Interview with Tommy Hyland
FROM ET FAN:
Interview with Tommy Hyland
By Richard W. Munchkin
[Note from A.S.: Richard W. Munchkin is the author of Gambling Wizards: Conversations with the World's Greatest Gamblers, and, like Tommy Hyland, a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame.]
[Note from RWM: Tommy Hyland runs the most successful blackjack team in the history of the game. For twenty years he has trained and tested card counters, then sent them into casinos with piles of money. He fully expects them to be truthful when it comes to reporting their wins and losses. He says, “We’ve made a lot of money by trusting each other.”
Tommy Hyland enjoys the high life at the casinos. They provide him with first class airline tickets and limousine transportation. Arriving at a Las Vegas Strip casino for our interview, I give the front desk the name that Tommy is using this week. I ride a private elevator to a luxury suite. Tommy greets me at the door. This cavernous suite with its marble floors and gold fixtures is larger than my home and probably cost more to build.
I glance in the bedroom and although huge, it looks like a college dorm room. Books and papers are strewn everywhere, and a battered set of golf clubs occupies the second bed. “Let’s order room service,” he says. After all, the casino is paying.]
In the Beginning
RWM: Do you remember the first bet you ever made as a kid?
Tommy Hyland: Seems like the first gambling I ever did might have been a bet on some sports event. We also used to pitch coins against the wall at times.
RWM: At how old?
Tommy Hyland: I’m going to guess I was in fifth grade, maybe ten or eleven years old. We used to pitch nickels, dimes, quarters against the brick wall. The closest one would win and take the other guy’s coin.
RWM: Did you practice at all? Did you try to get an edge?
Tommy Hyland: Yeah, I think we did practice. Might have flipped by ourselves sometimes. I used to bet on myself in sports a lot, shooting baskets or other games. What else did we do? Golf.
RWM: How old were you when you started playing golf?
Tommy Hyland: I think I was about ten or eleven. We used to play for a soda or a dollar or something.
RWM: Where did you grow up?
Tommy Hyland: New Jersey.
RWM: Did your parents gamble?
Tommy Hyland: My Dad gambled but nothing serious. He liked to go to the racetrack a few times a year. He liked to play golf for a dollar or two-dollar Nassau. He used to be a pretty good pool shooter. Bowling too. Just once a month, or something like that.
RWM: Did you play a lot of sports in high school?
Tommy Hyland: Yeah. Basketball, golf, baseball. I played pretty much everything.
RWM: Once you got into high school, did you start betting sports?
Tommy Hyland: Yeah, but not to a great extent. In high school, I’m ashamed to say now, I was the house in giving out the parlay cards. I used to get one from a guy and I’d photocopy it and back my own cards. It’s pretty much the only time I’ve ever been the house. I’ve always been a player. Some guy at my Dad’s work had them, so he’d bring them home. The payouts were so bad, I raised them.
I think there were other guys doing it, but they were just returning the standard payouts, so I eliminated the competition. I made money for a while: Thirty dollars a week, or fifty dollars a week, something like that. Then, I remember I got the bright idea of trying to create more business. I made up my own spreads on high school games. Apparently they were pretty bad. I got waffled one week and I remember having to sell my pool table. I lost about four or five hundred dollars and I think that was the last time I did the cards.
RWM: How did you get into blackjack?
Tommy Hyland: By the time I was in college, in Wittenburg, Ohio, I was playing cards all the time. I played a lot of poker and I got interested in gambling in general. We used to golf a lot for money. I was basically being a bum. I was supposed to be studying political science, but I was on the golf team. I was playing golf and shooting pool and playing cards. I’ve always been an avid reader and I just picked up some books on blackjack. I started reading them and my roommate and I started practicing.
RWM: Did you also pick up books on poker?
Tommy Hyland: No, I never really did. I was beating the game there, but I remember in college the game kind of deteriorated. There were a lot of bad debts. I gradually got out of playing poker. We were playing a little backgammon. I wasn’t any good at either poker or backgammon, but I was better than the guys I was playing with. Based on what I know now, I was horrible.
It seems like we got Revere’s book from the bookstore. [Playing Blackjack As A Business by Lawrence Revere.] My roommate and I started practicing blackjack, and he was more interested in it than I was. He was from Ohio, but he stayed at my house for Christmas break. I lived about fifty miles from Atlantic City. This would have been 1978, I guess, Christmas ’78.
The Hyland Blackjack Team is Born
RWM: So Resorts had just opened.
Tommy Hyland: Yeah, it opened earlier that year. My roommate stayed at my house for about ten days and he drove down to Atlantic City and back every day. I went down with him two or three times. We’d memorized basic strategy, but we really couldn’t count. I didn’t have any significant result, but he won. That was when they had early surrender and you had an advantage off the top.
I guess he was able to count a little bit, but he won eight out of ten times or nine out of ten. He won several thousand dollars. He’d always been a loser in our college gambling, a heavy loser. I said, man, if this guy can win all these times, there might be something to this. So, after I went back to school, I started practicing more and reading. We only had the one book as I recall.
Then I guess I went down to Atlantic City on and off. I thought you had to be a memory expert to keep the count. That it wasn’t really possible to do it yourself unless you had some extraordinary gift.
