You want to read about the winners? Well before we discuss any winners some hard truths need to be acknowledged. All the sites discussing big winners, telling you about how ‘Player Lucky Pants won the jackpot at Casino XYZ’ are only ever giving you a tiny fraction of the story. These stories are intended to warp your perception of probability and reality to convince you that, as the UK National Lottery said in their early days, “It could be You!”.
The truth is that for every winner that the gambling industry promotes in this manner, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of losers. And that’s just the lottery format. And when they tell you about a big winner on a casino game one thing they regularly omit is how much the player had lost prior to winning the jackpot. Many of these players are down huge sums before hitting that big win.
The gambling industry doesn’t tell you about all the losers it took to create that one winner, or the losses that these players sustained before hitting the big win, because these stories are less likely to convince you to gamble.
So this word of caution to begin with – if a site is telling you about a big winner and you are starting to think that it could be you if you just played a little more, remember that it is very unlikely to ever be you. The odds are stacked heavily against that outcome and the casino owners are rubbing their hands with glee every time that thought goes through a player’s head.
That said, over the decades there have been individuals and groups of players who have used wit and guile to overcome the odds and legitimately win huge sums of money. We’ll talk about some of those people below.
Edward O. Thorp
We start with the father of Advantage Play in the modern era. While there were no doubt winning players before Thorp, most of those took their secrets to the grave with them. Thorp exposed the world to the possibility that gambling games could be beaten and made Blackjack one of the most popular casino games in the world today.
Thorp developed the first card counting systems for the game of Blackjack and applied an investing theory known as the Kelly Criterion to determine bet sizing for each situation based on the advantage held.
When Thorp applied his research to a field test in the Reno casinos it proved very successful, over doubling the invested stake of $10k. The strategy was especially effective due to the casino’s use of single decks and dealing down to the bottom of the deck. The further through the deck Thorp was allowed to play, the stronger the information he had about the remaining cards in that deck.
While the figures stated may be small by the standards of some of the stories covered here, Thorp arguably had more impact on both players and the gambling industry than any other individual. Due to the publication of his book: Beat the Dealer the public became aware that it was actually mathematically possible to beat the game of Blackjack. While very few people would ever put the time or work in to master the skills necessary to actually beat the game, thousands of new players flocked to the game thinking they could beat it.
More than this though, once the industry realised the threat posed by the people who could legitimately beat the game, they immediately started applying countermeasures to combat these winning players. Effectively, every change to the rules of the game of Blackjack that followed Thorp’s revelation came about as an effort to combat card counters, from the introduction of multiple decks to negative changes to the rules like the reduction to the payout for receiving a Blackjack.
Thorp went on to develop wearable computers for beating various casino games and ultimately moved into stock market investing where he has made a fortune for himself. As we all know – wearing any sort of computer device in order to beat casino games is illegal.
Card counting can still be applied today, even online (via Live Casinos), but the truth is that Live game providers can very quickly analyse play to detect players applying these types of strategies and ban them. You can find out more about which casinos offer live games in our casino reviews.
Ken Uston and Al Francesco
Following on from the work of Thorp, Al Francesco, having seen the rules of the game of Blackjack being changed in a manner that made gaining an advantage more difficult, started to employ a new twist on card counting to allow players to gain an edge again.
Casinos were detecting card counters due to their betting patterns – when the deck was unfavourable to the player the card counter would bet low, when it was favourable to the player the player’s bets would increase proportionately to the advantage. These changes in bet size made it easy to spot counters and back them off.
Francesco engaged what is now known as the ‘Big Player’ strategy. Effectively this involves several people working as a team. Several players will sit at different tables and keep track of the count while betting minimum amounts. These players are called ‘Spotters’. When the count becomes advantageous to the player, the Spotter will subtly signal to the Big Player, who will come over to the table and start betting far larger amounts. As soon as the deck becomes unfavourable to the player the Big Player will leave again. In this manner the Big Player will bounce on and off tables, only ever placing bets in advantageous situations.
And this is where the enigmatic Ken Uston would come on board with Francesco. The two would run multiple different Blackjack teams. Uston’s flamboyant style has immortalised him in gambling history, inexplicably allowing him to get away with play in casinos that would have drawn negative attention for anyone else.
After a very successful run in Atlantic City, Uston went on to sue the casinos in New Jersey for barring him from play, contesting that the casinos were discriminating again skilled players. The courts ultimately ruled in Uston’s favour, prohibiting casinos in New Jersey from preventing players from playing simply because they were good enough to beat the game. The results of this victory were that the Atlantic City casinos quickly adopted rules that were significantly more detrimental to players than those seen elsewhere in the world. Needless to say, after this response, no Advantage Player has tried to obtain a similar ruling elsewhere in the world.
Before going into the exploits of Keith Taft it should be recognised that the primary undertakings Taft engaged in would be considered illegal in most jurisdictions today. At the time Taft was practicing, these strategies had not been illegalised.
Taft was a computer developer specialising in putting together pocket-sized computers to assist with card counting. These computers – after several ups and downs in terms of success – ended up attracting the attention of teams being run by the aforementioned Ken Uston and Al Francesco.
