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Al Francesco discusses Big Player blackjack teams, Ken Uston, and his life as a professional gambler in this Blackjack Forum interview by Richard Munchkin.
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Interview with Al Francesco, Inventor of the "Big Player" Style
of Blackjack Team

 
Al Francesco talks about Lawrence Revere, Ken Uston, counting cards, and his Big Player blackjack teams
 
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Ken Uston and Al Francesco, great blackjack players An Interview With Keith and Marty Taft
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Ken Uston and the big player blackjack team The MIT Blackjack Team: Interview with
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Interview with Al Francesco

By Richard W. Munchkin
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XXII #2, Summer 2002)
© 2002 RWM

[Note from A.S.--Richard Munchkin is the author of Gambling Wizards: Conversations with the World's Greatest Gamblers, one of my favorites on professional gambling and gamblers. Since the time of this interview, Richard Munchkin has been elected into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.]

[Note from RWM: One of the seven inaugural members elected into the Blackjack Hall of Fame by professional gamblers was Al Francesco.

In his interview for my book, Gambling Wizards (Huntington Press, 2002), the great professional gambler Billy Walters told me, ďIf youíre committed to being a professional gambler, and you want to be the best you can be, you spend every waking moment trying to figure out a way to beat the game.Ē No one exemplifies this more than Al Francesco.

This is the professional gambler who invented the Big Player blackjack team concept and taught Ken Uston how to count cards. He ran the first computer blackjack team, teaching players how to operate hidden microcomputers with their toes. He wasnít content counting cards at a time when the casinos didnít think blackjack could be beaten. He was a professional gambler who wanted bigger edges, and moves that the casinos hadnít seen before.

Many people have heard of playing ďwarps,Ē but how many people could do what Al did in Korea? He spotted a dealer inadvertently bending the cards, immediately started signaling his partner at the table, and within eight hours won over $50,000 in a club with a $100 limit! That is what separates the Blackjack Hall-of-Famer from the mere professional gambler.]

Start of a Career in Blackjack

RWM: When did you start playing blackjack?

Al Francesco: Ed Thorp gets the credit for that. I started playing in 1963 shortly after I read his book. It took me about five weeks to learn his system, the Ten Count. You had to count backwards with a ratio of small cards to large cards. You started with 36/16, and if you saw one of each, a ten and a non-ten, you went to 35/15. You had to divide one into the other. That ratio would then determine when to hit or stand, and your bet size. I remember going up to Reno and playing with it, but it was a very difficult system.

RWM: Did you meet Thorp back then?

Al Francesco: No, Thorp wasn't a professional gambler and really didnít play much. He tried to play and got cheated all the time. He wasnít able to spot the cheating, because he didnít have the background I did. He had someone with him to see why he wasnít winning, and that person witnessed all the cheating.

RWM: Were you a gambler before that? Did you go to Vegas just to play?

Al Francesco: I had never been to Vegas or Reno. I had just moved to California when I read the book. Earlier in my life when I was 19 to 21, I gambled in my hometown, Gary, Indiana. I used to play some games like Greek Rummy and some other games that arenít popular now. I guess I was good at it, or else my opponents were extremely bad. I won just about every time I played. It was small stakes. I made about $5,000 a year, but back then that is what I would have made at a regular job. So I guess I became a professional gambler back then.

RWM: So you were used to looking for an edge?

Al Francesco: I have always looked for an edge. I probably only played without an edge twice in my life. At least, every other time I thought I had an edge. I remember those two times I played without an edge very clearly. I remember the thrill, which is totally different than when youíre gambling for a living.

RWM: What were you playing?

Al Francesco: I was in a crap game. I was making $10 and $20 bets. It was a high. I lost $200 and ran out of money. I ran home to get some more, but by the time I got back the game had broken up. I probably saved the rest of the money I had. Maybe someone was doing something funny in the game. At that time just about any home game had something funny going on.

RWM: It was 1963 and you learned the Ten Count. What was it like counting cards back then?

Al Francesco: The first time I counted cards, I got a headache within twenty minutes. It was an extremely tough system. I thought I was ready for it, but I wasnít. I went home and studied some more, and then when I went back I was ready and could keep up with any dealer. It was all single-deck at that time.

RWM: You started off betting small?

Al Francesco: Yes, I was betting from $5 to $25 and then started building a bankroll to the point where I was betting up to two hands of $200. They didnít know the game was beatable at that time. I was varying my bet from $5 to two hands of $200. I was one of the first people that were really beating the game. I played to my heartís content. Iíd just play and play and play.

