One of the best known and most popular casino backed card games in the world, Blackjack sees the player compete against the casino, not the other players at the table, with the objective to get a higher hand total than the dealer without exceeding 21.
The game is played with one or more decks of 52 cards (no Joker cards are included). Each card has the point value (sometimes referred to as ‘rank’) displayed on the card other than the face cards (Jack, Queen and King) which are valued at 10 and the Ace which can be valued at either 1 or 11 depending on which is more beneficial to the player. When playing offline it’s very unusual to see a game use more than 8 decks of cards due to the inconvenience of shuffling so many cards but online games have taken to using far larger numbers of decks with a simulated shuffle after every round of play.
A blackjack table can generally seat up to seven players at any one time and the player to the dealer’s left will always be the first to act with play progressing in a clockwise direction from there. Initially each player will receive 2 cards and the dealer with receive one face up card a second face down card (though depending on the version, this card may not be drawn until after the players have completed their actions, this is typical of European games).
Where the first two cards dealt to either the player or the dealer is an Ace and any of the ten valued cards, this is referred to as Blackjack. Where the dealer holds a Blackjack they automatically beat all player hands other than a player Blackjack which results in a push (returning of the initial wager). Where the player has Blackjack and the dealer does not the player automatically wins the hand and will receive a payout of 3 to 2. Some casinos have started to reduce this payout from 3 to 2 to 6 to 5. Players should be aware of this decreased payout as it increases the casino’s advantage over the player substantially.
Where the dealer is dealt an Ace or a ten value card as their face up card when playing a game where the second card is dealt face down before the players play, the dealer will normally check the down card prior to play of the round to see if they have the Ace or ten valued card that would make their hand a Blackjack. Where the dealer has Blackjack they will turn over their down card and the round will be concluded immediately, otherwise the round will play out as normal.
If the player exceeds a total of 21 on a hand at any time, this is referred to as ‘Busting’ and the hand is over with the result that the player loses their wager.
During play the player may have the opportunity to take the following actions depending on the cards they are dealt;
Hit: Where the player’s hand total is less than 21 they can choose to Hit, meaning that the player will receive and extra card. The player can continue to Hit until they are happy with their hand or the reach a total exceeding 21.
Stand: When the player is happy with their hand they can choose to stand, taking no more cards and waiting for the dealer to play to decide the outcome of the hand.
Double: The player can choose to Double (also referred to as ‘Doubling Down’). When the player takes this action they place an additional bet equal to their initial bet and will receive only one further card. Doubling can only occur when the player has only received their initial two cards, once any Hit cards have been taken the option to double no longer exists. Some variations on the rules will restrict the player to only being able to Double on certain hand totals.
Split: If the player is dealt two cards of matching rank the player can choose to split the hand. To do this play places an additional bet equal to their initial bet and the two matching cards are separated into the first card of two separate hands with one of the player’s bets on each hand. The dealer will then deal out a second card to each hand and the player plays the hands independently.
Where Aces are split, normally the player will only be allowed to receive one card to each Ace (they cannot proceed to Hit, Double or Split) and if a ten value card is dealt to split Aces the hand is considered a value of 21 but not Blackjack.
Surrender: After the player has received their initial two cards some Blackjack games will allow the player to Surrender their hand. This rule is not offered on all Blackjack games and is only available at the very beginning of the hand before any other actions have been taken. This means that the player gives up the hand and will receive half of their wager returned to them. There are two variations of the Surrender rule; Early and Late. Where the dealer has an Ace or a ten value card face up, Early Surrender is offered before the dealer checks for Blackjack. Late Surrender is offered after the dealer checks for Blackjack, only if the dealer does not have Blackjack. Early Surrender is a very favourable rule for the player.
Insurance: Where the dealer shows an Ace as their face up card the players will be offered the option to take the Insurance bet before the dealer checks for Blackjack. Where the player chooses to take Insurance, they place an additional wager of half their initial bet. When the dealer checks for Blackjack, if the dealer does not have Blackjack the Insurance bet loses and the hand is played out as normal. If the dealer does have Blackjack the initial bet loses and all hands are terminated, but the Insurance bet is paid out at 2 to 1. Where the player has Blackjack some casinos will offer to pay the hand at ‘Even Money’ rather than the normal 3 to 2 instead of offering the Insurance bet. Mathematically taking Even Money is exactly the same as taking Insurance. Without additional information (for example information derived from Card Counting) Insurance is always a bad bet for the player, carrying a substantially higher house edge than the main game. The player’s hand makes no difference what-so-ever to the outcome of the Insurance bet, so regardless of whether the player has a total of 16 or 20, Insurance an equally bad option.
Once all players have completed their hands by either Busting or choosing to Stand, the dealer will play their hands. Unlike the player the dealer does not have a choice regarding how to play their hand. They will reveal the second face down card then proceed to Hit until they have a total of 17 or more. Certain variations of the game will require the dealer to Hit Soft 17. A ‘Soft’ hand is a hand with an Ace in it that’s counted as 11, so Soft 17 would be a hand with an Ace and any other combination of cards that add to 6.
Once the dealer completes their hand, any non-Busted player hands that have a total that is higher than the dealer’s hand win. Any player hand that equals the dealer’s hand is considered a Push, returning the wagered amount to the player. If the dealer’s hand Busts, all non-busted player hands win.
