Arnold Snyder interviews Tommy Hyland about the legal problems of his blackjack team after trumped-up cheating charges at Windsor Casino. Tommy Hyland is manager of the longest-running and most successful blackjack team in history.
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Blackjack Team Attack, Part I

 
Tommy Hyland professional blackjack card counting team
 
BLACKJACK TEAM PLAY: CONTENTS
MIT blackjack team The Blackjack Team Dream
    By Arnold Snyder
Al Francesco and blackjack team Blackjack Team Attack, Part II:
    The Playing Strategies
    By Arnold Snyder
Ken Uston blackjack team How to Kill Your Blackjack Team:
    The Free Roll
    By Arnold Snyder
professional gamblers and blackjack card counting teams The MIT Blackjack Team:
    Interview with Johnny C.
    By Arnold Snyder
MIT blackjack team Blackjack Team Compensation
    By Marvin L. Masters
Tommy Hyland blackjack card counting team Larceny in the Heart
    By Arnold Snyder
blackjack shuffle tracking team Regarding Blackjack Team Play
    By Bob Fisher
blackjack team play The Tommy Hyland Team Trial in
    Windsor: Circus, Caesars, and the
    Hilton Corp. Team Up to Try to Frame
    Players for Cheating
    By Arnold Snyder
blackjack shuffle tracking team Blackjack Teams and Suspicions
    By Arnold Snyder
Tommy Hyland blackjack card counting team Blackjack Teams and Polygraphs
    By Arnold Snyder
blackjack shuffle tracking team A Blackjack Banking Team
    By Arnold Snyder
Blackjack teams and theft Avoiding the Team Thief
    By Pikachu
 
 
 
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Blackjack Team Legal Issues, the Windsor Trial, and Conversation With Tommy Hyland

By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XVI #1, Spring 1996)
© 1996 Blackjack Forum

When we did our last major reader survey in 1994, three areas stood out as topics our readers wanted more information about: comps, shuffle tracking and blackjack team play.

We have since provided in these pages quite a bit of information on both casino comps and shuffle tracking strategies. We have continued to be inundated with requests from readers who want more information about all aspects of team play. Our reports on the successful Tommy Hyland teams in the past two issues of Blackjack Forum have especially cranked up these pleas for more team play information.

In this issue of Blackjack Forum, weíre going to focus on various crucial areas of blackjack team play, including legal issues brought up by the Windsor trial, and interview Tommy Hyland and two Hyland team members. Bear in mind that this is a mammoth topic, one that could easily extend through several issues of this publication. At this point in time, Iím envisioning this article as Part I of a two-part series. Reader interest and contributions could extend this series further.

I would initially recommend that players interested in this subject familiarize themselves with the late Ken Ustonís three major books: The Big Player, Million Dollar Blackjack, and Ken Uston on Blackjack. These books provide a solid framework for the concept of blackjack team play. Much of the common terminology used by professional blackjack players today in talking about team play comes from Ustonís books.

Al Francesco and the Birth of the Blackjack Team Concept

Ken is often credited as being the "founder" or "father" of the blackjack team concept because he wrote these books which initially defined the theory and methods. Anyone who has read his books, however, knows that Uston credits a man by the name of Al Francesco (a pseudonym).

Though Al Francesco has never written a book, never appeared on TV, nor ever tried to sell a blackjack system, he is a living legend among knowledgeable blackjack players. [Note from Arnold Snyder: Since the writing of this article, Al Francesco was elected as one of the seven original inductees into the Blackjack Hall of Fame].

The dozens of players who know Al Francesco personally, through the blackjack team ventures he has put together through the past 30+ years, know him to be a good-natured gentleman, straightforward and honest, with an uncanny ability for perceiving and legally exploiting the weaknesses of casino games. What Keith Taft was to the high-tech electronic exploitation of the games, Al Francesco was to the psychological strategies for exploiting the casinosí weaknesses in their blackjack games.

I first met Al in 1986; the first thing I did after meeting this man, who had told me he was the man who had literally taught Ken Uston how to play blackjack, was call Ken to find out if this guy was for real. I told Ken Alís real name, described him physically, and told him where Al lived (he had been a Blackjack Forum subscriber for some time).

"Thatís him," Uston stated. "Still living in the same modest house. This man is personally responsible for more money being legally taken off the casino blackjack tables than anyone but Ed Thorp. Al invented the whole big player concept. Do you realize what that means, Arnold? Just about every blackjack team in existence today owes its existence to Al. Give him my best. I hope he hasnít said too many negative things about me..."

Ken wouldnít elaborate on this final concern, other than saying that he and Al had had a "falling out" some years back.

Al became a regular at the blackjack "round tables" I hosted monthly at my Oakland apartment in the 1980s. He was always among the handful of serious players who hung out into the wee hours, drinking coffee and swapping tall tales of intrigue at the tables. No one could match his stories. He knew everyone, had been everywhere, had done it all.

In 1992, I conducted a series of interviews with Al Francesco, and taped about four hours of conversations with him. I wanted to write a book about him ó yet another unfinished project! I did learn his side of the story regarding the "falling out" with Ken Uston. It was not a subject Al cared to talk about much ó he didnít like bad mouthing people and Ken had passed away some five years earlier by that time, a legend in his own right, a hero to many.

