Career Built on Math of Blackjack Multiplies


‘Not too many good blackjack players take on the California casinos,” Stanford Wong was telling me this week at his La Jolla home. “They’re not that attractive. It’s partially the lousy rules, and partially the low stakes.”

Wong, who was born John Ferguson some 60 years ago, was explaining why the explosion of Indian gaming in this state hasn’t been as attractive as one might have expected to the professional blackjack fraternity, his leading constituency. By “lousy rules” he means those that enhance the house edge against the player, and by “low stakes” he means bet limits that prevent skilled card players from exploiting the advantage they gain from rigorous study of the subtle mathematics of the game of 21.

That’s a study that Ferguson helped popularize, starting in 1975 with the publication of his first book, “Professional Blackjack,” under his pseudonym. The book vaulted Ferguson into the top rank of blackjack gurus, alongside such eminences as Edward O. Thorp, a former UCLA mathematician whose 1956 book, “Beat the Dealer,” was the seminal work on card counting.


Since then Ferguson has published five other books through his own Pi Yee Press -- the name, he says, is Chinese for “skill at cards” -- while operating a busy subscription-only Web site for followers of the game and keeping up regular publication of Current Blackjack News, a monthly player’s tipsheet.

With a glance at a few lines of agate type as streamlined as a baseball box score, a newsletter subscriber can glean useful information, such as the fact that the Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas offers 43 blackjack tables, including three dealing two-deck games that allow bets of $50 to $5,000 per hand with playing rules that give the house a mere 0.19% edge.

In recent years Ferguson has moved on to sports betting, the subject of his latest work, “Sharp Sports Betting,” and a subscription Web site of the same name. “For one thing, sports betting is a challenge, and I really enjoy a challenge,” he says, adding that he wrote the book in part to educate himself about the intricacies of the game. “I found the literature on sports betting really inadequate, but the people I knew who bet sports were very secretive. So I knew I’d have to write it myself.”

Much has changed in the gambling world since I first met Ferguson in 1995, when I was writing a magazine piece on blackjack card counters and their eternal cat-and-mouse contest with hostile casino managers. The intervening years have brought the introduction of legal Indian gaming and thus Vegas-style blackjack to California, which had allowed only a bastardized form of the game known as “no-bust.” Meanwhile there were rumors of a crackdown on professional blackjack players in Las Vegas, including the introduction of new technologies designed to widen the house edge and narrow the dealer’s discretion at the table.

These sorts of developments are of intense interest to so-called advantage players in blackjack, a term embracing everyone from card counters skilled enough to make a living to hobbyists who air out their counting techniques during occasional casino visits.

All revere blackjack as the only true game of skill on the casino floor. What distinguishes blackjack from games such as roulette and craps -- in which every spin or throw is independent of those that came before and therefore wholly subject to chance -- is that every card dealt changes the constitution of the remaining deck. The secret of card counting is that keeping track of the discards provides knowledge that allows for smarter betting and playing decisions.


It’s a rare player who can cash in on the resulting edge consistently enough to live off the game. For many years Ferguson was among them. He first visited Las Vegas in 1965 at the age of 21, having worked out a basic strategy himself as a teenager, and then boned up on Thorp’s work.

Ferguson and a friend worked as dealers one summer between terms at Oregon State University and spent all their free hours at the tables. He later earned a doctorate in finance at Stanford and worked as a teacher, but decided that blackjack was the best way to satisfy his lifelong fascination with puzzles.

While still at Stanford, he produced enough computer data about blackjack play and probabilities to compile into a book. At the urging of friends he wrote an introduction and a few narrative chapters, and published the result as “Professional Blackjack,” which he issued under the pen name Stanford Wong because he was still playing at Nevada casinos under his real name and didn’t want to give away his identity. At 3,000 copies a year, “Professional Blackjack” is still the best-selling of his six books.

A craggy 6-footer, Ferguson has the persona of a stern, even severe, professor subjecting the game to merciless mathematical scrutiny. And he is the only counter to have a playing maneuver named after him: “Wonging” connotes playing only at tables where the count is positive for the player, and leaving the moment it turns negative again. Wonging is so effective that some casinos restrict players to entering a game only immediately after a shuffle.

In time Ferguson came to realize that writing about blackjack was a much more civilized activity than playing it under conditions that required concealing his skill on pain of getting evicted from the casino for winning too much.

“Going to Nevada to play blackjack is a lonesome thing,” he says. “I used to make trips when I would go days never speaking to anybody. You’re spending your whole day in contact with people you can’t open up with. You can’t get friendly with the dealers; they’re the enemy. You can’t get friendly with the supervisors; they’re the enemy. We have a need for human interaction, to open up more with other people than a professional card counter is able to allow himself to do.”


Nonetheless, the Web site discussion and the newsletter still allow Ferguson to keep up to date with developments in blackjack play. These usually boil down to efforts by casinos to hone their edge against even skilled players, not to mention weekend punters.

Ferguson has a judgment, often backed by mathematical analysis, about every novel maneuver.

Take the appearance in Vegas and California casinos of 6-to-5 odds on “natural” blackjacks -- that is, where a player reaches 21 with an ace and a face card. That’s a big step down from the normal 3-to-2 payout. But because it’s generally offered on games dealt from one or two decks, which even novice players know are more advantageous than conventional six-deck games, the change has misled thousands of customers into thinking they’re getting a bargain.

Ferguson knows it’s a mug’s game. The altered odds, he calculates, deprive players of 30% of their expected win on a blackjack hand. On a winning $10 bet, for example, the player would receive $12 instead of $15 -- a huge disadvantage over time.

Ferguson’s sports-betting Web site is aimed at the same audience of knowledgeable professionals and devoted amateurs as his blackjack site. Subscription rates are tiered by sport and season. Membership in the NFL discussion group through the Super Bowl costs $449, for which the buyer gets access to the thoughts of an NFL expert who spends his time trolling for potentially profitable Las Vegas betting lines.

Today, he says, the blackjack Web site still brings in more money, but the sports wagering side of the business is growing much faster. Two trends may be at work here: the increasing acceptance of sports betting as a form of gambling, and the ebbing role of blackjack in the casino business.


“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the largest floor area in the casinos was given to blackjack and craps,” Ferguson says. “The slot machines were along the fringe. Now, as new casinos go in with more floor space, it’s devoted to slots. Sometimes it’s hard to even see where the blackjack tables are.”

He sees this trend as an artifact of modern times. “People now becoming adults have grown up on video games,” which makes them comfortable with electronic gambling devices. Hard as it might be to watch a new generation choose a new passion, Ferguson regards the development with a mathematician’s detachment.

“Casinos are like every other business,” he says. “They will give the customers what the customers want. If you’re selling hamburgers and hot dogs and your customers are only buying hamburgers, you’re going to phase out your hot dogs.”


Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday.

Michael Hiltzik can be reached at