While most Blackjack authors and authorities simply suggest that the origins of Blackjack are unknown, prominent author and original Blackjack Hall of Fame inductee Arnold Snyder (often referred to as the ‘Bishop of Blackjack’) examined the topic in greater depth in his book ‘The Big Book of Blackjack’.
Snyder suggests that the origins of the game may lead back to the French game ‘Quinze’ (meaning “fifteen”) and first appeared in casinos during the sixteenth century. Unlike Blackjack Quinze was a player backed game (the person functioning as the dealer paid all wins) with the house getting a cut of winnings, much like modern day poker. Each player and the dealer would receive one card, the players would act before the dealer and could choose to draw additional cards until they were happy with their hand, had a total of fifteen or exceeded fifteen. The dealer would follow the same process after the players though did not have to conform to specific rules and could to hit or stand as they chose. Unlike Blackjack, players who exceeded fifteen did not automatically lose their bet and if the dealer also exceeded fifteen would have their bets returned to them.
While Quinze allowed the dealer a flexibility of action that is not present in modern day Blackjack again creating a psychological aspect to the game that again compares well with modern day poker, the structure of the game shows clear similarities to that of Blackjack.
A later game that Snyder puts forward as another precursor of Blackjack is Sette e Mezzo (meaning Seven and a Half) which was popular in Italy in the seventeenth century. This game was very similar to Quinze except it was played with a 40 card deck (missing the all the 8s, 9s and 10s pip cards had been removed). The aim of the game was to get a total closer to 7 ½ than the dealer without going over. All cards counted their face value barring face cards that were valued at ½ and the King of Diamonds that was considered Wild and as such could count as any value.
If the player went over 7 ½ their hand was bust and like modern Blackjack they automatically lost their bet, but like Quinze Seete eMezzo was banked by the person dealing rather than the casino, the dealer did not have to follow a specific set of rules and the players were only dealt one initial card.
Quinze and Sette e Mezzo appear to have formed the structural bases upon which the popular game of Vingt- et-Un (Twenty and One) was later derived and while Vingt-et-Un was originally a player banked game, it developed into a casino banked game and shared many of the same rules as modern day Blackjack.
It wasn’t until the eighteen hundreds when Vingt-et-Un – or Twenty One as it became known – started to be played in the gambling houses in the states that two big shifts in rules occurred that substantially reduced the house edge over the player that the game became really popular. Firstly, rather than the dealer’s cards being dealt face down one card was turned face up allowing players to have an idea of what the dealer might hold before making their playing decisions and secondly a set of rules were put in place for how the dealer must play their hand. These rule development substantially improved the player’s chance and – given that the player could no longer bluff - removed the poker-like psychological element of the game.
Where the name ‘Blackjack’ came from
Richard Epstein in his book ‘Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic’ asserts that the game of Twenty One came to be known as Blackjack during the First World War when additional bonus payments were made to any player whose first two cards are an Ace of Spade with either of the black Jack cards making Blackjack a variant of Twenty One. Despite the fact that these Blackjack bonus payments would be very unusual today the name Blackjack replaced Twenty One for most Twenty One style games.
Other Significant factors in the development of the game
Three other developments have been significant to the game of Blackjack; the development of Basic Strategy, the discovery of Card Counting and the introduction of reduced payouts for Blackjack.
Basic Strategy is the mathematically correct way to play every possible hand that can occur at the Blackjack tables and was first published in 1956 by four American mathematicians, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott, who later came to be known as ‘The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen’. Their work was first published in the ‘Journal of the American Statistical Association’ in 1956 and later republished as a book ‘Playing Blackjack to Win’ in 1957. The true importance of their work didn’t become apparent until later, but is one of the most significant factors in the growth of what is now considered to be the most successful table game in the vast majority of casinos around the world.
What is so impressive about the work of Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel and McDermott is that they completed their analysis simply by playing the game, recording the results and crunching the numbers on an old calculator. Today this sort of analysis would be far less demanding, with simulations completed at the touch of a button, but the hard work of the Horsemen changed the game of Blackjack forever.
It should be noted that each rule variation in the game of Blackjack results in a different Basic Strategy, but this will be addressed below in the Basic Strategy section of this article.
In 1962 Edward O Thorp, a mathematics professor who has worked at some of the most respected universities in the United States, read the work of Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel and McDermott on Basic Strategy in Blackjack and concluded that each card in the deck must have an inherent value to the player, either positive or negative, and that if the cards that had been played already could be accounted for the player would know whether the cards still to be dealt were favourable to the player or the dealer.
After extensive research Thorp concluded that small cards benefited the dealer and high cards (ten pips and face cards) benefited the player. So an excess of high cards left to come out would create a situation where the player would have the advantage over the casino. While over the average of all hands the casino would still have an advantage, if the player bet low when the odds favoured the house and high when the odds favoured themselves that advantage could not only be nullified but turned towards the player.
This revelation lead to the development of the first Card Counting system and the publication of Thorp’s book ‘Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty One’ which was massively successful, selling over 700000 copies and entering the New York Times Best Seller List.
