The Blackjack Ball
The Most Elite Gathering of the Best Gambling Minds in the WorldBy Mark Truman
© 2017 Blackjack Forum Online
Every year in secret, the absolute cream of the global blackjack community convenes in the heart of Las Vegas. Somewhere, amid the bright lights and endless nights of the Strip, an incredibly gifted few gather to discuss, strategize and compete at the game they love.
Known simply as "The Blackjack Ball," those in attendance aren't simply high-rolling gamblers. The club assembled for the annual event represent the finest minds in what is termed "advantage play" in games of chance—and pretty much "playing smart" in any competition.
Professionals will use a variety of techniques to invert the casino's edge in their favor, and while performing high-level maths amid the myriad distractions of the bustling floor at the Bellagio might be a feat too far for the average Joe, it's not strictly against the rules.
Of course, this is not how the casino sees the matter. After losing stacks of cash to the attendees of the Ball and other such talented players, it's hardly surprising that the house is keen to know exactly who makes up this ultra-elite club.
For this reason, many of the Ball's guests live their lives under a pseudonym. Examples like "Dustin Marks" are tongue-in-cheek references to gambling lingo of yesteryear, and provide some level of security for the players using them. Additionally, attendance at the Blackjack Ball is by invitation only, insuring only a trusted few are permitted access to the event.
This makes an invitation highly prized, and tales of top level players waiting years for their chance to attend abound online.
Antidote for a Solitary Pursuit
The necessity of such an elite gathering likely arises from the lack of stage for these professionals to meet and compete on. Professional blackjack is a somewhat solitary pursuit, and while many players belong to teams, much of their working time is spent alone at the table or playing online (often lured by online promotions like those found in this list). Many of those present first met one another at previous Balls, having little opportunity or cause to seek out fellow advanced players before.
That was part of the reason behind the event's founding. Organizer Max Rubin explains: "It was a way for players of different blackjack teams and solo players to get together and hang out."
Max first set up the clandestine meeting in 1997 and back then hosted proceedings in his own home. Since then, increasing attendance figures have given rise to the necessity of an alternative venue. The location, of course, is shrouded in mystery, and only those invited are privy to its whereabouts.
Online anecdotes from previous years' attendees shine light onto the level of security required for players to emerge from their shadowy existence to meet, greet, and compare notes with the rest of their professional community. Stories of multiple levels of security checks to pass, and admittance being reserved for only those who arrive with a bottle of premium champagne are common—touches which add to the atmosphere of exclusivity and ensure a special evening is had by all.
The Blackjack Ball is more than just an exclusive shindig for the brightest minds in the game, however. Each year, a new addition is inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame at the event. For a guest to be considered, he or she must first be nominated by an existing member of the Hall, and then be approved by the attendance committee. Legend of the felt Don Johnson was fortunate enough to have his name immortalized this year.
Johnson may be the most widely known blackjack player ever. His victories in Atlantic City have been well publicized, and profits from these sessions run well into the tens of millions of dollars.
The Blackjack Cup
The highlight of the Ball for many is the annual Blackjack Cup, in which guests compete in a series of twenty-one rigorous challenges. Every facet of their abilities is tested, from speed card counting to general knowledge surrounding their craft. Participants are whittled down until a champion remains.
The challenge starts with a written test that is fiendishly difficult, and follows up with practical challenges that seem impossibly hard to an outsider. For many years, James Grosjean lifted the cup, until he was banned from competing by Rubin, in the interests of fairness for the rest of the field. But when Grosjean retired from the field of Blackjack Cup battle, the Cup itself was named after him.
The 2017 competition saw Anthony Curtis, a former blackjack and tournament pro and publisher of many classic books on advantage play, take the top spot. Curtis has also finished in the number two position in six of the previous twenty competitions.
In addition to the Hall of Fame inauguration and competition for the Grosjean Cup, attendees are treated to a different guest speaker each year. This year it was the turn of the grandfather of advantage play, Ed Thorp. Author of the distinguished guide, Beat the Dealer, amongst other classic titles, Thorp is largely responsible for most of the room's fortunes at the felt. Mike Shackelford, authority on all things probability and chance, had the following to say about the 2017 speaker:
It would be hard to understate the impact Ed Thorp had on the game of blackjack. He was the first to publish both a basic strategy to a wide audience, to get the odds to almost breakeven, and how to beat the game by card counting. His book Beat the Dealer will go down in history as the quintessential book that changed the game.
Blackjack Hall of Fame
After the evening's entertainment, the inauguration into the Hall of Fame, and the crowning of the world's greatest blackjack player, the formal event comes to a close. What follows is an official after party, held at yet another secret location.
The annual event concludes with a second after party the next day, hosted by Hall of Famer Richard Munchkin. The Sunday party is a final chance to trade strategies, tactics, advanced concepts, and epic tales amongst the community. No doubt some hair of the dog is also required for those who overindulged at the previous evening's festivities.
As the Munchkin after event winds up, so too does yet another edition of the Blackjack Ball. For many of those lucky (and skilled) enough to attend, the comradery enjoyed over this weekend in January must last a whole year. Back to the shadowy world of dodging pit bosses and performing advanced calculus they must creep.
At least, thanks to Rubin's efforts in organizing this event, they can take comfort from the notion that they are not alone against the casinos, even if they feel that way the 51 other weeks of the year. ♠
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The Members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame Are: Ed Thorp, Tommy Hyland, Al Francesco, Arnold Snyder, Ken Uston, Peter Griffin, Stanford Wong, Julian Braun, Lawrence Revere, Keith Taft, Max Rubin, and James Grosjean.To learn more about the professional gambling techniques used by the Blackjack Ball attendees to win fortunes from the casinos, see the Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library. The library includes articles by and about each of the Blackjack Hall of Fame members from 25 years of Blackjack Forum, Trade Journal of Professional Gamblers.