The conflict was a direct result of Ustonís first book ó The Big Player. Al was upset that Ken had written a book about the blackjack teams, exposing Alís method of attacking the casinos to the world, describing in detail everything that Al had taught him ó the blackjack team bank concept, the big player (BP) who was secretly signaled to the tables by small-betting confederates, the training methods, the security systems, everything.

Al didnít learn about the book Uston was writing until the book was almost finished. There was virtually nothing in print about team play the way Al had been doing it. He felt Uston had no right to publish his secrets. As the mastermind behind the scheme, Al felt the big player approach would have remained a mystery to the casinos for many years more had Uston not written his book.

In putting together this article on blackjack team play, I have been fortunate to have been a confidant of Al Francesco, Ken Uston, and Tommy Hyland ó and to have taped interviews with all of them. Most of what is known by the general public about team play is what Uston has published. In this article, Iím going to try to provide some of the secrets of team play hitherto unpublished ó especially some of the innovative concepts developed and utilized by the Hyland blackjack teams, which Tommy has generously agreed to share with Blackjack Forum readers.

The Blackjack Team Legal Issue

Letís start by getting the legal arguments out of the way. The trial of Zalis, Dancey and Conroy in Windsor last year was the first test of the legality of team play as an approach to beating the blackjack tables. The prosecutionís argument primarily revolved around the idea that secretly passing signals is inherently a fraudulent act.

Even before the judgeís decision on this issue, the same argument had been made to me by (guess who?) ó our favorite devilís advocate, John Leib. In a letter dated August 29, 1995, Leib wrote:

I must say that I have an unpopular (with the blackjack community) view of "team play." I see no argument against its being made illegal. Surely, the observation that this would deprive current team players of their chosen livelihood doesnít make the grade. That is only a reason why team players donít want it to be illegal. It is hard to see how society gains by forcing casinos to support the fraud inherent in team play.

"Harsh words," you immediately shout. Calling blackjack team play a fraud needs to be explained.



It is not a fraud if you tell the casino management what you are doing, giving them a chance to elect not to play with you. Of course, you will not do this, because the response is a foregone conclusion.



To answer why I consider it a fraud, let me suggest a closely related situation: At various race tracks, an owner frequently runs his best horse under the name of his worst horse. He bets big on this entry and, over the long haul, makes a large amount of money at the expense of the other bettors. Is this fraud? Few of us would deny it. The opposition (in this case, the other bettors) was deceived about the skill (speed) of the horse and, by extension, the horseís owner.

In blackjack team play, the opposition (the casino) is deceived about the skill (playing advantage) of the Big Player.



Now, I strongly defend individual card counting, altering bet and play in response to "the count." I donít think the player is obligated, either legally or morally, to announce his skill level to the casino management.

Blackjack, like tennis, is a skill game. The casinos know and understand this. Usually the casino has the legal right to decide, based on observation or reputation of the player, to decline his action. The player can also decline to play in the casino. Fair is fair.

But blackjack team play is exactly the same as "past posting" a race book. You may not win, but the odds are (illegally, in the case of past posting) skewed in your favor. (Yeah, I know that books susceptible to past posting are also illegal. Itís the similarity Iím pointing out.) Morally, both are frauds, by anyoneís standards. Lining up laws to match widely accepted morals is the way democratic government works (or is supposed to work).

Just because I think team play commits a fraud on the casino does not necessarily mean I wouldnít do it. I pride myself in being able to recognize immoral behavior without feeling a compulsion to be constrained beyond the laws. While it is legal, I say "go for it" (team play, that is). But donít cry "foul" if and when it is made illegal.

I strongly disagree with Leibís argument, but it is nearly identical to the argument made by the prosecution in the Windsor trial. One argument against this perspective was presented by the blackjack teamís defense attorney, Don Tait, in his cross examination of the Casino Windsor shift manager, Ken Davenport. From the trial transcript:

Tait: All right, the wifeís sitting there and maybe the husband is standing behind her, right?

Davenport: Yes.

Tait: And she gets a pair of tens come out and she says, "Shall I split these?" and he invariably says, "Donít be a damned idiot, you donít split 20," right?

Davenport: Yes.

Tait: And thereís a lot of that kind of exchange going on amongst players, too, isnít there, who are sitting right at the table?

Davenport: Yes.

Tait: Like you know, "Donít split that, donít do this." So people give advice while theyíre playing the game?

Davenport: Yes.

Tait: All right. And thatís a common occurrence, would you agree?

Davenport: Yes.

Tait: Is there anything in the rules of the game that say you canít get advice from other people as to the strategy of how youíre going to play that game?

Davenport: No, thereís not.

Tait: No. Now, have you ever played with people you donít understand, foreigners, that speak a foreign language you donít understand when theyíre talking in a foreign language?

Davenport: Yes.

Tait: You donít know what theyíre saying to each other?

Davenport: No.

Tait: Could be giving advice to one another, right?

Davenport: Could be.

Tait: Thatís not prohibited?

Davenport: No, itís not.

Tait: Okay, and but you donít know what advice theyíre giving because you canít understand them, right?

Davenport: Thatís correct.

Tait: Have you ever played with mutes, people who canít speak or hear, but they use sign language? Have you ever seen them?

Davenport: Yes.

Tait: And again, you wouldnít have any idea what they were saying to one another?

Davenport: No, I wouldnít.

Tait: So, it wouldnít make any difference to you what they were saying?

Davenport: Well, it depends.

Tait: As far as giving advice as to the strategy about playing the game?

Davenport: That wouldnít matter to me.

