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Aberdeen Four Horsemen made movie '21' possible

Blackjack is not a sport.  I know that. So don't write to point that out.

It is, however, a game -- a competition, if you will -- and can even be considered a game of skill.  Obviously, there's winning and losing and there's certainly a lot of money involved. 

So if you discount the running and jumping and throwing and sweating and all that stuff, it is very much like a sport.  And over the weekend, the blackjack movie 21 ($15.1 million) beat out the football movie Leatherheads ($13.5 million), even though it was the blackjack movie's second week out and the football movie was just getting started.  So, this 21 movie -- an adaptation of a true story about a bunch of smart kids from MIT who become card counters -- has now grossed about $46 million in 10 days.  When I saw it in Hunt Valley, people actually applauded when it ended (trailer).

Without going into all the nit-picky little things about the movie  (like how the Bellagio fountains are NOT across the street from the Hard Rock casino), what's interesting to note is that this whole business of what is often referred to as advantage blackjack play began not in Las Vegas or Reno or Atlantic City or in an MIT classroom but right here in Maryland.  In Aberdeen, as a matter of fact.

The building blocks of advantage blackjack play are basic strategy, counting cards and varying wagers in accordance with the count.  That's the super abridged version so again, all you blackjack experts can just restrian yourselves from going all Stanford Wong on me.

So getting back to the Maryland connection.  Basic strategy, the first step in any reasonable approach to playing blackjack, was developed by four U.S. Army researchers, enlisted men really, working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in the 1950s.  Known to blackjack aficionados as the Four Horsemen, they are James McDermott, Roger Baldwin, Herbert Maisel, and Wilbert Cantey. They hammered out their basic strategy with desk calculators and presented their findings in an 11-page report that appeared in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. Soon after, they expanded that research into a short book.  If there were to be a blackjack bible, their book "Playing Blackjack to Win" (1957) would be the old testament and Edwin O. Thorp's "Beat the Dealer" (1962) would be the new testament, drawing as it did on the Four Horsemen's research.

The  Four Horsemen of Aberdeen have been a very quiet part of blackjack history.  It was the flamboyant and late Kenny Uston, the popularizer of the "little counters-big player" strategy that you see used in the movie, who became the first public face of blackjack card counting.  Meanwhile, the Four Horsemen built their lives entirely apart from casinos and card playing in research, teaching and business. This year, more than 50 years after their ground-breaking blackjack work, the four were inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

While the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen, McDermott, Baldwin, Maisel and Baldwin, never made much money, if any, off of blackjack, they set in motion a chain reaction of research that has allowed others to earn millions and millions of dollars off the game  -- including the makers of the current movie.





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