two cards instead of the three implied by Cervantes, which speeds the game up and gives the player an additional chance of drawing without busting.

So what about the game of Veintiuna itself? Do we now credit Spain with its invention and suggest that it dates from, let's say, the late 16th century? Probably not, because Twenty-One itself is clearly a natural evolutionary development of the much earlier game of Thirty-One that seems to have been popular throughout western Europe from the middle of the 15th century, making it one of the oldest gambling card games of all.

The technical identity of these two games, given only the reduction of the target count from 31 to 21, is proved by a description of it dating from the late 17th century. Some time in the 1670s a Nottinghamshire gentleman by the name of Francis Willughby kept a large notebook in which he recorded the descriptions of as many games as came his way, and, being of a mathematical turn of mind, he was particularly interested in card games. Thirty-One, which he calls "the first and most simple games of cards", heads the list. He explains that each player is dealt three cards from the top of the pack and has the option of either "sticking" or drawing as many more cards as he wishes until he either sticks or busts by exceeding a total face-count of 31 points. For this purpose face cards count 10 each and others their face value, Ace being 1 only (not an optional 11). A count of exactly 31 is called a "hitter" and wins a double stake unless the dealer also has one. As Willughby rightly notes:

All the art is to know when to stick. At 27, 28, 29 or 30 one may stick. But it is better to venture being out than to stick under 27, especially if therebe many players.

Thirty-One is first mentioned by name in a 1464 French translation of a sermon preached in 1440 by an Italian monk now known as St Bernadine of Siena (1330-1444), the patron saint of gamblers (and, curiously, of public relations personnel). Bernadine was famed for his preaching against gaming. He is said to have done so at Bologna in 1423 so persuasively that the populace consigned their cards in thousands to a public bonfire.

Thereafter, Thirty-One appears in almost every ephemeral list of currently popular games, such lists being contained mostly in sermons preached against gaming and in town ordinances or bye-laws specifying which games were and were not allowed to be played in public. Rabelais cites it as one of the many games played by his literary giant, Gargantua, in 1534 (Book I, chapter 22), and it appears under its German name (einunddreissig) in Fischart's Geschichtklitterung (1575), which is more of an expanded paraphrase than a literal translation of Gargantua. Rounding up more of the usual suspects in the historical context, we find it mentioned by Berni in his little book on Primiera (1526), and by Cardano in his classic Book on Games of Chance (1564). Cardano, indeed, confuses the issue by separately mentioning a game featuring significant totals ranging from 20 to 22 in increments of one-half, but the relevant passage is somewhat garbled in its original Latin, and the name of the game, Fluxus, suggests that it refers to ways of valuing a flush. (It may or may not be significant that in the Italian game of Primiera, a forerunner of Poker, an Ace itself is valued at 21. But that's another story.)

Daniel Martin, in Le Parlement Nouveau (1647) writes:

Show me the game thirty-one. It is an easy game for women and children. Cut the cards; we want to play one or two games. It is forbidden to see under the cut card pile, this is very important. Deal three cards to each player. the honours count ten, ace counts only one and not eleven otherwise it would be possible to have thirty-one points with three cards.

In its pure form, Thirty-One survived into the 18th century and even into the 19th, albeit perhaps only in books. In Facts and Speculations on the Origin and History of Playing-Cards (1848), William Chatto quotes from a commentary on A Kerry Pastoral of 1724, which maintains that "The favourite game of the Kerry men is said to have been One-and-Thirty", and goes on to observe that

as the intercourse between the two countries was frequent, and the favourite game in both was One-and-Thirty, it is not unlikely that the Irish obtained their knowledge of cards from the Spaniards.

Here, however, he seems to be confusing Thirty-One with the Veintiuna, or Twenty-One, mentioned by Cervantes.

Thirty-One seems to have lasted well into the 19th century, at least in France. It and Twenty-One are both covered in the same chapter of Le Salon des Jeux of about 1830. Here, Thirty-One is said to be played with Ace counting 1 or 11, a practice possibly borrowed from its more illustrious descendant. More remarkably, the editor comments that "Trente-et-un is more generally played than Vingt-et-un" (p.107), even though the bulk of the chapter is devoted to the latter.