Revere’s book, and even with the later books, they don’t actually tell you how to physically do it. They really don’t say how you get your speed up or anything like that. It was pretty confusing. Some of Revere’s charts were great. They’re still good today, his color charts. But the physical act of counting wasn’t explained properly.
A friend and I would sit next to each other and I’d count the high cards and he’d count the low cards. We’d whisper after every hand what he had and what I had and then we’d get a count. We did this for hours and hours. We were winning. We did really well. We both put in a thousand dollars and after several months we had three or four thousand each.
RWM: How much were you betting?
Tommy Hyland: We were way over-betting. I know you had to play a five-dollar table back then. There weren’t any two-dollar tables. Resorts International was the only casino open. I’m going to guess we were betting five dollars to fifty dollars, or something like that. We were fortunate not to tap out.
Then we met a guy who told us about a new book by Stanford Wong [Professional Blackjack]. He came on our table and he realized we were counting. He’s the one who told us you have to wait until the person on first base gets his second card, and then you start keeping the count and canceling out. So we started practicing, and obviously after a little while we were able to do it ourselves.
Then we met two other counters. They each had a few thousand dollars. By this time I’d read Ken Uston’s book [Million Dollar Blackjack] which talked about the teams. Having a team seemed really glamorous to us. We decided to trust the other two counters.
My recollection is we each put in four thousand dollars. Now we had this massive sixteen-thousand-dollar bankroll. We started really firing at them. This would have been about October of ’79. We didn’t realize you could keep books. We used to each start at the exact same time. We’d each have $4,000 and we’d agree to all play until a certain time.
Back then it was pretty hard to get barred betting small. I guess we were betting up to a hundred or two hundred at this point. We usually played at night. We’d start at eight p.m. and we’d play until almost closing, and then go over to their apartment and split up the money.
We didn’t keep track of hours. We just all assumed we were all going to play the same time. We didn’t do it by win or anything like that. We just whacked it up each night. It seems like we did this about four or five nights a week for quite a while.
Then we met this annoying guy, Not Too Smart Art. He was pestering us, pestering us. Oh, can I get on your team? He thought we were big shots now. He begged us and begged us to get on the team and we brushed him off a few times and finally we decided to put him on the team. Our bankroll was maybe up to twenty-five grand at this point, plus he put in an equal share. So now we had maybe a thirty-thousand bankroll. It seemed like we won pretty regularly.
Like I say, he begged for two weeks to get on the team and then every time he played he won, so he said, “Oh, I should have kept playing on my own.” That’s what I remember about Art. Just complain and complain: “Why’d I ever get on this team? I should have taken a shot on my own.”
RWM: By this point, did you guys know anything about how much to bet?
Tommy Hyland: A little bit. I could figure out a little but I’m not super sharp at math. I think that by the “Experiment” we had a forty or fifty thousand-dollar bankroll. That was in December ’79. [In December 1979 Resorts International experimented with allowing card counters to play unmolested. The casino was not allowed to bar anyone from play and would not shuffle the cards until two-thirds of the shoe had been dealt. The experiment lasted two weeks.]
We crushed them during the Experiment. After the Experiment, I wanted to keep playing, maybe go to Vegas. The other guys had gotten Stanford Wong’s book, Blackjack In Asia. They decided to go to Asia. That’s when I started teaching all my friends from the golf course. That’s kind of how I got into the whole team thing. We had fifteen or twenty guys by the end of 1980. I’d teach them, test them, and put them on the team.
RWM: What percentage of guys would actually test out?
Tommy Hyland: Pretty much everybody I tried to teach. I just looked around to see which people I thought were honest. I made some poor judgments and ended up with some bad people, but over the years I’ve been fortunate to have mostly good people. I’ve never really found anybody that - there’s maybe like one out of twenty that I tried to teach that I just gave up on.
After a while I just gave people a basic strategy card and showed them how to count, then said, “Come back when you have basic strategy memorized and you can count down a deck within thirty seconds.” Some of those people never came back. Pretty much everybody else was able to learn the rest of it.
RWM: So you started teaching these guys, and you became the administrator of the team?
Tommy Hyland: Yeah, then we’d just play with my money and when we’d win a certain amount we’d whack it up. We did it in a really simplistic fashion, and I know there were lots of inequities in the way we did it. It was either unfair to investors or players.
I didn’t really know much about bankroll requirements. Sometimes the way I structured it we had the wrong incentives. You’ve got to be really careful how you structure a bankroll. It can be pretty bad if something extreme happens. If you start losing real bad and you don’t have it structured properly nobody wants to play. That’s happened a lot in the past.
RWM: What happened with the first big losing streak?
Tommy Hyland: These things all seem to run together. I was always pretty lucky. I remember meeting a couple of other guys who were much better blackjack players than we were. They were much more knowledgeable, but they were having some tough luck and were struggling.
They couldn’t believe how we just always won. During some fight--maybe the Holmes-Cooney fight, or one of those fights a long time ago--we won several hundred thousand just over a weekend. I think we had twenty players out here, and eighteen or nineteen of them won.
