We take a look at the UK variant of Blackjack and how it formed an integral part of the World War One soldier’s experience of warfare.

Now some of you more historical types might at this point be wondering just how far the definition of blackjack is going to get stretched as I write a neat biographical piece on US general John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, of First World War full-frontal-attack-whatever-the-tactical-situation fame, but whilst I am going to talk about the First World War, I won’t really be discussing the generals sat in their cushy billets and commandeered French chateaus dozens of miles behind the lines.

There is a temptation whenever writing about this lamentable period in global history to discuss the staggering human waste, the horrific manipulation of public perceptions and the dire stupidity of the national and military leaders that started, and then perpetuated, the conflict. However, since all these problems still exist today in various forms around the world it seems a tad mean spirited to note only these aspects of the war.

Soldiers Gambled In The Trenches Of WW1

• Crown & Anchor, Brag and Pontoon all popular

• Pontoon shares most blackjack rules

• Card schools common throughout the war

The centenary to mark the start of World War One has brought veterans and their experiences back to our television screens as the fickle attention span of the media grows bored of Gaza and the Ukraine, Ebola and ongoing fiscal crises. Many of their stories are desperate remembrances of fallen comrades and of scenes of unimaginable horror, and whilst we should all remember the dead and the price they paid for the foolish pride of others, not all the stories are of atrocity.

“I often wonder how we got over boredom of it all.” recalls Clifford Lane of the Hertfordshire Regiment, “You just imagine – nobody can imagine – being stuck in a trench, 6 feet high, in the middle of winter, day after day with nothing to do at all, really, there was nothing you could do. Well I’m talking about a quiet period, when there was nothing much doing. Because there were periods when perhaps for days on end there’d be no shellfire at all you know. And you just didn’t know what to do, so you gambled.”

Digging In And Playing Cards

Gambling in the army came in many forms. Crown and Anchor, Housey-Housey, and Three Card Brag were all popular amongst the troops but there was one game that was more common, and more widespread than any of these; Pontoon. Pontoon is a variant of Blackjack that shares a common heritage and only differs in that the “banker” could apply various rules of his own devising. In the history of blackjack a mention of pontoon is a necessity. British soldiers would play it anywhere at any time to try their luck.

Frank Richards recalls finding a signaller and two runners sat coolly at the bottom of mud filled shell hole during a barrage continuing to play pontoon away from their unit’s shack and the eyes of their sergeant, despite the rain of artillery. When the runners were ordered to take messages back to brigade the signaller complained the game was ending as his luck was changing. Moments later the unit’s shack was blown up killing all inside, but the gamblers, signaller included, survived safely in their shell hole with their game of pontoon.

Of course they didn’t limit this play to just the dangerous sharp end of the war and indeed when away from the front lines they were even more likely to gamble. As one US visitor to a British sector of the war recalls there were always games of Crown & Anchor, Brag or Pontoon going on somewhere.
“In any estaminet in a billet town you’ll find one or all of them in progress, all the time. The winner usually spends his winnings for beer, so the money all goes the same way, game or no game.”

Alexander Neilson, of the Royal Scots Regiment, remembers that any opportunity was a good one to get the blackjack cards out and play. “It was dark when we fell in and walked across the railways lines to our train. Into the trucks we scrambled. I think there must have been about 50 men in each truck. We had hardly any room to sit let alone lie down. The door was drawn closed and candles were lit. We sat squeezed together on our packs and started playing Pontoon as the train bumped over the uneven railways that seemed to be characteristic.”

War Is Criminal, Cheating Is Worse

Many a card school in the military is, for want of a better term, entirely bent. From loaded dice in Crown & Anchor to marked cards there was pretty much no end to the ways in which the unscrupulous would attempt to relieve the inexperienced from their cash. The British Army’s tradition of people “on the fiddle” made sure that even in the trenches of World War One surrounded by death, destruction and horror someone somewhere was trying to make a fast, dishonest, buck.

Walter Grover of the Sussex Regiment reminds us of an instance during a game of pontoon that reads like part of a movie.

“We were all playing cards at the bottom of the trench and there was quite a little pile of filthy old notes and odds and ends of French coins and that – quite a pile of it, as a matter of fact. And this chap came round, he was watching us playing cards and that. And all of a sudden we saw he’d got in his hand a Mills bomb and he was messing about with this bomb and letting the lever come up. And of course once the lever sprung away, that detonated the bomb and you’d got about five seconds before it went off.”

“Well this chap was messing about with this lever and all of a sudden the lever flew off and of course we saw it go and we all scattered. Some went over the top, some went round the other way, the bay, but this chap, he didn’t. He scooped up the money and put it in his pocket and off he went. What he’d done, he’d already taken the detonator out of the bomb and of course we didn’t know that! And of course when he let the lever go, we thought the bomb was going off!”

Which is, one has to begrudgingly admit, one of but a small number of smart strategies when one wishes to pull a fast one around a group of universally armed men all trained to kill. Blackjack is now a mainstay of every casino in the world, and its UK cousin, pontoon, is still played by troops in the British Army today from Aldershot to Afghanistan. As long as soldiers are forced to “hurry up and wait” the chances are it always will be.