This brief exchange between Tait and Davenport is the crux of the argument against team play being labeled "fraud" simply because the players are excluding the house from their communications. Unlike poker, blackjack players are legally allowed to communicate with each other about their hands and their strategies.

(You can be sure that poker players would be gravely concerned about two players having conversations about their hands and/or strategies in a foreign tongue, or via sign language, as the rules of the game specifically prohibit such private communications.)

John Leibís horse race analogy, to me, is poor. There are laws against running a horse under a phony name. The owner of a race horse cannot falsify the information which is being provided to the betting public. This would be illegal whether the owner did this in conspiracy with others (as a team) or acting entirely alone.

In seeking an analogous situation, I would look for an activity which is not illegal if done openly, but which could be done conspiratorially for financial gain. Letís consider grocery shopping.

Manufacturers often use deceptive packaging. This is legal, provided the net weight and ingredients are listed on the package somewhere. Careful shoppers are legally allowed to read the fine print, and even use calculators, in order to make their purchase decisions, but most shoppers are not this astute. The store owners, distributors, and packagers, in fact, make lots of money by their deceptive packaging. Profit margins are estimated and prices are set by assuming that the majority will be fooled into making less cost-efficient choices.

Now, what if a group of little old ladies who couldnít read fine print, and whose fingers were too arthritic to use a calculator ó precisely the type of shoppers the storeís marketing experts expect to be victimized by deceptive packaging ó hired a grandchild to come shopping with them every Saturday for the express purpose of doing a cost analysis on the corn flakes selections using a pocket calculator? Now, letís say they donít want the cashiers or stock boys to think theyíre "cheap," so they keep this childís job a secret.

If the store owner discovers that these old ladies have been deceiving him by making more intelligent choices than his market researchers give them credit for, would he have a legal leg to stand on if he wanted to press charges against them for defrauding him by secretly conspiring with a child to decrease his expected profits? Could he sue for the moneys he believed he should have been able to profit from them, simply because they were deceptive in their shopping strategy?

I would argue that just because someone is secretly using a method to make more intelligent purchases, even if done conspiratorially with others, and even if it costs the store owner money, does not in itself make it an illegal act of fraud. If what a person is communicating secretly is perfectly legal when communicated openly, then it canít be against the law to secretly communicate the same information.

Furthermore, there is a long history of card counters working in teams, utilizing secret signals, in their attempts to beat the game of blackjack. It is common knowledge in the casino industry that counters work in this way. Numerous teams of counters have been identified by casinos in the past few decades, yet none has ever been charged with committing a crime for these clandestine acts (prior to the Windsor case).

When Keith Taftís computer team was first arrested in Nevada, and had their concealed computer confiscated (prior to Nevadaís anti-device law), no charges were pressed after the FBI determined that the computer being used was simply a calculating device. (A perfect analogy to the little old ladies shopping!)

When Einbinder and Dalben were arrested for secretly passing signals in a "first-basing" team effort, the Nevada judge found them not guilty because the dealer hole-card information being signaled had been legally obtained. There was never any suggestion at this trial that signaling itself was illegal ó the not-guilty judgment was solely based on the fact that the information being secretly passed had been legally obtained.

I introduced into evidence at the Windsor trial twenty-five different books on blackjack, all of which described methods of team play using secret signals. The oldest book was Thorpís Beat the Dealer (1962), in which Thorp describes sitting at a blackjack table and signaling plays to "Mr. X," one of the anonymous millionaires who had bankrolled his play.

One of the more recent books entered into evidence, which described secret team signaling, was Henry Tamburinís Blackjack: Take the Money and Run (1994), which had actually been purchased at the gift shop at Caesars World in Atlantic City!

Can a casino sell a book to the public that describes a method of beating their games which is illegal, especially considering that the book presents the method as valid and legal? Can you imagine buying a book at a race track on how to past post your bets, with this being offered to the public as a valid method of beating the horses, with no mention that such a strategy might be illegal? (And how far would a racetrack get in court if it attempted to prosecute a past-poster who had purchased his betting scheme at the racetrack gift shop?!)

I do not believe at this point in time any casino anywhere would be able to get team play declared illegal, except perhaps in the state of Nevada, where the casinos seem to own the court system, and can often get whatever theyíre willing to pay the lawmakers for. But at the present time, blackjack team play is legal everywhere, and I expect it to remain so.

A Conversation with Blackjack Team Manager Tommy Hyland

Tommy Hyland may be the most successful blackjack team operator in history, and he is certainly the most successful to have been publicly exposed. The trial of three of his teammates in Windsor, Canada, last year (see Blackjack Forum, Dec Ď95, for the complete story), made public figures of Tommy and numerous of his players and business partners, who found themselves answering questions on TV news shows and for newspapers across Canada and the U.S.

Tommy Hyland has recently filed a class action lawsuit against the Griffin Detective Agency and 77 casino corporations for violating anti-trust, consumer fraud, and fair credit reporting laws for their discriminatory treatment of card counters. Here is my interview with him.

BJF: Letís say this lawsuit goes through as filed, and all 77 corporations are found to be guilty of these violations of the consumer protection laws, do you imagine that this would have any immediate negative effect on the conditions of blackjack games?

Tommy Hyland: I doubt it. I donít think it would be detrimental. I guess people might be afraid the casinos would make the rules worse because they would be bombarded by counters, or something. But I wouldnít have filed the suit if I thought it would really cause harm to the blackjack games because I plan on making lots of money from blackjack.

