Card Counting Teams

Published: 14/08/2012
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In the 1990s, a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Johnny Chang used card counting to win millions at the Blackjack tables of casinos in Atlantic City. Eventually a private investigative firm called Griffin was hired to expose the “cheaters” who were working together as a team. This true-life saga became the basis for the 2008 Hollywood movie “21” starring Kevin Spacey, which alerted an entire generation to this innovative way of beating the House Edge.

But the MIT team was certainly not the first or only group of card counters working the casinos. In fact, a player by the name of Al Francesco deserves credit for inventing the concept of blackjack team play in the 1970s. He was the one who pioneered the idea of “The Big Player” and other ingenious techniques to use card-counting strategies without being detected by the casinos.

Card counters typically reveal themselves by adhering to a characteristic betting pattern. When the odds are in their favour, they bet high; when the odds favour the House, they bet low. Although card counting is in no way illegal, it is very unwelcome at casinos. Pit bosses keep an eye out for big differences between a player’s high bets and low bets. Upon discovery, the card counter will be asked to leave the premises, assisted by casino security, either gently or not-so-gently.

Francesco discovered how to bet like a card counter without looking like a card counter almost by accident. He was with some of his family members at a casino in the Lake Tahoe area, watching his brother, a card counter, play small-stakes blackjack and limiting his bets to $1 and $5 so as not to get caught. Francesco stood behind him, and whenever his brother made a $5 bet, he would back it with $100. When his brother backed down to $1 betting, he would refrain from making a wager.

To the pit boss, this looked like an unsuspecting tourist who didn’t even play his own cards, just hunches. Francesco won a lot, but it appeared to be just luck. When the brothers started to leave the table to go to dinner, the pit boss made sure they knew that they were very welcome to come back—a far cry from the reception they would have received if their card counting activities had been suspected.

Based upon this experience, Francesco organised his first team of blackjack card counters in 1971. It included six counters and one individual to be the team’s Big Player (BP). The counters would sit at different tables, counting cards and making small bets. Only when the count became favourable would a counter signal the BP to join in. Over the course of a few years, Francesco and his team won millions of dollars.

Among the card counters that Francesco recruited and trained was a player named Ken Uston. In 1976, Uston branched out and formed his own team to play in casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and beyond. Along with a California scientist named Keith Taft, they added a tiny computer to the mix, which allowed them to calculate odds quickly and know when to hit, stand double down, or split.

Although Uston and his team won millions at the blackjack tables, his penchant for big wagers got him noticed and assaulted by casino security. He was ultimately arrested and banned from play. But that didn’t stop Uston from donning disguises and he continued to play with his team long after being identified on blacklists. He also went to court to appeal the casino bans as a breach of his civil liberties.

In 1977, Uston did the unthinkable, at least from Francesco’s point of view. He published a book called “The Big Player” and revealed many of the secrets of team play. No doubt that book was an impetus to the formation of the MIT blackjack team in the 1980s. Chang joined them in 1981 and by 1992 he reorganized the team as a general partnership called Strategic Investments. Their success at the tables was phenomenal, leading to more than $10 million in winnings.

Uston, unfortunately, didn’t live to see their achievements. He died in 1987 at age 52 and was enshrined in the Blackjack Hal of Fame posthumously in 2003.

Published on: 14/08/2012

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