Originally named twenty-one during its first known inception in the early 17th century around the area now known as Spain, blackjack has been a staple of modern casino gaming for centuries. The name blackjack came about much later in the United States, when bonuses for particular player hands were introduced to entice patrons. A famous example was a payout of ten-to-one for a player holding the ace of spades along with either a jack of spades or a jack of clubs (a “blackjack”). The name stuck of course even though the payout that manifested it did not.
While there are undoubtedly numerous highly successful blackjack players around the world, most of these pros generally elect to remain anonymous and out of the spotlight. Reason being? While blackjack can be played as part of a “team,” ultimately the two opponents facing off are the player and the house. If a blackjack professional becomes too successful and is recognized by a casino, that establishment has the right to bar that player; either for the day or permanently.
In some rare cases, however, a casino may not be legally allowed to bar a player for lawful conduct. One incredible example came about in 1982 during a court battle initiated by the late, great blackjack player Ken Uston in his case Uston v. Resorts International Hotel Inc. Upon the ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, Uston’s claim that skilled players should not be barred from casinos was found legally sound, and to this day, New Jersey casinos are not allowed to bar skilful players.
Unfortunately for blackjack players like Uston, casinos have since begun using other measures to increase the house edge in blackjack, such as increasing the deck count or altering the marker to increase shuffling frequencies. Yet in spite of these measures to push the house edge, clever blackjack players have found their own techniques to push the advantage back in their own favor ever so slightly.
One of Ken Uston’s mentors was the famous Al Francesco, who is commonly attributed with inventing blackjack team play and an accomplished card counter and player in his own right. Team play was first publicly written about in Ken Uston’s own 1977 book The Big Player and is mechanically a simple technique which had astonishing results.
A team will typically distribute a number of card counting players to separate tables to play for some time, playing for very little of their own money during this buildup process. Once the count indicates that players have an advantage over the house at a particular table, the counter indicates to a fellow teammate known as the “big player.” The big player maximizes bets for as long as possible until the count no longer favors the players, at which point another signal is given to tell the big player to take off.
While numerous examples of these team blackjack techniques have been acknowledged, the most famous, recent example is undoubtedly the MIT Blackjack Team, which consisted of members from Harvard, MIT, and other elite colleges and operated in one form another for over 20 years from 1979 through to the early 21st century.