The Games Back Then

RWM: Did you have problems with them cheating you?

Al Francesco: Oh, that was the biggest problem. In 1963 I would catch dealer cheating six to eight times every single day. Most of it was at night. It seemed that all the cheaters worked night shift. I always made money during the day, but at night I got my clock cleaned numerous times. I spotted most of the cheating I think, but evidently there were some moves that were beyond me.

Back then blackjack dealers would switch their hole card. When they had a ten as an upcard, they had to check their hole card to see if they had a blackjack. If they had a stiff, when they were ready to play out their hand, they would switch the hole card as they were turning it over. The top card of the deck became their hole card and the original hole card went to the top of the deck. I was facing twenty over and over again. I didnít know about that cheating move until years later.

The Cal Neva in North Lake Tahoe was notorious for cheating. Frank Sinatra owned a piece of the place at that time. I went in there because I wanted to see it first hand.

I went to the blackjack table and got ten silver dollars. I bet a dollar a hand and it took eleven hands to lose the $10. During that time I got the five of hearts three times in one deck. The dealer was rolling the deck on me, dealing seconds, every cheating move you could imagine. He was practicing on me at $1 a hand.

[In the í60s the dealers would place the discards face-up on the bottom of the deck. A dealer who cheated would spot a combination of cards that guaranteed the player would lose, place them on the bottom, and then roll the deck over--inverting it. He would then deal the same cards that had been played on the hand before. This is how Al received the five of hearts three times in the same deck.

A more thorough description of this cheating technique can be found in How to Detect Casino Cheating at Blackjack, by Bill Zender. See the Recommended Books page at this Web site.]

I left the table and I walked over to a busy crap table. Right away I saw something funny going on. I never play the game, but Iím familiar with some cheating moves. I knew some guys back in Gary, Indiana who could switch dice, and Iíd read a lot of books on how to spot cheating. I saw the croupier give the dice to the guy next to him. The guy picked up the dice, and put them back down. I knew that he had switched them.

Everybody at the table was betting the ďdo,Ē so I immediately bet the ďdonít.Ē If I had been smart, I would have just bet the ďdonítĒ and not paid any attention to the dice. But it was the first time I had ever seen anything like this in a casino. I couldnít take my eyes off the guy, because I was so amazed.

Evidently there were some outside guys who were protecting the game, and they noticed that I was betting ďdonítĒ and had my eyes on the guy switching dice. They got the message to me that Iíd better leave. I knew I wasnít welcome, and I got out of there. I probably won $300 but they didnít like me having any part of it.

RWM: Did the casinos ever assault you?

Al Francesco: I got roughed up one time at Harveyís. My brother, who is also a professional gambler, had told me about seeing a guy there get the hell beat out of him by security guards. Nobody did anything or said anything. They just assumed he had done something wrong.

About two weeks later I was in Harveyís. They had barred me before and told me not to come back. I was just scouting the place, and they spotted me and took me upstairs to a security office. While we were going upstairs they were tripping me. They were trying to get me mad.

I didnít do anything at all because of the story my brother told me. They hit me a couple of times, but nothing really bad. This was back in í63 or í64 and I had heard about people being found out in the desert, so I wasnít going to take any chances.

The First Blackjack Team

RWM: Did you form a team right away?

Al Francesco: No. I played by myself, mostly in Reno and Tahoe. After a year and a half I started getting barred left and right. I was being hassled too much, so I quit playing. I stopped for about eight years, and then they introduced 4-deck games, and Lawrence Revere came out with the Advanced Point Count.

I learned that system and started playing blackjack again. I played for about a month, started getting heat again, and stopped playing. I knew that I had to come up with a better way to play. [Lawrence Revere wrote Playing Blackjack as a Business.]

RWM: Did you know Revere?

Al Francesco: Yes. We went to Mexico together on a vacation.

RWM: Were there casinos in Mexico at that time?

Al Francesco: No, we just did it to spend a few days together. It was a fun trip.

RWM: How did you know him?

Al Francesco: I called him up because I was using his system. He wanted to give me lessons, but as it turned out I played the game better than he did. He was a character. He would always take a card out of the deck without his students knowing it. The student would always end up with the wrong count. That way he could charge them for more lessons. He made more money off his students than he ever did off the casinos.