The publication of ‘Beat the Dealer’ quickly transformed the game of Blackjack into the most popular and profitable game in the casinos (this has since been eclipsed by Slots games). The surge in popularity was directly related to players realising that the game of Blackjack could be beaten. The reality however was that the vast majority of players failed to learn the skills necessary to beat the game so the publication of a winning system actually resulted in an increase in profits for the casinos.
The Ten Count was an awkward system to implement accurately, requiring the player to keep note of how many high cards came out, how many low cards came out and then calculate the ratio of remaining high to low cards in their head. While awkward this was still achievable for a patient practitioner at a single deck game.
By 1964 the ‘Ten Count’ that Thorp published had been accepted to be the first legitimate winning gambling system and so many players had read ‘Beat the Dealer’ that the casinos in Las Vegas – lead by the ‘Las Vegas Resort Hotel Association’ (LVRHA) and fearing substantial damage to their bottom line – made substantial changes to the standard rules used at the Blackjack tables in the casinos they represented. A spokesperson for the LVRHA, Gabriel Vogliatti gave the following quote to the media;
“In the last 15 years there hasn’t been one plane landed without at least one person in possession of a system. This guy [Thorp] is the first in Las Vegas history to have a system that works.”
The specific rule changes that were implemented were a restriction of the splitting of Aces and only allowing the player to double down on hard eleven. These rule changes had the opposite of the desired effect – skilled players could still beat the games despite the poorer rules and the unskilled players deserted the casinos offering the poorer rules. Even the additional edge that the rule provided the house was not enough to compensate for the substantial loss of custom resulting from the rule changes.
Within two weeks of the new rules being implemented, the financial consequences for the casinos had been so substantial that the rules were returned to their former standards with one slight exception, the casinos started to increase the number of decks used to play the game figuring that it would be more difficult to keep track of more cards. This strategy failed to be the magic bullet that the casinos were looking for to stop Card Counting and Thorp quickly released a second edition of ‘Beat the Dealer’ which included the first balanced Card Counting system, devised by Julien Braun, since named the HiLo count.
The HiLo count assigned a point value to each card which the player would then add or subtract for each card seen, reducing the mental workload for the player substantially by allowing the use of the system with only one memorised number. The HiLo count made the addition of multiple decks a relatively minor inconvenience to the Card Counter.
Card Counting change the game of Blackjack forever from a table game that was generally considered to be a wife’s game while her husband was at the Craps tables, to the number one table game in the world and its impact on the game has been unquestionable.
Reductions in Blackjack Payouts
More recently – in the early 2000’s – offline casinos started to reduce the payouts offered on their Blackjack tables primarily on their single deck games. This was done in such a way that many players did not realise that they were being offered a weaker game. The casinos dropped the payout for a player receiving a Blackjack from 3:2 to 6:5. With this rule the casinos finally found a way to substantially increase their edge over the playing public without discouraging players. The larger numbers in the ratio lead the unwitting player to believe that the 6:5 payout is better but if the player is wagering $100/hand they would receive $150 for receiving a Blackjack on a 3:2 game and only $120 for the same hand on a 6:5 game. Even wagering only $10/hand the player will still lose $3 for every Blackjack they receive if they are sitting at a 6:5 table.
As the player will receive a Blackjack approximately every 21 hands, even at a slowly dealt game the cost of this reduction can add up very quickly. This rule is now being added by several smaller software providers – generally on single deck games - to online casinos. These games are by no means prolific, but their appearance is no good thing for players.
The correct response to seeing a Blackjack table that only pays 6:5 is to walk away from the table or close the game!
Basic Strategy is the mathematically optimal way to play any possible hand in the game of Blackjack. While Basic Strategy does not ensure that you’ll win every hand, it ensures that over the mathematical long run you will lose the least amount possible.
Many rule variations in the game can impact the Basic Strategy that the player should apply to that game. As such you should always check the specific rules of the game you are intending to play and generate the correct table for that game. To generate the Basic Strategy for a specific set of rules use the tool here:
** Scroll to the bottom of the calculator to make new selections after the first pressing of the "Generate Strategy" button.
Directly below you will find a Basic Strategy table for one of the more common rule variations (6 decks, Resplit to 4 Hands, Double After Split, Dealer Stands on Soft 17, Late Surrender);
| ||Dealer's Upcard|
|D||Double else Hit|
|Ds||Double else Stand|
|R||Surrender else Hit|
|Rs||Surrender else Stand|
To use the table, compare the hand that you’ve been dealt to the column on the far left. Once you’ve found the appropriate hand follow that row along until you find the dealer’s up card at the very top row of the table. The corresponding cell in the table defines the action that the player should take.
