Al Francesco: A Master of Blackjack
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 counting techniques.
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 dealer."
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 comfortable at.
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 basis.
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 an advantage.
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 time.
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 practically impossible.
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 a time.
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 100% accuracy.
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 regular basis.
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 published.
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 blackjack talents.
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.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: December 2015
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