Ever heard of Quinze, One-and-Thirty or Trente-et-Quarante? How about Vingt-Un and Seven-and-a-Half? Or Baccarat perhaps?
Certainly some of these games will be known to you but do you know what they all have in common? They're all games that claim or are credited to be the origin of today's Blackjack.
Standardized decks of cards first appeared in 1440 when Johann Guttenberg printed the 50 card deck. Within a few years his cards and the games played with them were hugely popular among the rich and the royal. Many of those games involved reaching a certain card-count total.
In Baccarat, which appeared in Italy in the 1490's, the total was of course 9. Another Italian contender to Blackjack's ancestry was Seven-and-a-half which was played with only Eights, Nines, Tens and face cards which counted as the Half. The King of Diamonds was wild. This was the first game where the player would automatically «bust» if the cards totaled over the desired number of 7-1/2.
The Spanish game One-and-Thirty is first recorded in the book «The Comical History of Rinconete and Cortadillo» dated 1570. In this game each player antes in and is dealt three cards followed by three community cards dealt to center table. Each player takes one community card and replaces it with a discard from their hand. The process continues until each player is «content» at which point the totals are taken. Only three-card Flushes qualify in the counting: a total of 31 is the highest hand; three-of-a-kind is valued at 30-1/2; followed by the pip counts 30, 29, and so on.
By the early 1800's the French game Quinze had become quite popular. In this game the desired total was, predictably, 15. In fact it was Quinze that helped the famous English casino Crockford's flourish from 1827 through 1844. Princes, Dukes, Marquees and Prime Ministers all crowded the Quinze tables, often hiding their faces behind masks to conceal their emotions and identities.
Another French game, Trente-et-Quarante (aka Rouge-et-Noir), was and is still played with 6 decks of cards, with a croupier dealing out a row of black cards and a row of red cards sequentially after players have bet on either row. When each row totals over 30 the hand is closed. Bets on the row closest to 31 win even money. A tie, both rows totaling 31, sees the house pocket half of all players' wagers. A variety of in-row bets are possible bringing Trente-et-Quarante closer to Roulette in it's play than Blackjack.
The French game Vingt-Un («21») is certainly the most promising sounding candidate for the «original Blackjack» but the game itself is was originally played quite differently. While the goal of the game was to get or reach a «Natural» --cards totaling 21-- the cards were actually dealt in rounds followed by betting each round. Only the dealer could Double and if he got a Natural he'd get paid triple by the other players.
In fact it was Vingt-Un that finally crossed the ocean from Europe to America in the late 1800's. The first appearance in America is recorded in 1875 in «American Hoyle» and «Foster's Hoyle» of 1905 names it Vingt-et-Un. Although it began strictly as a private game «Twenty-One» finally appeared in American gambling halls in early 1910, reportedly first seen in Evansville, Indiana.
So how did «Twenty-One» become «Blackjack»? Apparently when the game was first introduced in American it wasn't very popular so the gambling houses tried various bonus payouts to get the players to the tables. On such bonus was a 10-to-1 payout if the player's hand consisted of the Ace of Spades and a black Jack (either the Jack of Clubs of the Jack of Spades). This hand was called a «blackjack» for obvious reasons and the name stuck even though the bonus payout was soon abolished.
So, by 1919 special green-felted Blackjack tables were being made and by 1931 Blackjack was the third most popular Nevada casino game after Roulette and Craps. By 1948 it was second only to Craps. In 1958 the first numerically proven basic strategies appeared and Blackjack was well on it's way to being number one.