The practice of drawing or playing cards up to 31 is not unique to Thirty-One, but from the earliest times found itself grafted on to other games. Drawing to 31 also forms the third part of several three-part gambling games dating from the 17th century, including the French Belle, Flux et Trente-et-un, and the English Bone-Ace described in both Cotton's Compleat Gamester of 1674 and Willughby's Book of Games (c 1665). It is also a feature of the 19th-century game of Commerce. Playing additively up to 31 is, of course, a principal component of Cribbage and its 16th-century ancestor Noddy. Cotton also describes a rather puerile game called Wit and Reason, in which one player takes all the red cards and one all the black; each in turn plays a card after the manner of Cribbage; and whoever brings the total above 31 loses.

uplink downlink


What's in a number?

Farmer (la Ferme)
The American game of Farmer and the German Pächter may be traced back to a French game called Ia Ferme, first described in Oudin's Recherches italiennes et francoises of 1640. It is not a rustic game, as sometimes claimed: "farm" is metaphorical for "bank", and the proprietors of Parisian gaming-houses were known as "farmers", a jocular term first applied to professional tax-collectors. Farm was played with a 45-card pack made by removing the Eights and all the Sixes except that of hearts, known as "le brillant". This choice of absentees will be understood from the point of the game, which was to make sixteen. The best result was a sixteen consisting of le brillant and a court or Ten. Next best was any other two-card sixteen, followed by one of three cards. A sixteen won the pool and relieved the current farmer (dealer) of his farm (bank). If no sixteen appeared, the highest point below it won the pool but not the farm. A player who bust paid the farmer 1 chip per point over 16.
Trente et Quarante
In Trente et Quarante (Thirty-Forty), also called Rouge et Noir (Red and Black), or R&N for short, the dealer deals cards face up in a row marked "rouge", then again to a row marked "noir", stopping each row when it reaches or exceeds a point of thirty-one. The players will have previously bet on which row will come closer to 31, or that the first card dealt will or will not match the colour of the winning row, or both. It first appeared in France around 1650, was popular in English card clubs in the early 19th century, and is still played in some French casinos. It never became popular elsewhere, though, and is diminishing in France, probably because of its low house percentage, in that the bank's only certain win is a 31-point tie.
With face-cards counting zero, Macao is best thought of as a one-card version of Baccara and may be possibly ancestral to it. The dealer deals one card each. Anyone dealt a Nine, Eight or Seven reveals their card, and if the dealer cannot beat it he pays them respectively three, two or one times their stake. The others can then stick or draw a second card, and all cards are revealed. A player with a count above nine is bust and loses. If the dealer busts he pays those who do not, otherwise he pays those with a high non-bust count than himself. Taking its name from that Portuguese corner of the Chinese world once known as the Monte Carlo of the east, Macao dates from the late 18th century and is the game that ruined Beau Brummell, famed London dandy and friend of the Prince Regent, in the early 19th. (It is probably not to be identified with a card game called Mack recorded from 1548.)
Spelt Baccarat in British and Nevadan casinos, Baccara has given rise to more historical misinformation than almost any other card game. One online site would have you believe that "The word baccarat is derived from the Italian word baccara, meaning zero" and that "It has long held the attention of gamblers and an early version was played with cards from a Tarot deck back in the Middle Ages". In fact, the Italian for zero is "zero", and Baccara first appeared in France no earlier than the middle of the 19th century, and in Italy shortly after. (That writer may have been confusing "baccara" with "bagatelle".) Like Macao, it looks as if it was derived from Vingt-et-Un or Twenty-One by the same sort of reductionist process that derived Twenty-One from Thirty-One, though it is quite possible that it independently derives from a game already played in the Orient, like the Japanese Kabu. The origin of its name is unknown, though one ingenious etymologist relates it to a Provençal expression bacarra meaning "hopeless" or "nothing doing". A baccara is indeed a worthless hand, or more specifically one worth zero, but which word came first remains to be explored. Ace counts 1 only and face cards zero. Each player is dealt one card and may call for another. The winning hand is that most closely approaching a total of 9, for which purpose any total above 9 counts only as its last digit. (For example, 6 and 10 counts 6, not 16.) There are three main varieties of play. In Baccara à un tableau, or Chemin de Fer ('Chemmy'), any player may act as dealer-dealer; in Baccara à deux tableaux or Baccara-Banque, the casino holds the bank and provides the dealer/player; and in Punto Banco, the Spanish-American version played in Nevada, the casino holds the bank but players may act the part of the dealer by dealing cards and playing on its behalf. This makes them feel important and is quite safe from the casino's point of view, as the dealer is obliged to follow choice-defeating rules of play.
Quinze is a two-player equivalent of Twenty-One played to a point of fifteen. Ace counts 1 only, not 11. The choice of 15 is logical, in that the mean value of a single card is almost exactly seven-and-a-half. Its first English-language mention is dated 1716 and it maintained a certain popularity throughout the 18th century.
This is in fact the title of an Italian game (Sette e mezzo) played with the Italian 40-card pack lacking Eights, Nines, and Tens. Ace counts 1, numerals face value, and face cards one-half each. The winning total, obviously, is seven and a half, and a player who gets this on two cards - a Seven and a face - takes over the bank. It is more of a club or domestic game than a casino game, despite the bank's very high advantage. An equivalent game played with the full 52-card pack is called Onze-et-demie, from its target score of eleven and a half.
Similar face-count games are played with various local packs throughout the world. Here are a few.
Kvitlakh or Quitlok
A Jewish game of Central European origin apparently derived from Twenty-One but using cards of a unique design. Piatnik, the cardmakers of Vienna, still produce a pack called Quitli. It contains twenty-four cards in two series of numbers from 1 to 12. The object is to reach but not exceed a point of 21, for which purpose a Twelve may count anything from 9 to 12 at its holder's discretion. Deuces and Elevens are special cards and appropriately decorated, as a pair of either rank wins outright. The design of some of these cards suggests an origin in 18th century Germany.
A Japanese game using a distinctive pack deriving ultimately from the Portuguese, though now heavily modified. It resembles Baccara in setting as its target a point ending in 9.
An Indian game played mainly by women, Naqsh employs Ganjifa cards hinges on a point of 17.
uplink downlink


