How I Learned to Play Blackjack: The Story of Henry Tamburin

I learned to play blackjack after I lost my meager bankroll in a casino on my very first trip to Las Vegas. Here’s how this happened.

In 1969 my wife Linda and I were living in graduate-student apartments at the University of Maryland. I was working on my Ph.D. in organic chemistry and Linda was supporting us by working an 8‒5 job as a secretary in the Meteorological Department on campus. I spent many days, nights, and weekends in the laboratory doing experiments as part of my studies. We didn’t have a lot of money back then (to put it mildly), and when we were approached by friends (another graduate couple) to join them on their upcoming trip to Las Vegas, we respectfully said, “No thanks.”

Our friends had been to Vegas several times and they kept telling us what a great time we would have if we went with them. It turns out a parent of this couple was a travel agent in New Jersey and she scheduled junkets to Las Vegas. She was able to get our friends and us an inexpensive package to Las Vegas. We finally caved in and said we would go.

After we arrived in Las Vegas and checked in to the hotel, I decided to “check out the casino.”  I had never played blackjack before in my life but as I watched a live blackjack game, I decided to give it a try. It didn’t take me long to lose the meager bankroll we had taken with us. However, I was fascinated by the game and told my wife, “When I get back home, I’m going to read some books about this game.”

Henry Tamburin outside a casino in Las Vegas

I made good on that promise and ordered two books from a local bookstore: Playing Blackjack as a Business by Lawrence Revere and Beat the Dealer by Edward Thorp. As I was reading these books, I realized why I had lost my bankroll on that first trip to Vegas; namely, I didn’t know the basic playing strategy and I certainly didn’t know anything about card counting. Nevertheless, I was fascinated with the idea that blackjack was a beatable casino game (the only one at that time) as long as you had the skills to beat it. That’s when I decided I was going to learn everything I could about the game before I returned to Las Vegas.

My first task was to learn the basic playing strategy. There weren’t any commercially available strategy cards or software programs back then so I learned the basic strategy by making up flash cards using index cards. On one side I had written the player’s hand along with the dealer’s upcard (e.g., 6-6 vs. 5); on the other side I had the correct strategy for the hand (e.g., split).

I spent quite a lot of time memorizing the basic strategy using the flash cards. Linda would shuffle the index cards then show me the side that had had the player’s hand and dealer’s upcard, and I would recite the strategy. She would set aside the cards that I answered incorrectly, and then review them with me again. After I was able to completely memorize the strategy using the flash cards (with 100% recall accuracy), I took a blank piece of paper, sat down, and recreated the basic strategy table from memory. I checked my table with those in Revere’s book and after doing this task several times, I felt confident that I was able to recall the strategy for any hand that could be dealt to me with 100% accuracy.

Henry Tamburin is reading "Beat the Dealer" book by Edward O. Thorp

On our next trip to Las Vegas, we played blackjack (again with a meager bankroll), and this time we didn’t make any playing mistakes. I even brought a small, handwritten, strategy table I had made up with me when I played and referred to it if I wasn’t 100% sure on how to play a hand (I called it my cheat sheet). Linda and I played together during this trip and unlike our first foray to Las Vegas, this time we wound up with a small profit. I had accomplished the first step to becoming a skillful blackjack player.

The next skill that I had to master was card counting. How I learned this skill is another interesting story that you can read here.

Note: You’ll find more tips on how to play blackjack basic playing strategy by reading Chapter 4 in my Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.

Henry Tamburin, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized blackjack expert and author of the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.