This is a guest contribution by Michael Craig, an author, journalist, and lawyer. If you would like to submit a contribution please contact Bill Beatty for submission details. Thank you.
Food, Drinks, Geniuses, Fake Names, Gossip, Introductions, Reunions, a Hall of Fame Induction, an Undisclosed Location, Competition, and – of Course – Gambling
One night a year, the best blackjack players in the world convene for the Secret Blackjack Ball. Gambler, author, and consultant Max Rubin has been organizing the invitation-only gathering since 1997. Like millions of lovers of blackjack, casinos, and secret meetings, I regretfully missed out on the 2014 Blackjack Ball. It took place at an undisclosed location in late January, leaving the rest of us to piece together what happened from tidbits leaking online, my brief correspondence with Mr. Rubin, and discrete comments from some past and current attendees.
Invitation to the Ball
Nineteen years ago, Max Rubin started the Blackjack Ball in his home. “It was a way,” he explained, “for players from different blackjack teams and solo players to get together and a place to hang out.” Part of the Ball’s unique charm from the beginning was that many of its members had never met.
By 2004, the Blackjack Ball became too big for Max’s home. Attendance at the Blackjack Ball is by invitation only, and the current secret location seats only 112 (including guests). There are literally hundreds of bona fide professional gamblers vying as plus-ones or campaigning Max to get on the list. “It’s fun being a very popular guy one night a year but I still haven’t figured out how to say ‘No’ to a lot of really nice folks without sounding like an arrogant a-hole.”
Max has a special place in the Blackjack world: legendarily generous host, organizer and secret-keeper, and supposedly the only attendee of the Ball who has “crossed over” to work for the casino industry. (I’ve been told that other attendees have consulted for casinos in some capacity.) Mr. Rubin consults with Barona Casino in San Diego, which, in addition to offering some excellent blackjack rules, has a wall commemorating members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
Why So Secret?
The existence of this secret get-together, therefore, is well known. So are many of the attendees. According to a show of hands during a competition after dinner, approximately 25% of the competitors had been guests on Richard Munchkin’s and Bob Dancer’s Gambling With An Edge radio program. The Ball included numerous authors, publishers, public speakers, instructors, and broadcasters. The elusive Dustin Marks, who has also written books about his casino exploits, posted on his Facebook page that he was attending. That wall at Barona actually has the pictures of the Hall of Fame members.
If you look closer, however, you’ll see that even the “well known” members of the blackjack community remain cloaked in shadows:
• Most of the great blackjack books have been written under pen names, rarely including pictures of the authors.
• Dustin Marks, for example, is an alias. “Dustin’ marks” is an insiders’ term for daubing playing cards with bits of dust or ash.
• Appearing on Mr. Munchkin’s and Mr. Dancer’s radio show is a great way to publicize yourself while remaining anonymous, or at least unseen.
• At Barona Casino, they honor members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame and comp them for life – only if they don’t play blackjack in the casino.
In addition, many attendees are still regular players, successfully attacking the casino giants’ cherished “house edge.” Casinos don’t want visibly skilled gamblers, so these pros stay under the radar. One night a year, they exchange gossip and tradecraft with their peers, safe in the knowledge that the participants will protect their identities.
A Peek Inside the 2014 Blackjack Ball
This year’s Ball was especially notable because twelve of the thirteen living members of the Hall of Fame attended. (Naturally, no photos were allowed.) Every person I interviewed told me it was a treat to see Edward O. Thorp, a legend among legends. Dr. Thorp’s short paper in 1961 for the National Academy of Sciences, A Favorable Strategy for Twenty-One, gave birth to the concept that blackjack was a game of skill. His classic Beat the Dealer (1962) became a best seller and is the foundation for Basic Strategy, Card Counting, and players disguising themselves and their play to successfully apply their skill. Dr. Thorp has also been a pioneer of wearable computing and investment strategy.
Max Rubin told me one of his favorite moments was a meeting between “Grosjean” (2006 HoF) and “Zeljko” (2011 HoF). James Grosjean is the youngest member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. For a short time he published a book named Beyond Counting: Exploiting Casino Games from Blackjack to Video Poker. The book is so difficult to find that Abebooks.com reports just two copies for sale, at $2,399.98 (in “poor” condition) and $3,139.29. Mr. Grosjean won the Ball’s competition, the Blackjack Cup, three times in five years, and is considered such an expert that Mr. Rubin renamed the prize “the Grosjean Cup” in his honor and barred him from competing.
Zeljko Ranogajec is the world’s biggest gambler. The Australian son of Croatian immigrants, he is supposedly responsible for 5% of the volume of all gambling in Australia. His annual betting volume is estimated at one billion dollars.
Grosjean is a will-o-the-wisp who still plays. Zeljko is called “the Loch Ness Monster” in Australia because, for a prolific gambler, actual sightings of him are rare. Grosjean and Zeljko have never met. Several of the long-time attendees watched as they were introduced. Of course, within minutes they chatted like longtime buddies.
So after eating, drinking, showing off, and gossiping, what do these rebel-genius gamblers do for the evening?
They compete. But not before they gamble on the outcome. The Grosjean Cup goes to last player standing after the following: a skills-and-knowledge quiz, a card counting test, memorizing the order of a deck of cards, organizing a partial deck into the most favorable result, reading the exact number of cards remaining in a shoe, precision card cutting, and winning a final card counting test.
The big money changes hands in Calcutta-style betting. The competitors are placed in teams (MIT team members, Hall of Famers, former winners, geezers, etc.) and they bid on which team will have the best combined result.
The only missing piece of the unforgettable evening was the absence – which was expected – of the thirteenth living Hall of Famer, Ian Andersen. Andersen wrote the blackjack classic Turning the Tables on Las Vegas nearly forty years ago (and an equally famous sequel, Burning the Tables on Las Vegas more than two decades later). No one seems to know his real identity or what he looks like. He has kept himself secret all this time. His absence is the ultimate reminder of the priority this group places on anonymity.
Nevertheless, these savvy gamblers don’t dismiss the possibility that maybe he’ll attend next time. But would they bet on it? I’m sure that depends on the odds.
Michael Craig is an author, journalist, and lawyer. He has written four books, including The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time. In addition to poker and casino games, he regularly writes about politics, law, sports, and finance. Follow him on Twitter (@MikeCraigIsAmok) and Facebook. This article is part of his collaboration with PokerStars and PokerStars Casino on the lives and games of independent, intelligent, interesting risk takers.