One of the most interesting ways to approach any subject-including blackjack-is to take a look at some of the figures that play into the history of that subject. In the game of blackjack, many of the more interesting characters have done their best to remain anonymous. Drawing too much attention to themselves is counter-productive, because doing so makes thwarting them that much easier for the casinos.
But some blackjack players have gone public to various degrees. Some use pen names to write books. Others have more-or-less retired from actual play. They probably read somewhere that the people who got richest during the California Gold Rush were selling picks and shovels to the prospectors.
Below we feature brief biographies of some of the more interesting characters from blackjack. In many cases, we link to more detailed bios of each.
1. Al Francesco
Al Francesco has been a member of The Blackjack Hall of Fame since 2002. His career has been important as an example to card counters and advantage players for years. He's known for establishing one of the first card counting teams to show a profit.
More importantly, he invented some of the techniques still in use by advantage play teams today. "The Big Player", which you're familiar with if you've seen the movie 21, was the brainchild of Al Francesco. He also taught and mentored other big names in blackjack, like Ken Uston, for example.
Francesco no longer plays blackjack, but he does have a website where you can learn more about the game and his ideas about the game.
2. Peter Griffin
Like Al Francesco, Peter Griffin is one of the earliest members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. It's hard to understate his mathematical contributions to the game. But unlike some of the names on this list, Griffin was less interested in making money from the casinos. He was more interested in teaching.
Griffin began studying blackjack patterns and math after visiting some Nevada casinos in the early 1970s and losing significant money. He went on to do extensive research by compiling statistics on "the average blackjack player".
When you see someone quoted as saying that the average blackjack player giving the casino a 2% edge, you're referring directly to information that Griffin researched. (Skilled blackjack players face an edge of between 0.5% and 1% when they use perfect strategy.)
He was also the author of The Theory of Blackjack: The Compleat Card Counter's Guide to the Casino Game of 21.
3. Arnold Snyder
Like the first 2 names on this list, Arnold Snyder is an early member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. He's also a professional gambler and respected author of multiple blackjack books. When you read card counting articles discussing how important penetration is to the professional card counter, you're reading about a concept popularized by Snyder. He's also one of the first gambling writers to advocate for simpler card counting systems, pointing out that most players can be just as profitable using an easy system as they can using a hard system.
His real claim to fame is Blackjack Forum, which was originally a quarterly print publication but is now a website. Some of the most famous professional gamblers and gambling writers have been published in Blackjack Forum, including Al Francesco and Keith Taft.
Our favorite book from Arnold Snyder is Blackbelt in Blackjack, which is as good an all-in-one guide to counting cards as you'll read. He also wrote The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker's Cookbook, The Poker Tournament Formula, and The Big Book of Blackjack, among others.
He's also well-known as an advocate for professional gamblers' rights. He's an expert witness in multiple cases related to this.
4. Edward O. Thorp
Ed Thorp is a math professor who wrote Beat the Dealer. This book proved mathematically that a player can get an edge over the casino at blackjack by counting cards. He also invented the first wearable computer.
He's also known for managing hedge funds and having a distinguished career as a math professor. He got his Ph.D. from the University of California and worked at MIT during the early 1960s. His academic career lasted into the early 1980s at various universities.
5. Ken Uston
Ken Uston is another famous blackjack player and author who is also a member of The Blackjack Hall of Fame. Among other things, he's famous for making the idea of team play in card counting more popular. He and his teammates won millions of dollars from the casinos in the 1970s.
He's also famous for being banned from casinos and trying to thwart their bands through the clever use of disguises. His New Jersey lawsuit succeeded in getting the courts to say that casinos couldn't ban card counters. As a result, Atlantic City casinos have some of the toughest blackjack games in the world.
Uston died in 1987 at the age of 52.
6. Stanford Wong
Stanford Wong's real name is John Ferguson. Like many card counters and professional blackjack players, he needed to keep his real name and identity on the down-low to avoid being banned by casinos. He's the author of Professional Blackjack.
He's a member of The Blackjack Hall of Fame, and he's appeared on multiple television shows as a gambling expert. He owns Pi Yee Press, one of the better specialty publishers in the gambling niche.
