The card player known as Al Francesco has gone by a lot of different aliases during his lifetime. He has been Frank Fisano and Frank Schipani, Frank Salerno and “The Godfather of Blackjack.” Indeed, he was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2002 as one of its inaugural inductees. And although Francesco has long since retired from table play, his influence on the game has been both lasting and inspirational.
A Better Way to Win
As native of Gary, Indiana, Francesco grew up during the World War II era playing Greek Rummy and other card games. By the time he reached his twenties, his card sense was sufficiently developed so that he could earn about $5,000 a year without a “real” job—enough to live on, if not exactly high on the hog.
In 1963, Francesco moved to California, where he came across Edward O. Thorp‘s book “Beat the Dealer” and learned how to count cards. Within a year and a half, he became so proficient using the original Ten Count system that he was beating dealers regularly and found himself barred by many casinos. As a result, Francesco gave up playing Blackjack for many years, until he learned of Lawrence Revere’s new Advanced Point Count system, which got him back to the tables.
The problem was the same, however. As soon as Francesco started winning with consistency, he’d be harassed by casino staff and have to stop playing. “I had to come up with a better way to play,” he remarked later in life, and that “better way” came about quite by chance as he was in the Lake Tahoe area with some family members.
Francesco was watching his brother, a card counter, play small-stakes blackjack for $1 and $5 so as not to get caught. Standing behind him, Francesco would wait for his brother to make a $5 bet and then back it with $100. Each time his brother returned to $1 betting, Francesco would stop wagering. To the pit crew, Francesco looked just like any tourist who played hunches. Although he won a lot, his success appeared to be based entirely on luck. This was the “better way” Francesco had been looking for.
The Big Player
In 1971, Al started playing at casinos with a Blackjack team consisting of several card counters and one Big Player. Using Revere’s Advanced Point Count system, the counters would sit at different blackjack tables, each of them counting cards and placing small bets. As soon as the count became favorable, a counter would signal the Big Player to come make large wagers at the table until the count turned unfavorable. Over the next several years, Francesco’s teams won millions with nobody the wiser.
One of Francesco’s counters was Kenneth Senzo Uston, a native New Yorker with a talent for card play. Unfortunately for the Blackjack team, Uston published a book called “The Big Player” in 1977, revealing their secrets and effectively ending Francesco’s dominance of the tables. Other teams cropped up, including the famed Hyland team and the MIT Blackjack team. In fact, the Big Player concept is still central to team play today, widely recognized as the most successful method of disguising attacks by card counters.
Francesco quit playing Blackjack for a while, and then resumed it again briefly in the 1990s as part of Arnold Snyder’s team called CRAPS. They evolved from a straight card counting to “ace-sequencing”—a method of winning by memorizing sequences of cards. By the time he was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame, Francesco had once again retired from the tables to pursue horse racing strategies, which continues to occupy his time and attention to this day.