Tommy Hyland - Leader of Highly Profitable Blackjack Teams
Tommy Hyland's entire life seems to revolve around one form of gambling or another, but he's most famous for his skills at blackjack. Not only was he an amazing blackjack player who mastered the art of card counting, he was also a respected manager of not one but two high performance blackjack teams. Although his teams have made millions of dollars over the course of the years, enjoying the game is more important to Tommy than any amount of money he could earn.
In an interview with RWM's Gambling Wizards, Tommy said this regarding the benefits of being on a blackjack team, "Yeah, there are a lot of great things about playing on a team. There's the camaraderie. You have somebody to travel with. You learn things from each other. You share information. It seems like you can really come up with ideas when you have a team."
Early Experiences with Gambling
Tommy was born in New Jersey during the 1950s, and that's where he spent the majority of his childhood. His father gambled occasionally when Tommy was younger, going to the racetrack or the pool halls once or twice a month. Before Tommy really started gambling, he would play a game with his friends that involved throwing pennies at a brick wall and seeing which penny landed closest to the wall after it fell.
The person whose coin landed closest to the wall won both pennies. This vintage game is often referred to as "pinching pennies," and it could be considered a very mild form of gambling. They eventually started using larger coins: nickels, dimes, and quarters. From there he started placing bets with his friends concerning what he could do in a game of basketball or in a round of golf.
Once he entered high school, he stopped placing bets for awhile and instead focused on collecting bets. He would make photocopies of standard parlay cards, hand them out to people at school, and watch the money roll in every week. Some weeks he only made thirty dollars, while other weeks he made fifty or more. This was a substantial amount of money considering his age and the time period.
Tommy decided to make his own spreadsheets once, so that people in his school could place bets on high school sports instead. His numbers were so off that he lost over $400 in one night; he had to sell his pool table to cover all of the costs. That was the last time Tommy tried to be the bookkeeper, as it was clear that he was meant to be the player.
He spent the last couple years of high school focusing on playing golf, and earning himself a hefty scholarship to Wittenberg University in Ohio. His major was technically political science, but he spent many hours playing golf every day and avoided doing schoolwork. Tommy also spent a great deal of time playing poker in different friend's dorm rooms on the weekends.
Tommy enjoyed reading for leisure, and eventually stumbled upon a couple books about blackjack, as anything regarding gambling always interested him. One of those books happened to be, Playing Blackjack as a Business, by Lawrence Revere.
Tommy and his roommate practiced the different strategies addressed in the book in their dorm until they were ready to try out their methods in a real casino. Over Christmas break of 1978, Tommy and his roommate spent almost every day travelling the fifty miles from Tommy's house to Atlantic City where they could play in a real brick and mortar casino for the first time. Resorts International was the only casino open at that time.
He had very little success with his first few encounters with the casino, but his friend won several thousand dollars over the break. This motivated Tommy to practice those card counting methods more often, as he believed he too could make a fortune.
Tommy teamed up with another roommate of his, who had also been learning how to count cards. They would sit next to each other at the $5 tables, one of them would count the low cards while the other one would count the high cards. They would then whisper their findings to each other in order to make educated bets. Over the course of several months, they made approximately four thousand dollars each.
It was around this time that Tommy started reading, "Professional Blackjack," by Stanford Wong. This book helped them improve their card counting methods substantially, and the increase in their bankroll was proof of that. As time went on, Tommy started reading several other books about blackjack, paying most attention to, "Million Dollar Blackjack," by Ken Uston. Ken emphasized the value of using teams to make a fortune in his book, and that's just what Tommy did.
The Original Hyland Blackjack Team
Hyland and his partner started looking for future candidates who they could invite to be on their team, and after looking for several months they finally found the two men they were looking for. All four members of Tommy Hyland's first blackjack team had to contribute four thousand dollars in order for the team to have a large enough bankroll to make the kind of profit they were aiming for.
They each had to play for a set amount of hours, but they didn't have to formally keep track of those hours. Generally they would all start at 8pm and go to 2am or later. At the end of each week, the team would split their combined profit evenly between the four of them. They would use a variety of different techniques including ace sequencing and shuffle tracking.
After about five weeks of bringing in steady money, a man named Art who had been watching their every move begged and pleaded for the opportunity to join their team. After a couple more weeks of contemplation, Tommy decided to let him join the team as well. He won almost every hand that was dealt to him and brought the team in a lot of money fast. He ended up being a wonderful asset to the team, and they were happy to have him there.
In December, 1979 Resorts International ran a two week test run that allowed card counters to openly play in their facilities with no fear of getting barred for their actions. The casino did this so that they could get an inside scoop on the methods that card counters use, so that they could prevent future cheating. Tommy and his original team made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of these two weeks, and they were inspired to make even more.
Many of his teammates decided to travel to Asia, as they seldom barred card counters and they thought they would have a great chance of making millions. They used Stanford Wong's book, Blackjack In Asia, as a reference during their time there.