7. Tommy Hyland
Tommy Hyland manages the Hyland Team of card counters. That's no big deal until you consider that the team has been in continuous operation since 1979, making it the longest-running blackjack team ever. The MIT Blackjack Team has nothing on Tommy Hyland.
His blackjack team launched in 1979 with an investment of $16,000 and 4 players. Within a year they'd won over $30,000 in Atlantic City. The Hyland Team uses multiple advantage play techniques, including shuffle tracking.
In the 1990s, the Hyland Team was arrested in Canada for cheating, but they won their court case-in part because of testimony from Arnold Snyder.
Tommy Hyland is known not only for being a great mathematician, but also for being an inspiring leader. His ability to create trust and loyalty among his team members makes him unusual in the gambling niche.
8. Max Rubin
Max Rubin is one of the few names on this list who isn't famous for being a card counter. This doesn't mean his contribution to blackjack or its literature is small. He's the author of Comp City, which explains in detail how to combine smart basic strategy with the casino's comp system to get an edge.
Rubin's also a well-known television personality who's been featured on The World Series of Blackjack and The Ultimate Blackjack Tour. He's not just a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame-he's also the host of the annual Blackjack Ball.
He's on staff at the Barona Casino in San Diego. He teaches the staff how to catch cheaters and counters.
9. Keith Taft
Keith Taft, like many of the names on this list, is a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. He earned his spot there by inventing multiple devices that helped blackjack players get an edge over the casino. In fact, he invented the first blackjack computer.
Ken Uston's blackjack team made good use of Taft's computer. You might argue that many of the devices Taft created constituted cheating, but we find it hard to be too sympathetic to the casinos-especially when it comes to blackjack.
10. Julian Braun
Ed Thorp might have been the first person to prove that a player could get an edge over the casino by counting cards. But Julian Braun refined his math and his techniques and made a great contribution to the game by doing so. In fact, it's hard to understate his contributions to the understanding of basic strategy.
This isn't a knock against Thorp, either. In the 2nd edition of Beat the Dealer, Thorp himself thanks Braun for his contributions to the math behind the game. Braun wrote his own book, How to Win Play Blackjack, which tried to put his math into practice.
11. Lawrence Revere
The first time we heard of Lawrence Revere was when we read The World's Greatest Blackjack Book, which was, in fact, the first card counting book we ever read. The author, Lance Humble, shares several entertaining anecdotes about his experiences at the blackjack table.
None of those anecdotes are more entertaining than his experiences playing with Lawrence Revere.
We especially enjoyed the story of how they were playing in an underground game somewhere, and Revere showed Humble that he'd palmed the 5s out of the deck and was throwing them away. (Removing all the 5s from a deck of cards put the odds squarely in favor of the player in a blackjack game.)
We have no way of knowing the truth behind the story, but it's fun nonetheless.
Revere worked with Julian Braun to create accurate counting systems that he sold in books. Revere is also known for working on both sides of the industry, by teaching casinos to identify counters while at the same time teaching players how to count. Playing Blackjack as a Business is probably his most famous book.
12. James Grosjean
You might have noticed that a lot of the people in this section are older. James Grosjean represents a younger generation of blackjack experts. In fact, he's the youngest player to have ever been inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
He's best known for his 2000 book, Beyond Counting: Exploiting Casino Games from Blackjack to Video Poker. He has since published a newer book on the same subject, Exhibit CAA: Beyond Counting, which takes into account the changes in modern casinos over the last 15 years.
Grosjean is also famous for his successful lawsuits against Caesars Palace, Imperial Palace, and Griffin Investigations. In fact, he was awarded so much in damages that Griffin Investigations went bankrupt.
13. John Chang
John Chang is best-known as the manager of the MIT Blackjack Team. In the movie 21, and the book, Bringing Down the House, the character of Mickey Rosa was based on John Chang. He didn't start as the manager of the team, though.
He started as just a counter on the team when he saw a sign on a bulletin board that read "Make $300 Over Spring Break". He started off betting $5 and $10 at the Claridge Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. His first session lasted over 20 hours, and he distinguished himself by doing quite well.
