Twenty-One is an ancient card game of the gambling family, first recorded in Spain in the early 17th century, that has developed into several regional variants still popular today, including the casino games of Blackjack and Pontoon. Despite appearing to originate in Spain, the game rose to prominence in France in the 18th century and spread from there to Europe and America, developing into Pontoon in Britain after the First World War and Blackjack in the United States in the early 19th century, where the legalisation of gambling led to its popularity.

The ancestor of Blackjack and Pontoon
An Ace and Ten score twenty-one
Originprobably Spain; popularized in France
Alternative namesVingt-Un, Vingt-et-Un, Siebzehn und Vier, Einundzwanzig
Playersusually 3–7
Skills requiredProbability
Cards32 or 52
DeckFrench or German
PlayClockwise or anti-clockwise
Random chanceHigh
Related games
Blackjack, Pontoon


According to Fontbana, the first written reference is found in a book by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Cervantes was a gambler, and the main characters of his tale "Rinconete y Cortadillo", from Novelas Ejemplares, are a couple of card sharps 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 is worth either 1 or 11. The game is played with the Spanish baraja deck. The novel was written around 1601 which suggests that Ventiuna had been played in Castile since the early 17th century or earlier. Later references to this game are found in France and Spain.[1]

By contrast, Parlett thinks Vingt-Un first emerged in the mid-18th century as a descendant of Trente-Un ("Thirty-One"), the latter first being recorded as early as 1464. He argues that it was probably introduced because players could reach 21 faster than 31 - even in two cards - and thus the rate of play and consequent payouts were speeded up. It is reputed to have been the favourite card game of Napoleon but was also played at the court of Louis XV.[2]

Known in the German-speaking world as Siebzehn und Vier ("Seventeen and Four"), Einundzwanzig ("Twenty-One"), Hoppsen or, frequently, by its original French names of Vingt-Un or Vingt-et-Un, the game had spread to Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire there by the second half of the 18th century,[3] and had become a universally common game of chance by 1854.[4] It has continued to be popular as a children's and family game through to modern times.[5]

In Britain, the game was originally known under its French name, Vingt-un, but by 1870 more elaborate rules were already appearing that look like Pontoon in all but name.[6]

When Twenty-One was introduced into the United States in the early 1800s,[7] 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 black jack (either the jack of clubs or the jack of spades). This hand was called a "blackjack", and the name stuck to the game even though the ten-to-one bonus was soon withdrawn. Today, a blackjack refers to any hand of an Ace and Ten or court card regardless of its suit.[8]

General mode of playEdit

Whilst there are numerous variants of Twenty-One, the following general rules apply. The game has a banker and a variable number of punters. The role of banker rotates around the players, except for casino games where the banker's role is held permanently by a member of the casino staff. The banker deals two cards, face down, to each punter. Bets are placed either before receiving the cards or after receiving and viewing the first card. The punters, in turn, having picked up and examined both cards announce whether they will stay with the cards they have or receive another card from the banker free. Some games also allow a punter to raise his stake and 'buy' another card. The aim is to score exactly twenty-one points or to come as close to twenty-one as possible, based on the card values dealt. If a player exceeds twenty-one, they lose their stake. Once every punter has either announced they will stay with their cards or exceeded twenty-one, the dealer takes his turn. Anyone who achieves twenty-one in his first two cards has a 'natural vingt-un', 'pontoon' or 'blackjack', depending on the game variant, which wins double.

The following sections give an outline of the regional variants of Twenty-One beginning with the early rules in France which are probably close to the original game.


The game was originally called Vingt-Un in France, later becoming known as Vingt-et-Un. The following rules are based on the Petite Académie des Jeux (1817), supplemented by Raisson (1835).[9][10]

The game is played with a French-suited pack of 52 cards. Cards are worth their nominal value except for the Ace which scores 1 or 11 points at the player's discretion and court cards which are worth ten points each. The first banker or banquier is chosen by lot. Punters (joueurs) place their stakes; usually a maximum is agreed.

The banquier shuffles the cards, offers them to his left for cutting and then deals two to each player, one at a time. In turn each player may say "I'll keep them" (je m'y tiens) or "card" (carte) depending on the strength of his cards. Once a player sticks (i.e. keeps his cards) or goes bust, it is the turn of the next player in anti-clockwise order.

A punter who busts gives the banker his stake and puts his cards to one side. If the banquier goes bust, he pays each surviving player the amount of their stake. If he sticks, the cards are laid down. The banquier pays any punter with a higher score the amount of his stake and receives the stakes of those punters who have a lower score. If the scores are level; the punter just 'pays' in his cards (i.e. hands his cards in).

