Blackjack comes from the 18th-century French game “vingt-et-un” – translated as“twenty-one”.
In “vingt-et-un”, which was popular amongst aristocrats, the object is to get 21 points without busting. Unlike blackjack, however, it’s not necessary to hit a natural for the best win. The main object was to beat the dealer’s score and stay in the game. Players take turns to be the dealer.
Prominent figures in blackjack development
Roger Baldwin was a gifted mathematician and was intrigued by Blackjack during his time in the army. His master’s degree from Columbia University, his love of mathematics, and his fascination with blackjack led him and some of his friends (Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott) to devise optimal strategies for leveraging an advantage to the player in the game.
Their formulas were published in an article entitled “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack” (1956). It was a pioneering exploration of blackjack using proven formulas for having the best chance of beating the dealer. They soon expanded their findings into a book, Playing Blackjack to Win with best paying online casino in (1957). Though its research was groundbreaking, it tended to be largely inaccessible to the general public because of its complexity.
Edward O. Thorp
Thorp is credited as the father of card counting, based on the concept that if one keeps a running count of the cards dealt to both the player and the dealer then it will be possible to determine which cards remain in the shoe and, therefore, predict a final result.
Thorp published Beat the Dealer in 1962 and it was soon the go-to blackjack bible for everyone seeking an advantage over the casinos.
As you’d expect, casinos weren’t happy with Thorp’s book about card counting, and some even tried, unsuccessfully, to change the game’s rules to prevent card counting.
Casino responded by continually reshuffling a table’s cards at random points in an evening’s play. This worked a bit too well, however. It took so much time to continually reshuffle the decks that gamblers started getting impatient.
So casinos decided to use multiple decks in a single game, all packed within a large shoe of up to eight or more packs of cards. Unfortunately, they had misunderstood Thorpe’s card-counting theory. His methods could just as easily be applied to one deck as they could to multiple decks. It just took a bit longer for the player to find the right time to bet high and use his advantage over the casino. Committed blackjack players were still raking in millions from the casino.
The casinos then figured they would teach their own dealers to count cards using the Thorpe method. This was meant to enable dealers and pit bosses to quickly identify card counters by examining closely their betting habits. If a card counter saw that a table was moving to his advantage, he would naturally start betting big.
Ken Uston and Keith Taft: A casino’s worst nightmare
Uston and Taft formed a partnership and built a computer that could beat the house at blackjack. The computer, nicknamed George, was attached as a belt around the player. The player would then input a series of morse-code–like signals and George would advise him on the best kind of wager to make. George was fairly clunky, and Taft needed to operate the device with his big toes to input the data. When Taft and his son tested the device in 1972, they had limited success.
In 1976, Intel released the first 8-bit microcomputer, meaning that Taft would be able to design an improved and significantly smaller version of George – far more conducive to concealing the device in a busy casino context. Taft named his new version David (a reference to David and Goliath in the Old Testament). David (representing the player, who has scant resources but a steely determination) would take out Goliath (the giant casinos, ominous and threatening). The advantage of David was that it was built upon Thorp’s original card counting strategy but with an important difference: computing power.
Thorp’s method had a certain inherent inaccuracy, because it was designed to be accessible to the average player using mental arithmetic. Card values were placed groups and a running a count would be made according to the card group that had been dealt and not the card itself. So, card values of 2 to 6 would be assigned a +1 value. Cards with values 7 to 9 would be assigned a 0 value. And 10s, face cards and aces would be assigned a -1 value. By contrast, Taft’s device could analyse each card independently and make the best possible predictions – far better than any human mind could mentally calculate on a blackjack table.
Taft and Uston teamed up. The combination of Uston’s gifted analytical mind, Taft’s ingenious micro-mechanical David, and team of signalers and computer operators, meant a win of more than $100 000 during a five-week blackjack spree.
The casinos were mad, and laid charges against Uston and Taft’s team for cheating. But after a thorough analysis, it was determined by the FBI that these devices could not be considered cheating mechanics, and so all charges against them were dropped.
The casino fights back
Using their considerable connections and financial clout, the major casinos lobbied to change the law on the use of mechanical blackjack aids. It worked. The Nevada Senate Bill 467, signed into law, stated that, “It is unlawful for any person at a licensed gaming establishment to use, or possess with the intent to use, any device to assist in projecting the outcome of the game.” The penalties for contravention were stiff: first offenses carried a prison term of up to 10 years and/or a $10 000 fine; the second offense was a mandatory incarceration. Was Taft an exceptional blackjack player like Uston? Probably not. But Taft still made it to the Blackjack Hall of Fame 2004 for his contribution to the game’s “development”. Today, many of his devices are on display at the Blackjack Museum at the Barona Casino in California.
Stanford Wong: A new hope
Considered by many to be the Godfather of Blackjack, Stanford Wong (the pseudonym of John Ferguson) is best known for publishing the book, Professional Blackjack in 1975. He found a way of beating the Continuous Shuffle Machines (or CSM’s) that casinos had introduced as one of the many measure to counter-act card counting as a profitable strategy in blackjack.
The idea of “wonging” is based on betting at a blackjack table only when the table’s hand becomes more advantageous to the player. Once it shifts back to the casino’s advantage, the player then steps away and waits for his next most profitable moment.
Like some of his predecessors, Wong has a place in the Blackjack Hall of Fame. He is also the reason why many casinos have inscribed the words “No Mid-Shoe Entry” on some blackjack tables. This ensures that new players must wait until the first hand after any shuffle before they can bet.