The game of Blackjack originated in Europe as early as the seventeenth century, and until the end of the nineteenth century, it was known by the name of 21. The game itself is based on math, since it offers a certain house edge and profits the one who runs it, but players didn’t seem to use this fact to their advantage until the 1960s. Now, it’s quite apparent that you can count cards in any casino game to estimate the possibility of a particular outcome, but back then it wasn’t so. The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen, to whom this article is dedicated, have started a trend for counting cards and developing mathematical strategies for all popular table games.
The brilliant idea came to Roger Baldwin, who was serving at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. It was a military facility, where soldiers stress tested new weapons and gave their recommendations about safety, convenience, and other factors. It’s a risky business, and many factors were involved, so soldiers had to deal with the tension, and some of them decided to spend their downtime playing blackjack. Private Baldwin chose to join the game in the barracks, and after some fieldwork, he realized that the rules are very strict for the dealer. A dealer has to hit on 16 or lower and stand on 17, which might give a significant advantage to those who can count cards, remember which ones are left in the deck, and predict the possibility of a winning combination.
One thing led to another, and after spending several hours on calculations, Baldwin didn’t give up but instead asked for permission to use the adding machine that belonged to the base. It was a huge machine, which passed for a computer in those days, but it did the job. He also asked for the help of his sergeant, Wilbert Cantey, and his two fellow privates, James McDermott and Herbert Maisel. That’s how they started to work on the first efficient blackjack strategy and cemented a place for themselves in blackjack history.
The band of soldiers spent a year and a half on calculations and tests, and after the work was complete, they published their findings in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. The article came out in September 1956 and became immensely popular among blackjack players. They published a more complete guide in their book, titled Playing Blackjack to Win, in 1957, which has drawn the attention of other mathematicians, including Edward O. Thorp, who dedicated his life to improving the basic strategy. Thorp later released a book of his own. As for the four horsemen – they continued living their lives, creating businesses, teaching people, and conducting mathematical research. It’s quite interesting that none of them have used the strategy they’ve created to play at a real casino.
In 1962, the original “Playing Blackjack to Win” book was followed by another book based on the research of the Four Horsemen. It was written by Edward O. Thorp and called Beat The Dealer. This one became even more popular than the original work and sold more than seven hundred thousand copies worldwide. It was an efficient way to beat a casino in the long run. A tidal wave of wannabe-gamblers rushed into Las Vegas and rolled over the Strip like a tsunami, leaving casinos way richer than they were. The reason was simple: reading a book doesn’t make you a professional blackjack player. The basic blackjack strategy is quite intricate and requires a lot of thinking and memorizing to be effectively applied. Casinos actually benefited from the book that was meant to help players beat them, because even though a small percentage of players won, the vast majority lost.
The casinos were still afraid, because a lucky player who knows the strategy and has a significant bankroll can get lucky and bleed a casino dry in a few hours. The future profits can’t save you if you own a relatively small casino and have to pay out, let’s say, twenty million dollars to a lucky high roller. Therefore, casinos tightened the rules, which resulted in an increased house edge. And the traditional form of blackjack, played with one deck, passed into oblivion. Now you can seldom find a blackjack table with two decks in a shoe. Four-, six-, and eight-deck versions are more popular, and it makes card counting way harder. In the classic version of the game, you had to keep track of 16 tens in the deck, but when it comes to a game with eight decks of cards with duplicate symbols, it will be 128 tens. Some people still can do that, and to make it even harder, casinos stopped playing the deck through. Now a shoe is shuffled halfway through so that you can’t possibly count the cards correctly.
Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, James McDermott, and Herbert Maisel changed the history of blackjack. They put every single gambler in the United States in a position where they could become rich playing their favorite game. Their achievements were fully acknowledged only in 2008 when they were inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame, alongside other great players and enthusiasts. Even though we play an eight-deck game today mostly because of them, they are the ones who opened countless possibilities to all of us. These four are the real heroes of gambling, and they’ve earned their place in the Hall of Fame.
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