Another Hyland Blackjack Team
Tommy, on the other hand, wanted to head to the casinos of Las Vegas, as the potential to make millions was very high there too. He recruited several of his golfing buddies and taught them all of the strategies that his first team used. He started by giving them a basic strategy card to memorize and then built on their knowledge from there.
He would later test them to see if they knew how to count cards when he was finished with their lesson; most people ended up mastering card counting by the time Tommy was done with them. More important than skill, Tommy needed to find members he could trust, as trust was essential for having a functional blackjack team. There was a high turn around rate for his team, some players would leave after just a few months, and he was always looking for more recruits. On average, the team consisted of thirty to forty people.
This time around, everyone worked off of Tommy's bankroll which consisted of his money and money given by investors. This obviously meant that Tommy made significantly more than other members of the team, but it also meant that new players didn't have to have a large bankroll in order to join his team. Investors would get a large portion of the winnings as well. It wouldn't be uncommon for the team to make several million dollars in one night, so investors usually stayed pretty happy.
However, the team did have their losing streaks, and they could be pretty dramatic. In an interview with American Casino Guide, Tommy explained it like this, "We've had some devastating bankrolls where you lose for quite a while. Basically, we've been pretty successful, but we've had some rough times where you have a nice chunk of money and you thought you'd never have to worry again and then, suddenly, you're almost broke."
One new element to this team that helped them stay profitable was their use of blackjack computers. Once his team discovered that these devices might be able to help him, they rented an apartment and ordered the necessary hardware they needed to assemble the computers. The team then tested out the computers and sure enough, they were just as described. They immediately started using these devices in every casino that they went to, significantly increasing their bankroll.
Unfortunately, their ability to use these devices without being severely punished was soon to come to an end. In 1985, all computer devices were outlawed in casinos in Nevada. His team spent the next couple year travelling to other parts of the world that would allow them to freely use these devices: Atlantic City, Bahamas, and other Caribbean islands were just some of their stops along the way.
It would often be months before the team would return to a casino they've already visited, and to avoid getting barred the team would be encouraged to change their physical appearance slightly. Some team members would simply grow out their hair in that short amount of time, some would grow or shave their beards, and some would even dye their hair a completely different color. One time around Christmas, Tommy went as far to disguise himself as Santa Clause. Sometimes these disguises didn't work out too well for the team, causing them to be stuck in difficult situations.
Getting Punished for Their Actions
It wasn't too long before those countries started to crack down on players using blackjack computers too. One time while Tommy was on vacation with his wife in the Bahamas, he decided to go to the casinos for a little while by himself. Well, casino authorizes noticed his oversized boots and paid attention to how often he was tapping his shoe.
They took him to a private room with several police officers on staff and commanded that he take his boots off and roll up his pant leg. The police, seemingly more upset than casino officials, saw the computer that he had been using and warned him that they were going to be in great trouble. While he was being held at the casino, they found his wife and detained her also. They finally placed Tommy in an actual jail cell, claiming that he would be sentenced for up to ten years. Luckily, he was able to alert his lawyers back in Las Vegas, who managed to get him out of prison on a $100,000 bail.
Several months later, Tommy and his team found themselves at the Windsor in Canada. The way Canadian casinos were set up, they decided it was easiest to communicate with each other through signals and it was these signals that caused them to be arrested.
Canadian authorities tried to claim that it was illegal for Tommy and his team to set foot on Canadian soil again by claiming that they were cheating. Tommy and his crew took the casino to court, won the case, and continued to play at the casinos in Canada. Another famous player, Arnold Snyder, gave his testimony in favor of the team and he can be credited for swaying the jury's vote.
Another time Tommy and his team got caught was on their trip to the island of St. Kitts, which is in the Caribbean. Things started off great for Tommy and his team, as Tommy alone made $30,000 over the course of five days. The casino and resort owner of the place they were staying was seemingly very fond of him, inviting him to play golf with him almost every day they were there. The day before Tommy and his team was ready to go home, the casino owner invited him to his hotel room and said he had something for him. When Tommy arrived, he pulled out a gun and pointed it right in Tommy's face.
The casino owner had apparently been keeping a close eye on Tommy and his group, and now he was threatening Tommy's life in order to get his money back. Boldly, Tommy risked his life by saying that he won that money fair and square and claiming that he would never give it back. Despite his efforts, the casino owner dragged Tommy at gunpoint to the casino bank, forcing him to withdraw all of his winnings and give it to him.
Tommy Hyland Today
In 2002, Tommy Hyland was one of the inaugural members inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame alongside Peter Griffin, Arnold Snyder, Edward O. Thorp, Ken Uston, and Stanford Wong. This was an esteemed honor, as there were many highly qualified potential candidates that just didn't make the cut.
Although Tommy no longer manages a blackjack team, it's still possible to find him playing blackjack at the casinos of Atlantic City from time to time. Tommy's wife has been very supportive throughout all of his gambling endeavors, and now that he isn't playing blackjack regularly anymore he has a lot more time to spend with her.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: June 2016