He played both sides, too. He would teach people how to play, and then he would go to the casinos and point out the people he had taught. We went to Panama together once and were arrested. I believe it was Noriega who arrested us. They picked us up and put us in jail. They didnít speak English and we didnít speak Spanish. They wouldnít let us make any phone calls. The next day they let us go. They never did explain why they arrested us.

RWM: Did they keep any of your money?

Al Francesco: No. I didnít have a lot of money on me, maybe $5,000.

RWM: How did you come up with the Big Player concept?

Al Francesco: I was in Lake Tahoe with my brother and sister and her husband. We had reservations for the Top of the Wheel in Harveyís. We were killing time waiting for dinner, and my brother was playing blackjack. He was betting from $1 to $5 and he knew how to count.

I was standing behind him talking with my brother-in-law, and every time I noticed my brother make a $5 bet, I threw $100 on his hand. I just kept talking to my brother-in-law and let my brother play the hand. It looked like I couldnít care less about what happened. If my brother went down to $1, I pulled all my money back. We did that for about thirty minutes and the pit boss loved it, because they didnít see many hundred-dollar bettors at that time.

When it came time to leave, the pit boss ran outside the pit and tried to stop me from going. He wanted me to keep playing. They bought that hook, line, and sinker. I didnít give it too much thought, and then when I was playing in that four-deck game, it came to me that this was the way to outsmart them.

I started recruiting people who were interested in blackjack. Some were people I played poker with. The first trip I was the big player and I had three teammates. We went to Las Vegas with $8,000 and I remember being in the Stardust betting three hands of $500 on an $8,000 bankroll. I didnít know at the time that I was way over-betting. I got really lucky and in 45 minutes I won $8,000. We did that for about a year.

RWM: Wow, if you can double your bankroll every 45 minutes, youíre going to get rich quick. What year was this?

Al Francesco: It was 1971. I was sort of on a high at that point. After 45 minutes I signaled to my partners that the play was over. We had originally planned to play three hours, so they were kind of surprised. The pit boss asked me if I wanted lunch and he asked me my name. I gave him the name Frank Fisano. He asked what I did for a living, and I told him I was in real estate.

I had lunch, and when I came back out, the pit boss stopped me and said, ďHey Frank. I just did some checking on you. There is nobody in the San Francisco area with a real estate license named Frank Fisano.Ē

I said, ďI never told you I had a real estate license. I told you I was in the real estate business. I buy and sell.Ē It was all bullshit, but he bought the story.

About fifteen years later I played at the Stardust again, only it was a hole-card play. We had dealer after dealer with the same weakness, exposing the hole card at first base. I must have played for 24 hours straight. We won about $48,000 and the same pit boss was still there in the pit. Of course he didnít recognize me after all those years, but I remembered him.

The Team with Ken Uston

RWM: How did start get Ken Uston on your team?

Al Francesco: I was always looking for new people because with three counters the BP didnít keep busy all the time. It looked like he was waiting for something. If he was betting big all the time, the act looked a lot better. You looked like a raving maniac. Eventually we had six counters and the concept got better. Then I met Ken Uston. We were dating the same girl. She told him he should meet me, so one day he called me up.

RWM: Did he know how to play at that time?

Al Francesco: No, he was not a winning player at that time. I taught him to count and he started off as a spotter. I had another guy who was one of my best friends that I was using as a BP. I found out he was ripping us off, so I had to get rid of him. I had to replace him and I replaced him with Ken Uston. [Al laughed.] I probably should have stayed with the guy who was stealing. He wouldnít have written a book about it.

All the time Ken worked for me he broke even. All those trips we made, he didnít win any money. I donít think he was dishonest. I think he spent so much time trying to put on an act that he lost his edge. The dealers probably ripped him off.

RWM: Did you know he had plans to write a book?

Al Francesco: Oh no. I had no idea whatsoever. I didnít know about the book until about a week before it hit the bookstores.

RWM: When the book hit the stands, the casinos already knew what you guys were doing, didnít they?

Al Francesco: Not really. To be honest with you, I think Ken wanted to get caught on the last trip we made, because the book was coming out. We were playing at the Sands that particular time, and his publisher was there watching him play. Ken was putting on a big show for him. It was Kenís play that ended it for us.

On any given trip there were 22 of us. We had three teams of seven--six counters and one Big Player--and myself as the 22nd person. I was in the background answering the phone in case things happened, and things did happen often enough.

