Although the game we know today as blackjack has a history dating back nearly 200 years, it has only been during the past five decades or so that truly big names have emerged in the field. So it happened in 2002 that the Barona Casino in San Diego, California decided to create “The Blackjack Hall of Fame,” paying tribute to many of the world’s top game theorists, professional players and blackjack writers.
The Magnificent Seven
Induction into the Blackjack Hall of Fame (BHOF) was first determined by a poll conducted via the Internet. Voters included both professional players and the public at large, and they were asked to make their selections based upon the contributions that 21 individuals had made to the game. As a result, seven persons were chosen as the inaugural BHOF class of 2003, including three that are readily recognized by virtually everyone associated with blackjack.
Edward Oakley Thorp is widely acknowledged as the first mathematician to conduct a thorough analysis of the game. With access to an IBM 704 computer, the MIT professor examined all possibilities of play, developed a way to gain a playing advantage over the House by counting cards and, after field testing his results, quit teaching and published his results in 1962 in the now-classic book of the genre, “Beat the Dealer.”
Stanford Wong, who taught at Stanford University under his real name, John Ferguson, developed a variation of Thorp’s approach to the game and a method of applying it that became popularly known as “wonging.” Only when the deck favors the player does he or she join the game. As soon as the odds deteriorate, the player steps out.
Kenneth Senso Uston was a Harvard MBA and businessman who led a San Francisco based team of blackjack card counters team to millions of dollars of winnings at the tables of Reno, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. After being caught by a casino surveillance operation, Uston was banned from play, so in 1992 he published his methodology in a book titled “Million Dollar Blackjack.”
The other four initial inductees of the BHOF were Al Francesco, who allegedly invented blackjack team play and taught Uston how to count cards; math genius Peter Griffin (1937-1998), who came up with the research parameters known as Betting Correlation (BC) and the Playing Efficiency (PE); highly successful team organizer Tommy Hyland; and professional blackjack player Arnold Snyder, whose first book, “The Blackjack Formula” (1980), revolutionized how professional card counters attack games by introducing the concept of “penetration.”
Since 2003, BHOF members have been responsible for selecting new inductees each year. Members receive lifetime complementary rooms, food and beverages at the Barona Hotel under one condition—they must never attempt to play blackjack at the casino’s tables.
Other Giants of the Game
Over the next five years, ten more members were inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. In 2004, they included the brilliant inventor Keith Taft, who used high-tech electronic devices to milk casino blackjack games and author Max Rubin, whose 1994 book “Comp City” exposed ways that even non-counting players could exploit weaknesses in the casino comp systems to gain an advantage.
In 2005, IBM computer specialist Julian Braun was inducted along with former dealer Lawrence Revere, who helped perfect Basic Blackjack Strategy and methods of card counting for multi-deck games. The next year, professional hole-carder James Grosjean was selected, followed in 2007 by Johnny Chang, the manager of the famed MIT blackjack team.
Then, in 2008, credit was at last given where major credit was overdue. The BHOF members chose the “Four Horsemen of Aberdeen” to join their ranks– Roger Baldwin, Will Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott. It was Baldwin, in particular, who inspired Thorps work by publishing a article called “Optimum Strategy in Blackjack” in a 1956 edition of the Journal of the American Statistical Association. Together with the other three pioneers of blackjack theory, he was inducted for his work in developing the first accurate basic strategy.
Apart from the BHOF selections, many others have made a name for themselves in the field of blackjack. Dr. Jeff Bernstein, for example, gained fame in 2006 when he beat out a field of 40 contestants to win half of a $1 million prize pool in the nationally televised World Series of Blackjack at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Among those who gained notoriety in other fields before making blackjack waves is actor Don Johnson, who has taken Atlantic City casinos for millions. Meanwhile, Australian billionaire Kerry Packer (1937-2005) established a reputation for making the world’s largest blackjack bets—sometimes winning or losing $20 million in a single session. During one particularly good run, he won so much money at the blackjack tables of London’s Aspinalls Club that he forced the entire gaming venue to shut down.