Vingt-et-un: The History of Blackjack

Blackjack carries a history as sordid as a bar room brawl. Like most games, blackjack was the product of almost random evolution, rather than a specific and coordinated effort. The card game is the most played casino game in the world, according to studies. Skill and card counting have made this game popular, requiring real tactics to play consistently well while maintaining a large element of luck - the history of blackjack cannot help but include a particularly famous player who made team playing viable in blackjack.

Vingt-et-un, French for twenty one, preceded the game. Big in French casinos in the 1700s, it did not offer the same prize payout as modern day blackjack, like the 3:2 bonus. The bonus itself was added when it was first introduced to the United States, as it did not do as well. It was still called twenty one and in an attempt to make the game more appealing, the bonuses were made. One such bonus, a ten to one payout, was given should the player's hand be composed of the ace of spades and a jack with a black suit (clubs or spades). The hand was called a blackjack, which eventually stuck as the name.

Ken Uston, a man who popularized team blackjack play, is an important person in blackjack history. His fascination apparently began when he met a professional gambler named Al Francesco. Ken was recruited by Al to take part in a blackjack counting team. On the first five day run, he earned approximately $2,100 and in two months, became a player rather than just a counter. In 1978, he formed a team of his own in Atlantic City. Like many teams of a similar nature he was quickly banned from various casinos. This provoked him into filing a lawsuit, stating that casinos do not have the right to bar skilled players. Ken Uston eventually won the suit. While casinos employed a variety of ways to dissuade the skilled player from winning, such as adding decks, Ken had won - they could not bar skilled players from playing.

Mr. Uston had to don a variety of physical disguises to play in the meantime. He was only recognizable through his aggressive and showy playing style. Even his betting was disguised, evading detection from pit bosses for the better part of his career, ensuring his legacy's survival.

To this day, blackjack is up there with Texas Hold'em as one of the more popular card games. It costs nothing to be a tad more cultured and to know a bit more about a beloved game.