What Iím trying to stop is the harassment of players and the all-too-frequent horrible incidents, like our Windsor thing. It just seems to me that the right thing to do is to try and stop this ugly stuff.

Griffin seems to be promoting this "us against them" mentality. They make it seem like card counters really hurt the casinos much worse than they do. They blow the threat that card counters pose way out of proportion, in order to promote themselves. Casino countermeasures that are prompted by the paranoid attitude Griffin encourages costs the casinos far more money than the card counters actually do.

BJF: How far did you go in school?

Tommy Hyland: I went through four years of college, but I didnít graduate. I majored in political science.

BJF: Prior to being involved in blackjack and blackjack teams, did you have any normal jobs?

Tommy Hyland: I worked for three weeks as the sports director on a cruise ship. That was my only job.

BJF: Did they have a casino there?

Tommy Hyland: Yes, they actually did. Ironically, that was the first time I was ever told by a casino not to play blackjack. It wasnít because I was too good. I was still a novice at the time, but it was because members of the cruise staff were not supposed to gamble.

BJF: When did you first start playing blackjack professionally?

Tommy Hyland: 1979. I was 23 years old. As I recall, I started with $1,000. This was in Atlantic City when Resorts was the only casino open. Youíd have to wait outside in line to get in every morning. It was only open from 10 AM to 4 AM. I used to drive down a couple of times a week.

A buddy of mine from the golf course, Leo, was learning at the same time. We eventually started sharing our results. Basically, that was my first team, a two man team. In the first 5 or 6 months, this was with early surrender and everything, my bankroll increased from $1,000 to $4,000.

On our visits to Resorts, we met two other card counters, Doug and Dave, who were playing small also and we got friendly with them. After weeks of wrestling with the idea, we eventually decided to trust them. Doug and Dave had $8,000 between them, so we had a four-man team with a $16,000 team bank. By the end of December of Ď79, we ran the $16,000 to over $100,000.

We all purchased Wongís Blackjack in Asia, [note from A.S.—now a collector's item] and Doug and Dave decided to go to Asia to play. Leo and I decided to stay in the U.S. I started training other people from the golf course. Fairly soon we had a pretty big team, maybe 10 to 15 guys within about a year. Shortly after Doug and Dave went to Asia, we started making trips to Vegas. But Atlantic City still had early surrender, and our guys were all from the New Jersey area, so we were concentrating mostly there.

BJF: At that time, were you aware of Ken Uston? Had you read The Big Player?

Tommy Hyland: Iíve always been an avid reader, so I grabbed everything I could on blackjack. I read Ustonís book right away. I met Uston in Atlantic City, and had a couple of meals with him. But I didnít know him that well, or any of his players. I remember that we used a lot of his ideas on our early team.

Blackjack Team Bankrolls, Targets and Compensation

BJF: The basic ideas that you find in Ustonís books with regards to divvying up the funds between investors and players, is that still the best way to go about it?

Tommy Hyland: That stuffís complicated. I remember when we originally set up our teams ó it was kind of a simple set up. Itís good to keep things as simple as possible, but itís more important to make things fair and give all parties the right incentives. You can end up under some scenarios that can be real unfair if you donít think of all the different contingencies.

In my early years of playing on teams, I made a lot of mistakes in bankroll agreements that cost both me personally and other members of the team lots of money. Since then, Iíve learned a lot about setting up bankrolls from some guys who tend to be good at those things. For example, say we agree to split the winnings 50% to investors and 50% to players. It doesnít work. A set-up like that is fine only when the team wins steadily.

If the team loses a lot in the beginning, the players donít have enough incentive to keep playing hard because itís apparent itíll be a long time until they see any money. Similarly, it is very easy to make other mistakes that either favor or harm players or investors dramatically.

There is also always the question of how much of the playersí share should be based on table time and how much on individual winnings. The bankrolls Iíve been involved with in the last ten years or so have been quite complicated in their set-ups, but they have been made that way so that the bank will run smoothly, and will continue to work regardless of what kinds of fluctuations ó positive or negative ó that we experience.

BJF: When you form a bank, do you generally use the formula described by Uston ó either play until the bank dies or you double it?

Tommy Hyland: We do something similar. We donít necessarily try to double the bank, but we play to a money target. Usually, our bankís bigger than our target. We just play until we win a certain amount. Our bank might be quite large, but we might have a money target of one quarter or even one eighth of the bank. Itís hard to hit huge money targets. The prospect becomes daunting. It seems like itís going to take forever to hit the target.

So, you want to have a target thatís reasonable. You donít want to have a target too small because it would be kind of silly. But you want to have it where if you have a couple of good fluctuations, people get to split up some money. That way they can raise their investment for the next bank. We also always bet a small fraction of the optimal Kelly Criterion bet. Even when we were starting out, we thought one-quarter Kelly was pretty aggressive. Now, I donít think we bet even one-eighth Kelly.

BJF: Have you ever run into a situation where you had to quit a bank because it was going so badly for so long? Or do you always stick to your decision to hit your target?

Tommy Hyland: I should emphasize that this target set-up and many of the other ideas our blackjack teams have used are not my inventions. Some guys that are really sharp have set these things up, and I just learned a lot from them.

The way we do it ó where the players get some sort of reasonable compensation for all the hours they play, everybodyís committed. We always play till we hit the target. I donít think weíve ever dumped a bank short of a target.

