Card Counting Bandits that Made Off with Millions

High rollers may come and high rollers may go, but the towering casinos of Las Vegas remain, literally pillars in one of the most successful growth industries ever devised by humanity. It turns out that there is more to the game than luck; some of the world’s sharpest minds have been intrigued with the prospects of walking out the door with their pockets stuffed with “house money”.

Counting cards is an exercise in mathematics and statistical probability used to win big at the blackjack tables. What it really enables the player to do is place larger bets on hands in which they know (based on the other cards they have seen turned) they have likely advantage. In one sense, it isn’t cheating at all, but that technicality won’t matter to the pit bosses who catch people doing it every day. Banning suspected card-counters is a common practice – the only exception resides in Atlantic City, a result of a lawsuit filed by one exceptionally successful gambler (see below).

Casinos take their own measures to mitigate card counting, everything from simple distractions by the staff in order to break the player’s concentration to shuffling the deck automatically whenever a bet is raised. Below are some of the best in the blackjack business when it comes to counting cards.

Stanford Wong

Stanford Wong

Best known by his nomme de plum, John Ferguson began winning at the casinos with his card-counting techniques in 1964. This technique is referred to sometimes as “back-counting”, and also as “Wonging” in deference to his greatness. A Stanford-educated Ph.D., Wong also produced one of the first blackjack odds-analyzing software programs, and is the author of the 1975 book, Professional Blackjack, which is still in print today.

Lawrence Revere

Lawrence Revere

Behind the flashy pseudonym, Griffith K. Owens had a talent for mathematics, and a thirst for blackjack. As a young Iowan, he began dealing in back-room games at the age of 13. In 1971, he set the gambling world on its ear with his book, Playing Blackjack as a Business. In that book and in other venues, Revere painstakingly formulated and explained a number of systems that would tilt the odds in the player’s favor. The man who was famously barred from playing in any Nevada casino died of lung cancer in 1977.

Edward Thorp

Edward Thorp

With a PhD in mathematics and a Masters in physics, it’s no wonder Edward Thorp was able to defeat something so puny as a card game, which he detailed in his 1962 book, Beat the Dealer (with his Ten Count system). Of course, the pit bosses back then weren’t nearly as savvy as their modern-day counterparts, so Thorp’s pickings must have seemed relatively easy. Having published several follow-up books – which address many of the changes that casinos implemented in order to thwart card- counters – Thorp’s address book has two entries: Newport Beach, California and the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

Ken Uston

Ken Uston

The plaintiff in the lawsuit that prevented Atlantic City casinos from barring card-counters, Ken Uston revealed his “Big Player” scheme in subsequent books he has written, after he had gotten rich as part of the Al Francesco crew. By keeping “spotters” at different tables, counting cards and betting inconspicuous amounts, the Big Player (BP) was able to drift from one table to the other. When a card-counting spotter signaled the BP that there was an advantage at his table, the BP would swoop in and place a maximum bet, knowing the deck was stacked in his favor. Uston himself spent plenty of time as the Big Player, and today is in the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

Al Francesco

Al Francesco

A true student of the game, Al left his hometown of Gary, Indiana to make his fortune as a card player. He had read Ed Thorp’s revealing book, Beat the Dealer, initially struggling with Thorp’s complicated Ten Count system. He switched gears to Lawrence Revere’s Advanced Point Count system in 1971 and started rolling from there. The godfather of the Big Player system, and mentor to Ken Uston and others, Francesco revolutionized techniques that are still used profitably by gambling teams to this day.

Tommy Hyland

Tommy Hyland

One of the original members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, New Jersey-born Hyland came into the card counting game a little later than some of the others. By 1979, though, he had formed a highly skilled team that would exploit the mathematical advantages associated with the game of blackjack. He utilized established methods as well as taking a slightly different tack by using “Ace sequencing”. Throughout the years, Hyland and his teams are believed to have raked in more money than even the Hollywood-revered MIT Team.

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

There are few brain-power schools that can match the gear-heads at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When a collection of math students from MIT put their heads together, the result was a $400,000 windfall – in one weekend alone. Using sophisticated computer models, the 1990s-era MIT team (as was able to pull off a high-tech version of the card-counting schemes first devised by the storied Four Horsemen of Aberdeen, methods passed along and modified by others who saw blackjack as a beatable game, the only game in which the house could be placed at a distinct disadvantage.

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