As a rough guide here are a list of rule variations and the approximate effect (based on the rule set displayed above) they will have on the House Edge of a Blackjack game;
||Difference in House Edge
|Blackjack pays 2 to 1
|Blackjack pays 6 to 5
|Blackjack pays 1 to 1
|Suited Blackjack pays 2 to 1
|Early Surrender (full)
|Early Surrender (against a 10)
|5 Card Charlie automatic winner
|6 Card Charlie automatic winner
|7 Card Charlie automatic winner
|5 card 21 pays 2 to 1
|5+ card 21 pays 2 to 1
|777 pays 3 to 1
|Not allowed to split 4s
|Draw to Split Aces
|Resplit to 3
|Resplit to 4
|Resplit Aces (Resplit to 3 hands)
|Resplit Aces (Resplit to 4 hands)
|No peek for Blackjack
|No peek on Ace
|No peek on 10
|No peek with doubles/splits returned on Blackjack
|Double Hard 9-11 only
|Double Hard 10-11 only
|No Double after Splits
|No splitting aces
|Hit Soft 17
|Player loses ties
|Player loses 17 ties
|Player loses 17,18 ties
|Player loses 17,18,19 ties
|Player loses 17, 18, 19, 20 ties
|Dealer 22 pushes all hands
|Dealer 22 pushes all hands except Blackjack
To calculate the House Edge for a given rule set use the below tool:
BLACKJACK HOUSE EDGE CALCULATOR
Basic Strategy by Software Provider
For convenience we’ve compiled the rules, House Edge and Basic Strategy tables for the Blackjack games offered by most of the major online software providers. Click the links below to view the Basic Strategy tables for individual games.
[table id=556 /]
Below you can find a calculator to allow you to check the fairness of your wins/losses when playing Blackjack.
*This fairness calculator will assume that you’ve been playing with the optimal strategy detailed above. If you have not then the calculator will NOT return accurate results.
Winning Strategies for Blackjack
While there are some legitimate playing strategies that can give the player the edge while playing the game of Blackjack, the vast majority of the systems out there that purport to do this are completely bogus and devoid of any worth. Below are notes on some of the systems that can gain the player a mathematical advantage.
It should be noted that while the strategies discussed below are legal, the vast majority of casinos will restrict your access to their Blackjack tables/promotions if not outright ban you from their casino if they think that you’re applying them.
Please be aware that the following strategies are only valid where the game being played is not shuffled after every hand, or depend on a weak dealer providing the players more information than they should have. As such they cannot gain an advantage where the player is using Random Number Generator (RNG) games – the computerized versions of Blackjack found at online casinos. There are live dealer games available online where some of the techniques described below may be applicable, but in my opinion the game conditions available online are not conducive to gaining any sustainable level of advantage.
Regarding the legality of Card Counting and Shuffle Tracking– the strategies discussed below are legal within the US and UK as long the player can perform them without use of external aids (computers/calculators). The moment that a computer is used to keep track of the cards or perform calculations, this becomes a violation of gaming law. We strongly discourage anyone from engaging in any form of illegal activity.
The fundamental premise behind Card Counting is that high cards benefit the player while low cards benefit the dealer. There are several reasons for this;
- Where a Blackjack is dealt, which consists of two high cards, if the player receives the Blackjack they win 1.5x their bet while if the dealer has Blackjack they only receive the player’s bets. Therefore, if the player and the dealer alternated in receiving Blackjacks, the player would win an additional half bet for every 2 hands played.
- Where the player doubles their bet, most often when they hold a 9, 10 or 11, a ten value benefits the player, creating a strong hand with 2 bets out.
- As the dealer is forced to draw cards to a total of 17, where the player can choose to stand on any total, ten value cards will bust the dealer far more often than they’ll bust the player. This is also the reason that low cards benefit the dealer more than the players.
There are other reasons high value cards benefit the player, but the above are the strongest factors. As such if the player knows that there are more high cards than low cards left to be in the deck – depending on the rules and the number of extra high cards – the player can have the advantage over the house.
The most basic form of Card Counting is the HiLo system. The HiLo count assigns a value to the cards as follows;
2, 3, 4, 5, 6 +1
7, 8, 9 0
10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace -1
The player starts their count at 0 and as each card is played out adjusts the total according to the values displayed above. This is referred to as the Running Count. If a positive count results this means that more high cards remain to be played and the player *may* have an advantage. The higher the count the strong the advantage the player has.
Having more than one deck in play does not make Card Counting substantially more difficult but it does mean that adjustments have to be made to the count. For obvious reasons having a Running Count of +5 is substantially more significant if there is only one deck remaining to be played than if there are 6 decks still to play.
For this reason, to gain an accurate assessment of the value of the cards remaining to be played to the player the Running Count needs to be divided by the number of decks remaining to be played. This figure is referred to as the True Count.
If the Running Count is +12 and there are 3 decks remaining, you would divide 12 by 3 which gives us a True Count of +4 (meaning there are 4 extra high cards for every deck remaining to be played).
As an approximation each point increase in the True Count shifts the House Edge 0.5% towards the player. I stress that this is not a precise figure and as the player who plays perfect Basic Strategy is generally starting with a disadvantage of around 0.5% or a little more, but this is just an approximation and vary with many different factors. As such the casino will normally have the edge over the player at any True Count less than 2.
On average - and depending on the rules number of decks in play, number of decks dealt out before the shuffle and bet spread (difference between the highest and lowest bet) – Card Counting can provide the player of an edge between 0.5-2% over the house.
The above is a very simplified overview of Card Counting. To successfully gain an advantage over the casino using Card Counting strategies requires a lot of practice and research and much of the detail and information required to win is absent from this discussion, including the effect of different game rules, changes to Basic Strategy where the composition of the remaining deck has changed, depth of shuffle point (penetration) and risk and bankroll considerations. Where time allows I may cover this topic in more depth at a later date.