In the last 10 or 12 years, I donít recall stopping any bank short of target. We might have had some small projects or some side teams, and for various reasons we stopped them sooner than weíd intended. But the major efforts Iíve been involved in have always played till we hit the target. Itís just understood that you have to dig it out. And as players, we really donít mind because we are getting a fairly reasonable compensation and as weíre usually also investors, we donít want to lose our investment.

BJF: Whatís the quickest you ever hit a target in the years youíve been playing?

Tommy Hyland: In the old days, I remember we won a ton during a big heavyweight fight in Las Vegas, I forget which one it was. We had 20 some odd guys out there and 18 or 19 of them won. Just something ridiculous like that. Fairly recently, we hit a target in three weeks or something, quite a large target.

BJF: Whatís the longest itís taken you to hit your target?

Tommy Hyland: Probably a year, maybe even a little longer, a year and three months.

BJF: Whatís the average length of time for getting out of one bank and into the next?

Tommy Hyland: The banks Iíve been involved with have generally hit 2 to 3 targets a year; so 4 to 5 months.

BJF: On the banks that have taken long, in the neighborhood of a year or more, is that usually because of some huge loss or losses that occurred over the course that you then had to dig out of?

Tommy Hyland: Yes, thatís happened. Sometimes weíve had a few losses that have really buried us. Other times weíve just kind of spun our wheels for awhile. Basically, weíve pretty much had normal fluctuations, which, as you know, can be quite large.

Recruiting Blackjack Team Players

BJF: Regarding finding players for the team ó how do you go about looking for players? Is there a big turnover?

Tommy Hyland: I certainly donít have to look for them. I get asked quite frequently, "How can I get on your team?" and things like that. And I know a lot of other blackjack players do also. People are always asking about getting on the blackjack team.

Most of my players are people Iíve known for a long time, or friends of people that Iíve known for a long time that theyíve known for a long time. We generally never hire strangers. Other than my early experience, joining up with Doug and Dave, Iíve really known people for a long time before I was willing to share results with them. At this point in my life, I am even more careful about who I play with, and I am definitely not looking for new players.

BJF: Do you personally take part in training and testing your players?

Tommy Hyland: Yes. Basically, I do a lot of that. Usually, I make them learn a lot by themselves first. I give them a basic strategy chart and some hints on how to memorize it. I then show them how to keep the running count. They can call me with any questions, but I really donít meet with them again till they know basic strategy and count down a deck in something like 35 seconds.

BJF: How do you go about maintaining honesty and trustworthiness? When you have a large team, even if you seem to trust people, it seems like there would always be others wondering if they can trust somebody else that they might not know.

Tommy Hyland: There are some people I trust so much that if I actually saw them stealing money I probably wouldnít believe it. But youíre right. I havenít known every single person Iíve ever played with inside and out. Certainly, one of the most important obstacles to having a successful team is the honesty/trustworthiness issue.

There are also some other things you can do to try to verify results. You have to really be pretty sure of the person beforehand. But there are a few things you can do to check on peopleís honesty. The obvious one is the polygraph, and we do give those. You can watch them, but itís tough. Eventually, you basically have to make a decision and not constantly worry about it. You have to take a chance.

Thereís no foolproof way to make sure someoneís honest. Thereís no way you can watch everyone, and verify their results on every play they make. Theyíre going to have money and theyíre going to play, and youíre going to have to trust their results.

Big Players

BJF: How much of a problem do you have with your big players being recognized in the casinos?

Tommy Hyland: In recent years, this has been the biggest problem on the bankrolls Iíve played on. Most of the people Iíve played with are pretty "hot." Theyíre either in the Griffin book, or are recognized by the bosses in the major casinos.

On my teams that has been the main reason why we havenít made a lot more money. The honesty issue has really not been a problem. Iíve been fortunate enough to play with really solid people. Our main problem is being able to play. A lot of our players now have been playing for 10 or 15 years and theyíre really well known. So, we have trouble getting the games down.

BJF: Do you have certain BPs who have become so well known that you canít even use them at all anymore?

Tommy Hyland: In recent years, in the banks Iíve been involved with, we havenít really used the big player technique, per se, that much, with several spotters and one big player. Most of the time weíve just gone out and played as individuals. There are lots of casinos now, so everyone can usually find somewhere to play. Also, many of my associates do a number of other things, and donít really want to play blackjack all the time. End of interview.

Key Factors in the Success of a Blackjack Team

For me, the most intriguing revelations from my conversation with Tommy Hyland were are the "mini-target" concept, as opposed to the old "double-your-bank" concept, combined with always betting a very small fraction of Kelly. Teams that typically play close to Kelly (in order to maximize expectation), while attempting to double the original bank, risk suffering losses that will decimate the bank, and may doom the team to failure.

Obviously, if you put together a $50,000 team bank, then try to double it, your chances of success will be less favorable than if you were to put together a $300,000 bank, then aim for a $50,000 target.

Hylandís contention that in the past ten to twelve years of play his blackjack team has never failed to hit a target sounds fantastic, unless you consider the implications of fractional Kelly betting. Suppose two teams are each betting similar amounts, but one team has started with a $50,000 bank, and is betting full Kelly, while the other has started with a $200,000 bank, but is betting only one quarter Kelly. A drawdown of $30,000 would have little effect on the team that started with the $200,000 bank, but it would severely hinder the team that started with a $50,000 total bank. The latter would be facing an uphill struggle for survival.