A feminine favourite

As we have already noted, Vingt-et-un became a major game in 18th-century France, perhaps owing its attractiveness to the novelty of counting an Ace as 1 or 11 ad lib and correspondingly reducing the number of cards dealt from three (as in Thirty-One) to two, with the further possibility of being dealt a winning hand immediately. It is recorded as being Napoleon's favourite card game, especially when in exile on Elba and, subsequently, St Helena. (Contrary to popular legend, he is not known to have played any form of solitaire, and it would certainly not have been in character for him to do so.) His example notwithstanding, however, the new game achieved especial popularity among the ladies, and it is to them that we owe many of the earliest references.

Vingt-un was reputedly the favourite game of Mme du Barry, the unfortunate mistress of Louis XV. Born Jeanne Becu in 1743, the daughter of a butcher, her beauty led her to enjoy a chequered career before she met Louis at age 25. She was unmarried at the time, and, in order to comply with the peculiar conventions of the French court, was required to marry someone else before she could become the royal mistress. For this purpose she chose her unofficial lover's brother, Guillaume du Barry. Thus qualified, she took up her new post of acknowledged royal mistress, and, transcending her humble origins, subsequently proved a patron of artists and intellectuals besides becoming a friend of Voltaire. The death of Louis in 1774 led to a dramatic decline in her fortunes, and, by a somewhat roundabout route, she was eventually accused of working against the revolutionary government and guillotined in 1793.

One of the earliest English references to Vingt-et-un occurs in the diary of the Duchess of Northumberland in 1772 (7 June, to be precise), where she reports herself as playing "Vingt et un till supper-time". In 1790 a certain A. C. Bower noted (in his diary or correspondence - the Oxford English Dictionary is unclear which) "I was sat down with every Miss in Winchester to play Vingt une". But for one of the best commentaries on its status at this period we turn to one of the best novelists of this or any other period of English literature. Jane Austen refers to card games so often and so percipiently in her works as to show that must herself have been a keen player. Here's what she has to say about the game in her unfinished novel The Watsons, written about 1804-5:

