A small but interesting subculture of blackjack players have managed to gain some degree of fame for their contributions to the world of 21. Some of the famous names in the game are those of writers and mathematicians who have influenced the way gamblers approach the game – think of Edward Thorp and his groundbreaking book Beat the Dealer – while others earned their status as being among the most-respected players in the world.
The feature film 21 and the broadcast of series like The World Series of Blackjack are a testament to an increase in interest in the game, and in the people who play it. 21, based on the book chronicling the adventures of the MIT Blackjack Team called Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, was a box office success, and increased attention paid to games like poker in the early 2000s made celebrities out of some gamblers.
What makes a person particularly good at playing this game? It’s true that some of the big names in the game are also experts at poker and other titles, but there’s something about the world’s top 21 players that sets them apart from the masses that hit casinos every day.
Characteristics of Good Blackjack Players
You can’t create a stereotype of an ideal player – the Hollywood image of a math genius with savant-like powers of memory is not realistic. However, it’s true that many of the top gamblers in the sport have a solid background in high-level math. When you read player bios, you see a lot of people with degrees and teaching experience at the Ivy League level.
But the best-known gamblers in the game aren’t necessarily mathematically-inclined; the best example is Sam Vaughn, a multi-million dollar winner who worked for the US Postal Service before becoming a top player. Since Vaughn is one of the biggest winners in 21 history, it’s obvious that a genius-level IQ and hours spent in lecture halls aren’t pre-requisites for skill in this casino classic.
Some things that make a person good at blackjack are common across all highly-skilled casino gamblers: the discipline required to learn card-counting techniques would serve a poker player well when working out the probabilities of his opponents’ hands. Dedication to practicing the game and counting down decks would be a boon for slot gamblers who often have to wait patiently for a big win. The ability to wait and only place big bets when the odds are in your favor is a skill that players at the craps tables could also use to their advantage.
When you read about the best-known names in the game, you’ll notice that many of them have a peculiar or outstanding personality, a willingness to disguise their appearance, form shadowy teams of players, and publish books about their experiences in casinos around the world. While not every great gambler can claim the unique title of “the man with the $100,000 breasts” like magician and 21 expert Brian Zembic, people with a penchant for this game seem to have something that sets them apart from the crowd.
A member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, Grosjean is most famous in gambling circles for his book Beyond Counting. That title approaches advantage gambling from a mathematical perspective. Grosjean is also famous for winning big lawsuits against two major casinos and the private investigation service they hired to take him down.
While pursuing a Ph.D. in Finance from Stanford University, Wong started gambling and became so interested in it that he eventually gave up his professor’s salary in exchange for more time at the tables. His book Professional Blackjack, released in 1975, is still in print, and the technique known as Wonging is named after him. Though his real name is John Ferguson, he’s listed in the Hall of Fame under his mysterious pseudonym.
Author of the first book that proved that the game could be beaten through the use of card counting, Thorp was one of the original entrants in the game’s Hall of Fame and a unique personality in his own right. A math professor, Thorp was also the first people to apply computer simulations to games of chance.
The MIT Blackjack Team
An unofficial group of MIT students, professors, and other Ivy League students formed in 1979 to use card-counting to beat casinos, this somewhat anonymous group of players may be the most famous in the world, thanks to the mystique that surrounds them and the books and films that have been made about their exploits.
Uston was one of the most famous names in the game when he was alive; he was the first to develop the concept of team play to beat the house. Ken Uston also successfully sued Atlantic City casino properties for the right to count cards as a legitimate strategy. Uston was famous for using disguises to avoid casino employees on the lookout for him and other counters, and wrote countless books on gambling and video game strategy.
One of the original seven inductees into the Hall of Fame, Tommy Hyland is another famous card-counter and manager of a famous team that has allegedly been in continuous operation since the late 1970s. When a few casinos in Canada finally moved to sue Hyland and his team, the judge in the case found that using strategy like the counting of cards was a legitimate way of playing the game.
Though Munchkin has spent most of his life producing films and TV shows like Fists of Iron and L.A. Heat, he’s best-known to 21 players as a writer and strategy expert. Munchkin’s book Gambling Wizards features interviews with famous gamblers from around the world, including Doyle Brunson, Tommy Hyland, Chip Reese, and Cathy Hulbert.
Host of the annual Blackjack Ball and a regular on TV shows like GSN’s World Series and the Ultimate Tour on CBS, Max Rubin is one of the most visible 21 players in the world. His book Comp City is a guide to using casino bonuses to spend as little money as possible and get the most value for their gambling bankroll.
The Blackjack Hall of Fame
It’s only been around since 2002, and members now induct just one player per year, but the names on the game’s Hall of Fame roster are a perfect collection of the best 21 gamblers in history. Only current Hall of Fame members can induct new members. The Hall of Fame includes experts at playing the game as well as authors and mathematicians who have been important to strategy development.