Al Francesco, also known as Frank Fisano, Frank Salerno, and
Frank Schipani, has left a huge imprint on the world of
blackjack. Not only did Francesco establish one of the first
profitable blackjack teams, but he also developed several
effective techniques that blackjack players still use today
including the “Big Player Concept” and “The Drop.” He was known
to be a legendary teacher, giving professionals like Ken Uston
the tools they needed to flourish in their blackjack careers.
For his incredible talent and daring moves, Al Francesco was
inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2002. Even though it
has been decades since Francesco has actually played blackjack
professionally, he has left a lasting impact on the game. For
more information on the life and career of Al Francesco, please
continue reading this detailed bio.
Using Thorp’s Book to Become a Professional Blackjack Player
Francesco spent the majority of his childhood growing up in
Gary, Indiana during the mid 1940s and 1950s. Card games
interested him at an early age; he would play rummy and other
card games against his friends for a couple of cents per game.
When he was a little older, he took his gambling more seriously,
competing in Greek Rummy tournaments and bringing home an
average of $5,000 a year.
In his early twenties, Francesco moved to California in hopes
of making a more steady and profitable income. This is when he
came across Edward Thorp’s legendary book: Beat the Dealer.
Reading this book was certainly a turning point in Francesco’s
career, as he was inspired to gain an edge over the casino that
would help him win more consistently. One of the main strategies
that, Beat the Dealer, taught him was the 10-Count Strategy.
This took him over five weeks of trial and error to fully
master, as it involved a lot of mathematical equations and card
In an interview with Gambling Wizards, Francesco said this in
reflection of his early experiences with card counting. “The
first time I counted cards, I got a headache within twenty
minutes. It was an extremely tough system. I thought I was ready
for it, but I wasn’t. I went home and studied some more, and
then when I went back I was ready and could keep up with any
Francesco’s initial bets ranged from $5 to $25, but after he
became more comfortable with counting cards, he started
increasing his wagers. Before he knew it, he wasn’t placing any
bets under $200. He would play all day, every day, and he never
felt like taking a break. He played mostly at the casinos of
Reno and Tahoe, as these were the casinos he felt most
Due to Francesco’s undeniable success, casinos started
barring him left and right, as no one wanted a constant winner
in their facilities. He eventually became fed up with trying to
convince casinos to let him play and was forced to temporarily
retire for roughly eight years.
Realizing Early that the Casinos Cheat
Little is known about what Francesco did during these years,
but we do know that he had a lot of time to reflect back on his
experiences. By doing this, he realized that there was an
increasing amount of dealers who cheated players on a regular
Francesco recognized that he typically played much better
during the day time than at night, and he suspected that this
was because most of the cheaters worked the night shift. Dealers
that cheated were obvious and showed no remorse; they would
change their hole cards right in front of him, knowing that
there was nothing he could do to retaliate.
Francesco even made note of which casinos had more cheaters
than others, and he used this information to determine which
casinos he would avoid and which ones he would revisit again. He
believed the worst casino when it came to cheating was The Cal
Neva in North Lake Tahoe, and he refuses to ever go back there
even to this day.
Initiating the First Blackjack Team
Before Francesco took time off from his gambling career, the
casinos only used a single deck of cards for blackjack. To
hinder cheaters, in the early 1970s, they started using four
decks instead of one. It was around this time that Lawrence
Revere wrote, Playing Blackjack as a Business, which Francesco
was eager to read.
After examining the entire book, he decided it was time to
come out of retirement and see if he could use the strategies
within the book to win at blackjack once again. Much to his
surprise, he was able to win steadily with these new methods. Of
course, this meant it wouldn’t be long before the casinos
started barring him again.
Francesco was eager to play blackjack at the casinos, but he
knew he needed a new system and he also knew that he couldn’t do
this on his own anymore. He decided to contact Lawrence Revere
and talk to him about forming a partnership to take down the
casinos. They spent a few days in Mexico, talking about the
conditions of their new partnership and exactly how they would
execute their plan.
The two were happy to work together and knew that they had a
lot to learn from each other. Revere had been giving out lessons
on how to count cards for plenty of years, so finding qualified
members to join their team wasn’t nearly as challenging as it
could have been. Francesco’s main responsibility was to find
qualified recruits to join their team.
He recruited people from all walks of life, some were
talented blackjack players already, some were naturally good at
playing poker, but most just had a genuine interest in
blackjack. “Most of the players that I trained were new to the
game of blackjack. Our training took six or eight weeks and I
had to start at ground zero, because most of these people had
never played before. Some of them were not even gamblers,” said
Francesco in an interview with Gambling Wizards. He recruited a
lot of women to his team, as he knew that many dealers under
estimated female players’ talents and this would give the team
Many of Francesco’s recruits came as recommendations from
other team members, but some candidates he would find at nearby
casinos, observing them for hours before asking them if they
were interested in joining. Once the candidates were selected,
he would spend many hours teaching them various strategies and
determining whether or not they were cut out for the job.
