By Loudon Ofton
History of Blackjack and Card Counting
Somewhere, at this very moment, a casino is locked in battle with a suspected card counter. The battle is mostly mental. The player is watching the cards, watching the discard tray, mindful of any undue attention from the pit. He’s making informed playing decisions. He’s betting low, betting high. And ultimately he is winning or losing. The pit is watching, pressing for the player’s identification. Surveillance is rolling back tape, trying to make a determination. Maybe they are flipping through a notebook containing images of known card counters. Maybe they are employing facial recognition technology. In time they will decide either to let him play on, or kick him out. If they let him play, they may try to handcuff his play by directing the dealer to shuffle prematurely, or cut the cards differently, or by directly limiting the way the player bets. The player may have a way to fight back and thwart these attempts. He may duck out altogether before they can do anything. Even if the forces that be toss him out of the casino, he may well return looking nothing like the person who came in before, or with new ways to throw them off the track.
One thing is for sure—this isn’t the first time this sort of battle has taken place, nor will it be the last. The casino continues to offer a game that they have known is beatable for 50 years, and patrons continue to take them up on the opportunity to instill a beating. However, the casino continues to run off the people who they suspect of beating the game instead of changing the rules to prevent it altogether. Where did this game come from? Why was it ever beatable? Why has it remained beatable? How did we get to this place—the tenuous, often silly dance between casinos and those who would beat them at their own game, circling one another with narrowed eyes and daggers in their minds?
In the Beginning
Blackjack came from games in France and Spain. The version that eventually swept across Europe was called “Vingt-un” or “Vingt-et-un” (meaning “21”), but it was very likely predated by other games such as the French “Quinze” (meaning “Fifteen”) and the Italian game of “Sette e Mezzo” (“Seven and a Half”). The oldest forefather of blackjack, based on the research of blackjack historians like Roger Baldwin and Arnold Snyder, seems to have been the Spanish game “Trente-un” (“Thirty-one”). A priest referenced the game in 1440, and the author Miguel de Cervantes mentioned Trente-un in a 1570 text. These stand as some of the oldest references to what eventually became the game of 21. Cervantes was the guy who eventually wrote the great feat of literature Don Quixote. I wonder if Cervantes might have likened his character who wildly charged at windmills to modern day card counters taking on casinos?
All of these games involved cards with values and a goal of drawing as close to a certain value without going bust. Some of them included the idea of an ace having a fluctuating value of one or eleven. The game of 21 became popular in Europe, very possibly because it was one of the few games that had all the appearances of requiring skill, as opposed to merely luck. The player made decisions on whether to hit or stand. Making decisions always gives players a feeling of control.
Leave it to Americans to name a game for what it isn’t. What Americans call football has little to do with feet, and what Americans coined as “Blackjack” now has no special bearing on black cards or jacks. The game of 21, which was popular in Europe, began popping up in America, whether it was legal or merely tolerated. Somewhere along the way (circa World War 1), an attractive payout was offered for the player who received an ace of spades and a black jack. The name “Blackjack” eventually caught on and replaced “21” or “Vingt-et-un” in popular terminology.
But what the Americans lacked in accurate naming skills it seems they made up for in two new game rules which paved the way toward the game becoming beatable. Never before in any of the European versions, were you allowed to see the dealer’s upcard before you made your playing decisions. Also, whereas dealers had previously made their own decisions on whether to hit or stand, they now began to follow a mandatory pattern established by the house of hitting on a 16 and standing on a 17.
Legalized and house-banked games popped up in New Orleans in 1820. Less than legalized and player-banked games were common everywhere else in the early going. There is the tale of Eleanore Dumont, who showed up in Nevada City, California in the mid-1800’s. She banked and dealt the game of 21 to any takers, and whatever her math talents or card handling skills, enjoyed much success as an expert at the game. Truly, during this time it’s hard to peg who was talented at the game, and why. Cheaters and sleight of hand artists abounded as there were little in the way of checks and balances for a game that was not technically legal.
House-banked blackjack was established in Nevada in 1931. Once its lawfulness was established, the dire need to have game standards and controls in place to regulate the action could finally begin to be met and enforced.
