American mathematician Dr. Edward O. Thorp is considered the father of card counting. His 1962 book Beat the Dealer (ISBN 0394703103) outlined various betting and playing strategies for optimal blackjack play. Although mathematically sound, some of the techniques described no longer apply as casinos took counter-measures (such as no longer dealing to the very last card). Also, the counting system described (10-count) is harder to use and less profitable than the point-count systems that have been developed since. A history of how counting developed can be seen in David Layton’s documentary film, “The Hot Shoe.”
Even before the publication of Beat the Dealer, however, a small number of professional card counters were beating blackjack in Las Vegas and casinos elsewhere. One of these early card counters was Jess Marcum, who is described in documents and interviews with professional gamblers of the time as having developed the first full-fledged point count system. Another documented pre-Thorp card counter was a professional gambler named Joe Bernstein, who is described in the 1961 book I Want To Quit Winners, by Reno casino owner Harold Smith, as an ace counter feared throughout the casinos of Nevada. And in the 1957 book, Playing Blackjack to Win, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott (known among card counters as “The Four Horsemen”) published the first accurate blackjack basic strategy and a rudimentary card counting system, devised solely with the aid of crude mechanical calculators — what used to be called “adding machines”.
From the early days of card-counting, some players have been hugely successful, including Al Francesco, the inventor of blackjack team play and the man who taught Ken Uston how to count cards, and Tommy Hyland, manager of the longest-running blackjack team in history. Ken Uston, though perhaps the most famous card counter through his 60 Minutes television appearance and his books, tended to overstate his winnings, as documented by players who worked with him, including Al Francesco and team member Darryl Purpose.
In the 1970s and 1980s, as computing power grew, more advanced (and more difficult) card counting systems came into favor. Many card counters agree, however, that a simpler and less advantageous system that can be played flawlessly for hours earns an overall higher return than a more complex system prone to user error.
In the 1970s Ken Uston was the first to write about a tactic of card counting he called the Big Player Team. The book was based on his experiences working as a “big player” (BP) on Al Francesco’s teams. In big player blackjack teams a number of card counters, called “spotters”, are dispatched to tables around a casino, where their responsibility is to keep track of the count and signal to the big player when the count indicates a player advantage. The big player then joins the game at that table, placing maximum bets at a player advantage. When the spotter indicates that the count has dropped, he again signals the BP to leave the table. By jumping from table to table as called in by spotters, the BP avoids all play at a disadvantage. In addition, since the BP’s play appears random and irrational, he avoids detection by the casinos.
With this style of play a number of blackjack teams have cleared millions of dollars through the years. Well-known blackjack teams with documented earnings in the millions include those run by Al Francesco, Ken Uston, Tommy Hyland, various groups from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and, most recently, a team called “The Greeks”. Ken Uston wrote entertainingly about blackjack team play in Million Dollar Blackjack (ISBN 0897460685), although many of the experiences he represents as his own in his books actually happened to other players, especially Bill Erb, a BP Uston worked with on Al Francesco’s team. Ben Mezrich also covers team play in his recent book Bringing Down The House (ISBN 0743249992), which describes how MIT students used it with great success. See also the Canadian movie The Last Casino.
The publication of Ken Uston’s books both stimulated the growth of blackjack teams (Hyland’s team and the first MIT team were formed in Atlantic City shortly after the publication of Million Dollar Blackjack) and increased casino awareness of the methods of blackjack teams, making it more difficult for such teams to operate. Hyland and Francesco soon switched to a form of shuffle tracking called “ace sequencing”. This made it more difficult for casinos to detect when team members were playing with an advantage. In 1994, members of the Hyland team were arrested for ace sequencing and blackjack team play at Casino Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. It was documented in court that Nevada casinos with ownership stakes in the Windsor casino were instrumental in the decision to prosecute team members on cheating charges. However, the judge ruled that the players’ conduct was not cheating, but merely the use of intelligent strategy.