The Literary Origins of Blackjack

Blackjack: How to play? The game rules, description

Blackjack is one of the world’s oldest and most popular games, and over the centuries has become a standard at almost every online and land-based casino. It’s one of the few forms of gambling that can be won with deliberate expertise; casinos are constantly embroiled in battles against card counters, with age-old disputes over the legalities of using card counting techniques to win games.

The game has become so prominent in the gambling world that it has traveled far from its point of origin in Europe to all over the globe, including the Asian continent. It has adopted various names across translation; for Vietnamese cách chơi xì dách is how to play blackjack.

What few people know is that the game itself evolved from a number of precursor games that came from Spain and France. For centuries, the game was not even called blackjack but Vingt-Un translated to English as Twenty-One. What’s even more surprising is that the first written reference to the game may be found in a book by Miguel de Cervantes, the author of the infamous Don Quixote. 

Novela de Rinconete y Cortadillo

Rincontey Cortadillo is one of twelve novellas in a collection called Novelas Ejemplares, written by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The novellas are usually grouped in two sets; those of idealized nature, and those of a realistic nature. The former closely resembles Italian models and follow plots of romantic entanglements, impossible happenings, and idealized characters. The latter provided realistic characters and settings and served as social criticism in many ways. Most of these stories remain popular among scholars and readers today.

Rincontey Cortadillo falls under the latter category, though it can be argued that themes throughout the novellas overlap despite being in different categories. The story follows two thieves on their way to Seville. Upon arrival they meet a group of local thieves who function systematically enough to be considered a guild. In 1569, during which the story is set, Seville was a wealthy city with sharp social contrasts. Its position as a city port essentially made it the gateway between Spain and the newly discovered Americas.

The two young protagonists are proficient cheats at the game veintiuna, which is Spanish for twenty-one. The game plays out in one scene, and the characters clarify that the object of the game is to reach exactly 21 points, no more and no less. The game is played with the baraja deck native to Spain. This is the first textual record referencing the conventions of 21, and thus blackjack, explicitly.

The short story was written in the early 1600s, which implies that the game has been around in Castile since the 17th century or earlier. This gives historians and literary scholars a more accurate picture of the game’s chronological and geographical origins.

Miguel de Cervantes himself was a known gambler, so it is no surprise that his stories reflect his interests. By including topical subjects such as gambling in his work, he preserves their historical origins within literary artifacts.

Cervantes is best known for writing Don Quixote, which is considered by many to be the greatest literary work ever written and the first modern novel. While his other works may not have become as iconic as Don Quixote, they are also masterful pieces of literature that served to illustrate Cervantes’ philosophies and views on his contemporary environment.

Aside from being rich in symbolism and philosophy, the stories are just plain fun to read. With vibrant language and unforgettable characters, reading a novel or novella by Cervantes proves to be just as exhilarating as playing a round of blackjack.