During Francesco’s first conference with a new recruit, he
would teach them how to count down a deck of cards, using
Revere’s methods. He would also expose them to the basic
strategies outlined in Thorp’s book. He emphasized the
importance of memory to his recruits and would actually have
them memorize twenty-four different sequences that would help
them understand which cards to play and when, depending on the
hand that was dealt to them.
After giving the new recruit all of this information, he
would give them a week to study and practice the methods he
taught them, and then he would bring them in for further
testing. He would test them to see if they could count down a
deck in less than thirty seconds and to see how well they could
apply basic strategy. If they could pass these tests, he would
continue training them and after a few weeks they would become a
part of the team. However, if they couldn’t pass what Francesco
believed to be an easy test, they would be dropped from the team
and wouldn’t receive any more lessons.
Another method that Francesco and his team used frequently
was, “The Drop.” When he was asked to cut the deck, he would
tilt the deck just enough so that a player at the table next to
him would be able to see it clearly. That player would then
signal someone across the room to let them know if it was a big
card or a small card. That person would then relay the message
back to Francesco or whoever was applying this method at that
Then when it came time to actually cut the deck, Francesco
would never leave more than five cards on the bottom. He would
watch closely as the dealer split the deck, so that he could see
what the fifth card was and use this information to his
advantage later on.
He would be able to determine how many hands he needed to
play in order to ensure when and who the dealer gave that card
to. The most important aspect to this method was being able to
accurately know how many cards were placed on top of the deck
after the split. If this number is even off by one, it
completely throws off this strategy and will actually give an
upper hand to the dealer. After many hours of practice,
Francesco was able to use this method with 95% accuracy.
The only downside to this strategy was the fact that it only
worked under very specific conditions. It involved three team
members: one that plays directly against the dealer, one that’s
sitting at a nearby table, and one that’s standing on the
opposite side of the casino. The team member who is playing
needs to be at a table alone with the dealer, and the three men
have to be able to communicate with each other flawlessly
without being caught. When the conditions were right the plan
ran smoothly, but without those exact conditions the plan was
Francesco was actually only caught once using this method at
Fitzgerald’s Hotel and Casino in Reno. The casino officials
quickly realized that there was something suspicious about
Francesco’s behavior, so they arrested him. However, they were
never able to identify what method he was using, so they
eventually had to drop their charges against him.
Although many people consider this method to be a form of
cheating, this is Al Francesco’s opinion on the matter, “The
drop concept was tainted. Some people would say it’s dishonest,
but if it was dishonest I don’t give a damn. I know how many
times I was mistreated or cheated by the casinos and I was
getting even with them.” This quote is taken from the interview
Francesco had with Gambling Wizards and it clearly shows his
complete disregard and lack of respect for casino officials.
Big Player Concept
Al Francesco is known for coming up with several innovative
card counting methods that led to his team having so much
success, with his most famous one being: Big Player Concept. He
first came up with this idea when he was spending the weekend in
Lake Tahoe with his brother and sister. He got to spend time
watching how his brother played blackjack, noticing that even
though he knew how to count cards, he only ever bet $1 to $5 at
To make the game more interesting, Francesco would
occasionally slip a $100 chip into play without his brother’s
knowledge. The dealer and pit boss suddenly gave extra special
attention to his brother, begging him not to leave their table
due to his generous bets. It was at this time that Francesco
made the connection that he can use this kindness to his
advantage, when it came to his blackjack team.
Many of the members of his team would only place small
wagers, just as his brother had been doing that night at Lake
Tahoe. However, when the game seemed favorable and it looked as
if the odds were in their favor, they would signal over a “Big
Player,” who would take advantage of those odds by placing very
large bets. As soon as the odds switched back into the favor of
the dealer, the Big Player would leave the table and wait to be
called over once the play was favorable again.
The pit bosses and dealers were too excited to have a high
roller in their midst and were too concerned about how they were
going to keep that player at their table that they overlooked
the fact that all players at the table were currently counting
cards. Big Players not only brought in the most revenue for the
team, but they took attention away from the other players, so
that they could continue to count cards. The most well-known Big
Player was the infamous Ken Uston.
Al Francesco ended up being introduced to Ken Uston by the
girl that they were both dating at the same time, as she knew
they shared a common interest in blackjack. He was especially
eager to find a new recruit, as he had recently fired one of his
men for withholding some of the team’s profits for himself.
