Modern playing cards have evolved from ancient Chinese
money cards, which comprised four suits (coins, strings of coins, myriads of
strings, and tens of myriads of strings), each of which depicted various
quantities of money.
By the 1370s, playing cards had reached Europe in a form
that is recognizable today, with a pack consisting of 52 cards with suits of
swords, polo-sticks, cups and coins. Each suit contained the numbers one to
ten, and three court, or picture, cards. Originally the court cards were
non-figurative, but under European influence they soon became kings, knights
and valets. Queens later replaced the knights, and in England the valet
became known as a jack.
The earliest cards were hand-painted with figures copied
from manuscripts, but as printing developed the designs were continually
altered and redrawn. There were national variations in the suit symbols.
Italy adopted coins, cups, swords and batons; while hearts, leaves, bells
and acorns appeared on German cards. The symbols on modern playing cards
(hearts, spades, diamonds, clubs) originate from France.
With the widespread availability of cards people began to
invent card games. New games were continually being devised, many of which
were played for money. In Europe, games like baccara proved popular among
members of the aristocracy, who gambled for huge stakes in luxurious
Although baccara has its origins in medieval Italy, it soon
spread to France, where it was called "chemin de fer" (meaning
railway, due to the action of the card box or shoe passing around the table
on "tracks"). Later a slightly different version, called "punto
banco", arrived in England. Chemin de fer soon spread from Europe into
Latin America. It was introduced to Las Vegas in the 1950s as a result of
the closing of Cuban casinos. In Vegas it became knows as shimmy, but is now
mostly referred to as punto banco. Today, most casinos around the world
offer a version of the game.
Poker is derived from the Persian game of "as nar"
and was probably based on the dice game "tali", which was played
by the Romans. Tali is based on the ranking of throws where, for example,
three of a kind beats a pair. A variation, called "poker dice", is
still played as a pub game in continental Europe. Persian sailors taught
French settlers in New Orleans how to play "as nar" and they
developed a version which combined elements of the French game "poque"
and the German game "pochen", and became known as poker. The
version was soon being played everywhere in the USA, from Mississippi river
boats to the saloons of the Old West.
Many variations of the game started to appear. In 1911 US
legislation prohibited stud poker but ruled that draw poker was a game of
skill and therefore was not illegal. This resulted in new draw games being
invented. Nowadays casinos offer a wide choice of poker games including
five-card stud, seven-card stud, Texas hold'em and Omaha.
Blackjack derives from the game "twenty-one", the
origins of which are not known. When it was first introduced to casinos in
the USA the game was not very popular, so the casinos started to offer odds
of ten to one if 21 was made with the first two cards dealt to a hand
(comprising and ace plus either the jack of spades or the jack of clubs -
the "black jacks" from which the name derives). These higher odds
no longer apply for 21 made with a blackjack, but while any card with a face
value of ten, together with an ace, counts as a score of 21, blackjack has
become the name by which the game is known.
Blackjack began to raise in popularity after research
undertaken by a trio of Americans showed that the casino's advantage could
be overcome. Roger Baldwin was the first to begin analyzing blackjack and in
1956 published "The Optimum Strategy In Blackjack". In 1962 Edward
Thorp further developed the strategy into the first card counting
techniques, which were published in his book "Best the Dealer".
Julian Braun added to the earlier research on basic strategy in his book
"Playing Blackjack as a Business".
Casinos retaliated by making blackjack more difficult,
implementing measures which make it harder for card counters to gain an
advantage. As a result, blackjack has become a battle between players, who
use a variety of card counting methods, and casinos, which try to handicap
players by using multiple card decks, frequent shuffling and surveillance.
Many casinos ban players whom they suspect of card counting, despite court
rulings that the practice is not illegal.