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Gaming Guru

Nicholas G. Colon

Gambling greats gather at annual Blackjack Ball in Las Vegas

20 February 2017

Anthony Curtis at the Ultimate Blackjack Tournament.

Anthony Curtis at the Ultimate Blackjack Tournament. (photo by Anthony Curtis)

On a cool Saturday evening in late January, in the shadows of the most well-known casinos in the world, with the distant glow of the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip in the background, the most elite professional gamblers in the world gather to attend the super-secretive Blackjack Ball. The gala is hosted by longtime organizer and advantage gaming legend Max Rubin, who spends countless hours in preparation, creating a magnificent soirée so that this profession's elite can have a fantastic evening. Year after year, Max's efforts do not disappoint.

The evening started with drinks and hors d'oeuvres, giving the guests (many whom have known each other, and played together) time to converse and about the past year's happenings. Players in the caliber of Don Johnson, James Grosjean and Arnold Synder were all present. World-class poker icon Phil Ivey even made an appearance.

After dinner, voting for the 2017 Blackjack Hall of fame inductee commenced. To no one's great surprise, Don Johnson was voted into one of the most exclusive groups in all of gaming, the Blackjack Hall of Fame. Johnson is arguably the most famous blackjack player in the world. His exploits reached legendary status when, several years ago, he whacked a few Atlantic City casinos for $15 million over a few weeks while utilizing loss rebate programs. This historic win elevated him to the top tier of advantage players, prompting all who learned about it to ask, "What would a person do with such a large win?"

Next, the chore of crowning the 2017 world's greatest blackjack player commenced. A series of 21 questions are given to the field of attendees. They are a combination of gaming probability theory questions and general gaming knowledge questions, and they are tough. The top five high scores proceed to the final table, where a skills test determines the ultimate winner. The 2017 Grojean Cup took the form of a 15-liter bottle of Luc Belaire Rare Rose Champagne and was awarded to Anthony Curtis, publisher and owner of the Las Vegas Advisor website and president and CEO of the Huntington Press publishing house, the largest publisher of casino-gaming-related books in the world. Curtis is also the proprietor of the Gambling with an Edge website. It was fitting, considering that Curtis has taken second place in six of the 20 previous competitions.

The 2017 Ball orbited largely around arguably the most influential man in advantage gaming, Edward O. Thorp. In 1962, Thorp published the classic text Beat the Dealer. It was the first book made widely available to the public that showed a firm mathematical approach to beating the game of 21. Thorp went on to make noteworthy contributions in stock market analysis, where his original research helped launch the derivatives market.

In his new book, A Man for All Markets, Thorp discusses his whirlwind life and gives a full and complete answer to the question, "How did you do it?" It's a must-read for anyone who wants a look into the mind of an out-of-the-box thinker who has made significant impacts on the world in so many areas.

Ed Thorp in 2015.

Ed Thorp in 2015. (photo by Ed Thorp)

The importance of Thorp's contributions can't be ignored. His original thesis provided the foundation for much of the work that followed. I was able to speak to a few of gaming's most influential personalities about Thorp's contributions.

Mike Shackleford is the creator of the Wizard of Odds website, the quintessential gaming probability site. He is currently the chief mathematical consultant for Latest Casino Bonuses, and he stated, "It would be hard to understate the impact Ed Thorp had on the game of blackjack. He was the first to publish to a widely accessible audience both a basic strategy, to get the odds almost break even, and how to beat the game by card counting. His book Beat the Dealer will go down as in history as the quintessential book that changed the game.

Distinguished advantage gaming author, player, member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame and founder of Blackjack Forum Online Arnold Snyder summed up Thorp's impact on advantage play by saying, "Had Thorp not arrived on the scene when he did, card counting would eventually have been discovered by others. As computers became smaller, more powerful, less expensive and more easily accessible, it would have been inevitable. But the card counting revolution would likely have been delayed 10-15 years."

The black tie setting of the Blackjack ball is only one half of the weekend's events. The second part is the afterparty, held at the home of Blackjack Hall of Famer and author of the classic book Gambling Wizards, published by Huntington Press, Richard Munchkin. Food, fun and friends come together on the Sunday after the Ball to discuss game strategy, new tactics and techniques, and, most importantly, to trade war stories of this unique profession. The Munchkin afterparty extends the opportunity for this elite field of players, all of whom are usually spread out all over the world, to get together and share stories of the past year's exploits.

The Munchkin afterparty gives Advantage Gaming's most influential player's time to get together in a relaxed setting, away from the Blackjack Ball's black tie formal setting. It also extends the time that these players get to mingle with people who understand their unique mindset and those that share their unique drive to reverse engineer casino games for profit.

Munchkin's party is in its second year, and is fast becoming been a part of the Ball weekend's events. The game's elites trade their slacks, blazers and patent leather shoes for jeans and sneakers. The open house event extends from early Sunday afternoon to the late evening. There is a copious amount of respect for each other's abilities. And a conversation with any one of these people is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but having all of them together at one time is something very special.

Kudos to Max and Munchkin for having the foresight to put together these most awesome events, and, more importantly, to keep them going.