RWM: Have you ever had a bankroll that crashed and burned?
Tommy Hyland: I remember we got involved with a guy named Rats Cohen. I always admired people who were really sharp with math and things like that, because I wasn’t that good myself. This guy Rats talked a really good game. I was a young guy, kind of impressionable, and he was pretty impressive.
He had an apartment in Brigantine. He brought me over and showed me this computer equipment. All he needed was a bankroll and we were all going to get rich.
We took one-third of our bankroll and gave it to him. There were all kinds of delays. There were never really any significant results, and he kept asking for more money. His players seemed very skilled. I liked his operators, but the money just disappeared. He was buying four-hundred-dollar eyeglasses and a real nice apartment. It was a nightmare. He was also superstitious. He seemed to not always bet the money mathematically. That bankroll was a disaster. I think we ended up losing two-thirds of our money.
I think that’s when we lost early surrender in Atlantic City. My recollection is we ended the bankroll, and a few of us came out here to Vegas to play, and shortly after that I ended up joining up with Pitts & Red and a few others.
The Blackjack Computer Plays
RWM: How did playing with computers come about?
Tommy Hyland: We’d been hearing about them. We rented a house out near Sam’s Town, and we ordered the hardware from a guy. I remember all of us were in this house, or maybe four out of the five of us, and we had absolutely no furniture. We had one table and we all slept on the floor. I slept in the bathroom because we had no curtains either. That was the only room with a tinted window, so it was a little darker.
We were playing blackjack on a bankroll, but we were waiting for these computers to come. They came with the boots and all, and we’d practice every day in this house. We did really well with the computers. We made a lot of money.
In 1985 they made it illegal to play blackjack with a computer in Nevada. Computers were a relatively new thing. They weren’t used in everyday life the way they are now. The hidden blackjack computers had been glorified in a Sports Illustrated article. The story made Ken Uston and Keith Taft sound like two entrepreneurs blazing a trail through Nevada making money.
It said right in the Sports Illustrated article that the FBI had ruled that these weren’t cheating devices. When Nevada passed a law against them, my mind set was that the only reason Nevada was ever able to get it passed was because the casinos control all the politicians. Clearly they should be legal. You’re just using the information that’s freely presented to you, and it would never be illegal anywhere else.
I had our lawyer at the time check to see if there was any law in the Bahamas that prohibited us from using them, and there wasn’t. So we continued to play everywhere else in the country with the computers, except in Nevada. We were playing in Atlantic City and in the Bahamas and maybe some other islands in the Caribbean.
The casinos were starting to figure out how to spot the computers. They’d look for people with boots, with their feet moving, or sitting with their feet flat on the floor.
At Cable Beach in the Bahamas they caught me with a computer and pulled me into the back room. The casino manager was there, and some Bahamian police that were assigned to the casino. They asked me to pull up my pant legs. When I did they saw the computer. They said, “You’re in a lot of trouble. We make a nice casino down here for you Americans to enjoy yourself and this is the kind of thing you do.”
The casino manager didn’t even seem upset; it was the Bahamian police that seemed really upset, or maybe it was just part of their act. My wife was on the beach. She didn’t even play blackjack at the time. When she came into the hotel they grabbed her and detained her. They took all the money I had in a safe-deposit box. They held me and started combing the books to see what they could charge me with. They held my wife for about thirty-six hours. They put her in a cell with somebody that was being charged with murder. They did all kinds of things designed to intimidate me.
They finally decided to arrest me, and put me in the central lockup with ten other prisoners, in a really filthy situation. I was in there for two days. It looked like a real serious situation. They were talking about trying to keep me in jail for five or ten years.
Somehow I got word to my lawyers in Las Vegas. My two lawyers came down. They weren’t allowed to practice there, so they hired a Bahamian lawyer. There was no real law down there. The only thing they understood was money. Everybody you ran into was figuring out how they could get some of the money. I think they had a $140,000 of mine and they were trying to figure out how they could all whack it up.
So anyway, my wife got out of there. She flew home. There were all these negotiations. We negotiated that I’d plead guilty to some sort of fraud and get a suspended sentence. It was clear they weren’t letting me out of there. I wasn’t going to win any trial down there, so even though I hadn’t done anything illegal or unethical, it was clear that I had to pay them off and get out of there.
The lawyer negotiated this deal where they kept about half the money and they returned the other half. Then, right when I was supposed to sign the agreement, this Bahamian lawyer said, “By the way, when you get the other half of your money back, I want twenty- five-thousand of it. We had paid him fifteen-thousand-dollars and he’d only worked about two hours at this point. He had me over a barrel. We decided to do that too. I lost close to a hundred-thousand dollars.
I also ended up going to an actual court proceeding. With their accents you couldn’t even understand what was going on. It was amazing. You’d have to be there because you couldn’t imagine. They might as well have been speaking in a foreign language. I didn’t know what was happening. I don’t know what I pled guilty to. My lawyers assured me that it wouldn’t matter. That it would never be recognized in the U.S. as anything.
RWM: But it showed up in Canada?
Tommy Hyland: Well, to the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t show up anywhere on a computer or anything. But it got a lot of publicity, and the Canadian casinos used this to get our group and me out of there.