Little is known publicly about Taft’s life, but we do know that Taft worked with various groups to develop computers to beat casino games through the 70s and 80s. Finally, in the 80s Taft put together a belt buckle camera intended to allow the team to see the dealer’s hole card when it was being dealt. When they were caught doing this it seems to have spurred authorities on to illegalise this practice in 1985.
Similar to Keith Taft, the Eudaemons were a small group of physics students from the University of California Santa Cruz. This group developed a wearable computer, in the late 70s, that allowed them to predict the section of the Roulette wheel that the ball would land in. By eliminating seven eighths of the wheel and only betting on the eighth of the wheel the ball was predicted to land in, the team managed to gain an advantage of 44% over the house (comparatively a card counter gains around a 1% edge over the house and even the casino only has a 5% edge over players on a double zero roulette wheel).
Again this strategy would be considered illegal today, but at the time this occurred was not prohibited. The group eventually split up due to differing personal objectives and an unfortunate incident where one of the players received an electric shock from the device, but an account of their experiences can be found in the book The Eudaemonic Pie.
The MIT Blackjack Team
Easily one of the most famous group of winning players due to the multiple books, films and TV shows that have been dedicated to their exploits.
Made up (mostly) of students attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the MIT Blackjack Team applied the same Big Player strategies that were used by Al Francesco, but with greater focus on camouflaging what they were doing. By exploiting ethnic stereotypes – most notably that Asians are big gamblers – they managed to exploit various opportunities across the United States and other countries.
The MIT Team are widely reported to have taken millions of dollars while playing Blackjack and at various points over their activity consisted of between 50 and 80 members. While they primarily employed card counting strategies, they did also engage in shuffle tracking, ace sequencing and back card steering techniques at different junctures, though the success of these alternative strategies has been cast into doubt by some former members of the team.
The exploits of this team made for such an engaging story that a major motion picture starring Kevin Spacy (21) and a New York Times bestselling book (Bringing Down the House – Ben Mezrich) have documented the activities, albeit highly fictionalised, of a later incarnation of the team.
Ranogajec is an Australian gambler who started out his career at the Blackjack tables. While he reportedly had great success playing Blackjack – turning a bankroll of a few hundred dollars into a fortune – it is not his Blackjack play that is most noteworthy in his record. In fact, it is not even a reported $7.5 million win playing Keno in 1994 that tops the list.
Ranagajec is known for his horse racing betting activities. While he is very secretive about exactly what he has done over the years, various reports have emerged that make it seem likely that he was behind a significant syndicate group based out of Sydney in Australia that focused on predicting winners of horse races by engaging mathematical analysis of various data points to model the likely outcomes of any given race.
Alongside winner prediction however, Ranogajec is known to have negotiated significant cashback (alternatively known a ‘rebate’) deals with some major bookmakers. These deals offered a significant opportunity to make money. Some reports have suggested that the vast majority of the profits generated from his horse racing activities have come from rebate deals.
In 2019 the Australian Financial Review listed Zeljko Ranogajec’s net worth at $600 million Australian dollars.
Not to be confused with the Miami Vice actor of the same name, Don Johnson is a former corporate executive who demonstrated the power of money. For casinos that are well bankrolled there are few things more attractive than a whale (a player that can lose millions and not worry about it). They will offer huge incentives to players of this nature. Ordinarily these incentives are not of any great consequence – the player is a bad gambler and does not understand that using these perks in an optimal manner could result in them having a significant edge. However, if the casino makes a mistake and offers these incentives to a player that understands what they are doing the results can be very costly.
Mr Johnson was just such a player. The casinos in Atlantic City coveted his play and in order to get it agreed to offer better rules on their Blackjack games than they would for other players (for instance the dealer standing on soft 17, being allowed to re-split Aces and only using 6 decks of cards) and most importantly the casinos agreed to offer him a 20% rebate on losses (a special type of casino bonus) over $500,000.
Being a smart player he knew how to exploit this combination by implementing an optimal playing strategy to reduce the House Advantage, alongside a high risk betting strategy, knowing that when he won he could keep 100% of the winnings and when he lost he’d have 20% of his losses refunded.
Over a 6 month period Don Johnson won $15.1 million from 3 casinos in Atlantic City ($6 million from the Tropicana, $5 million from the Borgata and $4 million from Caesar’s) before the casinos cottoned on to the fact that this was not a losing player.
One particularly lucrative hand Johnson recounts saw him win $800k in a single round of play – splitting 8s repeatedly to 4 hands and doubling each of the resultant hands, which formed two 10s and two 11s and concluded with the dealer busting.
While this is a mind boggling sum to most of us, the truth that players need to keep in mind here is that Don Johnson was both a very skilled player and, significantly, had the financial backing to play at these huge stakes. He would never have been able to survive the swings that this type of play creates without a huge bankroll and it was that same huge bankroll that ensured that the casinos were willing to offer him the perks that gave him the opportunity to win. Without that huge bankroll to begin with, Johnson wouldn’t have ended up a winner.
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