Another sure factor in Hylandís long term success must be his use of only trusted friends as team members. Many teams go out hunting for players, instead of allowing a team to form naturally among friends, close acquaintances, and relatives. And even within his group of trusted teammates, Hyland continues to utilize polygraph exams ó a safety procedure first employed by Al Francesco.

Al recently told me: "I wouldnít be on any team that didnít use polygraphs. Thereís just too much money involved. You need it for the peace of mind of everyone on the team."

A Conversation with Hyland Team Member Barbara D.

[Barbara D. was one of the players arrested at the Casino Windsor in 1994, and was acquitted by the provincial court of Ontario. She has since filed a lawsuit against the province for wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution.

Barbara is a grandmother, and works part time in a flower shop in a suburb of Detroit. She was a sheriffís deputy for 17 years in Orange County, California. She also sold real estate in southern California for 4 years before moving to Michigan.

She met Tommy Hyland through a close relative who was one of Tommyís original team partners.]

BJF: In the Windsor incident, you were not actually playing blackjack, but passing signals to the player who was betting multiple hands of $2500 each. You and Karen were actually the "brains" of the operation. Have you ever played blackjack for large amounts of money, thousands of dollars per hand, yourself?

Barbara: No, but I think it could be done. I remember watching a wealthy woman playing at that level ó she was the founder of a large corporation, or the CEO of it or something. The pit didnít seem to pay any more attention to her than to anybody else. And she used to bet very, very big.

BJF: Would it appeal to you to do that, or do you prefer not to?

Barbara: I donít know. I guess Iím a bit skittish about spending other peopleís money to that degree, although I probably would get over it. I know when I first started, if we would lose $10,000 or $20,000, my God, my head would just swim. And eventually, I could walk around with lots more than that in my purse and not think anything of it.

So, I guess you do get accustomed to it. I think I could. If I were confident enough in my skills as a big player, which are different than my skills doing what I do... But I have complete confidence in my skills doing what I do ó telling somebody else to bet big money. So, I think that if I worked on not only getting my counting down to perfection, but also all the variations that are necessary depending on the system youíre playing, then I probably would feel comfortable with it.

BJF: Do you have much interpersonal contact with the casino personnel, like the pit bosses and casino managers and things like that?

Barbara: No.

BJF: Donít they try to talk to the players when thereís that much money being played?

Barbara: They do sometimes, but it depends. The host is the one who might come around and get into conversations with you, and then, if it stops your play, usually they say, "Well, I donít want to interrupt you," and go on their way.

It depends on how you receive them. If you start out very friendly with somebody there in the pit, be it the dealer or one of the floor people, and start chit-chatting, especially if theyíre not extremely busy or they only have your table and maybe one other to keep an eye on, then they will go into lengthy conversations. But if you just kind of answer their question and donít offer them any more, then they leave you alone.

BJF: Do you have any problems with being recognized in casinos right now?

Barbara: Not from walking in and being recognized, like Tommy would in some places.

BJF: But you have no problem with being recognized?

Barbara: I couldnít walk into the Casino Windsor, to tell you the truth. As a matter of fact, I was out dancing last night, and a fellow asked me, "Gee, Barbara, letís go over to the casino." And I said, "I canít." He said, "Well, you donít have to bet. Iíll bet. Just come over with me." And I said, "I canít." I said, "They wonít let me in." But they did rescind that order.

BJF: If someone told you he was interested in playing blackjack professionally, and really trying to make some money at it, what kind of advice would you have for him?

Barbara: Did you see the TV interview I did last month in Detroit?

BJF: No.

Barbara: Bill Bonds asked me if someone had $300 and was going over to the Casino Windsor to bet his money, what kind of advice would I give him? And I said, "Take the $300 and go play bingo at the church."

I said that for the simple reason that I donít care how much skill you have, how knowledgeable you are ó if you donít have the resources behind you to see you through bad times, let alone the knowledge and the skill to know that it will turn around because itís just mathematics ó the bankroll is the main thing ó if you donít have the resources behind you to see you through the bad times, you could go into a skid and not be able to come out of it simply because you donít have the money to keep going. People donít realize that. End of interview.

Arnold Snyder comments: Barbara D.ís remarks about her initial nervousness with the large sums of money being won and lost reflect a common problem team players have always had. It is one thing to work out a plan on paper, but quite another to maintain a cool head, and a natural act, when enormous amounts of cash are being won and lost, sometimes in the course of just a few minutes.

A Conversation with Hyland Blackjack Team Member Karen C.

[Karen C. was also arrested at the Casino Windsor, was prosecuted for cheating, and was acquitted of the charges. She too has sued the province of Ontario over the incident.]

BJF: What were you doing before you got involved with the Hyland team?

Karen: I was a sales rep for a small company. We sold items that other companies used for promotion, give away, that type of thing.

BJF: How did you meet Tommy Hyland?

Karen: One of his team members was a friend of mine, and he played with him for about a year, and kept telling me, "You should do this. Itís great. Youíd be good at it." And finally after about a year, I was looking to do something different and thatís how I got started.

BJF: Have you ever worked as the BP or the person whoís actually betting at the table?

Karen: Not the BP, no. I have not.

BJF: Have you bet big money at the tables as part of the team play?

Karen: I have. Yes.

BJF: Do you find that as a woman thereís any advantage, or disadvantage, to being a woman in that position?