Apparently, Canada’s immigration laws - if you’re convicted of a felony in another jurisdiction that would be punishable by more than ten years in jail in Canada, you can be deemed as not admissible into Canada. So the Canadian casinos, together with Canadian immigration, tried to do this. I was able to win this case and I’m allowed in Canada.
RWM: Was this just harassment?
Tommy Hyland: Yes. A bunch of my friends were counting cards and were exchanging the information through signals. The Canadian casino in Windsor tried to make this out as some sort of fraud. These were people who played for me.
I tried to go up there and get them out of it, and I was talking to the press. Public sympathy was obviously on our side. This was a big deal in Windsor. It was the front-page story three or four days in a row; all about this trial and about these people who’d been accused of cheating. Once the press got a hold of it and interviewed the people involved, they were on our side and so was public sentiment. I think the casino tried to bring up the incident in the Bahamas to stop our momentum. They tried to make me out to be a convicted felon.
RWM: Wasn’t there something from that Bahamas incident involving Gambling Times Magazine?
Tommy Hyland: Right. At that time the publisher of Gambling Times wrote this article, the tone of which was kind of I told you so. He used to be partners with Rats Cohen and I think they had a falling out. Now he took this high moral position that these computers were unethical.
He wrote this article where he basically exaggerated what happened to me in the Bahamas, and said that I was sexually assaulted while in jail. We sued him for libel, but we lost. New Jersey had a high standard. You had to prove that it was deliberately malicious or something. So he just said that that’s what he’d been told.
RWM: You talk about using the press. Didn’t you even hire a lobbyist at one point?
Tommy Hyland: All we want to do is play a game according to the rules that a casino lays out. That’s always been my view. The casino can make any rules they want. We’ll either beat the game or we won’t play it if we don’t think we can beat it.
Even though we operate ethically and legally, casinos are constantly harassing us. Unfortunately, it’s been necessary to hire lawyers and yes, we even hired a lobbyist. The casinos are very powerful and they’ve gotten a lot of laws passed that are probably not in the best interest of the public. We hired a lobbyist a couple different times to try to get our views heard by the New Jersey legislature.
On Running a Blackjack Team
RWM: Do you think that running a blackjack team is the same as running a small company?
Tommy Hyland: I’m sure there are lots of similarities. One of the main differences I’ve noticed is that people, when they meet blackjack players, can’t believe that we just hand each other massive amounts of money. A player comes back and says how he did. He might say he lost $20,000 or $50,000 and we just say, okay. We write it down; we believe him.
That’s probably the biggest difference that comes to mind. People just can’t believe that we don’t lose all our money from people stealing it. We’ve had a few bad incidents, but most of the time we’ve been pretty successful. We’ve made a lot of money by trusting each other. I may not even know a person, but if he knows a few people I know and they’ll vouch for him... We’ve loaned large amounts of money to people we hardly knew just because other people could vouch for them.
RWM: Didn’t you have trouble at another island casino?
Tommy Hyland: St. Kitts, yeah. It’s an island in the Caribbean. That’s been pretty much where all my foreign play has taken place. I’ve played most every place in the Caribbean. I went to this island, St. Kitts. They only had one casino. They had a pretty good game, maybe six or eight blackjack tables. I got friendly with the casino owner. This guy took an active role in running the casino. He was always on the floor; sometimes he’d push the dealer out of the way and say, “Let me deal for a while.” He got to like me while I was there. I played golf with him every day. I was doing pretty well. I won almost $30,000 in the course of four or five days.
On the last day, he saw me walking through the lobby and called me over. He said, “Tommy, you’re going back to Philadelphia in the morning aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Would you mind giving something to a friend of mine back there?” I said, “Sure, I’ll do that for you.” He said, “Come on with me to my room and I’ll get it.” So I went with him to his room and he went to a desk. He reached in a drawer, pulled out a gun and pointed it at me, and he said, “I know who you are. I know what you do. I want the money back that you won.”
He had a piece of paper, it was a Griffin report, and he was reading from it. Tom Hyland, alias so-and-so, card counter, card-counting team. He’s reading from it and he says, “I want my money back,” while he’s holding this gun. I was young and foolish at the time, and I said to him, “I can’t give it to you. It’s not all my money. Besides, I won it fair and square. You do whatever you have to do, but I’m not going to give it to you.”
RWM: That’s pretty ballsy with a gun pointed at you!
Tommy Hyland: I’d hand it over in about three seconds nowadays. So he said, “OK, we’re going for a walk then.” It was night. We walked out of his room and he started prodding me with the gun in my back. We were walking down this narrow stone path. After we took about twenty steps I said, “I changed my mind. You can have your money back.”
RWM: Do you think this guy really would have shot you?
Tommy Hyland: I doubt it... Maybe. He ran that whole island. He might have been able to do it. He was flabbergasted by the whole thing and he was really pissed. I think he was also hurt. He thought we were friends. So, we walked back to the main building. He went to the office and said, “Give him his safe-deposit box.” The girl gave it to me. He said, “Count out $30,000,” because I had what I started with also. I said, “I think I only won $29,000.” He said, “All right, count out $29,000.” I gave it to him and he said, “OK, have a nice trip. See ya’ later.”
