During World War One, blackjack was the most popular, even more popular than poker as the game of choice for the soldiers. In World War One the game was a private rather than a banking game which was the choice of the GI’s in World War Two. Legend has it that the biggest sum of money won by a Blackjack banker in the Armed Forces during the Second World War was approx. $137 500. The story credits an Army corporal in the Pacific theater with the win. The story credits his occupation before the war in Chicago as a Blackjack dealer.
The history of blackjack, like Poker and Gin Rummy is clouded. Italy, France and Spain have claimed to be the birth place of this game. The French allege a blood relationship with Vingt-Un and Trente et Quarante. The Spanish say it is an adaptation of their One and Thirty. And the Italians insist that it is a slightly modified form of either Baccarat or Seven and a Half. These last two games have the closest similarity to Blackjack.
The basic object of “blackjack”, “Baccarat” and “Seven and a Half” is the same: to reach a count of 21 in “Blackjack”, 9 in “Baccarat” and 7 ½ in “Seven and a Half”. The Seven and a Half deck contains only 40 cards, the eights, nines and tens being absent. Face cards each count ½, the other cards count as their numerical value. The king of diamonds is wild and may have any value. When a player, trying to get as close to a count of 7 ½ as possible, draws cards totaling 8 or more, he busts, as he does in blackjack when going over 21.
The basic principle of Blackjack is the simple adding of card values in an attempt to reach a total of 21, without going over. There have been many similar games. In London carpet joints with elite sporting bloods of old playing Quinze, in which the object was to reach a count of 15. In this game the players to hide their emotions from the eyes of the dealer sometimes wore masks.
The earliest known printed reference to the Spanish game of “One and Thirty” appears in the Comical History of Rinconete and Cortadillo, published in 1570.
In 1875, the American Hoyle book refers to blackjack as Vingt-Un, and a mere 30 years later, calls it Vingt-et-Un. The English corrupted the name to “Van John” and the Australians’ pronunciation was even wider off the mark with “Pontoon.” Regardless of the pronunciation the basic principle remained the same, a hand that neared but did not exceed a count of 21.
Throughout most of its history, Blackjack or Twenty-One, was a private game. It was not until around 1915 that it began to make its appearance in the top casinos of the United States as a banking game.