Karen: Thereís good and bad. The good to being a woman, I think, is that many casinos have the stereotype that you are someoneís girlfriend or wife or whatever, so itís not really your money. Youíre just there for fun and you donít really know what youíre doing, because most BPs are men. You look a little bit less threatening, if you will.

The bad part is that there arenít a lot of women betting like that, so youíre sort of remembered a little bit more. There just are not too many of them. On the other hand, I think youíre not taken quite as seriously, or perceived of as big of a threat, as a man is.

BJF: If someone told you they were interested in playing blackjack professionally, what kind of advice would you give them?

Karen: The first thing I would say is read as many books as you can, and just actually knowing how to play, knowing how much to bet, getting together finances. I would tell somebody itís not as glamorous and as easy as it looks, and that youíre not guaranteed. Even if youíre a great player and you know every single strategy move, youíre still not guaranteed any type of win. But really do a lot of research before you get into something like that.

BJF: How long have you been doing this?

Karen: I guess Iím going on four years with the Hyland team.

BJF: Do you imagine you will continue going for a while yet?

Karen: In a limited capacity, yes. End of interview.

Arnold Snyder comments: Both Karen and Barbara point out that the stereotypes held by casino bosses can be used by intelligent women to their advantage at the tables. Also note that in our conversation with Chris Z. which follows, Chris Z. mentions a number of other stereotypes that perceptive players can capitalize on in attempting to pull off an act.

A Conversation with Hyland Team Member Christopher Z.

[Chris Z., another Hyland team member arrested at the Casino Windsor for cheating, was prosecuted and acquitted. He too has sued the province for damages. At the time he was arrested, Chris had been spreading his bets from $100 to two hands of $2500 each over a period of three days.]

BJF: What is your background?

Chris: Economics degree from the University of Delaware.

BJF: What kind of jobs have you had?

Chris: Cold sales jobs. I worked for a chemical company.

BJF: Are you a salesman now?

Chris: No, Iím trading stocks in Manhattan.

BJF: Do you think the same type of personality that would go with being a salesman is the type of personality that would go well for being a big player?

Chris: Yes.

BJF: How long have you been a big player?

Chris: Three years.

BJF: Has that all been with Tommy Hyland?

Chris: Yes, all of it with Tommy, though I was involved with blackjack team play seven years ago.

BJF: How did you meet Tommy Hyland?

Chris: Through golf 14 years ago. I was about 18.

BJF: In being a big player, would you say you are successful at pulling off that act?

Chris: Being a younger guy, I always acted like the rich, snotty kid ó like I had money given to me. I always used to tell casino people I had family money. That was kind of my thing. I never really said I earned it. I just said it was all family money. We were dealing with such a large magnitude of cash. I was 28, 27. I was pretty young looking. When I still had all my hair, I was younger looking.

BJF: So being young you think would be a drawback to trying to play with that kind of money?

Chris: Yeah, itís a drawback. Youíve got to really sell it. A few of the younger guys I donít think work. I think I was pretty good at selling, a lot better than a few of the other younger guys that we had playing for us.

BJF: Do you get asked a lot of questions by casino personnel when youíre playing with that kind of money?

Chris: Yeah. When theyíre with me, a lot of the guys... The older guys try to just keep anonymity. I kind of stand out with that kind of money. I always try to bring it out. Tommy always says donít talk to the host. You can always come back again, theyíll forget you. I always say theyíre never going to forget me, so I played it right through them. If I saw them walking by, I wouldnít hesitate to grab them. "Hey, come over here. Look at this hand," or something like that.

BJF: What kind of skills from being a salesman would be the same types of skills you would use with trying to sell an act as a big player?

Chris: Just that. Youíve got to take it, take it to them. Like anything else to make a sale, youíve got to make the sales call. I think for being a young guy, itís the same way.

If they start giving me attention, I make it look like I should get attention. Thatís the attitude I took. Even if they were pit bosses, Iíd say, "Hey, come over here. Check this out." I used to have a big joke with them, especially if I knew they were bad guys, I used to say, "Man, since you got here, I started winning," especially if I was winning, "Stand here, buddy. Youíre giving me good luck. Donít go away."

Sometimes they would stand there for a half hour. It was great. They wouldnít think anything of it. A lot of times it would throw them off. "If this guy was up to something, he wouldnít want me to be here."

I used to do all sorts of things. Stuff where Iíd go to the pit bosses to get jackets and stuff like that. Iíd say, "Iím a little cold. Will you get me a jacket?" They have to go to the gift store and get me a jacket or something like that... Iíd do it to get rid of them.

One of our big players ran into a couple of guys in the Mirage. He had just been barred there, and he was cashing some chips out and ran into a couple of guys from another casino that were in Vegas from another town, and they were saying, "Hey, how you doing, buddy?" And he said, "Jerry, you want to go get a couple of drinks?" He acted like he was supposed to be there. He was using a totally different name at the other casino.

Me personally, I used to go up and have drinks with the hosts and the pit bosses. If they would have a drink, Iíd have a drink with them. I used to do anything. "Okay, give me a massage." I used to really take full advantage of it. Iíd get them to do anything for me. I played like a real bratty kid. The girl I used to play with said I was a brat all the time. I used to get them to do things for me because I wanted to sell that.

BJF: Whatís the most convincing act to pull off when youíre betting big money?

Chris: Depends on who you are. I think the older guys have a big advantage. I think they see an older guy betting big, itís nothing. If youíre Asian, youíve got the best act in the world. End of interview.