There are several forms of Shuffle Tracking but the primary concept – as the name suggests – involves the player tracking cards through the dealer’s shuffle. In general the player will play through one complete deal of the pack, knowing the shuffle that will be performed in advance, and attempt to locate either a dense packet of high cards, a dense packet of low cards or a specific favourable card (usually an Ace) to visually follow through the shuffle.
Where a packet of high cards is followed the player will attempt to position them in a favourable place in the following shoe by using the cut card – often at the very start of the shoe, allowing them to draw a sharp distinction between their play and that of a Card Counter, who will normally place their large bets toward the end of the shoe - and will raise their bets substantially to take advantage of the higher than normal density of player favourable cards.
Where a packet of low cards is followed the player will attempt to use the cut card to remove these dealer favourable cards from play and adjust their playing and betting strategy for the subsequent shoe accordingly.
Where an Ace is followed through the shuffle – normally using cards that were directly adjacent to it in the previous shoe to indicate when the Ace is likely to appear – the player will attempt to steer this card to their hand providing that hand with a substantially improved chance of being dealt a Blackjack.
Shuffle Tracking can provide the player with a substantially larger advantage than those achievable with Card Counting – often double or more - but is vastly more difficult to perform successfully and far more costly where mistakes are made. As such only the most skilled players will ever make money employing Shuffle Tracking techniques.
Regarding the legality of Card Counting and Shuffle Tracking– the strategies discussed below are legal within the US and UK as long the player can perform them without use of external aids (computers/calculators). The moment that a computer is used to keep track of the cards or perform calculations, this becomes a violation of gaming law. We strongly discourage anyone from engaging in any form of illegal activity.
Hole Carding is the practice of locating a dealer that is insufficiently protecting their down card (hole card) enough so that a vigilant player can gain information regarding what the card is. The player then uses this information to adjust their strategy to account for the additional information.
Hole Carding was first discussed publicly by Blackjack author and Hall of Fame inductee Ken Uston in his book ‘Million Dollar Blackjack’. Depending on the quality and frequency of the Hole Card information available to the player it is possible to gain an advantage of up to 13% with perfect information on every hand and the correct playing strategy.
Another method of gaining an advantage over the house in the game of Blackjack is observing an exposed card during the shuffle/dealing procedure that should not have been visible. The easiest card to gain information about is the bottom card on the pack prior to the player cutting the deck after the shuffle, though this is far from the only way to gain this type of information and sloppy dealers and defective equipment can provide just as strong opportunities. If a card’s location and rank can be identified the card can be “steered” into a position that’s favourable to the player. This would generally be to the dealer’s hole card if the card is small or to the player’s hand if the card is a ten or Ace, though ten cards can potentially be steered into double down opportunities or as the dealer’s hit card in the hopes of busting the dealer’s hand.
Regarding the legality of Hole Card play and Card Steering – These strategies are only legal within the US and UK if the player can gain the required information from a natural position and without use of devices at the table they are playing at. If the player has to use reflective devices, cameras or accomplices off table to gain the necessary information to perform these techniques they’ve crossed the line of legality.
There are several methods of legitimately gaining an advantage over the online Blackjack games. By and large these involve the use of promotions, bonuses and comp point systems and the games by themselves – assuming the game is functioning in a correct fashion – will not provide any additional information about the cards and shuffle after every hand.
It should be noted that online advantage play is not specific to Blackjack and in recent years the wagering requirements for player’s choosing to play only Blackjack has inflated to the point that Blackjack is now often a sub-optimal choice for the player. For more information on beating online casinos see BeatingBonuses.com.
Blackjack Hall of Fame
The Blackjack Hall of Fame was originally set up in 2002 to recognise the most important contributions to the game of the various players and authors who specialised in finding ways for players to win. Hosted by the Barona Hotel and Casinos in San Diego, California, the inductees enjoy life long Room, Food and Beverage comps at the casino on the agreement that they do not ever play at the casino’s tables.
The first group of inductees initiated were done so through a combination of a public ballot which was available online and voting by the professional players that attended the Blackjack Ball in January of 2003.
The Blackjack Ball is a private invitation only event that is only open to professional Advantage Players held in January each year in a secret location in Las Vegas and hosted by Max Rubin. To receive an invitation and current invitee needs to suggest and vouch for you.
After the first year, public voting for inductions into the Hall of Fame was restricted and both the nominations and the ultimate admissions were decided by attendees of the Blackjack Ball. This change occurred because the organisers of the Hall of Fame felt that the best people to recognise the contributions that really made a difference to the game of Blackjack were the players who spent their lives putting the theories into practice.
Hall of Fame Members
Edward O. Thorp (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_O._Thorp) (Inducted 2002)
Widely considered by Card Counters and the general public to be the Father of Card Counting, Thorp was the first to publish a gambling system that could successfully beat any casino game. The publication of ‘Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty’ caused such a furore within the casino industry – after having made it to the New York Times best sellers list - that many casinos in tandem decided to alter the rules of the Blackjack games they offered. This results in players abandoning the effected casinos to such a degree that within 2 weeks of the rule change, the new rules were abandoned.