"What's your game?" - cried he, as they stood round the table.
"Speculation I believe," said Elizabeth - "My sister recommends it, and I fancy we all like it. I know you do, Tom."
"It is the only round game played at Croydon now," said Mrs Robert - "we never think of any other. I am glad it is a favourite with you."
"Oh! me!" cried Tom. "Whatever you decide on, will be a favourite with me. - I have had some pleasant hours at speculation in my time - but I have not been in the way of it now for a long while. - Vingt-un is the game at Osborne Castle; I have played nothing but vingt-un of late. You would be astonished to hear the noise we make there. - The fine old, lofty drawing-room rings again. Lady Osborne sometimes declares she cannot hear herself speak. - Lord Osborne enjoys it famously - he makes the best dealer without exception that I ever beheld - such quickness and spirit! he lets nobody dream over their cards - I wish you could see him overdraw himself on both his own cards - it is worth anything in the world!"
"Dear me!" - cried Margaret, "why should not we play at vingt-un? - I think it is a much better game than Speculation. I cannot say I am very fond of Speculation."
Mrs Robert offered not another word in support of the game. - She was quite vanquished, and the fashions of Osborne Castle carried it over the fashions of Croydon.

Vingt-et-un is the game particularly associated with the first, or first well-known, women gamblers of the Old West. One of the earliest was a certain Madame Simone Jules, an attractive, dark-haired woman in her twenties who was employed from around 1850 as a roulette croupier at San Francisco's Bella Union casino. She was of some refinement, a novelty which led to sufficient success for other casinos to start employing women in order to compete. Refinement apart, she was also known as or suspected of being a cardsharp, with a particular interest and ability in Twenty-One.

She seems to have disappeared mysteriously in 1854, and her story might well have been forgotten had it not been for the coincidental appearance later that year of a strikingly similar woman calling herself Madame Eleanore Dumont, who descended from a stagecoach at Nevada City to take up a chastely solitudinous residence in a top hotel. Within a week she had rented a room on Broad Street and set up a Vingt-et-Un table, which she ran herself, for the entertainment of local gold miners. She was immediately perceived to be an attractive, dark-haired woman in her twenties, and the more observant and better-travelled denizens of that city might have commented that the traces of a fine, downy hair on her upper lip, which in later life were to grow so prominent as to earn her the undesirably distinctive nickname "Madame Moustache", had also been a feature of the erstwhile Simone Jules. Nor was the distinctive element of refinement lacking. Madame Dumont insisted that her clients remove their hats but not their jackets and should neither brawl nor swear in her presence, and firmly but charmingly discouraged any form of intimacy with the bank (herself). So charming was she that her establishment prospered, enabling her to expand into larger and plusher premises.

In a couple of years, however, the pannings grew thin, with a corresponding effect on her takings, and she found herself obliged to seek new horizons. She subsequently became a more or less itinerant gambler, began to fill out and to lose her looks, and within 20 years or so was running a two-storey establishment with a casino on one floor and a brothel on the other. She never regained her former glory -, for that matter, her former chastity -and is said to have descended into unprofitable liaisons with various untrustworthy paramours. In 1879 her body was fished from the river about a mile out of Bodie. The cause was poisoning and the verdict suicide. It is said that she had heard herself referred to as "Madame Moustache" once too often.

uplink downlink


Fun for all the family

On the European side of the Atlantic throughout the 19th century Vingt-(et)-un remained popular primarily as a somewhat genteel family or parlour or "round" game -that is, one for no specific number of players. You can get the flavour of the game as it was then perceived from Cassell's Book of Indoor Amusements, Card Games and Fireside Fun (1881), which introduces it as follows:

"Of all round card games, there is not one more deservedly popular than the one so well known as Vingt-Un (i.e. Twenty- One). Although much of the success attending it depends much upon chance, the exercise of no small amount of care and judgment is required of the players, in consequence of which the real interest of the game is greatly intensified".

Such domestic popularity was particularly the case in Britain, which, until fairly recently, has never sanctioned the existence of public casinos. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, the big money players have been confined to private clubs, making such play possible only to bona fide members. This is not to say that the game was played only by the gentility. On the contrary, since the urge to gamble is no respecter of classes, and Vingt-(et)-Un is a quick and easy and jolly way of doing it with cards, it was widely played wherever large quantities of men found themselves living in one another's company, such as schools, universities, pubs, working men's clubs, and (especially) the armed forces. It is very difficult to follow the evolution of games during periods of upheaval, as the second decade of the 20th century uniquely was, but it seems to be around the time of the First World War that the distinctively British game of Pontoon evolved its most characteristic features, such as five-card tricks and royal flushes, and, above all, its most distinctive name.

