Blackjack has been immortalized in pop culture thanks to movies, books, and music that cover or mention the card game. In the past decades, film has paid particular attention to the most notorious blackjack players of all: card counters.
Films like Rain Man (starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman) and 21 (starring Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess) fascinated the public. While Rain Man highlighted one (fictional) man’s ability to remember long sequences of numbers, movies like 21 showed the interpersonal dynamics of teams that formed to take on Vegas casinos.
The truth of famous card counters lies somewhere in between. They’re smarter and more disciplined than the average person, though many also rely on small groups to get the job done. Like in the movies, most card-counting teams stick to a single country. As one of the most popular and storied card games, there are significant variations between European and American rules, which include the number of decks used.
Other smaller changes, like bet types and number of splits, won’t affect a card counter’s work too much—but knowing how many decks are used is critical for a team. Other elements, like communication and trust, have helped some card counters make hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But some have struck out on their own, happy to make their money not by counting cards but by pulling the curtain back to expose industry secrets. Let’s take a look at five of the most famous card counters.
Considered the ‘father of card counting’, Edward Thorp wasn’t interested in blackjack for traditional reasons. Instead, he had a passion for statistics and probability theory as a mathematics professor at MIT, which he then applied to the famous card game.
Thorp spent years researching and applying theories of probability to blackjack, which he did by focusing on card value and the number of cards left in the game. This led to his seminal work Beat the Dealer (1962), which influenced the remaining card counters on this list.
Most notably, Thorp wasn’t actually involved in card counting as a means to make money in casinos. He eventually went on to bridge his work with blackjack across to the New York stock exchange.
Unlike Thorp, who devoted his life to blackjack based on his love of mathematics more than his love of gaming, Al Francesco was in it for the winnings. In fact, he studied Thorp’s book in order to perfect card counting, which wasn’t a skill that came naturally to Francesco.
The process of counting and tallying playing decks was so taxing on Francesco that he ended up inventing card counting teams in order to simplify the process—and to dodge casino officials who could easily spot card counters.
By the early 1970s, Francesco had a crack team that centered around a main or ‘big player’. While Thorp is responsible for breaking down card counting methodologies for the masses, Francesco was the first player to turn it into a team game.
Thorp is the father of card counting, while Francesco is the father of card counting teams. However, it’s Ken Uston who often receives the bulk of attention from those new to blackjack celebrities. As a Harvard grad with experience on the stock exchange, his knowledge of probability translated well to the card game.
At one point, Uston even played on one of Francesco’s card counting teams. During his time with Francesco’s team, Uston perfected his skills, becoming an indispensable member—the ‘big player’, as mentioned above. After a few years of raking in winnings, Uston decided to join Thorp in authoring a blackjack title.
He took the title directly from Francesco’s team model, calling it The Big Player (1979). His tell-all book exposed the finest workings of blackjack card counting teams, which were used by amateur blackjack players and casinos alike to gain an edge.
Eventually, Uston went on to legally challenge casinos that banned him and set a precedent of protecting card counters (at least in Atlantic City). However, his published work also led to extensive security measures at casinos, which include six decks and automated shuffling machines.