Alongside revolutionising the game of Blackjack Thorp is known for being the ‘Father of the wearable computer’. This title came about in 1961 when he – working with Claude Shannon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Shannon), a Nobel laureate in the field of Civil Engineering – developed computers disguised in shoes and cigarette packets to predict the likely outcome at the game of Roulette. At the time that Thorp and Shannon were using their computers at the table there were no laws prohibiting this activity, but this has since been illegalised.
Outside of gambling Throp has been a professor at UC Irvine, MIT and New Mexico State University. He has also applied his knowledge of probability and statistics to the stock markets where he’s had substantial success running various Hedge Funds.
Gambling books authored by Edward O. Thorp;
Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One, ISBN 0-394-70310-3
The Mathematics of Gambling, ISBN 0-89746-019-7
Beat the Market: A Scientific Stock Market System, ISBN 0-394-42439-5
Al Francesco (Inducted 2002)
Al Francesco – not his real name – is the man who is known to have trained Ken Uston, was the inventor of team play at Blackjack.
Francesco developed what is known at the ‘Big Player’ strategy. One of the primary ways that casinos pick off Card Counters is by watching their bet spread – a Card Counter has to bet substantially higher when they shoe favours them than when the remaining cards favour the dealer. The bigger the difference between the highest and lowest bet the bigger the Card Counter’s edge, but this difference also looks unnatural when compared to average Blackjack players.
Francesco concluded that to successfully make money counting cards the player needed to disguise the change in their bet size. To this end he started training groups of card counters. Most of the counters – known as Spotters – would simply move round the casino playing small bets at different tables. When a good count occurred the spotter would give a signal to the Big Player who would then come over to the table and place big bets until such time as all the extra high cards had come out of the shuffle point was reached.
The development of the Big Player strategy was one of the most substantial changes in the world of Blackjack and Card Counting and allowed Francesco’s team to operate completely undetected for many years. The publication of Ken Uston’s ‘The Big Player’, which discussed this technique, supposedly caused a rift between the two men and certainly alerted the casinos to this strategy.
None-the-less the Big Player strategy is still in use today and has been applied by almost all of the most successful Blackjack teams to have operated since.
Ken Uston (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Uston) (Inducted 2002)
Ken Uston, one of the players to have played on Al Francesco’s teams, is probably the most famous Card Counter of all time due to the media coverage that resulted from his count case against Resorts International in New Jersey.
Uston’s first book – co-authored with Roger Rapaport – was the first publication to discuss the intricacies of the Big Player team strategy devised and implemented by Al Francesco. This book revolutionised the way that Card Counters approached play, offering them a new way to disguise what they were doing. This technique is still in used today and – despite being well known by casinos as well as players – can be very effective.
In a further book, ‘Million Dollar Blackjack’, Uston was one of the first to discuss Hole Carding, the practice of finding a dealer that’s doing an insufficient job of protecting their down card. This technique was far more powerful than Card Counting and again changed the way many professional players approached the game.
In 1979, after being barred from a casino in New Jersey for counting cards, Uston took Resorts International to the New Jersey Supreme Court claiming that the casino had discriminated against him. Ultimately the Supreme Court ruled for Uston and since that time the casinos in New Jersey have been unable to bar skilled player. The casino’s response to this restriction has been to reduce the quality to their games, adding more decks and less favourable rules.
Gambling books authored by Ken Uston;
The Big Player, 1977 (ISBN 0-03-016921-6)
Million Dollar Blackjack, 1981, Carol Publishing Group. (ISBN 0-89746-068-5)
Ken Uston on Blackjack (ISBN 0-942637-56-9)
Arnold Snyder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Snyder ) (Inducted 2002)
Arnold Snyder is one of the most prolific Blackjack authors of all time. Alongside publishing numerous books on Blackjack he previously issued ‘Blackjack Forum’, a quarterly trade journal for Advantage Players.
His contributions to the field include the importance of deck penetration to the advantage that a Card Counter can gain over the game (a topic previously unexplored until the publication of ‘The Blackjack Formula’), the revelation that the indicies (count that you would deviate from Basic Strategy) were not equally valuable and that substantial simplifications could be made to the indicies tables without significant loss of advantage and the most complete exploration of the art of Shuffle Tracking to date.
Gambling books authored by Arnold Snyder;
Blackbelt in Blackjack ISBN 1-58042-143-1
Big Book of Blackjack ISBN 1-58042-155-5
How to Beat the Internet Casinos and Poker Rooms
The Poker Tournament Formula
The Poker Tournament Formula 2
The Blackjack Shuffle-Trackers Cookbook: How Players Win (And Why They Lose) With Shuffle Tracking
The Blackjack Formula
Stanford Wong (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_Wong) (Inducted 2002)
Stanford Wong – not his real name – was the originator of one of the most important strategies to be used by Card Counters; Back Counting, or as it’s often called ‘Wonging’.
One of the biggest problems for any Card Counter is playing through hands where they do not have an edge. Regardless of how much you bet you are losing money and if you make your bets at disadvantageous times too much smaller than those you place when you have an edge, you’ll quickly be identified as a Card Counter and asked not to play.
