The Four Horsemen of Blackjack
By Arnold Snyder
© 1997 Blackjack Forum
Letter from F.M.:
I recently found a used copy of the 1957 classic, Playing Blackjack to Win. This is the book written by four mathematicians — Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott — that contained the first accurate basic strategy for casino blackjack. As an avid follower of the blackjack scene for the past ten years, I was familiar with this book by title and reputation, though I had never before seen a copy.
I must tell you I was frankly amazed when I read it. I had no idea how far ahead of its time it was. Not only was the basic strategy nearly perfect, but the chapter on “partial casing” must be recognized as the first valid card counting system ever published, a credit that has always gone to Edward O. Thorp.
I don’t mean to discredit Thorp for his monumental Beat the Dealer
(Random House, 1962), but shouldn’t we consider honoring Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel and McDermott, whose book came out five whole years earlier than Thorp’s, as the true fathers of modern card counting?
This is the 40th anniversary of this astonishing little book. I think if more card counters had actually read this impossible to find classic, these authors would be elevated in the blackjack community to a more prominent stature.
Please, Bishop, before 1997 fades away, how about a tribute to these four forgotten authors who really started it all?
Answer from Arnold Snyder:
It is a shame that this groundbreaking book is not more widely available. I do not know if the publisher, M. Barrows & Co., ever even issued a second printing. [Note: Playing Blackjack to Win
has now been reissued by Cardoza Publishing, but the first edition is still a collector's item.]
The copies of this book that have survived these 40 years are few in number, as the plastic spiral binding and the cheap pulp paper have not held up well through the decades. If you are lucky enough to find an intact copy in a used book store, grab it. Rare book dealers who know the value of this little gem will not let it go cheaply.
Expect to pay $25-$75 for an intact copy in poor to fair condition, and quite a bit more for a copy in good to excellent shape. A broken plastic binding is common , as that thin 1950s plastic is very brittle after all these years.
The First Accurate Blackjack Basic Strategy
As for your comments on the importance of this book, and its deserved place of honor in the hearts of blackjack players, I must concur. For the single-deck Vegas Strip game the authors analyzed, their basic strategy analysis was devastatingly accurate. That they conducted their research by hand on crude mechanical calculators — what used to be called “adding machines” — is truly remarkable. Their hit/stand strategies, both hard and soft, are 100% accurate, including the recommendations that hard totals of 12 should be hit against 2 and 3, and that soft totals of 18 should be hit vs. 9 and 10 only.
The only errors in their hard doubling strategy is that they failed to advise doubling down on 8 vs. 5 and 6 — borderline decisions true for single-deck games only. They missed a few more of the soft doubles, but nothing very serious in terms of dollar value.
Even on the pair split decisions, they made only three errors in their entire chart — erroneously advising that 2s and 3s be split vs. 2, and that 3s also be split vs. 3. These are also close decisions, and in double-after-splits games, are correct plays.
Any player who used their basic strategy today would not be giving up more than a few hundredths of a percent over perfect basic strategy.
The First Blackjack Card Counting System
As for their “Chapter 10: Using the Exposed Cards to Improve Your Chances,” this truly is the first valid card counting system ever published for casino blackjack, some five years prior to Thorp’s Beat the Dealer. In fact, it could be argued that this counting strategy they advised was actually the first “ten count” strategy, as they provide 16 changes to basic strategy, depending on whether or not various numbers of the last cards dealt were either ten-valued or “low cards” — which they defined as Aces, 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s.
But, although they were undeniably the first authors to grasp and publish the concept of a card counting system, and the type of logic that must be employed for it to work, their strategy itself is very crude, and would be unlikely to add much gain to the player. They did not realize that tens and aces were more valuable to the player than the low cards, so they failed to provide any advice on proper betting strategy. Their advised technique for making use of the cards seen, though on the right track, did not even begin to take the advantage available to counters who might be watching for both tens and low cards.
I doubt the value of their strategy changes were worth more than a few tenths of a percent, if that, even in the deeply dealt single-deck games they faced. (They also acknowledged this in their book.) They did the important groundwork for card counting theory, and surely were more responsible than anyone for Thorp’s ultimate development of his truly powerful counting strategies, but their “partial casing” system simply wasn’t much of a winner.
In any case, I am glad you wrote to me, and jogged me into recognizing the anniversary of these four long-forgotten researchers, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott, who stand as giants in the field of blackjack strategies. They truly were the ones who started it all. ♠
In 2008, Roger Baldwin, Will Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott were elected to the Blackjack Hall of Fame. For more information on the history of blackjack, see Arnold Snyder's Big Book of Blackjack.
For more information on the history of blackjack and professional gambling discoveries, see the BJF Professional Gambling Library
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