In 1981 a poll was commissioned by Waddington's Playing Card Company (now defunct) to discover what were currently the most popular card games in Britain. When asked what card game respondents had last played, Pontoon came third with a response of 26 per cent, following Whist with 28 and Rummy with 32 per cent.

Meanwhile, on the American side, Vingt-(et)-Un had become Blackjack by the start of the 20th century, and under that name remained a staple of casino play, though not occupying the prominent position that it holds today. Perhaps because of the stabilising influence of casinos, the private game did not develop as distinctively as the equivalent British Pontoon. John Scarne, though of dubious authority in many aspects of the subject, was on trustworthy home ground when he observed (in Scarne on Cards, p.277) "It is a matter of record that this game was played more than any other in World War I. My own observation was the World War II armed forces' most popular card game". Surprisingly, Blackjack did not figure in a survey conducted by the United States Playing-Card Company in 1946, which discovered the most popular games to be, first, Bridge, then Pinochle, Rummy, Five Hundred, Poker, Whist, Solitaire, and Hearts. (The Canasta craze had yet to break.) However, it's interesting to note the order of events in John Crawford's 1953 book entitled "How to be a consistent winner in the most popular card games", namely: Bridge, Poker, Gin Rummy, Canasta, Pinochle, Blackjack, Hearts, Crib, and Pitch.

By this time, however, Las Vegas had become transformed from a desert outpost to a gambler's paradise, and Blackjack was about to be subjected to a technical assault that was to see the casino game dominate the attention of all who also played the private game, and this to such an extent as nowadays even to threaten the lovably eccentric British game of Pontoon. This assault coincided with the introduction of card-counting.

uplink downlink


It's the Thorp that counts

A major attraction of Blackjack as a gambling game is the possibility, well known even before being so genteelly pointed out in Cassell's Book of things and whatnots (see above), of being able to supply sufficient intelligence to one's play as to reduce the dealer's advantage to a minimum -especially in the home game, where the dealer has more freedom of play, so that a clever player can, in the long run, always overcome a relatively naïve dealer.

The simplest way of applying mathematical intelligence to the game is to know what the odds are in any given situation. The essentials of what is known as "Basic Strategy" can be formulated and tabulated in such terms as:

If dealt A-7: Stand if dealer has 2, 7 or 8; double 3, 4, 5 or 6; otherwise hit.
If dealt 9-9: Stand if dealer has 7, 10 or Ace, otherwise split.

Rules of this type are particularly valuable in casino play, where the dealer has no option but to comply with house rules. They can be printed on a card, and most casinos don't object to anyone referring to their Basic Strategy Card before deciding on a course of action.

Such a card is one of several that came free with every copy of the first edition of Edward O Thorp's epoch-making book "Beat the Dealer" in 1962. Thorp, a young mathematics professor at MIT with a particular interest in probability theory, had started exploring detailed implications of a fact that had certainly struck players before but had to wait for the advent of computer analysis -now available to modern young mathematics professors -before it could be developed into an accurate workable system. This critical fact is the nature of Blackjack as a non-replacement game. That is, so long as cards are dealt from the top of the pack, and it is not shuffled before the last card has been dealt, the composition of the pack changes with each fresh deal, since the proportion of high to low cards that it contains is constantly changing. Given that high cards tend to favour the player (because they increase his chances of getting a natural), and low cards the dealer (because they decrease his chances of busting), Thorp had long known that by counting the appearance of key cards you would know when the composition of the pack favoured the player (so bet hard) and when the dealer (so draw back).

Players before Thorp had recognised the fact that the composition of the pack becomes more intelligible the closer to the end of the pack the cards are being dealt from. So-called end-play strategy is thought to have underpinned the success of a legendary figure known only as "the little dark-haired guy from Southern California" who had made a killing in Reno some time in the 40s or 50s, and probably that of the grotesque character known only as Greasy John, from his habit of eschewing all company at the tables other than a huge bag of very greasy fried chicken. He had no trouble playing alone. As Thorp explains: "His profanity and drinking drove off all but the hardiest of women players," and, "since [his] hands were generally dripping with chicken fat, the cards soon became too oily to handle comfortably. Even though the decks were changed frequently, the grease was sufficient to drive away the men players".