Arnold Snyder comments: Chris Z.ís camouflage technique as a young player is similar to that employed by Ken Uston. Instead of trying to blend in and be anonymous, he tries to be so obvious that he is considered more of a pain in the neck than a serious threat. His outgoing friendliness toward pit personnel, hosts, etc., is also reminiscent of Ian Andersenís approach to acceptance, as Andersen describes in his classic, Turning the Tables on Las Vegas (Vanguard Press, 1976).

In forming a team, the major considerations are: (1) the size of bank; (2) the number of participants; (3) the financial arrangements; and, (4) the playing strategy. There are many conceivable ways to work out these details, and no one right way to do it. But there are also a lot of wrong ways to go about forming a team plan that should be avoided.

The Blackjack Team Bank

For safety, meaning minimum risk of tapping out, the Hyland team method of setting mini-targets, combined with a fractional Kelly betting strategy, is probably the best approach. Many players, however, would find it impossible to put together a sizable enough bank to make this approach feasible. Hyland himself acknowledges that he began with a personal bankroll of only $1,000, a substantially risky proposition in any casino blackjack game, at any level of play.

This does not mean, however, that the team concept is entirely useless for players with small bankrolls. If youíve got $2,000, and you have a couple of friends who have $1,500 each, the three of you playing off a $5,000 team bank are immensely more powerful, and more likely to last, than the three of you playing individually.

It would also be very difficult to play at a small fraction of Kelly with a $5,000 total bank ó at least from the practical perspective. There would be no difficulty limiting your max bets to $20, which would certainly allow you to play a fractional Kelly approach, but you would also very likely be limiting your bet spread, which would cut into your potential profits. Your expected hourly rate at this level may also be unacceptable, especially if you have expenses (travel, lodging, etc.).

Anyone considering a team venture, however, must start from wherever they are, and it would be far more dangerous to go out and find strangers to hook up with, just to increase your team bank. Remember, your team bank could be stolen by a dishonest teammate quicker than you could lose it at the tables. A prime purpose of forming a team bank is to avoid risk. This leads us to...

The Number of Team Participants

Rather than seeking a specific number of teammates, you should be looking to only those people you can trust. If you have only one trusted friend or relative who might be interested in this venture, then the perfect size for your team is two players.

It is far safer to look for people you already trust to join you in this type of endeavor, even if you must teach them how to play from scratch, than it would be to look for players who are already good card counters, then try to decide if you can trust them with your money.

The Hyland team today has dozens of players, and according to Tommy, he was up to 10-15 players (mostly his golfing buddies) within the first year. There is definitely power in numbers due to numerous factors.

If most players are bankroll contributors, the team bank also grows with the team size. The more players you have, the more hands per hour, per week, per month, etc., you will get in, and this translates to a higher $ expectation. More players also mean more brain power working on strategies, figuring out problems, etc. Some big player strategies require numerous counters/spotters, as do some advanced shuffle-tracking methods.

But these positive team factors do not necessarily mean that you should have a dozen or more players. A large team requires a lot of organizing ability, which many people do not possess. A two or three man team that functions smoothly will succeed far more often than a ten man team that is in a constant state of chaos, mistrust, etc.

Blackjack Team Financial Arrangements

With any large team, and especially if unequal participants are involved, the financial arrangements will be complicated, and must be figured out according to the precise situation. Two or three players who contribute equal $ amounts to the bank, and who agree to all play the same number of hours, should have little difficulty making an agreement as to how to divvy up profits. Itís an equal split.

The problems arise when various participants are contributing different amounts to the bank, are playing different numbers of hours, are utilizing different levels of skill, have different levels of expenses, etc. These complications are yet another reason to go into a venture like this slowly, so that you may figure out these details as they come up. Even with only two or three players, problems can arise based on factors of inequity in bankroll contributions, hours, talent, expenses, etc., and for any specific team, a fair agreement will be specific to that team only.

Other Considerations for Blackjack Teams

Will you have outside investors, i.e., investors who are not players? If so, they will want to know up front what the return on their investment will be based on.

Will you have players who are non-investors? If so, how will these players be compensated? Will they be compensated for the number of hours they play? If so, any extreme negative fluctuation which causes the bank to go an inordinate number of hours until the target is hit, could find itself eaten up by hourly "wages" to the players before the target is reached. But if you do not pay players who are non-investors, how will you keep them committed to the team effort when it appears it may take months until they ever see a penny in pay?

Will you have players at different levels of talent? Is counting/spotting a lesser talent than doing a big player act, or vice versa?

All of these types of things contribute to the complexity of devising equitable financial arrangements for a blackjack team. Again, my advice would be to start small and simple, and complicate the arrangement only as it becomes necessary.

Blackjack Team Playing Strategy

One of the real benefits of blackjack team play, mentioned by Tommy Hyland, is that multiple brains can do things strategically that a single player could never pull off. This is a big topic, and is one that we will address in Part II of this Blackjack Team series, in the June issue of Blackjack Forum (see link at the upper left of this page). ♠


For an outstanding book on blackjack team play, see Josh Axelrad's Repeat Until Rich., about the most notorious and successful blackjack team of the past decade (no, not MIT).

Arnold Snyder writes about his own experience with blackjack teams in Blackbelt in Blackjack and his novel, Risk of Ruin, about a player on a blackjack hole-carding team.

For more information on blackjack team play and other professional gambling methods, see the Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library.

Return to Arnold Snyder's Blackjack Forum Home.


 
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