It can be argued that poker, in its modern sense, was first played on riverboats on the Mississippi River in the early nineteenth century, but the origins of the game are believed to be much older. The sixteenth-century card game known as ‘primiera’in Italy and ‘primera’ in Spain has many similarities to modern day poker and, in turn, provided the basis for the seventeenth-century games known as ‘poque’ or ‘pochen’, which were played in France and Germany, respectively.
Poque was subsequently transported across the Atlantic Ocean by French colonists to territories in North America, which was acquired by the United States in the early years of the nineteenth century. The name ‘poque’ was anglicised to ‘poker’ by English-speaking settlers and, thereafter, the game evolved to resemble the modern version, with a 52-card deck and five-card hands for each player.
The evolution of Las Vegas from a cultural backwater to a major tourist destination in the early twentieth century may have done plenty for the local economy, but casino operators were not keen on poker from a money-making perspective. Nevertheless, as the only casino game where gamblers could play against each other, rather than the house, poker was popular with patrons, so most gambling houses ran a poker room.
Down the years, different versions of poker, including five-card draw, seven-card stud and the current favourite, Texas hold ‘em, have fallen into or out of fashion at various times. Nevertheless, while the ‘boom’ period in the early years of the twenty-first century may have subsided, poker remains the most popular card game on the planet, with an estimated hundred million players worldwide.
Blackjack is derived from the ancient game of ‘twenty-one’, which is believed to have existed in Spain, as ‘veintiuna’, in the seventeenth century and subsequently spread to France, as ‘vingt-un’, or ‘vingt-et-un’, the surrounding countries, including Britain, and eventually to America from the early eighteenth century onwards. Vingt-un, albeit occasionally pronounced, and written, as ‘Van John’, was played under its French name in Britain and America throughout the nineteenth century.
However, until 1931, when gambling was legalised in Nevada and the first gaming licence was awarded to the Northern Club on Fremont Street, Las Vegas, vingt-un was played in illicit casinos and speakeasies. In fact, blackjack wasn’t called actually ‘blackjack’ until the twentieth century; in the early days of legitimate gambling in Las Vegas, casinos offered a series of promotional bonus payments, one of which was 10/1 against a hand consisting of the ace of spades and the jack of spades or the jack of clubs or, in other words, a ‘black jack’. Of course, that bonus payment for ‘blackjack’ no longer exists – the best modern patrons can hope for is odds of 3/2 and, even then, only in a standard, six-deck game – but the name stuck.
Following the publication of basic blackjack strategy – a mathematically correct set of rules for playing any hand – in the Fifties, blackjack quickly rose to become the most popular casino game in Las Vegas. Subsequently, in the face of multi-deck shoes and apparently minor rule changes, not least cutting the payout on blackjack to 6/5 in all bar single-deck games, the popularity of blackjack has waned slightly. Even so, blackjack remains the second most popular card game on the Las Vegas Strip, after baccarat.