Then, he went back toward his hotel room and I was all shook up. I went back to my room, which was right across the way from his, and I saw him leave. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I was with somebody else and I said, “I’m going to go in there and see if I can find my money.” I went into his suite and looked around for the money, but I never found it. When I got back here I tried to get a lawyer and write nasty letters and call the Prime Minister, or whatever he was called on that island. I never got any satisfaction. It was lost.
RWM: Have you had other incidents where money has been stolen from you like that?
Tommy Hyland: Unfortunately, we’ve had a fair number of these incidents. I also remember one of my teammates got his money taken in Aruba. He was down there with his girlfriend and the casino got a flyer from Griffin saying that he was a computer player. By this time we would never play with a computer anywhere we weren’t sure it was legal. We would never have taken a computer to the Caribbean at this point. It would be a ridiculous thing to do.
He was down there in Aruba just counting cards. They insisted he had a computer. They searched him. They searched his girlfriend. They searched his rental car. They searched his hotel room. He had front money on deposit, and they said, “We know you had a computer; we just can’t find it. We’re keeping your money.” Coincidentally, I think that was about $30,000 also. He did the same thing I did. He made inquiries, but it was lost. It didn’t look practical to go after it.
RWM: Tell me the treasure map story.
Tommy Hyland: That’s when I was playing with Spike. This is before we had the bad incident in the Bahamas. We were all traveling back and forth to Freeport and Nassau to play. They had a high limit and they had a good game for these computers.
We didn’t want to carry massive amounts of money in and out of the country, and couldn’t really figure out how to leave it down there for the next guy. So Spike decided to bury it a couple miles away from the casino. He drew this map for himself, because he was planning on going back there. But then he got tied up with other things and he didn’t really want to go back to the Bahamas to play.
I did want to go, so he asked me to get his money down there. He said, “It’ll be easy; you can’t miss it. All you gotta do is find this spot, and from there you follow the map.” Well the map left a little to be desired. Spike had landmarks that were out in the water on another island, and you were supposed to figure it out from there. My wife and I took probably an hour or so to find this money. When we did, the box he put it in was all rotted, the money was moldy and smelled terrible.
We took it into the casino to play and they said, “Where did you get this?” It was about $140,000.
RWM: Has carrying cash become a big problem in the U.S.?
Tommy Hyland: It seems like it. Especially traveling through airports. Driving the interstate with money we’ve had problems and I’ve heard of other people having problems. They passed these laws to supposedly stop money laundering and drug dealing. People don’t realize how much the laws also affect the law-abiding citizen.
Some of the ways the laws are written, local police who stop people with money and confiscate it benefit directly. So they’re anxious not to give you the benefit of the doubt. There have been some real horror stories. These drug agents, police, and custom agents prey on people that don’t speak English. They find any excuse to take their money, and then it’s a nightmare to get it back.
RWM: Let’s talk about the Griffin Agency. What was your first experience with them?
Tommy Hyland: My first experience with them was when I got barred at the Sands back in the early ’80s by a guy made famous by Ken Uston’s book. [The Big Player by Ken Uston and Roger Rapoport]. A guy named Herb Nunez. He pulled me into the back room and forced me to have my picture taken. I found out several months later that there were flyers out on me, that I was now in the Griffin Book.
RWM: Did you notice an immediate effect when you walked into new casinos?
Tommy Hyland: Yeah, I found that now, instead of being barred because they recognized my style of play, frequently when I got barred they would call me by name or something like that. I don’t think back then I knew how all this Griffin stuff worked, and I was kind of taken by surprise by some of the things they knew.
The bad thing about the Griffin Agency is a lot of these foreign jurisdictions don’t really understand card counting. Sometimes Griffin doesn’t really make much of a distinction as to what activity you’re up to. They see you in a Griffin book and they explode. They figure you’re a scam artist and you’re cheating them out of money.
That’s led to a lot of nasty incidents. The other thing they do is when they list me or some other old time player today, they always put them in there as a computer player. Well, none of these people have used computers since the laws were passed against them. They only used them when they were legal. So a lot of times in these foreign places, the casino either legitimately thinks you have a computer or they use this as a guise to search you, harass you, and take some of your money, claiming they know you had a computer.
That’s what happened to my teammate in Aruba. The reason he lost his money was because he was listed in the Griffin Book as a computer player. They don’t make any distinction that you only used a computer when it was legal.
RWM: Isn’t that libel?
Tommy Hyland: You would think so. Some other card counters and I have tried to sue this Griffin Detective Agency. We never seem to get anywhere. Libel and slander are some of the toughest cases to win. If they can prove you’re a public figure, you have to prove it’s deliberately malicious. Somebody like me, even though my name wouldn’t be known by the general public, for purposes of the case I’d be a public figure, because I’m a well-known blackjack player. Someday I’m sure Griffin is going to get what they deserve. Hopefully somebody will win a big case.
I’m sure if some sheriff in the middle of Kansas sees this picture that looks like a mug shot, and finds out the casino is holding you, he’s going to treat you as some sort of criminal. Right on the top of the page it says Cheating Activity, and then it has your picture. Then they just happen to mention that you’re a card counter.