If a punter scores twenty-one straight away (i.e. with an Ace and a Ten or an Ace and a court card) it is a vingt-un d'emblée ("immediate twenty-one"). He reveals his cards and is paid double his stake by the banquier without waiting for the end of the round unless the banquier also has twenty-one in which case no money changes hands. If the banquier scores twenty-one straight away, each punter pays him double his stake unless he, too, has twenty-one in which case he simply 'pays' in his cards.

Once the cards are all dealt, the round is over. If there are not enough cards left to go round, the banquier distributes those he has and then shuffles those already used up and deals the additional cards necessary to finish the round.


Twenty-One had emerged in the United States by the early 1800s, still known in those days as Vingt-Un.[11] It later developed into an American variant in its own right, known as Blackjack, which has since become an international casino game, but remains popular as a home game. The following is an outline of the original game Twenty-One in America as described by Hoyle (1807) and reprinted in an 1858 British encyclopaedia, Enquire Within Upon Everything.[11][12]

The first dealer is determined by lot e.g. first to draw an Ace wins. Card values are as per the original Vingt-Un above. The dealer deals two cards to each player and himself, one at a time.

If anyone is dealt an Ace and Ten or Ace and court card as their first two cards this is a 'natural vingt-un' and must be declared immediately. If the dealer has a natural vingt-un, he receives double stakes from everyone except any player who also has one, in which case it is a drawn game between them; no payment is made either way. If a player has a natural vingt-un, everyone pays him double stakes and he becomes the new dealer. If two players have a natural vingt-un, no payment is made between them but the player with positional priority wins the deal.

The dealer then asks each player in clockwise order whether he wishes to 'stand' or have another card. Players may request cards, one at a time, until they reach or exceed twenty-one, or decide to stand. If a player exceeds twenty-one, he throws in his cards and pays his stake to the dealer. If no-one achieves a natural vingt-un, the dealer pays single stakes to those whose numbers under twenty-one are higher than his, and receives from those who have lower numbers. No payment is made either way between the dealer and a player who has the same number. If the dealer exceeds twenty-one, he pays everyone who is still in the game.

Siebzehn und VierEdit

The German variant of the game is known as Siebzehn und Vier ("Seventeen and Four"), Einundzwanzig ("Twenty-One") or Hoppsen, although many sources describe it under its French names. The following rules are based on Ulmann (1890).[13]

One or two packs of Piquet cards or German-suited cards are used (32 in each) ranking from Ace or Deuce down to Seven. Card values are: Ace/Deuce - 11, Ten - 10, King - 2, Queen and Jack - 1, Nine - 9, Eight - 8 and Seven - 7. The banker (banquier or bankhalter) places a fixed or variable stake, shuffles the cards well and has one of the punters or pointeurs cut them. He then deals just one card to each pointeur, face down, and takes one himself. The one oth the right of the banquier now 'buys' a card and either 'stays put' (bleibt) or takes another card, again deciding whether to stick or buy. If he goes 'bust' he is 'dead' (todt) and immediately pays his stake to the bank and throws his cards in, face down. The next pointeur now takes his turn and so on until all the pointeurs have either stuck or bust. Now the banquier looks at his card, buys another one and goes through the same process until he sticks or busts.

A pointeur who scores twenty-one in his first two cards is paid double his stake. Two Aces count as twenty-one for this purpose. Pointeurs who score the same or less than the banquier pay their stake to the bank. If the banquier scores twenty-one he wins double stakes from each pointeur unless the latter also has twenty-one in which case he only pays a single stake. If the banquier scores twenty-one in his first two cards, he receives a double stake from everyone else regardless of their scores.



Pontoon is the British variant of Twenty-One. The name dates back to the First World War and is probably a corruption of 'Vontoon', which in turn derived from Vingt-Un, but the game is clearly much older. For example the rules by "Trumps" (1870) for Vingt-Un in a British card game manual already reflect the more elaborate rules of what later became known as Pontoon.[6]


Although the modern game of Blackjack has no fixed rules it has clearly developed in sophistication from Twenty-One. In addition to different terminology and payment systems, there are other nuances, such as splitting pairs, insurance and doubling down which add to the skill of the game.[14][15]


  1. ^ Fontbona 2008, p. 89.
  2. ^ Parlett 1990, p. 80.
  3. ^ von Schönfeld 1782, p. 52.
  4. ^ Krünitz 1854.
  5. ^ Kopp 1987, pp. 78-81.
  6. ^ a b Trumps 1870, pp. 12-18.
  7. ^ Kastner & Folkvord 2005, p. 30.
  8. ^ Scarne 1986.
  9. ^ _ 1817, pp. 161/162.
  10. ^ Raisson 1835, pp. 143-146.
  11. ^ a b Hoyle 1807, pp. 132-135.
  12. ^ _ 1858, p. 235.
  13. ^ Ulmann 1890, pp. 257/258.
  14. ^ Parlett 2008, pp. 594-597.
  15. ^ How to play: Blackjack at Retrieved 24 Mar 2019.


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