Al Francesco is one of the most respected blackjack players in the history of the game. He practically invented team play at blackjack and taught the legendary Ken Uston how to count cards. Uston once commented to Arnold Snyder: "I owe everything to Al. He really might be the greatest blackjack player there ever was, and he's also a real gentleman."
He is primarily known through Ken Uston's books as the innovator of the "Big Player" (BP) team concept. He started his first blackjack team in the early 70's, and, until Uston's first book, The Big Player, was published in 1977, Al's teams were completely unknown to the casinos, allowing them to win millions of dollars in the process.
Al got started in the gambling profession when he was 19, playing games of Greek Rummy in his hometown of Gary, Indiana. Even then, it was obvious that he had a knack for games of chance. Over the span of a few years, he rarely lost and averaged about $5,000 per year in winnings (about what he would have made at a regular job in those days).
Then, in 1963, Al read Edward O. Thorp's book, Beat the Dealer. He had just moved to California when he read the famous card-counting tome and had never even been to Las Vegas or Reno. After spending about five weeks learning Thorp's Ten Count system, Francesco was ready to give professional blackjack a try.
After his first twenty minutes of counting cards, Al found that he had a horrible headache (the Ten Count system was an extremely tough one to learn). So he went home and studied some more, finally mastering it to the point that he could keep up with any dealer. After that, he could walk into any casino and play (and win) all that he wanted. Of course, it also helped that this was in the days before the casinos realized that blackjack was beatable.
But it didn't last for long. After a year and a half, Al found himself getting barred in casino after casino. Tired of the constant hassle, Al stopped playing entirely for several years. Then the casinos introduced 4-deck games, and Lawrence Revere came out with Playing Blackjack as a Business, which featured the Advanced Point Count method. Al hurriedly learned the system and resumed playing, but found that he was once again getting heat after only a month back in the casinos. He halted his career again, vowing to find a better way to play.
He developed the team concept in 1971, after watching his brother play blackjack in a Lake Tahoe casino. His brother was an experienced card counter and was betting between $1 and $5. When he'd bet $5, Al would throw down a $100 bet, but when his brother went down to $1, Al would pull back his money. All the while, Francesco was talking to his brother-in-law, hardly seeming interested in the game which was taking place. After they finished, the pit boss tried to get Al to stay, and that's when he realized that he could use the casino's greed against them. And thus the team strategy was born.
Everything went smoothly for Al's team until 1975, when Ken Uston (who Al had taken under his wing) wrote his book entitled The Big Player. In it, Uston exposed the secrets of Al's team and virtually ruined their chances of playing in many casinos around the world.
But this did not diminish Al's accomplishments. In fact, virtually all of the successful blackjack teams which came after The Big Player was published—the Hyland team, the MIT team, the Czech team, the Greeks—used Al's Big Player strategy to disguise their operations, and the approach is still being used successfully by teams today.
In the 90's, Al teamed up with Arnold Snyder to put together a straight card-counting team called CRAPS. But for some reason, the team could never seem to make any money and threw in the towel after about a year.
Since then, he has also worked at a banking operation in California, pursued his love for horse racing, and developed his own website. And, in 2003, he became one of the seven inaugural members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
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