But I don’t want to overemphasize the effectiveness of the Griffin Agency. They hurt us a little bit, but I can play more blackjack than I have time for. I can’t play in every single casino that I want to. Particularly in Atlantic City I’m really well known but that’s not because of Griffin. It’s not a big factor for us. We can all play pretty much as much as we want to. We just have to move around.
RWM: Do you wear disguises?
Tommy Hyland: These days I don’t wear any actual disguise. I try to change my appearance so I don’t have to go to a lot of trouble each time I go out and play. I don’t quite have the energy to do that. I’ll dye my hair and grow a beard, or get my hair curled, cut it short, grow it long, things like that. I have ordinary features and an ordinary build, and people seem to forget my face fairly easily.
RWM: Didn’t you get barred once as Santa Claus?
Tommy Hyland: Yeah. That was back in Atlantic City, where they used to do this three-step process. The first time you got barred they’d tell you that you were welcome to play any other game except blackjack. The second time they’d bar you they’d say you weren’t welcome on the premises at all. And if you got barred a third time you’d get arrested for trespassing.
I think at the time I had already gotten the second step from Harrah’s, so I got the bright idea on Christmas Eve of dressing as Santa Claus. I was just going to fire away from minimum to maximum. If they barred me they would treat it as the first step. They wouldn’t have any idea who I was.
And that’s what happened. There were four or five of us in there at once. One guy heard a floorperson on the phone say, “I got a guy betting two hands of a thousand down here. Got a guy over there betting purple chips, and Santa Claus is really going crazy.”
It was pretty funny and it worked out perfectly too. They just read me the first warning, and they were laughing while they did it. They thought it was pretty funny. They took it in the Christmas Spirit.
RWM: When you did go to the trouble of wearing a disguise, did you ever go black, or Asian, trying to change your race?
Tommy Hyland: I never did that. The best disguise I ever had was when I went to Hollywood and got a couple wigs from this guy Ziggy, who’s a famous wig maker. I guess he made wigs for a lot of the Hollywood celebrities.
This was a long time ago, maybe fifteen years ago. He was the only guy who could make a realistic looking bald wig. I paid $2,500 for this balding blond wig. It looked really good. Nobody ever realized it was a wig. I got a lot of play out of that. It was worth more than the $2,500 I paid for it.
I also got fake teeth from Mike Westmore, who I believe won an Oscar for the make-up in the movie Mask. They were a little uncomfortable. I remember going back to him to modify them. That was probably the best disguise I ever had. I had to have my eyebrows dyed. They had to keep re-dying them. I had this spirit gum to attach the wig. It took a good hour to get ready to go play. My wife used to have to put it on me. You couldn’t put it on yourself.
RWM: Any other particularly outrageous stories that happened in casinos?
Tommy Hyland: When I first was playing I wasn’t the sharpest guy around. I’ve learned a lot over the years from the people I joined up with. A lot of the stuff we did wasn’t particularly profitable, but we used to have a lot of fun.
We would all go into these Atlantic City casinos at the same time. Twenty guys would just go in and bet. We really didn’t care if we got barred. We would just all go in there at the same time, figuring they couldn’t get everybody at once, because they had this really elaborate procedure that they were required to do. They had to come over and pull you away from the table and read you this card, and only a certain person was authorized to do it. We figured if we had fifteen or twenty of us, they couldn’t get everybody at once. That used to be fun.
RWM: When did the law change? When were they no longer allowed to bar you for counting cards?
Tommy Hyland: That’s when Ken Uston won his case. I guess that was in 1982.
RWM: And did that hurt the games? Was it better for you when they could bar you?
Tommy Hyland: Some people think that. I don’t. I know a lot of card counters like it where they’re allowed to bar you. They think the rules are better, the games are better.
I’ll always campaign for no barring. I just don’t think it’s right that they should be able to do that. And we’ve certainly made plenty of money in Atlantic City since they haven’t been allowed to bar us. It’s much more comfortable to play when you’re not worried about getting hauled off to some back room, or getting arrested or harassed.
As far as I’m concerned, and I’m sure most people agree, if you’re playing blackjack there, Atlantic City is the place you’re least afraid of some sort of casino nastiness. The worst that can happen is they’re going to shuffle the cards on you. I like that feeling.
RWM: You’ll no longer play out of the country?
Tommy Hyland: I’ll play out of the country. I won’t play in those ridiculous places anymore. I won’t play in the Bahamas or any of those islands, but I’ll play in Canada. I’ve played in Australia. I don’t plan on going to Europe, but I’d play in some of those countries. All the countries that I view as civilized.
It shocks me that some of these guys with all kinds of money will go to these crazy places to play blackjack, just because they have a good rule or something. It just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Boxer was talking about going to Russia to play. They have some great game there or something. That just seems like insanity to me.
RWM: On your team, do you have different people who do different things?
Tommy Hyland: We have different levels of skill. That’s another thing about this Griffin Agency that makes me laugh. We have people that can barely pass our test. Griffin makes them sound on these flyers like masterminds. They’re interested in self-promotion. If the Agency makes these people sound real dangerous, like all Einsteins, the casino is likely to renew their subscription. Most of our players are just regular card counters.