The three teams would be in three different casinos. The Big Player would stay at the casino for three days but the counters would rotate casinos every day. That way the BP had a new set of counters each day. Just in case the casino started to put it together, the next day it would be totally new faces. This bought us more time. We got away with this for 3Ĺ years.

RWM: What were the criteria for people who wanted to join the team?

Al Francesco: The first thing I did was teach them how to count down a deck with the Revere APC, and I would give them basic strategy. I told them to come back and I would test them when they could count down a deck in 30 seconds, and knew basic strategy. If they could pass that test, then I would teach them the rest. Then they had to improve their time to 20 seconds. But to start, if they could get it down in 30 seconds, I knew they were interested and had potential. If they didnít put forth the effort or call me back, I didnít worry about it because I had enough people that were interested. Most of my people came from other people on the team.

Incidentally, I taught a lot of women how to play. We had a lot of women on the team and that may be one of the reasons for our success. Women were not given credit for being able to play blackjack.

RWM: When I interviewed Cathy Hulbert for Gambling Wizards, she said that the casinos were not used to seeing young women bet $1,000 a hand and they became very suspicious.

Al Francesco: Thatís right, but I just used them as spotters and the casinos never suspected them.

One time, Ken was playing downtown at the Fremont, and called a session off after 35 minutes because he was up $27,000. One of our BPs, named Bill, was in a casino that only had double decks. We normally didnít play double decks. The counts didnít stay hot very long, so you had to jump around too much. So I had six counters that wanted to play, and I sent them over to help Bill. I wanted to oversee it since there were thirteen of my people in there. That kept Bill busy. He was jumping all over the place. There would be three or four people giving him the hot signal at the same time.

I saw that Bill was losing and realized that he might run out of money. I walked through the casino and I put my hand on my crotch. Bill saw me and knew I meant he should meet me at the bathroom. I headed for the pay phone and acted like I was making a phone call. I had $15,000 in an envelope and he just knew what I was doing. I hung up the phone and left the envelope just as he walked up. He got the money and resumed play.

He saw someone giving him a hot signal at another table. He yelled at the pit boss, ďMake three bets over there for me.Ē He gave the boss some money to do it, and then he saw another hand go up, so he said, ďMake three more bets over there for me. What have I got over there?Ē The boss said, ďYou have a 15, a 16 and a 20.Ē Bill said, ďStand, stand, stand.Ē He could see the dealerís upcard on that table. Then he yells, ďMake three bets over there for me,Ē pointing at another table, ďThree more over there.Ē

It was like watching an orchestra leader. The bosses were running all over the casino making bets for him. It would be nice if he had won, but unfortunately he lost about $30,000. The next day we thought we would have a field day, because they liked his action so much. But the next day they wouldnít let him play more than one table at a time. The reason they gave was, there were too many opportunities for the dealers to rip off the casino.

RWM: Itís been a long time since I read The Big Player (by Ken Uston and Roger Rapoport), but I seem to remember a story like that only Ken was the BP.

Al Francesco: Ken was constantly taking credit for things he didnít do. Usually it was for things I did, but in this case it was really Bill.

The Great Plays

RWM: Did you play much out of the country?

Al Francesco: A couple of years after I went to Panama with Revere, I went back with Bill. It was my first really successful trip. We won about $39,000 in three weeks with a maximum bet of $200. The game was very good over there. They had surrender and you could resplit aces and then double down. The first card off the 4-deck shoe they would show you and then burn it. Then they would deal the entire 4 decks except the last card and then show you that one.

Bill was in training the first few days and I would watch him play for a while, and when there was half a deck left, I would ask him what the count was. Heíd tell me, and then Iíd count the rest of the shoe to see how accurate he was. He was pinpoint accurate every time, so he started playing one table and Iíd play my own. After a couple of weeks we were playing at one casino spreading to seven hands of $200. Weíd play about three hours and then it would be time for a break. The casino knew we were friends but not partners.

Anyway, we had been playing about three hours and I thought it was time for a break. I got up and went over to Billís table. He had five hands with $200 on each, and he was thinking about what to do. I had more experience than Bill, and I saw that no matter what the count was he couldnít hit any of the hands. In Panama the dealer doesnít take a hole card.

I said to the dealer, ďHit your hand,Ē and pointed at the dealerís face card. The dealer instantly hit himself with an ace. Bill jumped about three feet in the air and said, ďWhat are you doing?Ē as the dealer started scooping his money. The dealer pointed at me and said, ďHe told me to hit.Ē Bill said, ďThatís my money.Ē

The pit boss came over, and they loved our business, so the pit boss told the dealer to give the ace to Bill. Bill had all pat hands except one hand with a pair of nines. He split the 9s into the face card, and got the ace on one and a face card on the other. The dealer drew a 7, so Bill won six hands instead of losing five. Bill really knew how to read little situations like that and take advantage of them.