More advanced than mere end-play was a system based on card-counting, in which Thorp had been preceded by some analysis reported by Roger Baldwin et al in the Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1956 and subsequently published as a spiral-bound offprint. Thorp also acknowledged an eccentric practical predecessor called Benjamin F Smith, once a well-known figure at the Vegas tables under the title "System Smitty". According to a mutual acquaintance who saw Smitty's notebooks, Smitty had spent several years playing out 100,000 hands, in an effort to determine the proper standing numbers when a Ten-count was employed. Other predecessors in the counting stakes are listed in Arnold Snyder's admirable "Big Book of Blackjack" (New York, 2006, ISBN 158042155-5).

For all his success, Smitty's system - and Baldwin's too, if truth be admitted - exhibited flaws resulting partly from the nature of the system and partly from lack of the sort of computer analysis that Thorp was to enjoy at MIT in 1960. This showed, in particular, that a shortage of aces, nines and ten-counts gave the house an edge, while those of other ranks favoured the player. With all the fives gone from a single pack, the player's edge with best strategy was 3.29 per cent, while the highest proportion of ten-counts in play could raise it to a whopping 3.94 per cent.

"I thought that the strategy on counting Fives might make an interesting paper at an upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Mathematical Society in Washington, D.C.", Thorp recalls. It did indeed, and it interested a lot more than mere mathematicians. The title of the abstract alone was enough to put Thorp's name on the front pages before the paper had been delivered; afterwards, it made him the centre of a virtual media storm.

The next logical step was to test the system, and the publicity so far engendered was enough to ensure no shortage of potential backers. Bankrolled by a couple of millionaires for whom the novelty of profit-making had somehow never quite worn off, Thorp and his investors betook themselves for a nine days' wonder of play at Reno, accompanied by a former gambling control agent to keep an eye on the accuracy - or honesty - of the dealers. Easing himself gradually into the tens-counting technique at a variety of venues and tables, he soon found any residual doubts vanishing away, as witnessed by the rapidity of his profit-making and the increasing puzzlement of the dealers and pit bosses. Of course, they had seen system-players before; but this one evidently exhibited the uncanny knack of knowing exactly what he was doing, and doing it right.

Chapter 6 of Beat The Dealer, with section headings "Preparations  - The $ 10,000 bankroll  - The warm-up - A hundred here, a thousand there - Nine hundred dollars bet on a single hand - The twenty-five dollar minimum game - Seventeen thousand dollars in two hours", is a joy to read for its description of the bemused reactions of dealers, pit bosses and house managers, much more of a joy than Thorp himself can ever have experienced in slogging his way through such a gruelling suite of mathematical contortions.

No account of Thorp's discoveries would be complete without some mention of the bizarre response of self-professed gambling expert John Scarne. In a footnote to his 1962 book, Thorp took to task the author of Scarne's Complete Guide to Gambling (1961) for plagiarising some Blackjack probabilities from previously published mathematical papers and for apparently assuming an unlikely situation in which the player follows the same strategy as the dealer (always stand on 17 or more, always draw to 16 or less, never split or double down). Scarne, not unnaturally piqued, responded "Believe it or not, Professor Edward O. Thorp's unbeatable winning Black Jack [sic] system - which made him world famous because of the ignorance about gambling of the national communications media and various mathematicians - is really not a system at all... The best thing this strategy can possibly do for the player is to cut down the house's favourable 5.90 percent to about 3.90 percent." In collaboration with the Sands Casino, Scarne issued a press release challenging Thorp and his backers to a publicly staged $100,000 winner-take-all Blackjack freeze- out to be held at the Sands, insisting that Thorp's card counting strategy would lose at the rate of 3 percent.

