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The Future of Casino Blackjack

Conditions are getting tougher, but there will always be a way to win.

One of the most useful tools for predicting the future is an understanding of human nature. The needs, hopes, problems, and desires of human beings often provide clues to future developments. Human nature is one of the most important ingredients in the complex business of gambling. Gambling is a struggle between competitors, and each party will-go to almost any length to profit from the game. In blackjack the competition is between the house and the player, and they both want to get their money's worth. This intense struggle has profoundly influenced the development of casino blackjack, and it will undoubtedly determine its future.

The House and the Player

Before 1962:

Before the publication of Edward Thorp's classic work Beat the Dealer in 1962, no player was aware of the basic strategy for blackjack. Each player used a different combination of superstitious beliefs about how the hand should be played combined with various strategic plays he may have picked up from playing blackjack at home. With the exception of a handful of individuals who had enough card sense to realize that they had an advantage when the deck was full of high cards, there were virtually no winning players at the game. Naturally, this was a very favorable state of affairs for the casino. The casinos reaped tremendous per capita profits from the blackjack tables prior to 1962.

Casino Blackjack from 1962 to 1972:

After the publication of Professor Thorp's book,things began to change on the blackjack scene. When the book reached best seller status and Dr. Thorp was accorded international recognition, the casinos began to fear that everyone would learn his system and beat them out of their money.

The results of this scare are well known now. A number of casinos changed their blackjack rules, giving themselves an even greater advantage than they would ordinarily enjoy. This innovation lasted only a few weeks, however, as a large percentage of players refused to play blackjack with the unfavorable rules. Responding to the law of supply and demand, the casinos very quickly re-instituted the old rules, and players immediately returned to the game in even greater numbers.

The publicity which Thorp's book generated turned out to be a boon for the casinos. The blackjack tables attracted scores of players who were convinced they could "beat the dealer." As a matter of fact, blackjack players kept losing at nearly the same rate at which they were losing before Thorp's book was published. Most players who had purchased the book could not understand the ten count it presented, and those few who could understand it did not put in the time or effort needed to master it. The casinos watched with delight as their profits pyramided.

When Beat the Dealer was published in paperback in 1966, it set off another surge in blackjack converts and casino profits. In the next few years, more books and systems were published on the subject of winning at blackjack. As the game's appeal continued to grow, casinos put in more tables and the game of blackjack began to vie with craps as the most popular casino game in the state of Nevada.

Blackjack in the 1970's:

Lawrence Revere's classic textbook, Playing Blackjack As A Business, was in large part responsible for a further increase in the popularity of casino blackjack in the early 1970's. Revere had published briefer versions of his course on blackjack as early as 1969, but it was not until 1972 that tens of thousands of copies of his book reached the general public as a result of bookstore distribution. The sale of his simple and advanced count systems in the mid-1970's further popularized the game.

Stanley Roberts' book Winning Blackjack also served to spread the word about winning systems. His appearance on over two hundred radio and television shows, including "What's My Line" and "To Tell the Truth," along with over $500,000 in advertising since 1971, have served to proclaim publicly that a skilled player can indeed win.

The casinos once again became afraid that that the scientific, computer-devised systems would cut into their profits. Many casinos changed their games from single deck to multiple-deck games in the early and middle 1970's to counteract the computer strategies.

In the early 1970's many scientists, statisticians, mathematicians, university professors, and other intellectuals began writing books on the game, and several even devised systems of their own. One of the most powerful and popular point-counting strategies during this time became my HIOPT I, which was sold by International Gaming Incorporated in 1974 The system was devised with the help of Julian Braun's computer programs for simulating the game of blackjack and with the assistance of an anonymous graduate student in the department of mathematics at a large Canadian university. He simply called himself Mr. G.

Many professional players turned to the HI-OPT I and away from the Revere systems because of the relative simplicity and power of the HI-OPT I compared to the complexity of the Revere point counts. Many average players began to use the simple HI-OPT I count along with basic strategy to beat the house at blackjack. The HI-OPT I and the Revere Advanced Plus Minus Strategy had a great impact on casino profits and procedures and were used to greatest advantage by professional players. Stanley Roberts' strategies, on the other hand, were responsible for considerable sums taken out of casinos by casual and average players.

Ken Uston, Blackjack Teams, and The Big Scare

Ken Uston remarked in December of 1976 how amazed he was that a strategy such as the HIOPT I, which had a simple count, was so powerful. As Uston's book, The Big Player recounts, he and his teammates won over a million dollars playing the game of blackjack cooperatively, and in the later stages of their playing, a number of the team members began to use the HI-OPT I strategy because of its power and simplicity. As a result of his astounding success, Uston was barred from at least seven of the major Las Vegas casinos and is now suing those casinos for over eighty million dollars.

With Uston's success, a new era in casino blackjack commenced. The casinos became alarmed at the huge sums of money teams could win at their tables. One player would signal when the deck was ,rich, and then the "big player" would come in and plunk down five hundred or a thousand dollars and always be betting into a positive situation. A number of casinos that, previously had single-deck and double-deck games immediately went to four-deck games. Some of the casinos that already had four deck games began to introduce five-deck games; others went to six- and even eight-deck games. The game became tough for the average player. What made the game tougher still was the fact that not only were most casinos using multiple decks, but a lot of the casinos were cutting off one and a half or two decks; that is, they were not dealing all the cards out of the shoe. As Stanley Roberts points out in his article in this issue, the practice is very questionable. Further, this failure to deal all the cards has encouraged a few dishonest people to remove cards from the deck, as I'll explain later.

