Blackjack: Skill Means Winning . May 2000

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Blackjack: Skill Means Winning

by Ralph Stricker

Blackjack is a game of skill and not a game of chance; if you know how to play correctly and count cards, blackjack is not gambling. This is a strong statement to make, and you probably will get an argument against it from most people. But the simple fact remains: it has been proven by many mathematicians to be a valid statement. If blackjack were gambling and could not be beaten long term, I would not play or teach the game.

Blackjack has been around for a long time, and until 1962 was not one of the most popular games offered by the casinos. A Basic Strategy had been developed by two mathematicians named Baldwin and Cantey, but it was not considered to be 100 percent mathematically valid. There had not been enough  trials to validate their strategy because they did not have access to high-speed computers.

While working at the Atomic Research Center at Los Alamos, N.M., Edward O Thorpe ran millions of trials on the Baldwin and Cantey's Basic Strategy. When he finished, he realized that the strategy for Single Deck Basic Strategy was now perfect. He also realized that there was a difference between blackjack and other games offered by the casinos. Blackjack is a game of dependent trials. Craps, baccarat and roulette are games of independent trials. It is this difference that makes blackjack beatable.

To better understand the difference between dependent trials and independent trials, take a single card from a deck of cards. The deck composition has now changed and as we continue to deplete cards from the deck, the composition continues to change. Therefore what is left, is dependent on what has been removed. If we then "keep track" of what has been played, we can determine if the deck is in our, or the casino's, favor. In craps, not one roll of the dice or a hundred rolls of the dice has any effect on the next roll -- each is independent of the other.

An example of this: In craps, the odds of throwing a 7 are one in six. Of the 36 possible combinations, there are six possible combinations that will produce a seven. If four 7's were thrown consecutively, the odds of the seven being rolled on the very next roll would still be one in six. The same holds true for roulette, since each spin of the wheel is independent of the previous spins.

Remember the Basic Strategy that Thorpe perfected was SINGLE DECK strategy, since it was the only game offered by the casinos at that time. Thorpe then realized that if Single Deck Basic Strategy gave the player an even game with the casinos, he now could prove that the game could be beaten. He discovered that certain card ranks favored the casino and other cards favored the player. If the player could keep track of these cards as they were played, then the player could determine at what point the deck composition was in the player's favor and when it was in the casino's favor. Therefore the card "counter" would raise the bet when it was in his/her favor, and lower the bet when it was in the casino's favor.

Thorpe decided that he had a system that could beat the casino's consistently.  He proceeded to play blackjack and was very successful. At first, the casinos could not figure out what he was doing and were frustrated by his winning at a game that they felt was not beatable over a period of time. They believed that he was in some way cheating either by marking the cards or crimping certain rank cards. They informed him that he was not allowed to hold the cards in his hands, as is the way that Single Deck is dealt. Dealers were instructed to deal the cards face up. They also stationed personnel to observe him to see if he was cheating. He eventually left Nevada and went to play in Puerto Rico, but received the same harassment there. After a period of time Thorpe decided to give up playing and returned to his position at Los Alamos.

In 1962, Thorpe published his now-famous book "Beat the Dealer." It was an immediate best seller, and he appeared on TV shows such as "What's My Line" and "I've Got a Secret." You can imagine the consternation of the casinos when they heard of this man who now revealed that the game of blackjack could be beaten by the knowledgeable player. This led the casinos to introduce Double Deck and eventually Multiple Deck Blackjack (four or more decks). When it was discovered that the Card Counter could still win consistently, the casinos turned to "barring" players.

Ralph Stricker, also known as the Silver Fox, is an expert gambler selling books and tapes called the Silver Fox Blackjack System.