RWM: Have you branched out into other forms of gambling?
Tommy Hyland: I do a lot of sports betting. I don’t bet my own opinions, but I have some people’s opinions that I value and I’ll bet money on games.
RWM: One of the things that Alan Woods mentioned was that computers have changed everything in gambling.
Tommy Hyland: That’s true. Unfortunately, I’m computer illiterate. I don’t use a computer.
RWM: Do you use it to analyze games at all?
Tommy Hyland: We use Stanford Wong’s program, Blackjack Analyzer. That’s great. You used to have to try and figure out win rates by hand, and make all these assumptions. In the old days you’d ask knowledgeable people, what do you think this game is worth? Now there’s no more of that nonsense.
RWM: The sports betting that you do, is there a computer model involved in that?
Tommy Hyland: I’m sure these guys do computer work. I’m not really privy to it. I’m not an active participant. I just bet my money and they get a share.
RWM: Alan mentioned a horseracing story that you did together.
Tommy Hyland: I collaborated with Alan on that. We made $27,000, and the horse’s name was House Speaker. I’m not sure if that was the horse that won, or that was the horse we pumped so much money on. Back then there was no pari-mutuel betting in Las Vegas. You’d bet at the race book and the money didn’t go into the track pool at all. They would just pay you off at track odds up to a certain amount. They would pay as much as ten or fifteen to one.
You could bet money at the track on a bad horse and make him the favorite, and make the true favorite a long shot in Las Vegas. That’s what we did. We went to Keystone racetrack in Philadelphia, three or four guys from our blackjack team. Then we had friends in Vegas, I guess we had our watches synchronized. We bet as much as we could on the worst horse in the race, to show. This was a small track so it didn’t take much money to pump it up. As long as the best horse finished in the top three we would win. It paid a small amount to win and paid a monster show because there was relatively no money on him in the show pool. All the money was on this 50-1 shot.
That was fun. I believe our total take, split about twenty ways, was $27,000. It was not a big deal, but we got stories in the newspaper. Both in the paper out here and in the Philadelphia paper. “Still investigating. It doesn’t appear that there was any illegal activity.” I think it was done maybe a few more times with the dogs in Arizona, but that got to be an old trick. You couldn’t bet a lot of money to show or to place in Nevada after a few more of those incidents.
RWM: How did your parents feel when you first started playing?
Tommy Hyland: They were pretty conservative. They were hoping that it was only a phase and that I’d grow out of it and get a real job. My father is deceased, but my mother accepted it. She’s used to it now. My mother actually is pretty amazing. She’s eighty-seven years old and she still plays golf or tennis five times a week. They did a special on the Philadelphia eleven o’clock news sportscast; they did a feature on her playing tennis. She still moves around pretty good.
RWM: Are there more benefits to playing on a team than just evening out the fluctuations?
Tommy Hyland: Yeah, there are a lot of great things about playing on a team. There’s the camaraderie. You have somebody to travel with. You learn things from each other. You share information. It seems like you can really come up with ideas when you have a team. One guy has the germ of an idea, and he bounces it off somebody, and this guy adds to it, and all of a sudden you’ve got a great project. There are advantages to playing on your own, too. I’ve never really played on my own, but there are a lot of successful people that have done that. There are not really many people out there that play blackjack as their sole source of income on their own.
RWM: Any more stories come to mind?
Tommy Hyland: I’ll tell you my famous one. It’s not really famous, but Wong asked me if he could use it when he was giving one of his talks. This is when we were playing mostly in Atlantic City. I had these old friends that grew up in my neighborhood. They had a son who was a little younger than me, and he was going to college. He asked me as a way to make money in the summer if he could come and play blackjack for me. He was a real smart kid and I knew he was honest. So I said sure, I’ll teach you how to play.
I taught him how to play and he played Atlantic City and he did well. Toward the end of the summer he decided he’d make a trip to Las Vegas. One of his first plays was at the Sands. He was winning and winning and he couldn’t lose a hand. They didn’t have anything bigger than hundred dollar chips in the rack, so he had all these black chips piled up, maybe seven or eight thousand dollars worth in front of him.
The shoe went negative and he decided to count his money to see how much he was winning. He took all his chips off the table, and as he was heading to the restroom, he noticed a security guard looking at him. Now he had heard from guys who came back from Las Vegas about getting barred, and he heard about people getting roughed up in the back rooms. So he ducked into the restroom, went into a stall, and shut the door.
He pulled out his chips and was counting his money while sitting on the toilet. All of a sudden there was a knock on the stall door. He opened up the stall, and there was this big security guard. The guard looked down at him and said, “What are you doing?” He had all his chips, and he was fumbling around, and he said, “I was just counting my money.” And the security guard said, “In the ladies’ room?”
Another time... when I first started out we were really aggressive and we used to get barred all the time. Most times we wouldn’t say anything while we were being ushered out the door, but sometimes we’d ask them why, or say all kinds of things. Every situation was different.