In the event, neither this match, nor any other challenge issued by Scarne to the mathematical players, ever came off, which from so many points of view is something of a pity. But we can understand Thorp's reluctance to enter into a contest in which Scarne, well known for his prowess as a card mechanic, insisted on not so much beating the dealer as being the dealer.

uplink downlink


Not the easiest of skills

Thorp's success led to an explosion of interest in the possibilities of card-counting. Suddenly everybody wanted to be in on the act of developing and refining systems. In fact, Thorp's system, based as it is on not just counting significant cards but continually recalculating the current proportion of tens to non-tens, and then applying a strategy that varies with equally varied conditions, not to mention counting Aces on the side, is not the easiest of skills to pick up for anyone of lesser mathematical skill than its founder. In 1963 Harvey Dubner, another computer wiz, revealed a simpler counting system which would go on to form the basis of the popular and successful Hi-Lo count. At its simplest, Hi-Lo involves counting plus 1 as each of the numeral cards 2 to 6 appears, minus 1 for aces and ten-cards, and zero for 7-8-9. When the count is positive the composition of the undealt portion of the pack favours the player, when negative the dealer. In more advanced developments, certain cards are valued at plus or minus 2 instead of 1, and more advanced still are the unbalanced or asymmetrical counts which do not sum to zero.

Further advances on a theme of beating the dealer were made in the 1970s by experimenters in the concept of team play, which Thorp had already touched on (but not tried) in a section of his book entitled The Enormous Advantages of Teaming Up with Other Players. Among these are that pooling their money gives the players a bigger bankroll to work with; they get a good deal more time and a greater variety of tables to play at; they can share useful information among themselves, especially as to which tables to gravitate towards or away from; and it's less easy for dealers to spot the card-counters. One of the first to put this into practice was Al Francesco, who trained other players to act as "spotters" at different casino tables and to report when the cards were most favourable to the player. Francesco's successful practice kick-started the remarkable career of mathematical whiz- kid Ken Uston , who with his partners won hundreds of thousands of dollars in Las Vegas in the early 1970s and wrote Million Dollar Blackjack in 1982.

A series of blacklistings by individual casinos forced Uston to turn his attentions elsewhere, and with the legalisation of casinos in Atlantic City in 1976 this became his new venue. Once again he was met with a similar series of blacklistings. This time, however, he went on the attack and countered by filing suit against Resorts International, claiming that casinos do not have the right to bar skilled players. In Uston v. Resorts International Hotel Inc., 445 A.2d 370 (N.J. 1982), the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled that Atlantic City casinos did not have the authority to decide whether skilled players could be barred. To date, Atlantic City casinos are not allowed to bar card counters. Some players subsequently argued that Uston's legal victory actually worsened blackjack in Atlantic City because casinos responded to the court ruling by taking countermeasures to reduce the effectiveness of card-counting - which might be thought a somewhat naïve judgment, as it was obvious that casinos were not going to take any potential loss of livelihood lying down.

One of the longest-running Blackjack teams was founded by Thomas Hyland in 1979. In the space of a few months its original four members converted their basic bankroll of $16,000 into one of over $50,000, taking advantage of the early surrender rule then being offered in Atlantic City casinos. In an interview with Steve Bourie in the 2004 edition of the American Casino Guide, Hyland says "The main advantage of having a team is that it really smoothes out the fluctuations. I mean, if you play by yourself, it's hard to get enough hours to assure a win. You could play for a year or so, play perfectly, and still be behind. If you have a six or seven man team that's virtually impossible. The other thing is that you can bet a lot higher by pooling your money. If five people have $100,000 you can bet as if you all had $500,000 and that's a huge advantage. There's also a sense of camaraderie and team spirit. I've been fortunate to play with some reallycreative people. You sit around and bounce different ideas around and you come up with some really good ideas that you wouldn't have come up with on your own."

uplink downlink


Will science and technology put the boot in?

"Whether the game as played in honest casinos will ultimately cease to exist altogether", wrote Edward O Thorp in 1962, "or whether there will be a transformation in the rules until they are much different than they are now, we hesitate to guess... Will the rapid development of modern science and technology continue to produce winning systems for various gambling games?"

Thorp himself did not stay for an answer. As somebody once said, he probably made more from Beat The Dealer than from actually playing the game, and, now president of Edward O. Thorp & Associates in Newport Beach, he has made a significant fortune by applying his knowledge of probability to the stock market, particularly by discovering and exploiting a number of pricing anomalies in the securities markets.

