BLACKJACK: BACK TO THE FUTURE
Blackjack in 1650 may give us clues about
what blackjack in 2050 may look like.
by Basil Nestor
Basil Nestor is author of "The Smarter Bet Guide to Craps," "The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack," and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.
I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news. Blackjack as we know it is steadily fading away. The game is still very popular, but the numbers cannot be disputed. For example, in Nevada, there were 3,669 blackjack games in 1999. By 2004, that number had dropped to 3,444. In 2009, the number plummeted to 3144. Thatís a 14% drop for blackjack in ten years.
During the same period, the total number of Nevada games (NOT including raked "traditional" poker) increased from 5,945 to 6,019. Therefore, blackjack has been steadily edged out by other contests such as Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker, and so forth.
Meanwhile, there has been an explosion in raked poker. In 1999, the state had only 512 tables. Ten years later that number doubled to 1,063. Similar trends exist elsewhere in the country.
So what is happening with blackjack? Itís simple. Casinos are killing the game. A combination of bad rules and aggressive anti-counting measures (some would say "thuggery") in most casinos have convinced many average players that the contest cannot be beaten. From the 1960s through the 1990s, blackjack was perceived to be the big exception to the classic axiom that "the casino always wins." It didnít matter that most players were losers. The general population felt like they could beat blackjack. However, no more. Even though there are beatable blackjack games still around, many casual punters these days, feel that blackjack is just one more money-sucking contest.
In the meantime, as blackjack is heading down a long hill, poker is having a resurgence. Why? Itís beatable (or at least average players feel this way). And thus, the publicís fancy is geared to poker. Indeed, the current poker boom that started in the early 2000s is very reminiscent of the blackjack boom that began in the early 1960s.
So where is blackjack going? Off to oblivion? Hardly.
One-and-Thirty Shows the Way
Here is the good news. What we call "traditional" blackjack isnít really so traditional. The casino-banked version of the game that most people know, and the name "blackjack" are recent inventions. Both were introduced by casinos about a century ago. Before that, the game we now call blackjack was known as 21. Before that, it was called bone-ace, and before that, it was known as one-and-thirty. There have been other versions and names along the way. In fact, the roots of blackjack go all the way back to the Renaissance. The first record we have of the contest is from 1440. For many centuries, blackjack was a pot game like poker. There was a rotating dealer, so everyone had a chance to act last. Good players beat bad players just like in modern poker.
In the 17th century, a full-time ornithologist and part-time "gamester", Francis Willughby, wrote a very detailed description of one-and-thirty (the supreme number then was 31), and itís easy to see why the game was so popular.
A round of one-and-thirty would begin with everyone putting an equal amount of money into the pot. Players would each "lift" (cut the cards), and the person revealing the lowest card would be designated the dealer. He would shuffle and then deliver three cards facedown to each player.
According to Willughby, players were "reckoning the coates tens, & the rest according to their peepes." In other words, face cards were ten and the values of the lower cards were determined by their pips (as they are today). Ace was ranked as one.
The dealer would begin with the "eldest player" (person to his left) and ask him if he would "stick" or "have it." Willughby tells usÖ
"If he say he will stick, hee leaves him & askes the next, & so round to himself; but if he say he will have it, hee draws one [card] from the bottome of the deck & gives it him. If hee say he wil have another, he gives him another &c."
A hand of thirty-two or more put a player out. Hitting thirty-one exactly made a player an instant winner, and he would receive double the size of the pot. Presumably, that meant everyone had to reach back into coin stacks or money belts to pay the lucky fellow. The person closest to thirty-one would win the pot if nobody hit the magic number. The dealer would win by default if everyone was out. Ties went to the eldest.
Sounds like fun, right? Itís a contest that offers plenty of opportunities to use strategy, with no heat from the "pit."
Thatís the future of blackjack. Eventually, the newest versions of the game will develop as pot contests with a house rake. Weíre already seeing this to some degree in tournaments and in California casinos where anyone can take the dealerís position in turn.
Yes, in California card rooms you can bank the dealer! Iíll tell you more about that in another column.
Looking Forward to 2050
Itís pointless to wish that house-banked blackjack will return to the heady days of the 1960s. Casinos will never let that happen. Forget the logical arguments that successful counters are good for casinos because winners generate good PR. Those arguments are true, but they fall on deaf ears in the world of casino operators. Favorable games have been eliminated from most properties around the world. The steady march to universal negative-expectation continues without pause. And players fade away.
The verdict is in. House-banked blackjack games that use a "frozen" dealer position with everyone playing against the dealerÖ Those games are dinosaurs waiting for an asteroid to come along and make them extinct. Are those contests fun? Sure. Should we play them and study them today? Yes. Are they beatable under favorable conditions and without "heat" (without casino surveillance)? Yes. But dinosaurs were awesome, too, and theyíre gone.
So what will blackjack look like in 2050? Probably a lot like Willughbyís game in 1650. Of course, some casual players will always prefer house-banked games. But compare the number of people who play Caribbean Stud and other ersatz house-banked poker to the larger pool of traditional poker mavens. The latter group blows the former off the scale.
Pot games are the future for blackjack.
(c) copyright 2010 Basil Nestor
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