Many of our best loved games have surprising histories that date back, in some cases, thousands of years. Games with that kind of staying power typically encapsulate a fun experience that transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. What’s more, any games so long lived naturally evolve over time as they get introduced to new contexts and adapted for new formats. Below we’re going to be taking a look at some of the world’s favourite traditional games. Each has a colourful, and at times surprising, history, and each continues to evolve and develop right through to the present day.
Tracing the history of blackjack, the world’s most popular card game, is intriguing since it’s difficult to definitively state where the game truly begins. Blackjack is part of a family of card games known as Twenty-One. This is a name relating to the points value of a winning hand common to all variants of this family of banking games. The earliest mention anywhere of this game appears to be in 17th century Spain.
There, the game appears in numerous sources under the name veintiuna. This variant was played with a baraja deck, a Spanish deck comprising between 40 to 48 cards. The game then reappears in 18th century France, where, under the name vingt-un, it was known to be the favourite game of Napoleon Bonaparte. Pontoon, a closely related British variant, is thought to have got its name by way of a poor translation of vingt-un.
Blackjack itself is a wholly North American off-shoot, and is thought to have evolved from vingt-un during the 1800s Klondike gold-rush, where it was played among frontier prospectors. Its name has multiple competing origin stories – one has it that it comes from a ten-to-one bonus payout offered in gaming parlours for winning hands that included a black-suited jack (hence black-jack), though historian Thierry Depaulis contests this. He instead suggests that it actually derives from the nick-name for zincblende, a mineral associated with gold and silver deposits.
Nowadays, blackjack has undergone a minor renaissance among tech-savvy gamers who’re consistently preferring to access online variants of its classic gameplay over the brick-and-mortar original. This is not surprising, given in its online form, many new and novel versions have been able to develop and propagate. Some of these, such as 21+3 blackjack, even represent a novel fusion of existing titles. This game blends the classic 21’s gameplay with poker hand ranking side-bets, increasing the rate of play and markedly upping the number of potential winnings. It’s just one example of how blackjack is continuing to evolve and develop in the 21st century.
Few games enjoy quite as much prestige as chess, or quite so long a history. The earliest variants of this game are known to date back to the 6th century Gupta Empire in India. There, as today, this early variant is known as Chaturanga, which means “Four-Limbed” in Sanskrit. These four limbs refer to the traditional military divisions in the South-Asian armies of late antiquity. These were soldiers, elephantry, cavalry and chariotry. These pieces have all survived into the modern western variant, though they are now known as pawns, bishops, knights and rooks.
Chess began to take on its recognisable form in Sassanid Persia. There it took on the name shah, which is Persian for king. The western name, chess, is in fact a poor translation of this word. In other languages, such as German, it is preserved in a more faithful rendering in the word schach. Even the term check-mate is in fact a translation of a Persian phrase. The original, “shah-mat” means “the king is dead”, a contextually appropriate term for the move.
Chess became increasingly popular in the courts of mediaeval Europe, where it became prized as a means of developing strategic thought and military tactics. Before long, prestigious competitions and tournaments arose among those skilled in the game, a tradition which survives to today. Chess has also changed with the times, and is now increasingly played in online form on web platforms such as Chess.com, where a bustling community of chess fans connect and compete against one another.
Following the surprise success of the Netflix production, The Queen’s Gambit, in 2020, which depicted a fictionalised account of the turbulent life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, Chess has enjoyed a spike in popularity among a new generation of players. This has led to chess becoming an increasingly popular game for streaming on Amazon-owned esports platform, Twitch. In fact, statistically chess is currently thought of as being the fastest growing esport in the world, a surprising new lease of life for a game that is already 1500 years old. Furthermore, with the International Olympic Commission officially recognising chess as a sport, and organisers lobbying for its inclusion in the 2024 Paris Olympics, chess’ peak in global popularity still looks as if it lies in the future.