The Bahamas are just bad news. I heard what happened to Tommy Hyland but that was after my trips there. My first trip was in 1972 or í73. I was with Bill and we were on our way home after playing in Panama. We stopped in the Bahamas and saw a headline in the paper. It said something like, ď52 murders in the last year, not one arrest.Ē We played for a short time and lost about $6,000. The game didnít look beatable so we were going to leave. On the way out we were picked up by casino security. They took us up to our room and claimed that we were cheating them.

RWM: Even though you lost?

Al Francesco: They claimed we were ahead $6,000, and they wanted their money back. Bill had never been on a trip like this before, and he let me make the decisions on how to handle it. I refused to give in to them even though there were five security guards and a couple of pit bosses in our room. We were outnumbered and at their mercy.

They went through our stuff and found a lot of travelerís checks. Fortunately we didnít have a lot of cash. I just wouldnít admit that we had won $6,000 when we had lost. Plus, we werenít doing anything wrong. We were just counting cards.

I told them they should check with the pit boss in the casino, because they had their information wrong. They checked downstairs and then they said it was $3,000 not $6,000, but they wanted the $3,000. We went back and forth and by now it was five oíclock in the morning. Now instead of seven people in our room it was down to three.

Eventually they left, but called us on the phone and said they would report us to the IRS. That was good news to me, because it meant we were going to get off the island.

An hour later it was time to leave and we had to go to the cashierís cage where we had a safe deposit box. They didnít know about the box, but that was where all our cash was. We had to wait about twenty minutes to get in the box. We thought they were stalling for time to have security there when we opened the box, but the way it turned out it was just ineptness on their part. We finally got in the box with no interference and got on the next plane out of there.

A year and a half later, Ken Uston and another of our players, named Blair, were in the Bahamas with Bill and me. [An interesting side note--the ďBlairĒ that Al mentions here is Blair Hull. He went on to become a hugely successful options trader in Chicago, and sold his company to Goldman Sachs for over 500 million dollars. He is featured in the book New Market Wizards, by Jack Schwager, and is considering running for senator in Illinois in 2004.]

There were two islands with casinos. One island was okay and the other was bad. We started off in one casino playing hole cards. They were lifting the hole card way up and it was so easy to see -- it was the sloppiest game Iíve seen in my life. Bill won $13,000 and I won $15,000. We were at separate tables.

After we left that casino they wanted to go to the other casino in the bad part of the Bahamas -- the same casino where Bill and I had been held hostage. I was surprised Bill wanted to go back there. We went, and there were no hole cards to play, so we decided to take the night off. We let our hair down and spent about three hours drinking wine and having a nice dinner.

After dinner Ken went over to a blackjack table and started playing $10 a hand. I walked by the table and he was reaching for $10 to double down on a hand and I reached into my jacket pocket and threw him $10,000 on the table and kept on walking. There was no good reason to do it, but I did it. I donít know if that was a good thing or a bad thing as it turned out. It might have called attention to me, and that was why they picked me up a few minutes later, or maybe that was one of the reasons they recognized me. On the other hand, when they picked me up, I didnít have any cash on me.

About ten minutes later I was picked up by security. Nobody saw them pick me up. I was in this back room all by myself, and it was three oíclock in the morning. One of the guys flashed some kind of ID really fast, and I asked if I could see it again.

He said, ďFuck off.Ē

With that kind of remark you donít know if these guys really are police or security guards or what. I recognized the people from a year and a half earlier that had told me not to come back to the island. I told them I didnít play, and I had reservations on the first plane out in the morning. They got my wallet and went through all my stuff. They found some names and phone numbers which I didnít want them to find, like Kenís and Billís. They started leading me out of the office and I saw they werenít going to let me go.

I asked if I could make a phone call. They asked whom I wanted to call. I said I wanted to call my brother in San Francisco. As soon as I said that, three of them picked me up by the belt and whisked me out a side door. They put me in an unmarked station wagon. I remembered that headline about the 52 unsolved murders and my life flashed in front of me. I really thought I was a dead man. Remember that it was three in the morning and none of my friends knew this was happening to me.

They took me to my hotel and searched my room. Then they said, ďBe on the next plane out of here,Ē and they let me go.