The stage was set. Thirty years would pass before the true birth of card counting. But in those thirty years, surely there were players who thought about the game and how to play it best. Many of them are referenced by those who came after them and explored the facets of the game after them. There was Jess Marcum, kicked out by many a beaten and confused casino who may have been beating blackjack by counting cards before 1950. There were colorful characters with names like System Smitty and Greasy John. Four players (Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, McDermott) wrote a 1957 book Playing Blackjack to Win with explicit reference to a basic strategy and to keeping track of cards as a way to tilt the game in your favor. But this book did not quite capture the attention of the casinos or the public the way that Beat the Dealer did in 1962.
Then came Thorp
Using early computers, Edward O. Thorp examined whether keeping track of the cards could lend itself to gaining an advantage over the game. Using early computers seems fitting for an Ed Thorp don’t you think? That or playing old timey football with a leather helmet and a mouth full of missing teeth. Thorp, You Sally! Put a hat up under that thenty-three’s ribcage!— But Thorp was a numbers man, and he arrived at a startling discovery. With some basic mental gymnastics, you can gain a clear advantage over the game. His conclusions, published in the book Beat the Dealer in 1962, marked the birth of card counting.
Thorp devised a “ten-count system” in which you started with two numbers in your head—16 and 36, representing tens in the deck and other cards in the deck, respectively—and as the cards came out you counted backwards, dividing your count of remaining “others” by the count of tens remaining to arrive at a “Thorp Ratio” indicating player advantage, and the time to raise bets. This was in the day of single-deck only games. Can you imagine using Thorp’s ten-count on an eight deck game? (You’d have to start with the numbers 128 and 288 in your head, count backwards and divide….good luck!)
The book hit big, landing on the New York Times Bestseller list. Everybody and their brother read Beat the Dealer and sped off to the casino to try and beat the game. The casinos were overwhelmed. Never mind that the system was very difficult for the average player to pull off effectively. Everybody reached back and took a swing, and as a result, Vegas ducked.
Beat the Dealer, Round Two
The casinos waffled. On the one hand they ran scared, realizing that they were being overrun with information to beat the game. They implemented changes. Single-deck games became two and four-deck games. No longer did dealers deal most of the way through the cards before reshuffling. But at the same time, casinos were adding tables to the floor to accommodate the influx of new blackjack enthusiasts. Quickly enough they realized that Thorp’s book profited them greatly, for although a flood of washed into the casinos armed with the information that the game could be beaten, they were not willing, patient, talented, or practiced enough to actually do it, more often than not. The casinos, by and large, were still winning big.
Computer scientist Harvey Dubner introduced a counting system which we now know as the Hi-Lo Count. Computer programmer Julian optimized it. All of this was included in Thorp’s second edition of Beat the Dealer in 1966. Others quickly jumped into the game. The advent of computers now began to give blackjack players the opportunity to attack the game, even as casinos changed it. And modified counting systems gave players a way to determine their advantage quickly and easily, even as the number of decks in the shoe swelled.
The Griffin Agency
Casinos wanted to keep the game attractive enough to insure people would try to beat it. The emphasis was on “try.” They love for people to try to beat it. Pit bosses and dealers have been known to hand out basic strategy cards at the table. Dealers know and freely offer up what “the book” recommends when a difficult playing decision presents itself. The truth is that this false sense of comfort doesn’t go far enough to help the chances of the average player, who more often than not ends up being a losing player. So what were casinos to do with those who did know how to beat the game?
Las Vegas private detective Robert Griffin saw an opportunity and the casinos jumped at the chance. Griffin compiled a book with pictures of and information about known or suspected card counters, and hawked his book in regularly updated subscription form to every casino in town, which they quickly lapped up. This eased the pressure on their end to assess each suspected counter individually. They could ostensibly work together to defeat card counters. Easier said than done.
In 1971, counter Al Francesco was playing blackjack and looking for ways to avoid heat. He was in a casino with his brother, also a card counter. While his brother sat, Francesco was not playing, but standing beside the table in a conversation. Whenever his brother placed a big bet, Francesco threw a $100 bet out, knowing that he had an advantage in spite of not having attained the positive count himself. The Pit Boss fawned all over Francesco. Ever been chased down only to find out it is the host trying to offer you a free room? The light bulb went on and Francesco soon became the first Big Player in the history of card counting. He trained others to keep the count and signal him in.
