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While the game of 21, or blackjack, was played for several hundred years before the idea of an advanced system was introduced in the 1960’s, the game did have excellent players. As offered in European casinos, the no-hole card variety proved very tough to beat, but games in clubs found in Florida, Texas and Nevada often had excellent odds if the player took advantage of all their options.  However, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that game-theory pioneers started looking at gambling and especially blackjack.

Mathematician Roger Baldwin and his Aberdeen Proving Grounds Army friends (Cantey, Maisel, McDermott) worked out a series of programs to understand the results produced by playing blackjack in different styles, and in 1957 they self-published a book called “Playing Blackjack to Win.” Inside the pages, readers found that perhaps the game could be played at an approximately break-even state by playing a standard strategy on each hand, depending on the dealer’s up-card and the player’s two-card starting hand. At the time, even with an improved strategy, most games in Nevada were unbeatable. Sales of the book were minimal.

However, some experienced gamblers in Toledo and Reno had found that simply employing an aces-count could produce good results. They played their hands to the best of their ability, and when no aces had been seen after the first two rounds of play, they raised their wagers from $5 to $25, and it worked pretty well. Of course dealers were schooled to shuffle when no aces had been dealt, and could expect a scolding or even termination of employment if such sloppy dealing continued to take place.

The First Card Counter

Dr. Edward O. Thorp is credited as being the first card counter, since he devised what has become known as Basic Strategy to play each hand, and the Ten’s Count, to keep track of the house edge. Unlike roulette or craps, a blackjack player’s chances of winning change from hand to hand, depending on the cards remaining in the deck. Thorp understood this, and took his knowledge to Las Vegas where he played against the casinos with good results.

Later, Thorp released a book entitled Beat the Dealer, which extolled his, exploits, and explained his blackjack system in a way that most readers could understand. The book wasn’t particularly successful at first, but Las Vegas Pit Bosses took note of the Ten Count and changed several rules to improve their house edge.

Surprisingly, it was the rule changes that catapulted the book to the New York Times Best Sellers List, because newspapers and magazines took note of the changes and wrote about them, and Thorp. The book sold wonderfully, and eventually casinos in Las Vegas came to realize that players did not like the new rule changes, and when they changed them back to attract play, the players really hadn’t improved much. The Ten Count was too tough, but new players kept coming to town!

Enter Julian Braun

In 1966, Thorp’s book was updated, with a revised Ten Count and some other changes provided by Thorp and computer programmer Julian Braun. Braun used an IBM 7044 mainframe computer, which took up a very large room, to run 9 billion blackjack simulations and produce refined results for blackjack players.

In fact, the new information was powerful enough for Braun to use it in creation of a new system of card counting he referred to as Hi-Lo. The system was easier to follow than Thorp’s, and more accurate. His work at the game of blackjack helped convince casinos in Nevada, the Bahama’s, and Europe, that they should use more than one deck of cards. Today, the majority of blackjack games are dealt from a plastic shoe containing six-decks of cards.

In the 1970’s, Braun’s latest results were published in Lawrence Revere’s book Playing Blackjack as a Business. Revere, who also went by the name Specks Parsons, played his strategy for years and offered private lessons in blackjack. His results were very good, but were thwarted by his easily-distinguished features and his bet variation. He was often spotted, and dealers would shuffle-up the deck after just a few hands, or he was intimidated into leaving the casino.

By this time, many casinos in England had adopted blackjack as their favorite game, and while roulette was still popular, blackjack had attained peak popularity. Unfortunately for casino owners in Europe and Nevada, a new phase was taking place: team play.

Even today, the Revere plus/minus system is still used as a first-system by many blackjack players, and surveillance teams are often taught the count-system for its ease and relative accuracy in spotting counters, even if the counters themselves use a stronger system.

Blackjack Teams

Gamblers find out early that the size of their bankroll and their ability to keep it growing was a big part of their success. Some also found that sharing a bankroll could be beneficial if both parties were successful gamblers. For professional blackjack players, sharing a larger bankroll leads to higher win rates, and having a whole team of players’ leads quickly to more hours of successful action.

Blackjack player and author Ken Uston became the face of team play when he joined a group of professional card counters lead by a man called Al Francesco. The San Francisco-based group of gamblers perfected a system of keeping track of a shoe of cards and passing the information to a money man (often Uston), who make maximum wagers while the lowly card counters bet only the table minimum.

The ability to bet large amounts of money when holding the advantage made team play popular and profitable, and led to a new wave of books about blackjack and once again instilled fear in the hearts of casino owners. Uston’s teams played to bankrolls starting at between $50,000 and $100,000 in the early ‘70’s and the teams of eight or ten players split the profits whenever the starting bankroll was doubled. Over the course of seven years, they only lost their starting cash twice, while doubling up nearly 100 times.

A dozen years after Uston’s foray into the casinos of Nevada, Atlantic City, and England, several well-financed teams of players from places like MIT led to wins Uston never dreamed of.

The MIT team, the Dream Team, and the Tommy Hyland team each won huge amounts of money (millions) from casinos and were featured in the Hollywood movie 21. Today, players still band-together to share their bankrolls and ability, and take advantage of ill-equipped and poorly-trained casino employees. As casinos flourish, so do new ways to make money, like shuffle-tracking, where players shun card counting for keeping track of progressions of aces to make large wagers where they will be rewarded with 3 to 2 payoffs.

Online Blackjack

Blackjack player Ken Uston was more than a showman and blackjack player, he was also a computer programmer, who spent his final years doing computer work under contract for more than a million dollars a year. In the early 1980’s he produced home-computer programs to train blackjack players and envisioned a time when players could play against each other across their computers. Today, players have the opportunity to play blackjack for free or for real money in online casinos.

Online blackjack has been around for 15-years now, and the remaining casinos have proven to be mostly safe and fun. Money can be deposited easily, welcome-bonuses are offered, and games include several varieties of blackjack such as Double Exposure, Spanish 21, and Pontoon.

In standard online blackjack, a simulated (virtual) shoe of at least 6-decks is used and rules are posted for double downs, splitting of pairs, and insurance. Some online casinos also offer Live Dealer Blackjack, and players wager on actual hands they view via streaming feeds. This type of game may offer players more security, but most video blackjack is perfectly safe.

Occasionally players feel that the games must be rigged because their results are not as favorable as they had hoped, but obviously with any game of chance there are likely to be streaks where players lose several hands in a row. In addition, the speed of video blackjack must be considered.

Because a standard game in a land-based casino may have six or even seven players, the dealer is only able to get each player between 60 and 100 hands per hour. Playing online, alone, a gambler can easily wager on hundreds of hands per hour. Even with a tiny house edge, the sheer volume of hands will have a much greater impact on a player’s bankroll than the game found at a land-based casino.

Keep in mind that the house-edge at blackjack is determined by both the house rules and the players’ ability. Learning Basic Strategy is the first step in reducing the house edge and improving your chances of winning. Fortunately, online video blackjack can be played at whatever speed the player needs to make correct bets as well as correct hits, stands, and splits. Don’t guess, learn and use basic strategy as well as wagering systems to combat the house edge and you’ll find your results can be very good!

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