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Who Invented Blackjack?

23 June 1999

By Walter Thomason

I started playing blackjack about 30 years ago, and after 25 years of consistently losing, I decided to read a book about how to properly play the game. The author of this book gave lots of good advice, I guess, and then said, "The origins of blackjack are obscure," and that he didn't know who invented the game.

Assuming that this writer was just stupid, I bought six other books about blackjack, and to my surprise all of the authors said the same thing!

It seemed logical to me that the inventor of the game would be the definitive expert on how it should be successfully played. With this in mind, I began a five-year quest. I sailed the seven seas and trekked the terrain of six continents in search of the answer to the befuddling question: Who invented blackjack? The results of my thirst for knowledge are hereby presented.

I decided to begin my search at the beginning, so my first stop was at a place where civilization supposedly dawned, in a valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. I never did figure out what country I was in, because all the street signs were in some foreign language. I interviewed a bunch of local natives, none of whom spoke English. But by using my scholarly knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics, I learned that none of them remembered stories handed down by their ancestors about a game called 21, or any other game, for that matter. It seems that most everybody was either eating or being eaten by everybody else back then, and there wasn't much free time to play card games. They bragged about inventing the wheel and fire, but we all know this to be untrue since these are American inventions.

Undaunted, I searched a dry, sandy, riverbed behind my luxury hotel, and uncovered two encouraging clues. The first was a flat, rectangular object with the letters "BJ" imprinted on it, and the other was a black circular object that I suspected might be a primitive type of wagering chip.

Unfortunately, historians at the local university identified the first object as part of a sign vandalized from a local establishment named "BJ's Customized Camels," and the second artifact was a hockey puck belonging to the Philadelphia Fliers. Now, how a hockey puck from Phily came to be in a dry river bed in ... Well, that's another story.

I was advised to continue my search in China and the Far East, where I was told that a bunch of dynasties once had free time to invent gambling games. After six months of exhaustive investigation throughout the Orient, I learned that most emperors kicked the crap out of anyone who beat them in a game involving two cubes with numbers on them. I also learned that cards with numbers on them were popular, but it turned out that these cards were used to identify the order of customers at the deli sections of major supermarkets.

I had a tough time finding people to interview, and eventually learned that the majority of the population were now computer experts in the Silicon Valley in California, or were on extended vacation in Las Vegas. Shortly thereafter, I opened a fortune cookie that advised me to either pay my overdue hotel bill or leave the area as quickly as possible, so I did -- leave the area, that is.

I then went to a big place called Europe, where it was rumored that games like blackjack had been popular in France and Germany in the early 20th century. I searched the archives in lots of museums and other old buildings, and came up with some very interesting facts, such as:

1. The German word for blackjack is "Ibedawinner," which, loosely translated, means "Always be the dealer." And the French word for the game is "Parleyvous Magnafique Francious," which means, "Always split nines when the dealer shows 2 through 6, stand on a dealer 7, split if the dealer shows 8, and stand if the dealer has 9, 10, or Ace." The French have a knack for putting a lot of meaning into a few words.

2. During World War I, there was a famous American general whose last name was Pershing, and whose nickname was "Black Jack." What's that tell you? Also, the term, "Doughboys" originated because American soldiers always dealt the game and ended up with all the dough.

In spite of my many months spent wandering around Europe, nobody knew anybody who might have invented the game of blackjack. There were lots of casinos throughout this continent that offered the game, and I donated $36,000 to various dealers in six different countries in hopes that they would reveal the identity of the inventor (all written off as research expenses, of course), but they all said they didn't know the answer to my question, and told me to hurry up and place my bet.

My only recourse was to return to America and go to Las Vegas, in hopes that the ancestor of a casino owner was the original inventor of the game. After seven months of intensive study, and an investment of almost $56,000 at the tables, several interesting facts surfaced:

Back in the 1940's, a misunderstood guy with big ears opened a casino in the desert, and was shot 47 times because he split 10s against the dealer's face card.

Large corporations, infested with CEOs who had lost their butts playing blackjack, decided to "buy the dogs that bit them," and most big casinos are now owned by company presidents who are out for revenge!

The most important information obtained from my comprehensive research in Vegas was extrapolated from remarks made by various casino managers, pit bosses, dealers, waitresses, and hookers that I interviewed while the dealer was shuffling, and lead me to the true origins of the modern game of blackjack. This is how it all happened:

Back in or about 1961, a fella by the name of Julian "Quick Hands" DeStephiano, a "21" dealer at the ElRauncho Grando in Las Vegas, convinced the casino owner, Harry "Snake Eyes" Sardino, that the game he was dealing was dull (only one deck), and wasn't making enough profit for the house. He came up with the ingenious plan to have his girlfriend, a computer technician, put together a phony computer study that proved that the game could be beaten by the average player. He invented expressions like "basic strategy" and "card counting" to make the scam more believable. The most amazing thing is that he convinced a bunch of high-brow college guys that his phony system would really work!

Julian then did the smartest thing of all. He changed the rules of the game by dealing from 6 decks, and only dealing half the cards, just in case his crazy suggestions had any truth to them. To make a long story short, the college guys told everybody else about strategy and counting, and the game exploded in popularity. "Quick Hands" and "Snake Eyes" retired a couple of years later and bought mansions in Beverly Hills. I heard that they were consultants for many famous movies, including "Viva Las Vegas" and "Casino." They still associate from time to time, and chuckle over their clever ploy...

Well, that's my story, and you better believe it! If you doubt the accuracy of my investigation, and don't accept what I've said as the gospel truth, write the editor of this website. He was the one that was dumb enough to get me to write it!

Walter Thomason
Walter Thomason is the best-selling author of Blackjack for the Clueless and the editor of The Experts’ Guide to Casino Games and The Ultimate Blackjack Book.

A long-time casino gaming enthusiast, he is a frequent contributor to
The New Chance and Circumstance, Midwest Gaming & Travel, and Heartland Casino News.

His new book is
21st Century Blackjack: A New Strategy for a New Millenium. He can be reached
at PO Box 550068, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33355.

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