• English (UK)
  • Deutsch
  • Suomi
  • Norsk bokmål
  • Svenska
  • 繁體中文
  • English (India)
  • English (Canada)
  • Russian (Ukraine)
Expert review by

Professional blackjack: the history of the game

Almost everyone who visits a casino or an institution of this kind wants to achieve a positive result as often as possible and turn gambling into a steady income source. People started having these dreams even before the gambling business became popular and distinct.

The reality is this:

  1. The huge majority of players do not go beyond ephemeral fantasies.
  2. A small portion of them tries to use some systems and strategies.
  3. Very few gain the skills of such a high level that it becomes possible to obtain a mathematical superiority over the gambling institution.

You have control over which group you belong to.

Card counters vs casino


Probably one of the most famous and influential techniques is blackjack card counting. Thousands of professional players have been successfully using it for many decades, constantly improving and refining existing strategies and creating new ones.

Card counting is a blackjack technique that allows to determine the ratio of large and small cards in the remaining decks in the game.

Based on the situation, the counter changes the size of the bet, increasing it when there are potentially more profitable hands.

Naturally, casinos do not want to accept the activities of players who count cards and try to prevent it in every way possible.

Indeed the confrontation between counters and gambling operators will continue as long as the casinos remain open. And we will try to trace down how the history of professional blackjack began and developed, looking at the examples of the most prominent experts, starting from the pioneers of this field and ending with the current practising players.

Jess Marcum – one of the first counters

Physicist and mathematician Jess Marcum is considered the first player who managed to apply his scientific knowledge to blackjack and achieve significant success in this.

He was born in 1919 and ended up in one of the Las Vegas casinos at the age of about thirty. After watching the blackjack game for a while, he concluded that one cannot rely only on intuition in it and decided to develop his own strategy.

Without access to the computers, which were expensive and rare in those days, Jess took a pencil and a piece of paper, which was enough for him to make the necessary calculations.

Markum’s accomplishments are impressive:

He created the foundations of what was later called the basic strategy.
He came up with a card counting system that gave him an approximately three per cent advantage over the casino.

Not limiting himself to just theory, he proceeded to the practical use of the technique. Thanks to it, he became incredibly successful in gambling houses in the United States and other countries, eventually becoming an absolute star whose name was often printed on the pages of major newspapers and magazines.

The casino security services suspected he was a card-sharper, but he did not use any of the tricks that were known to them, and back then, counters weren’t commonly heard of. However, after some time, Jess was forbidden to enter the gambling establishments of Las Vegas. Later, the same thing happened in Reno and other American states. He went to foreign casinos but soon was blacklisted even in the Bahamas and Cuba.

It is believed that Markum did not share the secrets of the system he invented with anyone. He also never revealed how much money he won. When thousands of players began to count cards, he abandoned this activity, lived peacefully to the age of seventy-two and died in 1992.

The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen are underestimated geniuses

Four mathematicians have earned this almost biblical nickname:

Wilbert Cantey,
Roger Baldwin,
James McDermott
and Herbert Maisel.

The guys took up the study of blackjack exclusively out of academic interest. Actually, none of them had vast experience in gambling, which did not prevent them from working out the basic strategy, which they published in the specialised journal of the American Statistical Association.

They also published a book on blackjack in 1957, but their work went unnoticed by the general public and was truly appreciated later. All four have been inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

Edward Thorp takes blackjack to the next level

In the early sixties, Beat the Dealer was published. It turned out to be perhaps the most significant work in developing a professional approach to the blackjack game. The author was a young scientist Edward Thorp, who is recognised as one of the most influential blackjack experts.

It all started when Edward became interested in the studies mentioned above of the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen. He decided to look at their calculations and try to make practical use of them. Thorpe was able to work on an IBM computer and wrote several programs that allowed him to create a more accurate basic strategy and card counting system.

The book Beat the Dealer, in which Edward described his methodology in detail, was a huge success and became the basis for many subsequent developments.

It was the moment when ordinary players realised that they could beat the casino.
Of course, the owners of the establishments realised that too and immediately tightened the rules, fearing the mass influx of card counters. It got to the point that people, dissatisfied with unfavourable conditions, simply stopped playing blackjack, so casino owners had to make significant concessions.

Thorp’s accomplishments have been recognised by his induction into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

Julian Brown – the one who simplified the card counting system

In addition to numerous advantages, the card counting system introduced by Edward Thorp had a significant drawback. It was too complex for the average player to actively use it in real game conditions. It had to be simplified.

This was done by mathematician and programmer Julian Brown. Although he wasn’t a professional player, but he was truly fascinated by the idea of ​​​​obtaining a mathematical advantage over the casino, so he decided to make Thorp’s method available to the public.

Brown formulated the basic principles of the Hi-Lo system and wrote the book How to Play Winning Blackjack (which, however, did not become popular and was not recognised as one of the masterpieces). Reissued Thorp’s book already included the Hi-Lo explanation, making them even more in demand.

Julian’s calculations, made on the most powerful computers at the time, were later used by other experts.

Ken Aston and other counters


Later, systems for obtaining a mathematical advantage over the casino became simpler and more accessible. In addition, players have gained access to computer technology, making previously impossible calculations straightforward.

In subsequent years, Lawrence Revere, Stanford Wong, and other professionals introduced new simple card-counting techniques. Previously existing methods were subject to significant changes and improvements.

In the late seventies, Al Francesco created the first truly successful team of blackjack players, which “attacked” numerous casinos, using the knowledge of their predecessors and tricks of their own invention.

One of the members of his group was Ken Uston, who was famous for several interesting books about blackjack and winning a lawsuit against Resorts International Casino in New Jersey. His victory over an establishment that banned card counting legitimised card counters but led to stricter regulations in that state.

He also began to actively use microchips hidden in the clothes, which helped members of his team exchange signals and win the casino. When several of them were caught, it turned out that they had not violated the current law and thus could not be held accountable. And after that, the US Supreme Court passed a law prohibiting the use of computer devices in the gaming process.

The struggle between card counters and gambling operators continues to this day, although the spread of online casinos has somewhat lowered the degree of this confrontation. The tricks of professional gamblers and cheaters are becoming more sophisticated, and institutions are forced to spend more and more money on the maintenance of a large number of staff and security officers.

Gemma Heathcote
Gemma Heathcote.

Gemma Heathcote – Editor @ Superlenny

Gemma is the Editor of SuperLenny.com, where her main responsibility outside of editing and writing content is overseeing everything published online. She’s also ensures the day to day operations of SuperLenny are kept running smoothly, including keeping Josh and Matt in check!