14. Roger Baldwin and the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen
Ed Thorp might have invented and popularized card counting, but Roger Baldwin and his friends paved the way by inventing basic strategy. Baldwin had a Masters degree in Mathematics from the University of Columbia. He applied that thinking to the game of blackjack, and the rest is history.
In 1956, Roger Baldwin and his friends published an 11 page article in the American Statistical Association's journal, "The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack". A few months later they published a book, Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21.
Baldwin's 3 colleagues in this effort were Wilbert Cantey, James McDermott , and Herbert Maisel.
15. Richard W. Munchkin
Richard W. Munchkin, like most of the other people on this list, is a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. He's also an author of books on gambling and a popular radio host. He competed in the first season of The World Series of Blackjack.
He's not just a card counter in blackjack, either. He also plays backgammon and poker at a professional level. He's also worked as a dealer and a pit boss on the other side of the tables from the players.
His most famous book is titled Gambling Wizards. It features interviews with notable and professional gamblers, and it's one of our favorite books in the gambling field.
16. Darryl Purpose
If you're Googling a list of famous blackjack players and search for "Darryl Purpose", you might be surprised initially by the results. Most of them reference Purpose's career as a folk singer and guitar player. That's appropriate, because that's the current focus of his career.
But before he was a famous musician, he was an infamous blackjack player.
He got started counting cards as a teenager when his mom put a copy of Ed Thorp's Beat the Dealer in his Christmas stocking.
17. Zeliko Ranogajec
It's hard to find high rollers who put more money into action than Zeliko Ranogajec. This Australian gambler with the hard-to-spell name claims to bet over $1 billion a year. As a card counter, he's been banned from almost every casino in Australia.
He's incredibly secretive, but he also bets on sports, especially horse racing.
18. Ian Andersen
Ian Anderson is the author or 2 blackjack books:
- 1Turning the Tables on Las Vegas
- 2Burning the Tables in Las Vegas
It's speculated that Ian Andersen isn't even his real name. It's not unusual for a blackjack player to be secretive about his identity. Since casinos are eager to back skilled players off the 21 tables, it makes sense to stay anonymous.
His first book was published in 1976, and Andersen went underground for over 20 years before publishing his next book. He was also interviewed in a documentary called Hot Shoe in 2005. He is a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
19. Robert Nersesian
Robert Neresian is one of the more interesting personalities on this list, because he's not famous for playing cards or writing books about them. He's an attorney who specializes in advocating for gamblers' rights.
Some casinos are aggressive in their efforts to back card counters off the table. But casinos don't have the right to physically assault or detain players. When they do, Neresian is usually willing to take their case. According to an interview with Richard Munchkin, he has a high success rate.
20. Don Schlesinger
Donald "Don" Schlesinger is mathematician and blackjack player, a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, and the author of Blackjack Attack - Playing the Pros' Way. His book is considered one of the most sophisticated treatments of the subject, but it's also known for being a practical guide to getting an edge over the casino.
His work has been mentioned or references by dozens of other experts in the field.
21. Michael Shackleford
Michael Shacklefor is a professional actuary by training. He's best known for his website, The Wizard of Odds. He's also written a book called Gambling 102, which explains the best strategies for playing the most common gambling games.
He's one of the nicest guys on the Web, although he stays busy. We sent him an email thanking him for some information we found on one of his websites. He replied, which was thrilling, but we also laughed. It had taken him 2 years to get back with us.
If you're looking for information about the math behind various gambling games and concepts, you'll find no better source for that information than his website. Sadly, he sold the site not long ago, and the new owners have been reasonably aggressive with the advertising they've added to the site. It's apparent that Shackleford didn't write all the casino reviews himself, for example.
But he does still manage the content for the site and write most of the game articles, which are the main reasons to visit the site anyway.
It's hard to find more than 20 or so famous blackjack players because of the nature of the game. When casinos are eager to identify and run off players who are good at the game, it makes sense for most of them to keep a low profile.
The blackjack players on this page are sometimes identified by a fake name, and we only have hazy details about some of them. But others are well-known because they've made more money as authors, or they've retired, or they've died.
At any rate, the bios of blackjack players can be interesting an inspirational to other players interested in the game.