Wonging is the practice of standing away from the table, keeping track of the cards as they are played, and only entering the game if the cards remaining to be played favour the player and leaving the table if the cards become favourable to the house again. Proficient players will enter good games and abandon tracking games mid-shoe if the count becomes too negative, preferring to take their chances with a freshly shuffled shoe.
Many casinos today with have ‘No Mid-Shoe Entry’ signs posted on their table, preventing a player from starting to play until the first hand after a new shuffle. This rule was introduced as a direct consequence of Wonging and the Big Player team strategies created by Al Francesco and popularised by Ken Uston.
Wong’s contribution to Blackjack and Advantage Play in general go far beyond this and he’s written many books on gaining an edge over various games.
Gambling books authored by Stanford Wong;
Professional Blackjack (1975)
Professional Video Poker
Wong on Dice (2006). Pi Yee Press ISBN 0-935926-26-7
Basic Blackjack (1992). Pi Yee Press, ISBN 0-935926-19-4
Complete Idiot's Guide to Managing your T
Optimal Strategy for Pai Gow Poker
Vegas Downtown Blackjack
Sharp Sports Betting
Casino Tournament Strategy
Betting Cheap Claimers
Winning Without Counting
Complete Idiot's Guide to Gambling Like a Pro
Peter Griffin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_A._Griffin ) (Inducted 2002)
While Peter Griffin didn’t publish many books on the subject of Blackjack, his book ‘The Theory of Blackjack’ is considered to be one of the most important books ever published in the field and many theorists still cite the work and methods of Griffin.
Griffin was the first to estimate the House Advantage over the average Blackjack player and his work in deriving the Betting Correlation and Playing Efficiency of counting systems made for easy comparisons between different counts.
Gambling books authored by Peter Griffin;
The Theory of Blackjack, 1979, Huntington Press, ISBN 0-915141-02-7
Extra Stuff: Gambling Ramblings, 1991, Huntington Press, ISBN 0-929712-00-5
Tommy Hyland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hyland) (Inducted 2002)
If you’re not already a knowledgeable Card Counter the chances are you won’t have heard of Tommy Hyland. Where other players that have run successful teams have become famous after their teams ended, the Hyland team has been playing successfully for 35 years, which given the egos involved in professional play is unprecedented.
The Hyland team have successfully employed every well-known Advantage Play strategy and have won through in a Canadian court case where three Ontarian casinos attempted to present Ace Sequencing and team play as criminal activity, a position that the court did not accept.
Max Rubin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Rubin) (Inducted 2004)
Max Rubin was initiated into the Blackjack Hall of Fame for his book ‘Comp City : A Guide to Free Gambling Vacations’. Comp City provide insider knowledge on how various casino reward programs works and what players could do – even those not already engaged in Advantage Play – to maximise the amount they got out of their comps while minimising the amount the spent at the tables. Rubin’s book is considered the definitive guide to getting more out of comp programs than you put in.
Gambling books authored by Max Rubin;
Comp City : A Guide to Free Gambling Vacations
Keith Taft (Inducted 2004)
After Thorp’s venture into using computers to beat Roulette, Keith Taft and his son Marty are probably the most famous device players in the gambling world. Up until the use of computer devices was illegalised in the mid-1980s Keith spent his life coming up with more and more inventive computers that could be concealed on a person and used to beat the game of Blackjack. His machines were the reason the laws were changed.
Julien Braun (Inducted 2005)
Julien Braun may not have written many books, but his contribution to the early development of the field of Blackjack fundamental to many player’s success. Braun was the programmer that worked with Thorp on his second edition of ‘Beat the Dealer’, helping to develop the Hi/Lo count – still one of the most popular counting systems in use today.
The authors and players have a lot to thank Braun for – without his programming skills much that we now know would still be a mystery.
Lawrence Revere (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Revere ) (Inducted 2005)
Lawrence Revere was both a serious player and – at times - a casino employee. His only book ‘Playing Blackjack as a Business’ is considered a landmark work of its time, offering stronger count systems than had previously been available on the market (developed in conjunction with Julien Braun) and radically simplifying the very premise of the True Count allowing Card Counting to be applied without such mental strain.
His count systems are still on sale today through members of his family, but by and large there are preferable alternatives 30 years on.
James Grosjean (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Grosjean) (Inducted 2006)
By those in the know James Grosjean is widely considered to be the best player ever to have attacked the game. Grosjean is that rare combination of theoretical genius and personality capable of blending in naturally within a casino environment.
Grosjean has written one book – ‘Beyond Counting: Exploiting Casino Games from Blackjack to Video Poker’ – though the second edition of this book (titled ‘Exhibit CAA: Beyond Counting’) was so vastly expanded that it’s probably accurate to consider it a book in its own right. His published works are considered amongst the most valuable gambling information in print today and was sold only to individuals that could provide a reference from a professional player.
Having read both texts, Grosjean’s work is unlike anything else on the market and provides an insight into both the mind-set of a professional player and showcases what a truly exceptional theoretical mathematician and programmer he is.