One player Francesco trained to act as a Big Player was Pacific Stock Exchange president Ken Uston. To Francesco’s dismay, Uston published a book about the playing style, “The Big Player” in 1977 which influenced many and caused the almost immediate proliferation of team play, including the MIT team and the Tommy Hyland team (both beginning a year after the book was published).
The MIT team story found its way to the heart of a larger audience in the last decade with bestselling books like Bringing Down the House, and in Hollywood with blockbusters like 21.
Wong is a Verb
Stanford Wong helped shape the look of an effective, albeit elusive card counter as well. The economics PhD published “Professional Blackjack” in 1975, and offered up his own strategy, this time for the solo player. He suggested table-hopping and back-counting tables. By entering a shoe only on positive counts, a player could avoid playing through negative counts and also to avoid the typical card counter give-away of wild bet swings.
In these early years, it was also not illegal to use computers. Players developed intricate technical machines that they could hide under their clothing. They entered information by toe taps, and the computer offered information back in vibrations.
Atlantic City Opens its Doors
The first Atlantic City casino, Resorts International, opened its doors in 1978. A favorable early surrender rule resulted in a crush of players, including players from these newly formed teams. Even though the casino was making money hand over fist, they wrestled over how to deal with counters. They conducted a two-week experiment in 1979, letting card counters play uninterrupted. The run proved profitable for scores of card counters and the casino alike. Even so, casinos were eventually allowed by the Casino Control Commission to change their loose rules. In 1982, Ken Uston won a lawsuit against Atlantic City casinos. The New Jersey casinos could no longer kick out players by law, but it only empowered them to resort to constant suspicion, as well as half-shoeing and shuffling tactics. Another court case resulted in the casinos lobbying for and getting the Control Commission to allow them to restrict a specific player’s bets if they are suspected of counting cards.
Indian Casinos and State-Approved Casinos come on board
In 1987 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which effectively gave tribes the right to build and regulate their own casinos. Tribes across the country began getting into the gaming business. Meanwhile, states started getting in on the lucrative action. In the Midwest, they began opening riverboat and shoreline casinos to step around traditional restrictions and create gambling zones. By creating a state gaming agency and offering individual cities the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they wanted to open casinos that would be limited in size and scope, Washington State essentially invented the “mini-casino.”
The state of things today
The game is just as beatable as ever. Not in the same ways as Thorp and Francesco were doing it in their day, but certainly, a career in card counting is more possible than ever. In spite of all the game security measures casinos have taken, the proliferation of casinos means that talent in the pit and surveillance room has thinned out. Budgets are tight in tough economic times and with high turnover and the need for state of the art technologies, casinos just don’t spend top dollars on surveillance experts anymore. Casinos tend to not demand so much from the people who are in charge of catching card counters. The game can be beaten, especially by those who are diligent. If and when you are caught, there are plenty of other casinos to try your hand at.
As always, beating the game remains hard work. There will always be a back, a push and pull, but there will always be beatable games. Even in Las Vegas. You have to engage in the battle. You have to have a bankroll that can absorb wild variance. You have to test the waters. You have to experiment with spreads and monitor conditions. When you go on a blackjack excursion, you have to have a backup plan. And you always have to pursue perfection in your game. Without the highest of standards, you won’t make it to the long run.
There was a time when Las Vegas rolled out the red carpet for me. Then there was the time I had to go off strip to find games that would let me play. Then I went back to the strip as a spotter. Then I felt like my number was up everywhere in Sin City. Then new games popped up. Casinos that had been unplayable became playable. Casinos that had been heat city became wait-and-see city. Even after I have splashed across Griffin, followed by documentary filmmakers, and written about card counting for CNN, I find that if I do my homework, wear a different hat, play short sessions, test for bet spreads that work better than others, and move on, I still find plenty of play. Players like Ian Anderson have written about the new ways to pursue the edge in modern times.
So go out and become part of the game knowing how it has come to be and where it is going. Write the next chapter in the illustrious history of the game. Happy EV hunting!