At present, the casinos are willing to experiment with multiple decks and with cutting off a lot of cards while monitoring the amount of profit and the volume of play they receive. Some casinos which have noticed a drop off in play have gone back to more single-deck tables. Others have introduced more favorable rules in order to attract more play while retaining the same number of decks. At the present time, blackjack playing conditions in most Nevada casinos are very tough, particularly for the novice.

The Present and the Future of Casino Blackjack

A number of professional players are still winning at the game. They will continue to do so. Some professionals playing against the multiple-deck games are winning because they are using more powerful winning strategies such as the HI-OPT II, which was published in 1976. Other professional players are winning because they have managed to increase their bet range in multiple-deck games. One advantage of playing a multipledeck game, especially playing against more than four decks, is that the casino is not as concerned with the bet range as it is in single and double-deck games.

As a result of the very difficult playing conditions in most Nevada casinos, many players have begun to resort to bribing blackjack dealers with large tips. Tipping the dealer is part of every professional blackjack player's winning strategy. Some winning blackjack players give up as much as fifty percent of their net profits in the form of tips. A number of dealers who are tipped will do any or all of the following for the player:

1. The dealer will signal the player whether he has a large card or a small card underneath a ten-value card.

2. The dealer will virtually play the hands for the player and will not give him a card should he hesitate in asking for a card when the dealer knows. He has a small hole card and therefore a good chance of busting.

3. The dealer will cut off fewer decks in a shoe game for the player.

4. The dealer will tell the player outright that he is very "hot" tonight, thus warning the player not to play at his table because he is under pressure from the pitbosses or the manager.

Bribing the dealer is one road to success still open to the blackjack player. This kind of approach leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but it is likely to become a permanent fixture in the game of blackjack.

Another way in which the game is kept alive is that a number of dealers skim money from the house by letting their friends win. Some of these dealers are with the Mob, others freelance. These dealers signal their friends when to take a card and when not to take a card and thus greatly enhance the possibility of winning. In fact, a player does not even need to know how to count cards in order to win in this kind of a situation. He will do very well just by using some approximation of basic strategy.

In order for this kind of skimming to continue, honest players must be drawn into the game so that the house does in fact show a bottom line profit. That is, fresh money must be brought in or else the house would be run out of business by cheating dealers. Honest players can be enticed into the game by favorable rules and fewer decks. The casinos also attract average players by offering top entertainment and complimentary privileges, as they have always done.

Very recently I discovered that a number of dealers also have managed to skim money from the house by taking ten-value cards out of the shoe. This, of course, is a very easy and efficient way for them to bring more money into the house so that they can skim off more for themselves and their friends. Taking ten-value cards out of the shoe gives the house a greater advantage than they would ordinarily have. At the same time, if the dealer is working with a partner to signal him what kind of card he has under his ten card, the dishonest player can win in spite of the fact that some tens are missing from the shoe. The information gained from the signaling alone can give him as much as a ten-percent advantage.

The expansion of casino gambling into other states in the U.S. should help insure the continued existence of the game of blackjack. It seems certain that not only the state of New Jersey, but also New York, Florida, and other states will have casino gambling within the next five or six years. Casino blackjack is now a permanent feature of a number of western provinces in Canada. You can play Las Vegas blackjack in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and other western cities every weekend. Casino gambling is also being expanded in the Caribbean. There is now a casino on the island of St. Kitts, which is not too far from St. Maarten, and gambling is also flourishing in Haiti. As more casinos continue to open up in Nevada, they will have to compete among themselves for players. This competition should insure gamblers a better deal at the blackjack tables.

There is no doubt that the game of blackjack has become more and more difficult to win at. However, these difficult conditions bring to mind the old saying, "necessity is the mother of invention." Right at this moment more powerful blackjack strategies are being devised in computer centers around the United States.

My associates and I are currently experimenting with a three dimensional strategy for blackjack which is especially suited to multiple-deck games. The three dimensional strategy involves keeping separate track of small cards, big cards, and middle-value cards. Though it is, at the moment, too complex for the average blackjack player, we are simplifying the strategy to make it comparable to the HI-OPT II.

Strides have been made in developing calculators which can help players beat the game. At least two electronics firms have come up with calculators which can play blackjack for the player. What is lacking so far is the ability to enter the information in the calculators without being spotted by casino personnel.

In my view, the present and future of blackjack is good but not great. Money can still be made at the game if one is willing to learn a powerful and sophisticated strategy or invest the time and money in a powerful calculator type strategy. Then, there is always bribing the dealer, which is certainly the easiest way to win.

Because of the tougher and tougher conditions in the game of blackjack, players may well begin to turn to other forms of gambling, such as sports wagering and horse race betting. It is just a matter of time before we have legalized off-track betting in every state in the United States and every province in Canada. I also predict that we will eventually see legalized sports wagering in every major city in North America.

It is important to realize that there will always be hope for gamblers. They may have to change games. They may have to learn something about probability theory. They may have to devote more hours to learning a more powerful strategy. They may have to get together with other players to form a form a team. They may have to invest more money in new technological devices such as programmable calculators. However, there will always be a way to make money through gambling.

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