Grosjean has also been involved in two major lawsuits against both Caesar’s and Imperial Palace casino after being illegally detained be these establishments for legitimate, legal Advantage Play. The title ‘Exhibit CAA: Beyond Counting’ was in reference to Caesar’s defence team introducing Grosjean’s first book as evidence against him. Both of these cases were eventually found in Grosjean’s favour. During the Imperial Palace case, Grosjean also sued the Griffin Investigations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griffin_Investigations) who had been disseminating information labelling Grosjean as a cheater. This lawsuit ultimately resulted in Griffin Investigations filing for Bankruptcy.
Gambling books authored by James Grosjean;
Beyond Counting: Exploiting Casino Games from Blackjack to Video Poker
Exhibit CAA: Beyond Counting
John Chang (Inducted 2007)
While you may not realise it if you’ve watched many films about gambling it’s fairly likely that you’re already familiar with a character that’s at least supposedly based on John Chang.
Chang has been a professional player for many years and was one of the managers and primary driving forces behind the most successful years of the MIT Blackjack team. Ben Mezrich’s New York Times bestselling book ‘Bringing Down the House’ featured a character called ‘Mickey Rosa’ that the author claims was an amalgamate character that insider knowledge suggests incorporated many experiences that were based on Chang. The book was later adapted into the film ‘21’ that starred Kevin Spacey as Mickey Rosa. The book was not particularly fastidious in holding to the truth of the story and the resultant film would be difficult to associate with the book without the explicit statement that it was based on Bringing Down the House, but nevertheless the character on Mickey Rosa was a fragmented representation of some of the experiences of John Chang.
Under Chang’s management the MIT team had some of the most successful years. Much of the strategy development and simulation of data was taken on by Chang and he’s still considered one of the foremost analysts of the game.
Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantley, Herbet Maisel, James McDermott (Inducted 2008)
Known as ‘The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen’, Baldwin, Cantley, Maisel and McDermott were the mathematicians that originally derived and published the first Basic Strategy for the game of Blackjack. Their contribution laid the groundwork for every development to have occurred since then. For more information see the History section of this article.
Richard Munchkin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_W._Munchkin) (Inducted 2009)
Richard Munchkin taught himself to count cards around 1977 using Lawrence Revere’s book ‘Playing Blackjack as a Business’. He’s played on several successful teams and authored the book ‘Gambling Wizards’ which was a compilation of interviews and discussions with some of the most experienced and skilled players in the world.
Munchkin also co-hosts a radio show with Video Poker professional Bob Dancer and has directed several films during the 80’s and 90’s, most of which appear to have been in the Erotic Thriller genre.
Not much more can be said of Munchkin’s playing experiences as he is still active and chooses to keep quiet about the specific contributions that lead his peers to feel he warranted a position in the Hall of Fame.
Darryl Purpose (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darryl_Purpose) (Inducted 2010)
Darryl Purpose is one of the few people who has publicly revealed that they played on teams with Ken Uston and Al Francesco, though his comments about Uston’s ability to make money playing were far from flattering. Purpose is very highly respected by his peers and considered to be one of the best players in the world, though like Munchkin chooses not to reveal the specific contributions that lead his peers to induct him into the Hall of Fame.
Purpose is also a well-known singer songwriter who has toured extensively across the UK.
Zeljko Ranogajec (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeljko_Ranogajec) (Inducted 2011)
As with some of the other players in the Hall of Fame, Ranogajec is a private individual primarily due to his current involvement with Advantage Play. As such much of the detail about his achievements are drawn from unclear sources.
Ranogajec began his playing career at the game of Blackjack where he allegedly turned a few hundred dollars into millions, playing prolifically in Australia.
In other areas of gambling – specifically horse racing - Ranogajec is believed to be one of the most substantial bettors in the world and is rumoured to account for around 7% of Australian bookmakers TabCorp’s turn over and one third of Betfair’s Australian operations. That being the case, bets placed by Ranogajec are likely to be large enough that they will move entire markets shifting the odds other player’s will receive when he chooses to wager and he is believed to have an extensive network of employees involved in the analysis of the markets and location of profitable opportunities.
Ian Andersen (Inducted 2012)
Andersen is a long term successful high stakes Blackjack player. He’s a very private individual who rarely gives interviews though has authored two books ‘Turning the Tables in Las Vegas’ and ‘Burning the Tables in Las Vegas’. Andersen’s books specifically focus on camouflage strategies for Card Counters and take an in depth look – with the assistance of Stanford Wong – at the various playing errors that a player can intentionally make that will throw casino security personnel that happen to be examining play of the trail while minimising the losses generated due to these cover plays.
Andersen’s approach to playing and discussion of how to disguise clever play has dramatically improved the average Card Counter’s chances of avoiding detection.
Gambling books authored by Ian Andersen;
Turning the Tables in Las Vegas
Burning the Tables in Las Vegas
Bob Nersesian (Inducted 2013)
Bob Nersesian is a lawyer specialising in gambling law. He’s represented numerous professional players including James Grosjean in his cases against Caesar’s, Imperial Palace and Griffin Investigations. In each these cases Nersesian was successful in the representation of his clients.
Nersesian has published a book – ‘Beat the Player’- discussing various important legal cases that involve Advantage Players and specifically giving player’s advice on their legal rights when interacting with casinos. This book is an invaluable resource for any serious player.
Gambling books authored by Bob Nersesian;
Beat the Player