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Games of chance found at casinos were originally designed for individual players. However, over the years the casinos have sometimes been beaten by groups of players. This initially became a problem in France during the 1800’s as joseph Jaggers and a group of six spotters watched roulette wheels for several weeks in Monte Carlo before exploiting biased wheels to the tune of $325,000 during the summer of 1873.

Dr. Edward O. Thorp who wrote the book Beat the Dealer and set Las Vegas on its ear with card counting winners, also liked roulette, and he and fellow mathematician Claude Shannon built a wearable computer to time the roulette ball and predict the section of the wheel the ball would land in. Before card-counting became popular, teams of blackjack players used to run-rampant at casinos in Toledo, Ohio as well as Louisville and Covington, Kentucky. Hi-profile games were also beaten in Texas and Louisiana.

The Side-Roaders

One of the earliest organized teams liked to switch dice at craps, past-post wagers at roulette, and they took-down large sums of money from several country club-style casinos in the south. They played with their own money, but occasionally convinced known thieves and kidnappers to invest in their fun. Alvin Karpis was one of their financiers, and other members of the Barker Gang were known to play/invest/distract dealers while they plied their trade. Eventually the group concentrated their play in Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio where the kidnappers liked to hide-out between jobs.

A little-known player, Charlie “Right” Cross, was heading the team in 1935 when they pushed their luck too far at a club owned by Moe Dalitz. Both he and Louis Rothkopf had seen some of the cheaters before, and Rothkopf took the matter into his own hands. No guns were used, only brass knuckles and equalizers (short sticks like police batons), but Charlie lost most of his teeth, part of his upper lip, and half of his left ear. Two other team members were beaten and left with broken noses, cheeks and collarbones. The team disbanded.

Texas Roots

Small casinos in Nevada during the 1940’s and 1950’s offered only a few blackjack tables and the games were tough to beat. Dealers routinely shuffled-up if aces were still in the deck, and the club owners and Pit Boss watched things carefully. The same was not true in Reno and Lake Tahoe, where the table were greater in number and offered limits as high as $500 for regular players and even higher for known high-rollers.

While the games were watched closely, they were still susceptible to cheats. Teams from both from Los Angeles and San Francisco regularly beat the Cal-Neva Lodge, the Mapes and Harold’s Club for substantial money during busy summer months, but it wasn’t easy. What was easy was playing the warps and spooking games in the late 1960’s at Reno’s Nevada Club, the Primadonna, and Harrah’s Club.

At those casinos the table games were placed in long sections (pits) shaped like flattened ovals. The tables were staggered slightly, and close together. One team successful team beat-down on the casinos for more than three years.

They were sometimes called the Texas Boys, and they weren’t afraid to make their moves in Vegas, either. They made every semi-legal move possible to improve their play, but also spooked the games by placing the Money Man at one table and a Spook at a table on the other side of the pit where they could see the dealer’s hole card as the dealer checked for blackjack. The Spook gave a quick signal to the player and the team made bank. Ever wonder why the casinos now use a peek device? That’s why.

Al Francesco’s Team

Today’s blackjack teams all owe a debt of thanks to a gentleman with many names. His favorite (while living in San Francisco) was Al Francesco, and he first trained players in card counting in the late 1960’s to fool the casinos at South Shore Lake Tahoe. Harvey’s and Harrah’s Club (again) were his favorite targets.

Francesco is credited with devising and implementing the use of a dummy-player, or Big Player, who walked up to a table with no prior knowledge about the condition of the cards or the shoe and placed large wagers. Of course the Big Player only did so when called into the game by a card counter previously placed at the game. The teams hammered Tahoe, Reno, Carson City and Las Vegas for more than five years before their play was understood. During that time they won more than a million dollars.

Ken Uston’s Team

One of the best (or worst) decisions Al Francesco ever made was to introduce Ken Uston to the world of blackjack team play. Uston was a local San Francisco playboy with a good job and time to spare, and he was very bright. Francesco met him at a cocktail party and later taught him about his team and their wagering system. Uston took to the play like a fish to water.

