Blackjack is the most popular table game at North American land based casinos and extremely popular online. That’s not surprising since it’s an easy game to learn, offers the player a reasonably good chance to beating ‘the house’ and allows them to implement strategies with whatever degree of complexity they’re capable with. Most people have some concept of the rules even if they’ve never been in a casino. That means that once they pick up a little ‘casino etiquette’ and basic strategy they’re ready to sit down at a table with a decent chance of making at least a small profit.
The growth in the popularity of blackjack was very much a ‘slow burn’. The game had been ubiquitous in the casinos of Nevada since the early days. As other states like New Jersey got on board the casino gambling bandwagon blackjack became a stable there as well. For most of the 20th century it had a moderate but consistent level of popularity. By the 1970’s it was the most popular of all the table games but the real growth was in slot machines. Casinos were happy to encourage this since slots made them more money and required less manpower to operate. By this point there was an almost even 50/50 split between slot machines and table games and casino operators were hoping that games like blackjack would soon be obsolete.
BLACKJACK BOOMS AND BUSTS
It didn’t quite work out that way. The general public was introduced to card counting by an Ivy League educated stockbroker name Ken Uston who wrote a book called ‘Million Dollar Blackjack’. That lit the match and his appearance on the TV show ‘60 Minutes’ did the rest. At that time over 20 million people a week tuned in to ‘60 Minutes’ and after his appearance it seemed like all of them all of a sudden thought they were card counters. Casinos couldn’t open enough blackjack tables to keep up with demand but they couldn’t quite figure out whether the game’s popularity was something they should encourage. They wanted to take advantage of the growing demand for blackjack but they feared the financial downside risk of an army of Ken Uston wanna-bes. They got the ‘army of wanna-bes’ without the ‘financial downside’. It ended up being very much to their advantage since for every capable card counter there were hundreds that thought they could count cards but really couldn’t.
Uston’s hedonistic lifestyle caught up with him in 1987 and more coincidentally than anything else blackjack’s popularity started to decline not long after. By the early 1990’s it was back at the same level of popularity as before the boom. The explosive growth in the popularity of video poker, slot machines and later Texas Hold’em Poker and sports betting have marginalized it even further. It’s still the most popular table game but that doesn’t mean as much as it once did.
For players at land based casinos the primary challenge has become finding a game with player friendly rules. Traditionally, casinos have payed players off at 3 to 2 for a ‘blackjack’. In the early 2000s, a few Las Vegas casinos started to reduce the payout for a blackjack to 6 to 5. There was outcry among gambling experts when this began but since the tourist population remained oblivious it was of little significance. By this point, even more casinos have reduced their blackjack payouts to 6 to 5 including all of the MGM properties on the Las Vegas Strip. Things are better downtown and in other Nevada cities but for most people they’re better off playing blackjack online in terms of both convenience and player friendly rules.