Who’s the Best Blackjack Player in the World?

By Randy Ray in Casino
| December 2, 2017 12:00 am PST

Blackjack features a mix of both skilled amateurs and professionals.

Skilled amateurs are adept at using basic strategy to lower the house edge. Pros are good at one or more advantage-play techniques.

It’s really hard to separate blackjack players in terms of basic strategy, because so many have mastered the fundamentals. But you can actually tell who the best blackjack pros are when considering advantage-play methods.

That said, let’s discuss the main criteria for determining the world’s top blackjack player, along with other worthy candidates. We’ll also cover how you can improve your skills and play like the best.

How Do You Determine the World’s Best Blackjack Player?

It’s hard figure out who the world’s top blackjack player is, because the game doesn’t offer many big competitions or tournaments. This differs from other skill-based gambling activities, like daily fantasy sports (DFS) and poker, where major tournaments can help you identify the top players.

Instead, the world’s biggest blackjack experts operate in obscurity in land-based casinos.

After all, they don’t want gambling establishments finding out that they’re expert card counters or shuffle trackers. This would only heighten the chances that they would be banned from multiple casinos.

Obviously being a great blackjack pro is important with regard to determining the world’s best player.

But again, the challenge is finding these players,

because they don’t exactly advertise their skills.

One of the best ways to determine the best is by figuring out who has a great reputation among their peers. And the Blackjack Ball helps greatly in defining the most respected blackjack pros.

The Blackjack Ball invites around 100 of the world’s most notable blackjack players.

The location is a secret to all but organizers and attendees, because the pros don’t want casinos having a perfect list of advantage players.

Those in attendance answer a series of complex questions revolving around blackjack. The questions are both math-based and non-technical problems designed to identify the cream of the crop.

Two finalists are determined following multiple rounds of questions. These finalists take part in a card-counting contest where they try to answer questions before their opponent.

Of course, how one performs at the Blackjack Ball isn’t the end-all to the crowning of the world’s top blackjack pro. But it’s definitely one of the best ways, considering that the game doesn’t offer many publicized competitions.

Here’s a full list of criteria that’s important with regard to pegging the best players:

  • Reputation among peers
  • Blackjack Ball results
  • Expertise (i.e. authors, blackjack teachers)
  • Advantage-play prowess (hard to identify)

The fourth point would be the most important. But it’s not like we have video footage of card counters and other advantage players in action at casinos.

This is why reputation, Blackjack Ball results, and expertise are the most critical aspects.

James Grosjean Is the Best Blackjack Player in the World

James Grosjean is one of the most notable blackjack authors and experts. His best-known book is the 2000 release Beyond Counting: Exploiting Casino Games from Blackjack to Video Poker.

Grosjean started playing blackjack as a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics. He used his mathematical abilities to quickly pick up card counting and begin making a blackjack living.

He gained fame in the gambling world after notching legal victories over two casinos and an agency called Griffin Investigations.

Griffin investigations was a company dedicated to finding and investigating blackjack card counters. They kept a list and shared it with casino clients so that they could catch advantage players.

Grosjean fought against Griffin Investigations, the Imperial Palace (now the Linq), and Caesars Palace.

He won $599,999 against Imperial Palace for illegal detention, and also triumphed over Caesars Palace and Griffin Investigations. The latter was forced to declare bankruptcy as a result of Grosjean’s victory.

Grosjean is the youngest person to be inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. He’s also still an active blackjack player who enjoys the game wherever he can.

Of course, writing books and winning lawsuits alone don’t make Grosjean the top player. Instead, he’s earned this honor from both his peers and multiple Blackjack Ball victories.

According to a Forbes piece by Nicholas G. Colon, Grosjean has won the Blackjack Ball’s “World’s Best Blackjack Player” so many times that he’s now banned from competing. The trophy for the world’s top player is called the Grosjean Cup in honor of his multiple titles.

Max Rubin, a 47-year gaming industry veteran who runs the Blackjack Ball, told Colon that Grosjean is the best advantage player he’s ever seen.

“In all the years I have thrown the Blackjack Ball when success is measured as function of skill, will and focus no one even comes close to Grosjean,” said Rubin.

Other Candidates for the World’s Top Blackjack Player

Rick Blaine

Rick Blaine

Rick Blaine won the World’s Best Blackjack Player award at the 2015 Blackjack Ball.

He was also profiled by Nina Strochlic in a 2015 piece in The Daily Beast.

Blaine is a very good card counter who has an edge on casinos. But perhaps his best attribute is the ability to portray himself as a regular player.

“You get these MIT guys in 21, they look like rocket scientists. You’re wearing a fake watch, Kmart shoes, and betting thousand dollar chips,” he told Strochlic.

“What I do best is I sell it. I sell myself as a player who’s a fun-loving gambler and has money to spend, so I fit in wherever I’m playing.”

Blaine works in a card counting team totaling upwards of 30 members. He and his team do a good job of selecting the right tables and avoiding detection.