Given the phenomenal growth in computer power, the number and complexity of card-counting systems that have been developed since the dealer was first supposedly beaten has increased, is increasing, and probably ought to be diminished. Among those listed on the web site of the Blackjack Strategy Advisor are, in more or less chronological order:

More elaborate than card-counting is the shuffle-tracking system developed in the 1990s by Arnold Snyder and expounded in The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker's Cookbook (2003). Shuffle tracking involves remembering where excess large or small cards are placed in the discard pile, using that information to predict where they will end up after the next shuffle, and cutting in such as way as to profit from the information. The good news is that shuffle tracking is much harder than card-counting for dealers and pit bosses to spot; the bad news is that it's much harder to become sufficiently expert at it to take advantage of its effectiveness. As Snyder points out, if you think the tray has about 118 cards and there actually are 127, you need more practice before you're ready to let yourself loose with it.

The effect on casino managements has been inevitable. For every aspect of the game that counters and system-developers can get a handle on, casino operators can usually find some way of greasing it without resorting to such downright dishonest methods as rigging the pack. End-play strategy and a good deal of card-counting was countered by increasing the number of packs in play and shuffling them well before the end - even, in some cases, in response to any suspicious move on the part of a known or potential card-counter. Changing the rules is another effective way of countering all but the most sophisticated mathematicians. This is not so much a case of each casino changing its rules, conditions and pay-off from one night to another, so much as not all playing exactly the same way, thus resulting in the variety of details outlined earlier in this article. Experiments have been made with the continuous shuffling machine, which randomly inserts discards back in the deck to produce the effect of playing against a freshly shuffled shoe with every hand, but these have not proved as effective as had been hoped.

If all else fails, the pit bosses can invite players to try a different game, or take their business elsewhere - which is only the polite end of the wedge culminating in outright barring from entry. As Michael Koink explained in Blackjack Stories [web page now untraceable], "Casinos are considered private businesses and by law are allowed to determine whom they will serve. According to one Las Vegas casino executive, 'No matter what you bet, if you play expertly you're perceived as a threat. We've got plenty of customers who don't play well. We don't need to have our tables filled with counters.' To that end, he explains, the casinos employ pit bosses trained to recognise expert play, surveillance crews armed with computer software that mimics the betting patterns of a counter and, most remarkable, a private detective agency, Griffin Investigations, which maintains and distributes profiles of known counters to their casino clients. "For players like Ron, walking into virtually any casino in the world without an elaborate disguise is nearly impossible".

Recognising the counters is all part of the game, leading Tommy Hyland, one Christmas Eve in Atlantic City before Ken Uston had won his case, to dress up as Santa Claus, so "they wouldn't know who it was, [and] wouldn't be able to arrest me for trespassing. I was just playing and everybody was coming up to me... Hey Santa Claus, how're you doing?". Very satirical!

Asked whether he thought casinos should really let you play if you can beat them, Hyland returned: "Absolutely. They have the choice as to whether or not they want to offer the game. Or, they could offer only continuous shuffle blackjack, or they could change the rules to make naturals (two-card 21s) pay even money, or pay six-to-five, like they're doing now in some places. These measures would virtually prevent anyone from getting an edge at blackjack. They should be able to put up whatever game they want, but they should have to smile and deal; and that should be the end of it. They shouldn't be able to only deal to drunks or people that aren't too sharp."

On the other hand, casino operators can make up their losses by playing up to the non-systematic big spenders who can be counted upon to restore their profits. According to Max Rubin, pseudonymous author of A Guide to Free Las Vegas Vacations (Huntington Press, 1994), they are prepared to throw in freebies amounting to 40 per cent of the gambling losses of players they can rely upon to - however unwittingly - play ball.

But the effect of system and counter-system on the persistence and popularity of Blackjack has been expansive. One might hazard a guess that what keeps casino Blackjack popular is the fact that so many people who know that substantial profits, if not fortunes, are to be made from the game are not clever enough to apply the systems accurately or self-disciplined enough to do consistently - or even, high-rollers or "whales" like the late Kerry Packer, so loaded that it doesn't matter to them whether they win or lose. Add to this the fantastic growth of on-line casino play, and its hard to see the game ever falling out of favour.