Despite having a debacle about who gets to keep dating their
current girlfriend, Francesco decided to teach Uston everything
he knew about poker.
It was Uston that encouraged the team to use computers to
their advantage at the casinos by introducing them to Keith
Taft. Taft was happy to share his experiences in hiding a small
hand held computer device in a shoe. Each shoe that the team
wore contained two switches: one on the top of the big toe and
one on the bottom. They would use these switches to input the
exact value of the cards they received with their toes.
If they were playing heads-up, they would have to input their
first two cards and then the dealers up card. After all the
information was entered, the computer would respond back with
what move they should make next. One buzz indicated that they
needed to hit and a double buzz meant they needed to stand; this
machine was astonishingly accurate and earned this team a great
deal of money.
One major issue with the shoes, was the fact that the battery
pack would randomly fall out of the heel, which was difficult to
explain if anyone saw it happen. This was later resolved by
creating a more durable shoe. The biggest issue was their
enormous size that made them stand out against the average shoe.
Francesco would always tell the pit bosses that he had a big toe
problem and that these were the only shoes he could fit into.
The shoe worked flawlessly for several years before casinos
started further questioning him.
Gambling Around the World
Francesco and his team didn’t limit themselves to just
playing at casinos within the United States, but they have
actually experienced many different casinos across the world.
One of the first places they visited outside of the US was a
casino in France. The first notable difference he found was
their size; they weren’t nearly as big as the ones in
California. Despite their smaller size, his team was able to
walk away from the casinos there $230,000 richer.
Soon after that, his team headed over to Monte Carlo where
they quickly made $29,000. Due to the quick accumulation of
money, the pit bosses changed the rules and forced them to only
make bets off the top of the shoe. Francesco and his crew were
so upset, they immediately cashed in and left.
Years later the team found themselves in Korea, where they
used the spooking technique to put the odds in their favor.
Spooking is actually quite simple; the spotter or spook sits
behind a dealer at a nearby table and waits to see if they will
lift up their hole card. The spook then sends a signal to the
player at the table, so they know whether the dealer’s hole card
is high or low.
Another tool they used in Korea to gain an edge over the
house was actually given to them by the dealers who would
unintentionally mark their cards. In order to prevent spooking,
whenever a dealer would receive an ace or a face value card,
they would fold back the edges slightly to avoid it being seen
from any nearby spooks. Doing this allowed Francesco and his
team to identify whether or not the dealers had a high card with
In just a little over eight hours, the team walked away with
over $50,000 in cash. This would have been a great feat, had it
not been for Korea’s strict rule about not bringing more than
$10,000 out of their country at one time. Each team member had
to put over $10,000 in each of their shoes, which wasn’t only
uncomfortable but very bulky. Even though the team was checked
over quite thoroughly at customs, no airport personnel thought
to look in their shoes. They were able to enter the United
States with all $50,000 without being questioned by authorities.
Betrayed by Ken Uston
Little did Francesco know, that during the time Uston spent
working alongside him and his team, he had been taking careful
notes about their actions. He used those notes to write the book
called, The Big Player, where he exposed the team’s methods for
winning a substantial amount of money from the casinos on a
This book was an instant best-seller that was officially
released to the public in 1977, and is still a popular book
among the gambling community to this day. After this book was
released, it was nearly impossible for Francesco to show his
face in the casinos of Las Vegas again. Francesco didn’t find
out about this book until just a couple weeks before it came
out, so he didn’t have enough time to stop it from getting
This event greatly damaged Francesco’s and Uston’s
friendship, and they have still yet to move forward. Many people
in the gambling community were upset with Uston for going behind
Francesco’s back and exposing his secrets; this greatly
tarnished his reputation. Nevertheless, this book inspired many
of the famous blackjack teams including the MIT Blackjack team
and the Hyland Team. Due to this exposure, we can now give
credit to Francesco for his innovativeness and incredible
Once Francesco realized that casinos were off limits for him,
he switched his passions over to horseracing. He spends most
weekends at the track, betting on the horses with his three
brothers. At one point, they paid a man named William Quirin
$45,000 to gather data from all tracks in California and New
York. Quirin eventually went on to publish a book about their
findings called, Winning at the Races, even though Francesco and
his brothers were hoping to keep this information private.
It was nearly two decades before Francesco started playing
blackjack in the casinos again. In the 1990s, he was asked to
join the team called “Craps” that was organized by an old friend
of his: Arnold Snyder. They worked diligently for nearly a year,
using many of the same methods that Francesco’s team used back
in the day. Despite their efforts, they hardly made any money
and decided to part ways.
More recently, Francesco has switched his career over to the
banking industry where he assists customers in transferring
funds from their home countries to banks in California. This way
they can place large bets at the casinos safely and securely.
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