Eventually Uston outgrew Francesco’s team, started his own team, and authored several books about his exploits. The casinos in Nevada, especially those in Las Vegas like the Riviera, the Dunes, the Sands and Caesars Palace, had already snapped to the Big Player game, but Uston’s books put the true story out there for everyone to learn from, making team play much tougher.

Uston’s team broke-down after the books came out and he was barred at many casinos, but he rebuilt a year later and began playing again, including a stint where he worked with an early computer programmer who developed a wearable device to track the count and signal correct plays. That team, which included the programmer, his son and daughter, was pulled-up at Harrah’s (finally) Lake Tahoe and Uston returned to playing without the aid of a computer.

His team traveled to Atlantic City for the opening of Resorts International in the late 1970’s and played until the Gaming Control Board allowed the removal of Early Surrender and thebarring of players. Afterward he returned to Las Vegas and sponsored two small teams in the 1980’s.

Bill Kaplan’s Team

Bill Kaplan managed a small team of blackjack players in Las Vegas in the late 1970’s before returning to the Boston area in 1980. He and friends played the casinos in Atlantic City off and on, winning a little money, but his fortunes changed when JP Massar overheard him talking about blackjack at a nearby table in a Chinese restaurant.

Eventually Kaplan, JP Massar and his friend, John Chang, put together the most talked-about team of blackjack players ever – the MIT Team. While not all players were MIT students, several were, and the team recruited new players from both MIT and Harvard.

The team scored well in the early ‘80’s, but Kaplan quit to follow real estate leads. The team did fine without him, scoring big wins in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and the new Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. Eventually the money earned topped $3 million.

Kaplan re- joined Massar and Chang in 1992 to form a company called Strategic Investments, which also was quite successful.

MIT – “21” Team

While a number of groups made good money after learning card counting with players from MIT, two teams split off from Stategic Investments in 1993 and formed new groups. The Amphibians team is now remembered for hosting Andy Bloch, a professional poker player and Semyon Dukach.  The Reptiles team was led by three players including Mike Aponte.

The Hollywood movie “21” is based loosely on several players including Jeff Ma (portrayed as the lead player in the movie), who Aponte convinced to join their team. This team grew to dozens of players across the states and is said to have won more than $4 million dollars. Read More

Tommy Hyland

Tommy Hyland began card counting after reading Lawrence Revere’s book Playing Blackjack as a Business. His first team came into existence while several other teams, including Ken Uston’s, were playing the first strong blackjack games in Atlantic City when the casinos offered Early Surrender. The very-favorable rule was quickly rescinded, but not before many players pumped-up their bankrolls. Hyland’s group of four players started with $16,000 and won $35,000 before disbanding.

He formed a new team that has evolved and changed over the years while supplying a very nice income to dozens of players. While card counting was originally the main-thrust of play, advantage play like shuffle tracking has proven to be more advantageous.

Shuffle tracking continues to provide excellent pay with less detection, so players have gravitated to the newer form of beating blackjack. Hyland’s ability to manage a professional blackjack team is often cited as the reason for his longevity and great success.

The Holy Rollers

While the MIT group recruited on college campuses and later teams recruited via online bulletin boards and blackjack forums, there is only one group that recruited at church. God Bless them.

Ben Crawford and Colin Jones were avid blackjack players who took the MIT team’s route of playing individually, training friends, and eventually recruiting players from many cities. Between 2005 and 2011, the Church Team , had as many as 30 investors and 40 players from Washington, Ohio, California, New York, Oregon and Nevada. At its peak the team’s bankroll exceeded $1 million and together they won more than $3 million.

The team’s story was told in the documentary Holy Rollers, which gave viewers a clear picture of the ups and downs of blackjack card counting and team play. While there have been dozens of successful card counting teams plying their trade in the US and abroad, starting a professional blackjack team is hard work and involves great planning skills. Teams require many people to finance, train, and actually put in the hours of rigorous play. Because of the work and investment involved, most managers keep a lower profile than Ben and Colin, or even Ken Uston, but that’s what makes card counting and team play so exciting, the variety.

Not all players and not all teams work the same. Everyone’s different, but everyone has one goal, and that of course is to get paid to play a game of skill!

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