Inside Scoop on The 2015 Blackjack Ball
By Henry Tamburin
Note: The following article appeared in the Blackjack Insider Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com), and is reprinted with permission of the editor Henry Tamburin
For the 19th consecutive year, Max Rubin hosted the Blackjack Ball at a secret location in Las Vegas. This year 108 invited blackjack professionals (including active and retired professional players, writers, mathematicians, and attorneys) attended the Ball to renew old acquaintances, make new ones, exchange playing experiences, and compete for the coveted Grosjean Cup. (The Blackjack Ball Cup was renamed the Grosjean Cup because blackjack pro James Grojean won three times and was banned from competing by Max; however, to recognize Grosjean for being the best of the best three times, the Blackjack Ball Cup was renamed the Grosjean Cup in his honor.)
The list of blackjack luminaries that attended the Ball reads like a “who’s who” in blackjack: Anthony Curtis, Al Francesco, Tommy Hyland, Don Johnson, Richard Munchkin, Don Schlesinger, Arnold Snyder, Ed Thorp (inventor of card counting), Stanford Wong, and members of of the following teams: Asian Assassins, Chicago, Holy Rollers, MIT, Washington State, and others. I could go on and on listing more of them but I think you get the picture. (A total of 12 of the 13 living members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame were in attendance.)
The gala began at 5:00 p.m. and included champagne, cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres followed by a delicious buffet courtesy of Barona Casino. (They sponsor the Blackjack Ball and in return, the players in attendance agree not to play blackjack in their casino ... pretty smart move on the casino’s part). The only requirement to attend the Ball is that you must bring a bottle of “premium champagne” (preferably earned as a comp from a casino). The bottles of champagne are opened and consumed during the Ball (and in an after-the-Ball party, which ended at 3 a.m.). Attendees must also pay $20 at the door to help “seed” the pot for the evening’s Calcutta auction.
Security is tight. A security guard checks that you are on the official list of invited guests, and then Max (or one of his staff) greets you at the door. (Max knows everyone, and according to him, the reason for the tight security is because, “If a casino employee could infiltrate the Ball, it would make his career.”)
Max Rubin does a yeoman’s job organizing this event. He claims to spend “more than 100 man hours” on it, which involves tracking down APs to send them an invitation (many APs change their handle and email addresses so this isn’t as easy as you think), responding to many emails from players who want to attend (you must be approved by the BJ Ball committee to be on the invited list), putting together the challenging 21 test questions, organizing the seeds for the Calcutta, and as the host of the event, keeping things moving along. Max says the Blackjack Ball is a labor of love; I know I speak for all blackjack players in thanking Max for taking on this task, and for a job well done.
During the cocktails, attendees gathered around a blackjack table to watch blackjack cheater Dustin Marks give a demonstration of some of the cheating moves he made while dealing blackjack in casinos in the 1980s (and making a ton of money with his confederate players while doing so). I was up close, right next to the blackjack table, and I’ll be damned if I could see how he made some of his moves (until he showed us how he did it). (Note: Marks has agreed to write articles on cheating at blackjack for the BJI. His first article will appear in an upcoming issue. Also, his books (“Cheating at Blackjack” and “Cheating at Blackjack Squared”), and DVD (“Cheating at Blackjack The Real World”), are being updated and we’ll have them for sale in our store once they become available.)
(Note: Dustin Marks has begun a series of articles about his life as a blackjack cheater in the Blackjack Insider Newsletter.)
Blackjack Hall of Fame Nominees
What follows is the process used to choose nominees for induction into the Hall of Fame (written by Max).
“The living members of the Hall of the Fame sent names to me for suggested nominees, and all names were then discussed and voted upon. The seven prospective nominees that received the most votes were then placed on the ballot.
“Much to their consternation, this process has prevented several well-known but lesser accomplished “one trick ponies” that have written introductory-level books or excelled at running numbers from joining the mix of truly worthy candidates that have achieved the highest levels of success, either on the tables or through their contributions to the craft.”
The list of the seven nominees and a short synopsis of their accomplishments follows. (Four of the seven nominees were present.)
Bill is one of the brightest minds in blackjack history. He was an expert shuffle tracker, and also was one of the earliest Ace trackers. He headed some massive blackjack projects in the days of the covert computer, which were very successful. He was a very skilled manager, with a calm, decisive demeanor. To this day, people who haven't played blackjack in years still fondly remember the days that they worked for Bill.
Around 1990, Bill, with his blackjack earnings, got interested in horse racing. The rest is history. It is believed that at the present time, Bill may have won more money gambling than anyone ever.
Bill is also known for his incredible generosity. He has probably given more money to charity than most of us have made in our lifetimes.
