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The Story of Blackjack

Blackjack is the most popular casino game besides roulette nowadays, but only a few know that it hasn't always been like this. The popularity of Blackjack only dates back a couple of decades, and was actually made popular by a bunch of mathematicians from the MIT.

Origins of Blackjack

The origins of Blackjack are quite unclear. Some say the Romans, famous for their love for gambling, played a similar game with wooden cubes. Others say it comes from a French game frequently played in casinos in the 18th century called Chemin de Fer. One thing we know for sure: the first written reference is by Miguel de Cervantes (you might know him as the author of Don Quixote). In one of his novels he writes about a couple of gamblers who are playing ventiuna, a game in which you have to be as close to 21 as possibble. Sounds familiar?


Don Quixote tilting at windmill
How many times do I have to tell you that even hitting 20 makes more sense than tilting at windmills?

However, Blackjack did not become popular until the 1980s. There were indeed Blackjack tables present at casinos, but the management urged to hide them in hidden corners. Without any fame, Blackjack could not compete with games like Craps or Roulette. But everything changed when a group of mathematicians came from MIT lead by J.P. Massar, who started figuring out how to get an edge on the house. Card counting was something casinos were not prepared for at the time, and the couple percentage of house edge quickly demolished by true counts and indexes. The group had a slight problem though, they were not working together. They still won a little here and there, but were not able to maximise their profit until they met professional gambler and card counter Bill Kaplan.

The MIT Blackjack Team

Kaplan had his own Blackjack group that actually functioned as a group (meaning some were watching the tables and signed the 'players' when the table was 'hot'). Eventually, they started focusing European casinos, so Kaplan parted with them and became the leader and manager of Massar's group - now applying strategies that the MIT students failed to do before. Kaplan had only one condition: the team would work as a business, and not just profitable hobby.

Kevin Spacey as Bill Kaplan (left), Bill Kaplan as himself (right)
Kevin Spacey and Bill Kaplan

The star of the card counters rose, and the Kaplan's team started to make a humongous profit in a short time. Every investor of the group made a decent profit on their investment, and the students lived the high life of a real Las Vegas Pro. Card counting is not illegal in most states in the US, therefore the players could not be prosecuted, just banned from the casinos if noticed, so the team constantly recruited and trained new members, educating and testing them through various trials in live environments. In the late 1980s Blackjack Hall of Famer John Chang joined the team as a student at first, but quickly rose to the top.

The end of an era

The year is 1984. Kaplan being the number one villain in all casinos across the US had to retire, Massar and Chang took over his place as managers of the MIT Blackjack team. From this point the group started to fall apart. The management and the players were exhausted, and casinos introduced new measure to 'counter' the card counters. However, the popularity of Blackjack just grew and grew because of them, and Blackjack became one of the most popular casino games in the history of gambling.

If you're interested in a modern adaptation of the story, we'd suggest you watch 21 (2008), a film by Robert Luketic starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburn. The movie takes the story above, mixes in some drama and adds some salt and pepper to it, making it a really enjoyable light entertainment for a quiet evening. Take a look at the trailer below.

Disclaimer: you cannot count cards in online casinos, the software reshuffles the deck every hand. In live online games, the cut card is not deep enough for counting to be profitable. Yet, with the right strategies you can diminish the edge of the house to almost zero, meaning Blackjack can bring you the best odds of winning out of all the casino games. Try our 100% legal Blackjack trainer, the's Blackjack Guru.

Last edited: 19/08/17

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