Down San Diego way just a stone's throw from Shelter Island is Barona Casino, home of the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
Established in 2002, the Blackjack Hall of Fame has approximately 25 members. All of them are experts at 21 or blackjack. All are card-counters and they all can beat the game of blackjack, sometimes unmercifully.
The management of Barona Casno welcomes the world's best blackjack players -- people like Edward O. Thorp, Ken Uston, Sanford Wong, Max Rubin and Lawrence Revere. They have given them along with the other 20 Hall of Famers a free lifelong membership that entitles them to a free room, free food and free beverages any time they want to visit the card room.
There's only one hitch: they can't play 21.
'These players can play any other game in the casino except blackjack,' said a dealer, smiling. 'They're just too good and we don't want their action.'
While several members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame claim credit for figuring out how to win at blackjack by counting cards and a basic strategy, there is no question over who was the originator of card counting and basic betting strategy.
That honor belongs to Thorp, a former math professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. He wrote his best-selling book, 'Beat The Dealer' in 1962. The book used a math formula perfected by Thorp with the help of one of America's few computers to come up with a winning system for blackjack that has never been surpassed.
Thorp was not a gambler when he invented his system. He was just a plumpish college professor who loved to study probability. He believed he could develop systems that would overcome the odds to win at blackjack, backgammon and even the stock method -- theories that he later proved worked.
I first picked up a copy of Thorp's book in 1967 while working as a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles. My friend Dave Molina and I had been to Las Vegas on half a dozen occasions before I found the book. Although we did okay at poker, we couldn't win at blackjack. We decided to study the book. At the end of a week, we agreed it was time to test Thorp's system.
Thorp's multi-faceted system involved counting cards backward on a single deck. When the deck was rich in 10-value cards and aces (the normal ratio is 36-16), he recommended increasing your bet because a blackjack paid more than a regular bet. He also recommended splitting 8s, something the average 21 player thought was foolish. And he urged his readers to double-down on such poor hands as A-2, A-3 or A-4 when the dealer was showing a bust card (4, 5 or 6).
Dave and I checked in at The Orleans and quickly found out that Prof. Thorp knew what he was talking about. We had our first winning session at blackjack, winning more than $1,200 between Friday and Sunday.
When Thorp first presented his blackjack theory in a paper at a math convention, a daily newspaper published an article about his theory. Las Vegas casino management pooh-poohed his 'findings' and rolled out the red carpet for him.
After the math teacher beat them like the proverbial drum and won more than $21,000 over a weekend, casino management pulled back the red carpet with a vengeance. They began shuffling up on Thorp, hired players to distract him from counting cards. and even employed cheating dealers as a last resort.
Today only a handful of casinos deal single-deck blackjack. Most of them use shoes with four, six or eight decks to make card-counting much more difficult.
After publishing 'Beat The Dealer,' Thorp moved on to other things that involved mathematics. He taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New Mexico State University. He developed an effective method of making money on hedge funds and even invented a wearable computer that people could bring into a casino. The Nevada Legislature eventually outlawed the device.
Today the former math professor is head of Edward O. Thorp Associates in Southern California. If you can find a copy of 'Beat The Dealer,' I give it my highest recommendation for entertainment and value. Three cheers for the university lamb who killed the butcher.