Don is without question the most famous blackjack player in the world. His exploits grew to epic proportions after he beat three Atlantic City casinos for over $15 million several years ago while pummeling those casinos’ loss-rebate programs. While luck certainly was a factor in his extraordinary wins, what most people don’t know is that Don personally reaped profits of more than three million dollars over 10 years ago while counting cards.
Despite Don’s fame for beating casinos at their own games, many casinos still allow him to play to their disadvantage. His amazing ability to charm his way back into the casinos’ good graces is nothing short of legendary. He also manages an extremely successful horse betting syndicate, among the many other ventures that he touches and always turns to gold.
Don Schlesinger is a gaming mathematician, author, lecturer, and player whose work in the field of blackjack spans four decades. He is the author of the book Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros' Way, currently in its third edition, which is considered one of the most sophisticated theoretical and practical studies of the game to date. His contributions include research into optimal betting, risk analysis, optimal back counting, Floating Advantage, camouflage and team play, and card counting systems comparison. He is most well-known for creating the Illustrious 18, the Desirability Index (DI), SCORE, and the publication of the optimal composition-dependent basic playing strategy. Schlesinger has edited, consulted for, or collaborated with many of the leading blackjack analysts, programmers, and authors, including Stanford Wong, Edward O. Thorp, Peter Griffin, Arnold Snyder, Karel Janecek, John Auston, Katarina Walker, and Norm Wattenberger. In addition, he has contributed to many different issues of the aficionado magazine Blackjack Forum.
Mike was one of the earliest card counters to realize that there were opportunities in blackjack, beyond straight counting. He was one of the earliest shuffle and ace trackers. He is one of those people who can walk through a casino, see some new game or procedure, and design a play to exploit the opportunity. Usually when Mike's name comes up, the word creative is part of the conversation. He was the brains behind many successful sports and blackjack projects. Many famous advantage players learned from Mike, and can attribute some of the money they have made over the years to his influence. These include Tommy Hyland, Bill Benter, John Chang, Peter Wagner, Richard Dougherty, and many more.
In the last decade, Mike has been inactive, due to serious health problems.
Richard is probably one of the players casinos fear most. If you collected all of the flyers, bulletins, and alerts that have been sent out by casinos on him, you would have a very, very thick book. Still, he marches on. He has played for more than 30 years, and unlike many other advantage players, blackjack is pretty much his sole source of income. No matter how many times casinos backroom him or have him arrested, he keeps pounding away.
Not only is he not intimidated by surveillance or casino personnel, he has exacted his revenge on some of them with some legendary and clever practical jokes.
There are few, if any, players that have won more money in the history of blackjack than Rob Reitzen. From simple card counting to shuffle tracking/sequencing to bottom steering to advanced computer play, Rob has beaten games in more innovative ways than most professional blackjack players know even exist.
The founding partner of CORE, which became the largest and most profitable player-banking operation ever, Rob was featured in an Esquire magazine article in which the reporter followed him and watched him beat Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, while using a sequencing technique he dubbed “The Hammer,” out of more than $500,000 on a single weekend!
Wally is a much underrated name in the blackjack world. He has not played in over 20 years, but in the early days, he was directly responsible for millions of dollars being extracted from casinos. He is a computer programming genius, and he programmed some of the first shuffle tracking computers. These computers were very successful, and large amounts of money were won by the teams employing them. He was also a very skilled player, using sophisticated techniques, long before they were fashionable.
Like Bill Benter, Wally went on to parlay his blackjack money into incredible success in horse racing. If there were a "Nice Guy Hall of Fame," Wally should be the first inductee. He is also known for hosting the second most famous party for blackjack players. "Wally's Super Bowl Party" went on for about 15 years, and was attended by many famous names in blackjack. You would have a nice bankroll to attack the casinos if you had one equal to the amount of money that Wally spent on his annual party.
The ballots were distributed to the attendees, and they could circle two candidates’ names. Ballots were collected and scored. To qualify for induction in the Blackjack Hall of Fame, a nominee must receive votes on at least one-third of the ballots. Each Hall of Fame member got three ballots to fill out; all other attendees and absentee voters got one ballot. Some will say this isn't fair, but it does ensure that only those that belong are inducted into the most exclusive Blackjack Club in the world.
I’m happy to report that my friend Don Schlesinger came in first in the voting, Bill Benter came in second, and Don Johnson took third.
