Blackjack History


The History of Blackjack Basic Strategy

History doesn't necessarily document this, but as far back as the 1920's, or even further, legend has it that players were employing card counting strategies of some kind to play the game of blackjack in casinos, both legal and illegal, stretching from Los Angeles all the way to Miami. Because these systems were more or less "secret," such players at the time were by and large considered cheaters, as they were suspected of covert action, and often they suffered a fate that was a lot worse than simply being ejected from the casino, if you know what I mean. Consequently, there weren't going to be a lot of players advertising or disseminating their winning methods.

The Four Horsemen Change the Game of Blackjack Forever

The fact is that the public was not really aware of any mathematically devised plan of attack for the game of blackjack until 1956, when four American statisticians - Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott. - Army enlistees working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and using equipment, truth be told, that was no more sophisticated than conventional adding machines, formulated the first published strategy for playing blackjack, as it appeared in "The Journal of the American Statistical Association".

The article was designed to be digested by mathematicians, and was not easily understood by the general public, but nonetheless it was the birth of what we call the "Basic Strategy", a set of rules which dictate the mathematically appropriate decision for every possible player vs. dealer combination. In their own words, "the player's strategic problems are analyzed with the objective of finding the strategy maximizing his mathematical expectation."

The Four Horsemen Level the Blackjack Game Playing Field

The Basic Strategy they devised was one which, under the best rules and conditions, actually brought the house advantage down to nearly a break-even proposition, something which was virtually unheard of at the time. It was a painstaking process, with thousands and thousands of calculations performed during leisure time, taking about eighteen months from start to finish. The product of the complete study by the group that has become known to blackjack aficionados as "The Four Horsemen" was a book called "Playing Blackjack To Win" which they published under a shared byline and tailored to be an easier read for the general public. The revelation of a new blackjack strategy prompted a bit of attention, though, over time, really not as much as they deserved, considering the enormity of the feat and the groundwork it laid for what was to come.

Playing Blackjack to Win - The Four Horseman

Almost unnoticed was a process the Four Horsemen introduced that involved inspecting the cards already played to indicate the strength of a deck and the value to the player, based on the presence or absence of tens and low cards. What they were doing at the time was actually establishing something of a counting strategy, something that historians don't give them due credit for but indeed constituted a major step ahead for those who would subsequently do their research using high-speed computers. Also not highlighted was the fact that one of the researchers, Wilbert Cantey, was an African-American, and in fact was very much a coordinator of the effort. Since there was no photo of authors on the back cover of "Playing Blackjack To Win," reportedly for fear that a black co-author would not help book sales in the South, this factoid is lost in the documentation of the exploits of blackjack's first known "stars."

One interesting bit of trivia is that in the initial incarnation of their book, the foreword was written by none other than Charles Van Doren, the Columbia University instructor who became a quiz show icon on NBC's "Twenty One." Naturally, van Doren's contribution came BEFORE he was outed in one of the biggest scandals in the history of television.

After they left Aberdeen, the Four Horsemen more or less went their separate ways. None of them ever became avid players, nor did they ever take their pursuit one level higher and develop a winning strategy for blackjack. But they had thrown out the ball, leaving it for someone else to pick and run with.

Sure enough, someone did.

The History of Blackjack - Page 1