Blackjack's immediate precursor was the English version of twenty-one called Vingt-Un, a game of unknown provenance, but probably of Spanish origin. The first written reference is found in a book by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, most famous for writing Don Quixote.
Cervantes was a gambler, and the main characters of his tale "Rinconete y Cortadillo", from Novelas Ejemplares, are a couple of cheats working in Seville. They are proficient at cheating at veintiuna (Spanish for twenty-one), and state that the object of the game is to reach 21 points without going over and that the ace values 1 or 11. The game is played with the Spanish baraja deck. This short story was written between 1601 and 1602, implying that ventiuna was played in Castile since the beginning of the 17th century or earlier. Later references to this game are found in France and Spain.
The first record of the game in France occurs in 1768 and in Britain during the 1770s and 1780s, but the first rules anywhere appear in Britain in 1800 under the name of Vingt-Un. Twenty-One appeared in the United States in the early 1800s, still known in those days as Vingt-Un. The first rules were an 1825 reprint of the 1800 English rules. English Vingt-Un later developed into an American variant in its own right which was renamed blackjack around 1899.
There is a popular myth that when Vingt-Un ("Twenty-One") was introduced into the United States in the early 1800s - other sources say during the First World War and still others the 1930s - gambling houses offered bonus payouts to stimulate players' interest. One such bonus was a ten-to-one payout if the player's hand consisted of the ace of spades and a blackjack (either the jack of clubs or the jack of spades).
This hand was called a "blackjack", and it is claimed that the name stuck to the game even though the ten-to-one bonus was soon withdrawn. French card historian, Thierry Depaulis has recently debunked this story, showing that the name Blackjack was first given to the game of American Vingt-Un by prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–99), the bonus being the usual Ace and any 10-point card. Since the term 'blackjack' also refers to the mineral zincblende, which was often associated with gold or silver deposits, he suggests that the mineral name was transferred by prospectors to the top bonus in the game. He was unable to find any historical evidence for a special bonus for having the combination of an Ace with a black Jack.
The first scientific and mathematically sound attempt to devise an optimal blackjack playing strategy was revealed in September 1956. Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott published a paper titled The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. This paper would become the foundation of future sound efforts to beat the game of blackjack. Ed Thorp would use Baldwin's hand calculations to verify the basic strategy and later publish (in 1963) his famous book Beat the Dealer.