This is a big reason why Blaine has never been thrown out of a casino in over three decades of playing the game.

Tommy Hyland

Tommy Hyland

Tommy Hyland joined an Atlantic City-based professional blackjack team in 1979. They began with a $4,000 bankroll and quickly built this amount to $50,000. Hyland has never looked back since, and continues to be a successful blackjack player. He’s often referred to as the leader of the world’s “longest-running blackjack team.”

The reason is because he’s never stop playing with his team since 1979.

Tommy has always believed in the team concept, because it makes losses more bearable during downswings. His group use multiple strategies at the tables, including card counting, ace sequencing, and shuffle tracking.

Hyland’s team has grown as large as 40 members. This makes what he’s done comparable to the famed MIT Blackjack Team.

The problem for Hyland now, though, is that it’s hard for him to play in casinos without being recognized. After all, he’s been counting cards and using other advantage-play techniques for almost four decades.

He and his team have resorted to wearing disguises in gambling destinations like Las Vegas. But he doesn’t have to worry about this as much in Atlantic City, because their casinos can’t ban card counters.

Hyland doesn’t play blackjack as much as he used to. He’s actually been doing more sports betting in recent years.

But the living Blackjack Hall of Fame member continues to play the game and be successful.

“I love the fact that I’ve played blackjack for this long,” he said. “It’s very satisfying to take the money from the casinos – to me this is way better.”

Don Johnson

Don Johnson

Don Johnson is the most famous modern blackjack player, thanks to a massive high-stakes win streak.

Johnson won $15 million from Atlantic City casinos in 2010 and 2011.

What’s interesting about Johnson is that he didn’t win his fortune through any common blackjack strategy. Instead, he took advantage of Atlantic City casinos at a desperate time by negotiating for the best rules possible.

Johnson, a former casino manager who’s developed horse betting software, is a skilled mathematician. And he used his math skills to negotiate for such favorable rules that he actually gained an edge on casinos without them realizing it.

The Ph.D. mathematician convinced different Atlantic City casinos to grant him the following concessions:

  • 6 decks
  • Double down on all totals
  • Double down after splitting
  • Dealer stands on a soft 17
  • Re-split aces
  • Late surrender
  • Dealer mistake results in free bet
  • Max bet is $100,000
  • 20% loss rebate on losses of $500,000 or more (resets every day)
  • No minimum play requirement

The last two points are key, because Johnson could quit any time after hitting $500k in losses without playing a specific number of hands.

This meant he could stop after winning $500,000 and keep the full amount. But the casino would only get $400,000 if he were losing $500k.

Johnson was only facing a 0.263% house edge to begin with. And the resetting 20% loss rebate is what gave him an advantage on the house.

The “Beast of Blackjack” also took advantage of the dealer mistake rule by creating a party atmosphere at the table. Johnson told Bloomberg that he even brought porn stars with him and popped champagne to throw the dealer off.

It’s safe to say that Johnson will never get the same favorable rules that he once did. However, 15 million reasons say that he doesn’t care.

John May

John May

John May started playing blackjack after reading a strategy book by Jacques Black.

What’s interesting about May is that he relies less on card counting to win than other pros do. Instead, he uses a variety of advantage-play techniques, like ace sequencing, camouflage, and card steering.

May also counts cards, but he uses these strategies more often because there’s less chance of casino detection.

These days, May travels all over the world to find juicy blackjack games where he has an edge. This includes casinos spanning from Asia to Europe.

He’s also written multiple books, including Get the Edge at Blackjack.

Bill Zender

Bill Zender

Bill Zender is definitely one of the most experienced blackjack players on this list, because he started playing when he was only nine years old.

Back then he played for pennies with friends, and he’s only become better as the stakes have grown.

Zender has seen both sides of the blackjack world, because he worked as a dealer before becoming a professional card counter. Working at the Aladdin casino, he moved his way up the ladder and became a manager.

This gave him insight into how casinos spot card counters, which helped him avoid detection when he began counting cards.

Aside from being a successful blackjack player, Zender has also written multiple books on both card counting and how players can cheat the game. The latter knowledge comes from his days spent managing the Aladdin Casino.

Conclusion

James Grosjean is the best blackjack player today,
thanks to his expertise, reputation, and Blackjack Ball results.

He finished first or second in the Blackjack Ball so many times that they had to ban him from the event. Beyond this, Grosjean is a successful blackjack author and player.

Of course, there are some other great players, too.

Don Johnson understands the rules and blackjack math so well that he tricked casinos into giving him an edge. Johnson then used this to make $15 million in profits.

Tommy Hyland is another notable player because he’s lasted so long in the game. Given his track record of success, it’s obvious that Hyland has the skills to be one of the world’s best card counters.

I’ve only covered some of the great blackjack players in the world. And the truth is that there are dozens of other top pros who could one day take the crown from Grosjean.

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