Blackjack, also called 21, is consistently one of the most popular gambling games on the casino floor. The object of the game is simple: Get as close to 21 as possible without going over. If your hand is closer to 21 than the dealer you win.
Blackjack's popularity has always been tied to the simplicity of the rules, but it wasn't until the September 1956 issue of the Journal of the American Statistical Association and later Dr. Edward O. Thorp's book Beat the Dealer that blackjack's popularity really started to take off.
The additional excitement over an already popular game was due to the fact players had mathematical proof for the first time that utilizing basic strategy and card counting methods they could actually have an advantage over the house. Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel and McDermott laid the groundwork with the first ever basic strategy in the September 1956 issue of the Journal of the American Statistical Association. In 1962 Dr. Edward O. Thorp expanded on the basic strategy and devised the first ever card counting method, initially a five-count system.
It didn't take long however for the casinos to change the rules in order to slow down the card counters. Long gone are the days of dealing to the last card in the deck. This is because players would keep track of which cards were left and vary their bets accordingly.
Also, most games nowadays are not played with a single deck but rather with two, four, six or more decks. This is mainly for two reasons:
- Some single deck games can be beaten with basic strategy alone. Going from a single deck to multiple decks puts the advantage back to the house.
- Multiple decks were added to make card counting more difficult.
Another favorable player option called "early surrender" was taken out of Atlantic City casinos in 1982. Early surrender gave players the option to "surrender" their first two cards before the dealer checked for blackjack and to get 1/2 of their bet back.
More subtle rule changes like when players can double down or the number of splits allowed are all used to manipulate the odds. Other ways casinos try to control the game includes shuffling methods and how many rounds are played before the cards are shuffled.
If you have ever read the book Bringing Down the House you know that despite the casinos attempts to stop card counters they are not always successful. A group of six MIT students took the casinos for millions playing blackjack and counting cards. It might surprise you to know they were not the first blackjack team to successfully take on the casinos.
In the 1970's a team of blackjack players led by Ken Uston made over a million dollars counting cards as chronicled in his book The Big Player. The reprint of the book has added information from team member Roy Hoppe and goes in to detail on the particular card counting system used.
Whether you want to become a professional blackjack player or just improve your game to have more fun at the tables, the first step to success is learning basic strategy. After mastering basic strategy you will be equipped to take on more advanced tactics like card counting.