Is Blackjack an Endangered Species?


Blackjack, as a casino game, is an endangered species to my way of thinking. Not everyone will agree with me, but they will agree that blackjack has had a bad week. On April 29, a very high profile Hollywood actor was asked to leave a blackjack table at the Las Vegas Hard Rock. The pit boss told the actor, Ben Affleck he was too good and he would not be allowed to play blackjack at the Hard Rock. “As an advantage player, you are welcome to play any game, except blackjack,” he was told. The story made headlines around the world and is still getting play a week later.

It is not unusual for a casino to “back off” a player for counting cards. A gambler playing a perfect basic strategy and tracking the cards played (counting) can take away the house advantage and win. It is the only way a casino does not have a long term advantage. Card counting has been an issue in casinos since Edward O. Thorp published “Beat the Dealer,” in 1962. Thorp was a mathematician interested in game theory. His book provided a basic strategy and a technique for tracking cards and assigning a value to the cards remaining. His system took the “gut feeling” and intuition out of the game and introduced a scientific approach. For the first time, a player could reverse the house advantage. Thorp tested his system, but got bored with casinos and changed the focus of his math to Wall Street.

Thorp may have quit playing blackjack, but the revolution he started did not end with him. Thorp spawned thousands of imitators. Kenny Uston, for example, became famous for his play, his disguises and his antics in the courtroom. There were others and some also wrote books touting their own strategies and card tracking systems. Most of them were young men with backgrounds in mathematics and a desire for adventure and risk. And like Thorp, most got tired of blackjack and moved on to more lucrative pursuits.

When Semyon Dukach was a student at MIT, he ran the best-performing Blackjack team the school has ever had. On a typical weekend, Dukach and his team of 60 students could win up to $150,000 by using a legal, card-counting system they created at MIT. They were so good, the group amassed more than $4 million and were often threatened or banned by casino managers. “The [casinos] comped us to high heaven at first, then chased us out with occasional threats and faxed our pics around to other places,” Dukach said in an early interview with Gambling Planet. “We made a few million over a few years, but it was with a lot of people.” Dukach, who has now invested in and founded a bunch of tech companies, considers that Blackjack team his first startup. Alyson Shontell, Business Insider, 5-4-12

Sometimes, in the 1960s and 70s, those players won and sometimes they lost. Many of the teams eventually went broke. But that was the only risk they faced because casino employees did not understand or recognize card counting or basic strategy. But eventually even the pit bosses read the blackjack books and began to develop their own strategies for dealing with card counters. From that time on, it has been a long battle between the two sides. The casinos are now much better at evaluating a player’s skills and most blackjack players have become much more skilled. For the casinos it means working harder and winning a bit less. But it is manageable until a really skilled player with a large bankroll shows up. A top flight blackjack player equipped with enough money to sustain short term losses and make maximum bets when the time is right can win a lot of money. Of course, that same player can lose a lot of money, too. However, most casinos are no longer willing to take the risk and refuse to allow those people to play blackjack.

Until the incident at the Hard Rock it appeared to be a non-issue. However, now I think it is a really big issue and it may endanger the game of blackjack as a casino game. In the first place, Affleck is a very high profile person. Everything he does makes headlines all over the world. He also belongs to a society of high profile people who are taking his side. Howard Stern has a radio audience of millions of people and he is defending Affleck. And Stern is taking pot shots at the casino industry: The tweet from Stern’s radio show stated: “@HowardStern defends @BenAffleck – saying Ben did nothing wrong & it proves Vegas won’t let you win”, to which Ben added from his Twitter account: “Interesting point Howard.” That is the kind of publicity the industry cannot afford.

But I think there is another element to the story that is more important. Ben Affleck is a very competitive person who strives to do things well. He learned to play poker and blackjack to win. Affleck put the same intensity into learning those games as he did into acting and directing. He is not an accidental star, nor is he an accidental winner at card games. He is skilled, competitive and committed to be as good as he can be.

Ben Affleck’s blackjack days are over … at least at the Hard Rock in Vegas — because he was just banned FOR LIFE from playing the game at the casino … after security says they caught him counting cards. Affleck was in Sin City earlier this week with wife Jennifer Garner. We’re told he planned the Vegas trip as a romantic getaway before he ships off to Detroit for several months to shoot his new Batman movie. …According to sources, security informed Affleck he had been deemed an “advantaged player” and was no longer allowed to play blackjack at the Hard Rock. We’re told security had spotted Affleck counting cards … a gambling strategy that involves counting card values to decrease betting risk. TMZ, 5-4-14

Some of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas have been issued an alert about Ben Affleck, after the star was allegedly caught counting cards. After the actor was barred from playing at the Hard Rock Casino on Tuesday night, an alert was allegedly sent to other venues. On Wednesday, major Las Vegas casinos received a message saying that Affleck was ‘currently suspected of advantage play’. – Kieran Corcoran/ Shyam Dodge/Jessica Jerreat, London Daily Mail, 5-5-14

Batman’s been robbin’ the house. Forthcoming “Batman” star Ben Affleck — who was banned for life from playing blackjack at the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas — has been cleaning up at the game for years. The Hollywood high-roller, booted for counting cards, had hit it big playing “21” at the very same casino, raking in a total of nearly $1 million in two trips. The Oscar winner won $140,000 in a single sitting while playing with pal Matt Damon in 2000, The Post reported at the time. A year later, he won $800,000 while playing three simultaneous hands at $20,000 a pop. With $75 million in net worth, the 41-year-old actor is in it more for adrenaline than for money. Natalie O’Neill, New York Post, 5-5-14

Ben Affleck is 41 years old and could represent the leading edge of a new generation of players. There are thousands, if not millions, of people younger than Affleck who are gamers. They learned to play video games, poker and blackjack in an electronic world. That electronic/cyber game environment is a very competitive world. The players practice a great deal to improve their skills for the next major contest. If they are not welcome at the blackjack tables, they will not be interested in going to a casino. In fact, I believe if there are not games of skill in addition to blackjack, Ben Affleck and his friends will not be interested in casinos.

Edward Thorp, Kenny Uston and Semyon Dukach were a minor threat to casinos. There were not very many math geniuses willing to study basic strategy and practice for hundreds of hours and then subject themselves to some unpleasant scenes in casinos. But the new generation of skilled players is different and there are millions of them. They are not necessarily mathematicians, but they are highly skilled and competitive gamers. This is a critical time for casino table games. The way the industry treats skilled players will determine the future of those games. It is hardly logical to expect that generation to accept blind luck and losing as rules of the game. In the first round of this battle, Ben Affleck is winning. Hard Rock and the casino industry are losing, badly.

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7 Responses to “Is Blackjack an Endangered Species?”


  1. 1 Mark Gruetze May 12, 2014 at 7:11 am

    Intriguing take on the most popular casino table game. Ken, I write a weekly gambling column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (http://triblive.com/aande/gambling/) and would like to interview you about the future of blackjack.

  2. 2 Ken Adams May 12, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    It will lose its popularity if players perceive it to be a “no” win game

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