Bill and I went to France four times and always had a field day because at that time they didnít know the game was beatable. We actually broke one casino, which was supposedly the eighth largest casino in France. We beat them for $230,000. Casinos in France are nowhere near as large as in Vegas. They had three blackjack tables and a nice hotel. It didnít seem like $230,000 would be enough to break them, but it was. We didnít collect all the money we won, but we got most of it. I still have a check for $20,000 in my files.

Another time, Blair and Ken Uston were in Monte Carlo, and they knew Bill and I were planning a trip to Europe. They called because they were running low on money. Two days later KP and I were in France. KP was the girl I was dating at the time and a very good counter.

We went to Monte Carlo and they had opened a new modern casino, Loews. Normally, because of jet lag, I donít even consider playing the first day I arrive. This time we went straight to Loews and when I walked in the casino, Ken was jumping around from table to table back-counting. Blair was sitting down at a table by himself. They were both betting up to two hands of $500, because they only had about $25,000 with them.

When I came I had $125,000 with me. KP sat down and right away had a hot deck so she called me over. I started playing seven hands of $500. Ken saw me so he started calling me onto his table. Then Blair started calling me in. Ken and Blair were betting two hands of $500, and Iíd bet the other five spots of $500. We got up $29,000 in under two hours and the pit boss threw his hands up in the air and said, ďThatís it. If you want to continue playing, you have to start making big bets off the top of the shoe.Ē

My comment was, ďCash me in.Ē

RWM: That sounds like a pretty sharp pit boss for that time.

Al Francesco: Yes. The following morning we knew we werenít going to play there anymore, so when KP and I went down to eat we saw Ken and Blair having breakfast. Two tables away there were five pit bosses eating. We walked straight over to Ken and Blairís table and sat down, letting the pit bosses know we were all together. I had never done anything like that before, but I knew we werenít going to play another hand in that casino, so I felt like rubbing it in their face.

RWM: You went there with $125,000. Were you worried about carrying such a large amount of money?

Al Francesco: A good portion was always in travelerís checks. Those are easy to cash. But carrying cash is just part of the problem of the game. Itís something you have to contend with.

It was really a problem in Korea. In Korea you arenít allowed to take more than $10,000 out of the country. Bill and I played there. After about a day I noticed that the dealer was marking the cards, but not intentionally. Every time the dealer had a face card or ace as her upcard, she would peek to see if she had blackjack. She would snap the corner of the card trying to protect the hole card from anyone behind her trying to see it. Evidently, a few weeks before there had been a team in there spooking, so they were making a great effort to protect the hole card.

[Spooking is a move where a spotter, known as a ďspook,Ē is positioned across the pit from a dealer that lifts his hole card too high when checking for a blackjack. The value of that card is signaled to a player sitting on that dealerís table. This move has been thwarted since the í80s, when casinos either stopped checking the hole card, or started using mirrored or electronic card readers. There is an entertaining scene involving a spooking play at the beginning of the movie ďCasino.Ē]

While they were protecting the hole card, they were bending all the tens and aces in the corner. Later, when that card was the dealerís hole card, I could identify it as a face card or an ace with 100% accuracy. The deck stayed in play for 24 hours, so it didnít take long for the whole deck to be marked. When I noticed that, I started signaling Bill. He was playing and I was looking for the marks.

I was signaling him when to hit and stand. He didnít understand why I was making some odd plays. Eventually we took a break, and back in the room I told Bill what was going on. We got out Thorpís book and there was the complete playing strategy, given this information. Two hours later we were back in the casino betting seven hands of the limit, which was only $100. We played for eight hours and won $51,800.

When we went to Korea we didnít know how long we were going to stay, so we only had a five-day visa. We had to leave the next day to renew our visas, and we had to figure out how to get all that cash out of Korea. We had to deal with the black market to change the money into dollars. You never know what youíre getting into when you deal with the black market, but itís just one of those things you have to deal with as a blackjack player.

Then we had to take the money out. If they caught us they would confiscate the money, and we could go to prison for ten years. We decided to put the money in our shoes. We both had $10,000 in each shoe. We walked right through the airport, and we were both an inch taller that day. They searched us pretty thoroughly, but they didnít look in our shoes.

We went to Japan to renew our visas, and then went back to Korea, thinking we were really going to clean up. When we got back, the first time the dealer had a ten as an upcard she did the same move, bending the corner. Then the pit boss gave her a mean look. She picked up the face card and straightened out the corner. Next time, she kinked the card again, the pit boss gave her the look again, and she straightened it out. We started just counting and they started shuffling up on us, so we left Korea.

