Don Johnson

Not to be confused with actor of the same name, Don Johnson is a professional blackjack player best known for winning over $15 million from three Atlantic City casinos – namely Borgata, Caesars Atlantic City and Tropicana Atlantic City – in 2011. Johnson did so not by card counting, but by negotiating changes to standard casino blackjack rules which, collectively, provided him with an effective edge of around 0.26% over the house. Among the changes he negotiated was a loss rebate of 20% every time he lost $500,000 or more; critically, the loss rebate was reset every day, with no minimum play requirement.

By playing the ‘perfect’ game, under already advantageous conditions, Johnson won $5 million at Borgata and $4 million at Caesars Atlantic City, which subsequently banned him, before continuing his winning streak at Tropicana Atlantic City. In a twelve-hour stint at Tropicana Atlantic City, Johnson won nearly $6 million, including $800,000 in a single hand. Having bet the table maximum wager of $100,000, he was dealt two eights, which he split, only to be dealt two more eights, which he split again. By now playing four hands, at $100,000 apiece, Johnson received a series of favourable cards, allowing him to double down on each hand and thereby increase his total bet to $800,000. The dealer duly bust, so Johnson won all four hands. Unsurprisingly, the loss of nearly $6 million in a single session devastated monthly revenue at Tropicana Atlantic City, such that, like Borgata, the casino quickly rescinded the favourable playing conditions and table limit.

Richard Marcus

In a case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper, Richard Marcus nowadays lists his profession as ‘Casino Table Game Protection Consultant and Trainer’, although it is interesting to note that his own website bills him as the ‘World’s #1 Casino and Poker Cheating Expert’. In any event, Marcus is infamous as a ‘professional’ cheating expert and has perpetrated scams, including the celebrated ‘Savannah Roulette Scam’, in casinos in Las Vegas, London and Monte Carlo down the years.

By his own admission, the ‘Savannah’ is a simple scam, which involves hiding a $5,000 chip beneath two $5 chips, in such as way as the bet appears to be three $5 chips. Typically placed on column bet, at 2/1, if the bet lost, Marcus would quickly replace the original chips with $5 chips or, otherwise, collect $10,010 in winnings, safe in the knowledge that any surveillance footage would reveal that the original bet was legitimate. Marcus claims to have continued this ‘trademark’ scam for five years in the late Nineties, right under the noses of casino security staff in Las Vegas, but was eventually caught in 1999, by which time he is believed to have defrauded casinos of a total of $5 million.

MIT Blackjack Team

The exploits of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Blackjack Team inspired the bestselling book, ‘Bringing Down the House’, written by Ben Mezrich and, in turn, the Columbia Pictures film, ‘21’, starring Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess. According to Mike Aponte, who first played on the real MIT Blackjack Team in 1992, both the book and the film take artistic liberties.

In any event, the MIT Blackjack Team was a small group of students and former students, recruited not just from Harvard Business School, but from colleges throughout Boston and further afield, involved in card counting in the casinos of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Under the strict supervision of Bill Kaplan, a Harvard graduate who had deferred his entry to Harvard Business School to form a highly profitable blackjack team in Las Vegas, the team was run like a business.

The original investment, $89,000, financed internally and externally, was doubled within the first ten weeks of operation in 1980 and four years later, when Kaplan ceased managing the team, the total invested in the enterprise had risen to $350,000. The MIT Blackjack Team continued to grow, and prosper, until 1994, when it split into two groups, known as ‘Amphibians’ and ‘Reptiles’, which continued, in various guises, until the turn of the Millennium.

Edward Thorp

American mathematics professor Edward Oakley Thorp is famous in gambling circles as the author of the 1962 book, ‘Beat the Dealer’, which is nowadays billed ‘The book that made Las Vegas change the rules’. Shortly after being awarded his doctorate in mathematics by the University of California, Los Angeles in 1958, Thorp played blackjack in Las Vegas. He realised that, unlike other games of chance, each hand of blackjack is influenced by the cards already dealt from the deck and set about developing a winning system based on mathematical probability.

After several years of academic research, during which he used computer simulations to calculate the precise probabilities of winning or losing for decks of various composition and number, Thorp first published his conclusions in an academic paper, ‘A Favorable Strategy for 21’. His work attracted the attention of Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Kimmel – unbeknown to Thorpe an illegal bookmaker with Mafia connections – who offered him $10,000 to take an ‘applied research’ trip to Las Vegas, in return for 10% of any winnings. Thorp naively accepted and duly won $13,000 in the space of a few days. The following year, Thorp published the first edition of ‘Beat the Dealer’, which introduced card counting and basic blackjack strategy to the masses and has been a bestseller ever since.

Doyle Brunson

Doyle Brunson, otherwise known as ‘Texas Dolly’ and the ‘Godfather of Poker’, finally announced his retirement from poker, professionally and recreationally, in June, 2018, less than two months shy of his eighty-fifth birthday. In modern terms, his total live earnings of $6.2 million are fairly modest, but his achievements in World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournaments – which, by his own admission, he ‘never cared for’ – are anything but.

All told, Brunson won ten WSOP bracelets, including the WSOP Main Event twice, in 1976 and 1977, which puts him in a tie for second place, alongside Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey and behind only Phil Hellmuth, in the all-time list. In fact, on both occasions Brunson won the WSOP Main Event, he was dealt 10-2 in the final hand, but hit a full house on the river card to take the title; thus, 10-2 is immortalised as the ‘Doyle Brunson’ hand.

Inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988, Brunson may longer be playing WSOP tournaments, but still plays high-stakes cash games in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio, Las Vegas. At the WSOP First Fifty Honors [sic] Gala in 2019, he was named one of the four most important players in WSOP history.