Modern Blackjack History 1950-1970

The modern history is the part of the history of blackjack we know the most about. A time of great advances, big names, and big troubles. Because there’s an awful lot going on we’ve divided this section into two parts, 1950-1970 and 1970-present.

The Age of Systems

The modern history of blackjack is the age of systems. Of course, savvy gamblers who developed their own systems have always existed, even in the days before the computer, when truly committed players would spend uncounted hours dealing themselves hand after hand to figure out the best strategy. Such players include Jess Marcum, Manny Kimmel, Benjamin F. “System Smitty” Smith, Greasy John, Joe Bernstein, Jack Newton, Glenn Fraikin, and Mel Horowitz. These are all players who developed systems that allowed them to win more than they lost, some even inspiring such confidence in their skills that they were sponsored by wealthy investors. Then there were also the players who trained hard to memorize entire decks as they passed around the table, betting big towards the end of the deck before the dealer wised up and shuffled the cards. But the modern era is when systems received the backing of solid maths and became wide-spread, forever changing the way blackjack is played.

The Horsemen’s Strategy

The first book presenting a valid, mathematically backed card-counting system and a working basic strategy was Playing Blackjack to Win by the men later dubbed the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott. This publication never garnered much attention, however. It was a cheaply published, spiral-bound edition brought out by a small publisher. The book also, despite the title, didn’t put forward a winning strategy so much as a strategy for breaking even, which isn’t really the stuff that captivates the public imagination. However, their basic strategy, worked out in their spare time with pencils, paper, and desk calculators, was accurate and heralded the modern era of blackjack strategy.

Edward Thorp

When Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One came out, it made the author, Edward Thorp, an instant celebrity. The very idea was tantalizing: a mild-mannered assistant professor of mathematics uses computer simulations to develop a strategy to beat blackjack, travels to Sin City to test his system against the casinos, and comes out victorious. Newspapers and magazines leapt head-first for it. Casinos soon came to realize that Thorp’s system was not just another scam, the system actually worked! And it was working for players who came to Vegas armed with the book. So casinos tried to change the rules to scew the odds further in their favour.

Scarne’s Challenge

Beat the Dealer also sparked controversy, and it had one very powerful detractor: John Scarne. Scarne was a big authority on gambling at the time, and the newcomer Thorp had done two things which earned him Scarne’s lasting enmity: He had commended the work of Scarne’s long-time rival Mickey MacDougall, another gambling expert who accompanied Thorp on one of trips to Las Vegas to check whether casinos were dealing honestly. (No surprises there: They weren’t.) And Thorp had also criticized Scarne’s most recently published blackjack analysis. When the rule changes made after the publication of Beat the Dealer drove away the regulars, casinos were forced to give up on these rules and try a new tactic. They approached Scarne and Scarne came up with a plan: He challenged Thorp to a $100.000 blackjack freeze-out match. Winner-takes-all. Of course, Thorp was no fool. John Scarne was a world-famous sleight of hand artists, and Thorp knew his system wouldn’t stand a chance if Scarne was able to rig the game.

Thorp’s Challenge

Instead, Thorp answered Scarne’s challenge with a challenge in turn. And this challenge wasn’t directed at Scarne, but at any Las Vegas casino that would agree to a match on certain conditions laid down by Thorp. These included a lower stake ($100.000 is a lot now, but back then it was worth a lot more, equivalent to well over 5 million Rand today!), and, very importantly, the deck would be dealt from the table and not out of the dealer’s hand. None of the Las Vegas casinos accepted Thorp’s challenge.

Multiple Decks

But the popularity of Thorp’s system turned out not to be so much of a disaster for casinos at all. Thorp’s system was powerful but complicated, and it required fast and accurate math skills at the table as well as an excellent memory. Many players who came to Vegas thinking they could use it to make some quick money underestimated the effort it took to master Thorp’s ten-count and his strategy charts. And with casinos introducing multiple deck games on Scarne’s advice, these players were making blackjack a very profitable game for casinos to offer. The second edition of Beat the Dealer featured a simpler version of Thorp’s system devised by Harvey Dubner, which Thorp called the Complete Point Count (it would later develop into the modern Hi-Lo Count), with strategy optimized by mathematician Julian Braun. This system could deal with multiple decks, but it was still cumbersome, requiring the player to keep up two separate counts.

Playing Blackjack as a Business

The second edition of Beat the Dealer also included a simplified version of Dubner’s count, the Simple Point Count. Players were wary of this count though, since it just looked too simple to be effective. Surely the more complex count was more powerful? With the proven systems still so complicated, card counting was not a very accessible skill. Add to that the fact that calculating the true count was a rather cumbersome business back in the day. Then Lawrence Revere, a former casino pit boss turned card counter, picked up Thorp’s suggestion about true count conversion, and with the help of Julian Braun‘s computer work he developed into a functional system. Revere’s book Playing Blackjack as a Business, first published in 1969, was much more accessible. It told players less about the theory that engaged the mathematicians, and more about how to actually go about learning to count cards. Above everything, it stressed practicing and accuracy as the key to winning. It made the skill of counting cards available to average players. It changed everything. Again.


Continue reading about the modern history of blackjack in the next chapter: 1970 – present.