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Learn about the history and origins of Blackjack below

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Blackjack History

Blackjack may be one of the most popular casino games today, but its origins are still the subject of debate.

The first written account of a game with similar rules can be traced back to 17th century Spain, when Miguel de Cervantes wrote a series of novellas called Novelas Ejemplares. One of the stories was about two characters who played a game called ventiuna, which is Spanish for 21. It didn’t have the rules of blackjack, but there were clear similarities. The story was written between 1601 and 1602, implying that people had been playing ventiuna even before then.

Some historians believe that the game we know as blackjack today was first played in French casinos towards the end of the 17th century. It was called Vingt-et-Un (21), and derived from Chemin de Fer and French Ferme, two card games that were popular in France at the time.

There is also a theory that the ancient Romans may have played an early from of blackjack. The Romans enjoyed gambling and played a game where wooden blocks held different numerical values.

While it is unclear who invented blackjack, the game as we know it today really began when the state of Nevada legalised gambling in 1931. It was still known as 21 and it quickly became popular in the first Las Vegas casinos. To attract more players, some casinos introduced a special rule: a hand with either of the black jacks (jack of spades or jack of clubs), with the ace of spades would win at odds of 10-1 – hence the name blackjack. This rule didn’t stick around for long but the new name caught on.

Films and TV Shows That Feature Blackjack

The nature of blackjack, with so much of the game dependent on the reveal of the next card, is inherently dramatic. And that's led to some unforgettable scenes in film and television.

The plot of the 2008 film 21 revolved around blackjack – as the title implies. It was based on the true story of the MIT blackjack team and starred Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne. A group of students learned the rules of blackjack, were trained to count cards and used their new skills to win millions at Vegas casinos. Of course, it didn’t go quite that smoothly.

The Hangover was a huge success when it was released in 2009. It focuses on a group of friends who head to Las Vegas for a bachelor party and the wild antics that happened once they get there. After finding themselves owing a huge debt to a local gangster, they attempt to win back the money by counting cards in blackjack.

The film brought in a box-office total of over $467.5 million – still a record for any R-rated comedy in the United States. It also became the highest-selling comedy on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Blackjack was integral to the plot of Rain Man too, which won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay in 1989. Dustin Hoffman also won Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant. Babbitt heads to Las Vegas with his brother (played by Tom Cruise), where he counts cards to win money on the blackjack table.

Literature That References Blackjack

Blackjack, or its predecessors, have inspired literature ever since Miguel de Cervantes wrote about ventiuna back in the 17th century.

One of the most notable books about blackjack is Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich, which became a New York Times bestseller and was later adapted into the film 21.

It is classified as non-fiction, though it contains a disclaimer stating that many names and locations have been changed, while some events or characters are composites of several events or people. Despite the disclaimer, The Boston Globe alleged that it was “not a work of nonfiction in any meaningful sense of the word”, claiming that many of the events did not happen or were greatly exaggerated.

The Blackjack Hijack, a novel written by Charles Einstein in 1976, also centres around the game. It was later turned into a movie for TV called Nowhere to Run, starring David Janssen.

Edward O. Thorp, who invented the world’s first wearable computer in 1961, used his intellect to write Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One the following year. His strategies proved to be so popular that the book became a bestseller. Thorp tested his theories in casinos, with advice and funds from experienced casino players.

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