More on Ken Uston

RWM: What year did you start the Big Player concept?

Al Francesco: I came up with the idea in í71 or í72 and I probably met Ken in í73.

RWM: When did it become exposed?

Al Francesco: That probably happened in 1975.

RWM: Didnít you continue to play with Ken Uston after that?

Al Francesco: We were friends after that. He was doing a lot of hole-carding after that. [Hole-carding means seeing the dealerís hole card through various methods. I mentioned earlier that this could be done by spooking, or by ďfirst basing,Ē which is seeing the card from the first seat at the table when the dealer checks for blackjack. A third method, called ďfront loading,Ē is to spot the hole card when the dealer tucks it underneath the upcard. Any of these methods provide a much bigger edge than counting cards, but spooking and first basing are almost non-existent, since most casinos donít manually check the hole card anymore.]

RWM: So you didnít hold a grudge against Ken for blowing the Big Player concept?

Al Francesco: I should have, but I didnít. All the people on the team were pissed off at him except Bill. They became very close, but everyone else hated Ken with a passion. They were having the time of their lives and making good money and Ken ruined it for them.

Blackjack Computers

RWM: When did you play with the hidden computers?

Al Francesco: That was probably two years later.

RWM: How did that project come about?

AF: Ken Uston introduced me to Keith Taft, who lived in Sunnyvale at the time. He was an extremely religious guy and he was ingenious. He came up with this idea of putting a computer in your shoes. He was looking for someone to run a team for him, and Ken thought Iíd be the right guy. Keith and I hooked up and I was retired at the time, but I liked the idea. I started teaching people how to use these computers operated in their shoes.

RWM: How did it work?

Al Francesco: We were inputting the exact value of the card but the suit was immaterial. There were two switches in each shoe. They were on the top and bottom of our big toes.

With those four switches you could input any card. The four switches had values of 1, 2, 4, and 8, so by combining switch 8 with switch 2 you could make a 10. If you were playing heads-up, you saw your first two cards and you would input those two. Then you would input the dealerís upcard, and the computer would tell you how to play the hand.

The feedback was a buzzer on the ball of your foot. It didnít make any noise but you felt a little vibration. A buzz would mean hit and buzz-buzz would mean stand, and so on. We had various signals telling us what to do in any situation -- double down, surrender, raise your bet, and lower your bet.

We had a house in Reno for about three months. When we first started out there was always something going wrong. Wires would break, the shoes would fall apart, the batteries would fall out of the heel, and you needed someone to maintain the equipment all the time.

Our idea was to play single-deck and flat bet. At that time the casinos were very paranoid about counters. We thought that if we flat bet we would get away with it forever. But the shoes we put the computers in were a little on the bulky side. We had some comments from the pit bosses about the size of our shoes. One of our players told the boss that he had a big toe problem, and these were the only shoes he could fit into.

One time, one of our players was walking across Las Vegas Boulevard thinking about what had happened to him in the Desert Inn on a play. As he was walking across the street, a car hit him and knocked him right out of his shoes. I happened to be coming across the street and saw the whole thing. But he was okay. He was just wrapped up in his play and oblivious to the traffic on that street.

Most of the players that I trained were new to the game of blackjack. Our training took six or eight weeks and I had to start at ground zero, because most of these people had never played before. Some of them were not even gamblers. The biggest bet they had made in their life might have been $5, but in short order I had them out betting a hundred or two hundred dollars. We probably had an edge of 1Ĺ%, but if you run across a dealer whoís cheating you, that can evaporate quickly. I think thatís what happened to us a few times.

We played for nine months, but we didnít make any money. I think we tried to do too much, and flat betting might not have been aggressive enough. We lost about $75,000 altogether between Keithís work and our losses. It wasnít a big deal, just nine months of our time. Not one person was arrested or pulled up. At that time computers were not illegal.

Iíve always been able to come up with new ideas. I hit the casino with an idea they havenít seen before, so Iím able to take advantage of it. They have no idea how theyíre getting beat.

The Drop

RWM: What other plays have you tried?

Al Francesco: Another concept I played was called ďthe drop.Ē Iíd play single-deck, and when I cut the cards I would lift the top of the deck and tilt it toward someone at the next table who would spot the card. Then I would drop four or five cards back onto the deck and cut. When the dealer completes the cut, I know either the fourth or fifth card down.