Congratulations to Don Schlesinger for being voted by his peers into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. Don now joins an illustrious group of blackjack dignitaries in the Blackjack Hall of Fame. (You can view the physical Blackjack Hall of Fame at the Barona Casino.) The members (and the year they were inducted) include: Al Francesco (2002), Peter Griffin (2002), Tommy Hyland (2002), Arnold Snyder (2002), Edward O. Thorp (2002), Ken Uston (2002), Stanford Wong (2002), Max Rubin (2004), Keith Taft (2004), Julian Bruan (2005), Lawrence Revere (2005), John Chang (2006), James Grosjean (2006), Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott, collectively known as the “Four Horsemen of Aberdeen” (2008), Richard Munchkin (2009), Darryl Purpose (2010), Zeljko Ranogajec (2011), Ian Andersen (2012), Robert Nersesian (2013), and Don Schlesinger (2014).
Next on the agenda was the usual Calcutta, which is a sort of a pari-mutuel wagering where the attendees can bet on who will win the coveted Grosjean Cup. Below is the list of the seeds. Each attendee was slotted into an appropriate grouping. Max posted the opening odds of winning for each seed, and then attendees bid anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars up to $1,800 on who they thought would win the Grosjean Cup. Bidding was lively amongst this group of advantage players. Max, of course, was the auctioneer, and he kept extolling the virtues of players in each seed to bump up the bidding, which was often fast and furious. If you made a mistake in the bidding, as he thought I had, Max would tease the person mercilessly. (I made an early bid of $300 in one round, thought I heard someone say $350, so I immediately yelled $400. Apparently no one had bid $350, at least according to Max, because I became the brunt of his tease for outbidding myself. I learned a lesson: In the future, I will sit at a table up front, rather than in the back of the room, so I can better hear the bids yelled by players.) (Note: The money collected from the highest bidder for each seed goes into a pool, and the prize money (top four finishers at the final table of the Grosjean competition) is paid out not to the winners of the competition, but to the persons who purchased the winners. Also, the attendees in each seed are allowed to purchase up to 50% of themselves from the highest bidder.)
1. New School AP’s: David Y & John M
2. The Recent Champs: Big Player, Mr. Yuk, & Smoke
3. Anthony Curtis
4. Holly Rollers
5. The Holy Rollers & Washington Solos
6. The MIT Team: John Chang, Mike Aponte, & Andy Bloch
7. The Legendary Champs: Wally Simmons & Mr. Lucky
8. Hall of Fame: Thorp, Wong, Dchipani, Purpose, Snyder, Hyland, & Zeljko
9. The Gambling Attornies: Nersesian, Sankiewicz, & Loeb
10. The Counters: Pete C, Joe Pane, & Hollywood Dave
11. Hall of Fame Nominees: Schlesinger, Reitzen, & Benter
12. The Geezers: Anyone not on another seed, 60 years or older
13. The Gambling Writers: Dancer, Rodman, Tamburin, D. Marks
14. The Women’s Field: Under 60 (Not on any other seed)
15. Women’s Field – Under 60 (Not on any other seed)
16. The Mens Field: Under 60 (Not on any other seed)
The competition for the coveted Grosjean Cup began with a very challenging 21 question written test. Here is a copy of the rules that Max read and strictly enforced.
To prevent, ahem, advantage play, as you fill out your game card, you must mark every true or false question or multiple choice question and fill in the blank before we move on to the next question, and they must be marked with black ink. You cannot change your answer once you have marked your card. If there are any blanks or changed answers on your card when it is graded or handed in, you will be disqualified. It’s happened before and it wasn’t pretty.
Also, anyone who looks at his or her cell phone for any reason, other than to take an emergency call, in which case we will all wait until that emergency has been dealt with, will also be disqualified from play.
I’ll repeat each question twice. Ready?
(To view the 21-question test with answers go to http://www.bjinsider.com/newsletter_183_bjball.shtml
The four players (many used pseudonyms) who had the most correct answers were Rick Blaine (11.5), Tony (10.5), WRX (10), and Richie Rich (9.5). These four finalists advanced to the card-skills part of the competition that involved card counting, card memorization, reading the shoe, and more.
Here are several examples of what the skills part of the competition entailed. In one contest, the four finalists had to rapidly count down a partial deck of cards using the Hi-Lo card counting system, including keeping a side count of sevens, and then say what the count was and the exact number of remaining sevens in the pack of unseen cards. In another, Max spread a shuffled deck of cards face up on the layout, gave the contestants about 30 seconds to memorize the order of the cards, then stacked the deck face down, and each contestant in turn had to say what the rank of each card was in the stack in order. (Amazingly, all four contestants correctly named the first 13 cards; on the 14th card, only one contestant got it right.) In another competition, each player had five seconds to cut exactly 22 cards out of a double-deck of cards. (One player missed by one card; several others were off by three cards). (Note: If you think these contests are easy, try them at home.)
The winner of this year’s Grosjean Cup was Rick Blaine, and the second place winner of the Munchkin Award was Richie Rich. (Note: Rick Blaine is the author of the book, Blackjack Blueprint).