The Rise and Fall of Blackjack

    We recently took a look at the rise in popularity of poker, following the famous World Series of Poker win by Chris Moneymaker. But poker isn’t the only card game that has seen its fortunes wax and wane. Blackjack has seen its popularity fluctuate significantly over the years and is only recently recovering from the attempts by Vegas casinos to cash in on the game.

    Blackjack has been around for centuries.

    Blackjack or 21s has been around for centuries, with an enduring popularity based on the simplicity of play. With blackjack, there are none of the complicated hand rankings you get with poker and none of the bluffs and bids of bridge, only a few cards and some simple math. All you have to do is get closer to 21 than the dealer gets, without going bust.

    It was this simple, statistical element to the game that led to a surge in popularity in the 1950s when 21 came of age. Four mathematicians, known as the Baldwin Group, analyzed the game and worked out a strategy, which told you what to do with any given combination of cards to give you the best shot of winning. Of course, this still didn’t guarantee anything, as the next card for both the player and the dealer are drawn at random, but it did cut the advantage or house edge to almost nothing.

    With the house edge in roulette sitting at 2.7 percent (5.4 percent if the wheel has a double zero), and other games such as Caribbean stud poker running at 5.26 percent, this near-zero edge made blackjack a massive draw for the would-be bank breakers. Add in card counting skills to help identify what cards might remain in the pack, and the edge can swing in the player’s favor.

    Of course, while blackjack rose in popularity with the punters, the loss of the house edge made it much less widespread with the casinos, even though in reality, most players did not have the math skills, or the concentration required to execute the statistical advantage. Had they held their nerve, the casinos would still have won in the long run, with the increase in players easily outweighing the few who could turn the tables on them. Unfortunately, their concerns got the better of them and before long, casinos began to make the game more complicated. They tried to regain their edge by adding in multiple decks to beat the card counters, subtle rule changes to reduce wagering options, and even changed the odds for that holy grail of hands, the blackjack.

    Originally paying odds of 3:2 or 1.5x your stake, many leading casinos changed this to 6:5 or 1.2x, significantly cutting the win from the top hand. As a result, blackjack’s popularity was short-lived, and it soon began to lose out to the surge in poker and the new wave of Asian baccarat players. According to Forbes, takings from blackjack tables in Nevada casinos have dropped by almost a third since 2000, increasing to almost half when you factor in inflation.

    But all is not lost for the casino’s simplest card game. Ironically, the ancient game of blackjack is once again on the rise thanks to modern technology. Online casinos have learned the lessons from their brick-and-mortar counterparts and kept that top hand payout at 3:2. Here players can also choose between a number of different variations, rather than being forced to play with the number of decks and pair splitting rules of the house. Players can choose two, four, six or eight decks, depending on whether they want to count cards or count on having more high-value cards available.

    It remains to be seen whether real-life casinos will learn from the success of their online equivalents. However, it seems that despite the challenges it has faced along the way, blackjack still has plenty of life in it yet. After all, everyone wants to feel like they have a shot to beat the house.

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