Just as Samuel Clemens is to “Mark Twain,” so is John Ferguson to “Stanford Wong”—a writer whose penname took on a life of its own, becoming much more famous than the man who created it. More than a dozen books on Blackjack appear under Wong’s name, along with treatises on such diverse gambling topics as Video Poker, Craps, Pai Gow Poker and Sports Betting. But who is the real person behind Stanford Wong, and why did he choose to mask his identity?
A Natural Strategist
Shortly after he was born in Georgia in 1943, John Ferguson’s family moved several times before settling in Beaverton, Oregon, where the boy received his formal education. He also received informal schooling in all kinds of games, from Tic Tac Toe to dozens of card games played with family, relatives, neighbors and friends. Ferguson was fascinated less by competition and winning than by the intricacies of play. He once told an interviewer, “What always turned me on about any new game was figuring out the optimal strategy.”
By the age of 14, Ferguson had already come up with a basic strategy for playing Blackjack. However, it was not until 1963, when he read Edward O. Thorp’s book “Beat the Dealer” that he began to see the profit potential of the game. He was surprised to discover that Thorp’s calculations matched his own and thought to himself, “Hey this is neat! This guy’s really got something here and maybe I can make some money in the casinos.”
The problem, of course, was that Ferguson was an undergraduate at Oregon State University at the time and only 20 years old—too young to sit at the card tables of legal gambling halls. On weekends and evenings, he would practice counting cards using Thorp’s 10-count system, biding his time and perfecting his play for months until he turned old enough to go to Nevada for some real casino action.
A week after his 21st birthday, Ferguson set off for Reno with a classmate who had also learned card-counting, and they quickly turned a $300 bankroll into $550 playing $1 minimum and $4 maximum. Thereafter, Blackjack became Ferguson’s avocation. It was his major source of income when he went on to graduate school for an MBA at Oregon State, where he would teach for two years and get married before being drafted into the Army in 1968.
Introducing Mr. Wong
In 1970, following the mandatory two years of military service, Ferguson enrolled at Stanford University to pursue a Ph.D. in finance. He resumed his Blackjack runs to Nevada, but this time he was closer to Las Vegas and made the city his new source of revenue. While still a student, he wrote his first book, “Professional Blackjack,” to help other students learn how to count cards. But before publishing the book in 1975, he decided that he needed a penname, so disguise his true identity from casinos where he played under his real name.
“I really liked Nevada Smith,” Ferguson later explained, “but somebody else already had that name…. Denny Draper, who’s now a professor at U.S.C., suggested Stanford Wong, and I said, ‘That’s it!’ It’s got the mystique of the Orient and it’s got an academic ring. So, I have to give him credit for coming up with my name.”
Although Ferguson briefly taught finance courses full-time at San Francisco State, he found he was earning more playing Blackjack on weekends than teaching. In 1976, he quit his day job forever, moved his family (which by then included a son and a daughter) to La Jolla outside San Diego, and set up his own publishing company, Pee Yi Press. He began taking trips to Asia to plunder the Blackjack tables of Macau, Korea and the Philippines, too.
In the all the years since then, Stanford Wong has published books on the optimum strategy for many, many casino games, but his specialty will always be Blackjack. In 2002, “Wong” was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. In 2006, Ferguson as Wong participated in the CBS Sports television program, the Ultimate Blackjack Tour. He currently has publishing operations in Las Vegas and manages a website with message boards called BJ21.com.
According to Wong/Ferguson’s latest bio, “Commuting to work in the morning means strolling down a hallway. Every day he walks along the beach. He is his own boss. Anything that has to be done that he does not feel like doing himself, he hires someone else to do. He could not have a more pleasant life had he chosen to do something other than figuring out how to win money from sportsbooks and casinos.”