Depending on what that card is you know how many hands to play to either get the card for yourself or give it to the dealer. The skill you had to master was knowing exactly how many cards you dropped. I could do that with 95% accuracy. Iíd generally play three hands of $500 off the top. The casinos thought they had a big edge because youíre starting off with a zero count, but I had an average edge of 16%.

I played that for about six months, but it was the type of idea that couldnít be used a lot because you needed perfect conditions. It was usually a three-man concept. You needed a table to yourself. Then you needed someone at the next table who could see that card when you flashed it to him. Then you needed another person across the pit who would relay a signal to you letting you know whether it was a big card or a small card. Those conditions were hard to find.

RWM: I suppose that is why they did away with letting people cut by hand.

Al Francesco: Right. That and there was another team that was cutting to aces which may have had more to do with them introducing the plastic cut card. I was arrested for playing the drop at Fitzgeraldís in Reno. To this day they donít know what I was doing. They knew I was doing something, but they couldnít figure it out. I had to hire an attorney, but after a while they just dropped it.

RWM: Do you think that was cheating?

Al Francesco: The drop concept was tainted. Some people would say itís dishonest, but if it was dishonest I donít give a damn. I know how many times I was mistreated or cheated by the casinos and I was getting even with them. Hole-carding is not dishonest; itís been tested in the courts.

RWM: How did your wives handle this gambling?

Al Francesco: I got into playing blackjack at the tail end of my first marriage. I was married the second time to a Venezuelan girl and she knew about my blackjack. She took it pretty well.

RWM: Are you still playing blackjack?

Al Francesco: I went back to blackjack again in the í90s when Arnold [Snyder] put together a team called CRAPS. We started as a straight card counting team. We had great people on the team, but for some reason we didnít make any money. After about a year we threw in the towel, but at that time I came up with the idea for an ace-sequencing team. It took me about six months to put together the concept. I played around with four or five different ideas on how to memorize these sequences of cards. Some of the ideas werenít very good. I finally came up with one that worked extremely well.

RWM: Did you read memory books?

Al Francesco: I read every book I could find about memory and had eight hours of tapes I studied. I canít do it now because Iím out of practice, but one time I played an eight-deck game where I memorized 24 sequences and was able to recall all 24. Most of the time you play a six-deck game and you might see 12 or 13 that you memorize. I taught a number of people and we did very well with it.

RWM: What are you working on now?

Al Francesco: At the moment Iím on the other side of the table in a way. Iím involved in a banking operation here in California. These card rooms canít accept bets from customers. The bets have to be between players. If one customer wants to bet $1,000 and there is no one at the table who wants to bet that much, then he canít make that bet. Thatís where I come in. I supply someone at the table who accepts all bets. We have bankers in a bunch of casinos, so it is like being on the other side right now. I never thought Iíd be in this position. Iím still not the casino, Iím sort of a middle man.

Iím also involved in horse racing. Iíve tried to beat the horses on and off for over 20 years. The first time I tried with my three brothers. We spent $45,000, twenty years ago, gathering data from all the California and New York tracks. We had a guy named Bill Quirin help gather all this data, and he ended up writing a book about our study - without our okay [Winning at the Races, by William Quirin, 1979].

He was just like Ken Uston. It was a very successful book. It was the best book on horse racing at that time. We thought we had some winning systems at that time, but they didnít hold up. About four years ago we started playing the Pick 6 and we hit a few. We think we have a winning system right now, but we havenít played long enough to know for sure.

I also have a website, http://www.freesportsplay.com. Itís a place to play games for free and have a chance to win from $500 to $100,000. Iím supposedly retired now but I probably work ten hours a day.

RWM: No blackjack?

Al Francesco: I think blackjack is behind me now. I may not play another hand of blackjack in my life, but I donít know. [Al stopped to think for a moment.] I did come up with another concept about two years agoÖ ♠


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  Al Francesco, Inventor of the "Big Player" Blackjack Team
In this Blackjack Forum article, Richard Munchkin interviews Al Francesco, inventor of the blackjack card counting team and the man who taught Ken Uston how to count cards. Ken Uston was trained and employed as a Big Player on one of Al Francesco's blackjack teams when he claimed credit for Francesco's ideas and experiences in his book The Big Player. Al Francesco describes running blackjack teams and his life as a professional gambler. Al Francesco was elected by professional gamblers as one of the seven original inductees into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.