One time, one of our players was in Puerto Rico and he was down $4,700. The casino manager came over and said, “We don’t want you to play blackjack anymore.” A lot of times how we’d respond if we were losing was, “Well, are you going to give me back the money that I lost?” And of course they would always say no. Well, this time, the casino manager said “OK, we will,” and he gave him $4,700 back! He gave him the $4,700 and he said, “OK, just never come back in here again.” That was at the old Ramada in Puerto Rico on the main drag there.
How Casinos React
RWM: You mentioned being backroomed. Does that still go on?
Tommy Hyland: There don’t seem to be many backroomings, but there’s still a lot of nastiness that our guys have experienced. The popular thing nowadays is to electronically lock you out of your room. Your plastic key card suddenly doesn’t work. So it’s the middle of the night, you go up to your room, and you can’t get in. You go the front desk and you say that your key doesn’t work. They check on it by looking on the computer, where there’s a note to call security or the casino manager. They bar you and stick you with a hotel bill even though they promised to comp it.
I hate to get people comps anymore, because things just always seem to go wrong. We actually have a rule that you’re not allowed to get room comps for people that aren’t on the team. I’m afraid people play too conservatively, because they’re afraid of getting kicked out of their rooms. That’s just foolish on the casino’s part, because we just get more determined to beat that place. It hasn’t happened to me, but it’s happened to other guys.
RWM: But you think barrings have become much more civil in the last five years or so?
Tommy Hyland: In general.
RWM: What about in these little places that have sprung up all over the country?
Tommy Hyland: Casinos are afraid of litigation. It does seem like most places go out of their way to be nice about it. And we’re nice about it too. I’m always nice about it. I’ll always go back eventually, but I won’t try to push it in their face. I won’t go back the next week, or something like that. I’ll stay out of there what I consider to be a reasonable period of time - six months or a year. I’ll never just go back out of defiance.
I don’t think it’s ethical that they bar you. I don’t think it’s legal. No place is going to intimidate me into not going back. Well, the islands have definitely intimidated me. I’ve decided not to go to them. But no place in the U.S. is going to intimidate me into not playing blackjack. If they have a good game and I think I have a chance of fooling them, I’m going to play.
RWM: If your son came to you and said, “I want to be a professional gambler,” what would you tell him?
Tommy Hyland: That actually is a realistic possibility. He just turned twenty. I don’t think he wants to do it for his career, but I think he does have an interest in playing. He’s a real good golfer. I think he’s hoping to make his career in golf.
I think blackjack is a great profession. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it, not just because you can make a good living at it, but I think it’s the perfect way to make money. It seems to me that you’re taking the money from greedy corporations. The more influence they get in a particular area, I think the worse off that area will be. I think the money is better off out of their hands. I think you’re on the good side of the equation.
I mean, I would never want to be the house. If somebody told me I could make $10,000,000 a year working for a casino, I wouldn’t even consider it. It wouldn’t take me five minutes to turn it down. I wouldn’t be interested. I don’t like casinos. I don’t like how they ruin people’s lives. The employment they provide, I don’t think, is a worthwhile thing for those people to be doing. They’re taking people that could be contributing to society and making them do a job that has no redeeming social value. That’s my view.
RWM: In your case, your son has the benefit of having you to teach him, but if it were somebody who wrote you a letter from out in the hinterlands, who said, ‘I want to become a professional gambler," what would you tell him to do?
Tommy Hyland: I actually get that a lot. The thing I really get a lot is, strangers asking to get on my team, or for me to back them. I’m not interested in that. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of really bad stuff written on blackjack. I’d try to steer them to the right books. Emphasize that you have to have a bankroll that’s discretionary money.
It’s a tough grind. It’s not a sure thing. I’m more optimistic than most people about blackjack. I think it’s clearly possible for somebody starting out at blackjack to make quite a bit of money. It’s certainly not as hard as playing poker, or trying to beat sports betting. The good thing about blackjack is that it’s cut and dried. There is not much subjectivity to it. If you follow the books and you’re a reasonably intelligent guy, there really isn’t any reason you can’t make money.
To me the contrast between blackjack and poker is clear. Poker you have the benefit that you can put in as many hours as you want. You’re not going to get barred. But, to make twenty or thirty dollars an hour at poker you have to be quite good. You have to beat a lot of real sharpies, guys who have been playing for years. To make twenty or thirty dollars an hour at blackjack is easy. You can do that after one month of study, as long as you don’t make mistakes. As long as you learn properly and you have the bankroll, that’s a very low win rate at blackjack.
RWM: How do you think the game has changed? Do you think it’s gotten better or worse?
Tommy Hyland: The individual games have definitely gotten worse, although there are still places with really nice rules around. I think that right now, it’s a great time for blackjack players. There are so many casinos, it seems no matter how well known you are as a player, you’re always going to find somewhere to play. I think the state of blackjack is good. ♠
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||Interview with Tommy Hyland
In this Blackjack Forum interview, Tommy Hyland discusses building and running the most successful blackjack teams in history, including computer blackjack teams, shuffle tracking blackjack teams, and card counting blackjack teams, in casinos around the world. If you're considering joining or running a professional blackjack team, you have a lot to learn from Tommy Hyland.