The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen: Pioneers of Blackjack Strategy

Four Horsemen of Aberdeen

Have you ever wondered who the pioneers of blackjack strategy were? Meet Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott. These four men, better known as the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen, were the first to work out the necessary calculations to create an almost flawless blackjack strategy. Their calculations have set the groundwork for almost all blackjack strategy that's available today.

Keep reading this article to learn more about the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen and their journey to creating the first blackjack strategy guide. You'll quickly see why they deserved to be inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame, which is one of the most prestigious honors in blackjack.


A Little Background on Each of the Four Horsemen

Roger Baldwin

Math was always Baldwin's favorite subject in school, so it wasn't surprising that's what he chose to study in college. He ended up receiving a scholarship to attend Columbia University, where he would eventually earn his master's degree in mathematics. Soon after he graduated, he enlisted in the US Army and was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

Wilbert Cantey

Cantey grew up in a Christian home and attended church on a regular basis. He loved going to events at the church and even dreamed of being a pastor one day. As soon as he was old enough, he started seminary to begin his pastoral studies. Unfortunately, he was forced to drop out of seminary because he spent so much time hustling people at pool and card games. He would later decide to pursue a master's degree in mathematics instead. Once he finished his studies, he joined the US Army and managed to work his way up to a sergeant position. He ended up being assigned to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

Herbert Maisel

From a young age, Maisel was considered to be a mathematical genius. He always performed well on his math tests and was usually the person other students would go to for help if they didn't understand a math assignment. He decided to join the US Army right out of high school, with his first placement being the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

James McDermott

McDermott got excellent grades in high school and was able to earn himself a full-ride scholarship to Columbia University. After devoting 6 years of his life to his studies, he managed to graduate with a master's degree in mathematics. Despite attending the same school as Baldwin, the two gentlemen didn't cross paths until McDermott was stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds while serving in the US Army.

How Basic Strategy Was First Developed

Fate brought these four men together. The Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where all four of these men met, was located in Hartford County, Maryland. Soldiers who served in this unit would assess the effectiveness of new combat weapons, apply stress tests to tanks and other equipment, and manufacture poisonous gases to be used in battle.

As you might be able to imagine, the life of a soldier can be very stressful. Many of the soldiers at this unit enjoyed playing card games during their downtime to help cope with the stress. One evening, Baldwin decided to join them. This would be the first time he was introduced to the game of blackjack. His fellow soldiers explained the rules to him and let him know that the dealer would be forced to stand on 17 and hit on 16 or lower.

Baldwin was surprised to hear that the dealer had to stick to certain rules, and it made him wonder if there was a way to calculate the probability of whether a player would win or lose based on what cards they were dealt. He got a hold of a piece of paper and a pencil and started to develop formulas to calculate this out. It wasn't long before Baldwin became overwhelmed. He still wanted to do it, but he was going to need some help.

Baldwin approached his sergeant, Wilbert Cantey, and asked if he would be allowed to use the base's adding machine to speed up the calculation process. Cantey agreed to let him use the machine during his free time, and he even volunteered to help with the calculations. Realizing this project was much more complicated than he had ever imagined, he also recruited the help of James McDermott and Herbert Maisel.

Many long nights were involved in the development of this basic strategy for blackjack. There were times when these four men doubted themselves and wondered if all their work would be in vain. Despite their doubts, they persevered, and in just a little over 18 months' time, their work was complete.

Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21

They published their work in the Journal of American Statistical Association in an article named "The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack." It was 11 pages long and was read by thousands of people. They went on to write a more thorough explanation of their discoveries in their book titled Playing Blackjack to Win: A New Strategy for the Game of 21. The book was first published in 1957, with only a limited number of copies made. It sold out fairly quickly at the very generous price of $1.75.

Readers were especially interested in the 10th chapter of their book titled "Using the Exposed Cards to Improve Your Chances," as this was the first blackjack card counting system ever written down and formally published. One of the only issues people had with this system was the fact that the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen forgot to take into account that tens and aces are more valuable than actual low cards, so they should have a bigger impact on the count. Still, this chapter of their book inspired others to try to create their own blackjack card counting strategies, and it encouraged blackjack players to try counting cards to increase their chances of winning.

The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen got together to make a revised version of their book, which was published in 2008. The authors added a couple new sections to this book based on what they had learned about blackjack over the years. They also added commentary from two other experts in the field: Arnold Snyder and Edward Thorp.

Professionals Test Out Their Calculations

Of course, when any new strategies hit the press, there are going to be people who want to test them out to check for accuracy. One of the first people to take an interest in the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen's calculations was Edward Thorp. He decided to apply their strategies while spending his Christmas vacation in Las Vegas with his wife. By the time his trip was over, he had lost a little over $8. Since he was only there for a limited amount of time, he considered the results of this test to be inconclusive.

He decided to input their calculations into the computers at MIT, which had the most advanced software at the time. Almost all of their calculations proved to be 100% accurate. They had only made a couple errors when it came to their advice on pair splitting and hard doubling. The errors they made wouldn't have a huge impact on a player's profit margin, however. Edward Thorp would use their calculations to develop his own blackjack strategies, which he explained in his best-selling book, Beat the Dealer.

Professional blackjack player Arnold Snyder had this to say about their calculations: "Their hit/stand strategies, both hard and soft, are 100% accurate, including the recommendations that hard totals of 12 should be hit against 2 and 3, and that soft totals of 18 should be hit vs. 9 and 10 only." Snyder used many of the strategies addressed in their book to improve his play.

Inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame

In 2008, the current members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame included Edward O. Thorp, Johnny Chang, Tommy Hyland, Stanford Wong, Al Francesco, James Grosjean, Arnold Snyder, and Max Rubin. The members got together to discuss who deserved to be the next inductees. Although there were several qualified candidates in the running, their decision was unanimous. The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen had made the cut.

At Max Rubin's 12th Annual Blackjack Ball, the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen were officially inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. This event is always held at the clubhouse of a ritzy gated community in Northern Las Vegas. Only those who are lucky enough to get an invitation are able to attend. Upon giving them the award, Max Rubin said, "If it wasn't for them, not one of us would be in this room." He recognized the fact that these four men had set the foundation that made all of their achievements possible.

Baldwin, Cantey, and McDermott felt honored to be able to attend this luxurious event and meet the other members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. Maisel, unfortunately, was unable to make it because he had to stay home to take care of his wife who had recently had surgery.

Wrap-Up

The Four Horsemen of Aberdeen all took very different paths in life. Baldwin chose to work in the applied statistics and data processing field. Cantey ended up becoming a researcher for the US government. McDermott worked for IBM in their market research department. Maisel chose to stay in the military, making it his full-time career. Now retired, they still try to reunite on a yearly basis to reminisce about the good old days and just to stay up to date with what is going on in each other's lives. Their love of blackjack and mathematics will always draw them close together, and their lasting impact on the blackjack community will never be forgotten.

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