Blackjack has a history of over 200 years, so one might think that the earliest masters of blackjack date back to the 18th or 19th century. However, that’s far from the case. It was not until computers came on the scene in the mid-20th century that the computational power was available to analyze the game and allow true savants to emerge. Following are ten of the game’s most noteworthy geniuses, many of whom are enshrined in the Blackjack Hall of Fame in San Diego.
Roger Baldwin – Baldwin gets most of the credit for coming up with what is today known as Basic Blackjack Strategy. He received his Master’s Degree in mathematics from Columbia University, and while stationed with the U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 1953, he joined fellow soldiers Will Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott to develop the optimum way to play every possible hand, using only desktop calculators. Their breakthrough strategy was published in a 1956 edition of the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and the game has never been the same.
Edward Oakley Thorp – The acknowledged father of card counting was a professor of mathematics at MIT when he used data from an IBM 704 computer to come up with a way to gain a playing advantage over the House. He field tested his card counting theories in Nevada casinos and published his results in 1962 in the now-classic book “Beat the Dealer.”
Lawrence Revere – Perhaps no blackjack player since Thorp has done more to popularize card counting than this former dealer, who was born Griffith K. Owens and earned his degree in math from the University of Nebraska. In 1969, he published “Playing Blackjack as a Business,” the first layman’s guide to strategic hand play and methods of card counting for multi-deck games, including the Point Count system.
Al Francesco – Revere’s book inspired the so-called “Godfather of Blackjack,” who allegedly invented blackjack team play in 1971. Francesco (aka, Frank Schipani or Frank Salerno) was also responsible for the concept of the “Big Player,” and he also had an influence on many great players to come, including Ken Uston.
Kenneth Senso Uston – As a protégé of Francesco in the 1970s, this Harvard MBA led a team of blackjack card counters team to millions of dollars of winnings at the tables of Reno, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. After Uston beat Resorts International for $145,000, the casino banned him for cheating, but he took them to court and won the right to count cards at New Jersey tables. In 1981, he published his winning methodology in a book entitled “Million Dollar Blackjack.”
Peter Griffin – This California State University professor authored “The Theory of Blackjack” in 1979, a classic analysis of the mathematics of the game. He was among the first to calculate the percentage disadvantage of an “average” blackjack player at 2%, and he introduced the research parameters known as Betting Correlation (BC) and Playing Efficiency (PE), too.
Keith Taft (circa 1935-2006) – Unlike most blackjack geniuses, Taft was not a great card player, but he was a superlative inventor who got his Masters in physics in 1965. As the “Wizard of Blackjack Gadgets,” he developed high-tech electronic devices, not only for his own teams but also for Ken Uston and others, to milk casinos in the 1970s and 1980s. Taft is the main reason electronic devices are now illegal in most casinos.
Stanford Wong – In the 1980s, this Stanford University professor of finance, whose real name is John Ferguson, added a unique twist to card counting, only entering a blackjack game when the deck is favorable and then leaving the table when the odds deteriorate—a tactic that became known as “wonging.” He is the reason so many casinos no longer allow mid-shoe entry.
Johnny Chang – Best known as the manager of the famed MIT blackjack team, Chang was recruited as a player in the early 1980s, and although he soon became one of the team’s biggest assets, it turned his true genius was in organizing. By 1984, the MIT Blackjack Team had 35 players and a capitalization of $350,000. An estimated $10 million was won before the casinos began identifying and banning the leading players—Chang among them—forcing the MIT Team to dissolve in 1993.
James Grosjean – This professional hole-carder authored “Beyond Counting” in 2000, describing ways to gain an advantage over the casino simply by paying close attention to the mannerisms of dealers. In 2004, he won a $105,000 lawsuit against Griffin and Caesar’s Palace for libel, false arrest and violation of civil rights when they had him arrested for cheating. Since then, the Supreme Court of Nevada has upheld “hole carding” as a legitimate technique that can be used by advantage players.