Tommy Hyland was born in 1956 in New Jersey. His story is very similar to that of many professional blackjack players. Tommy began gambling at a very young age with a game that is commonly known as “pitching pennies.” Two boys would one of their coins against a wall. The boy with the coin closest to the wall would win both coins. This was Tommy Hyland’s introduction to gambling, and he has been hooked ever since.
A natural athlete, Hyland excelled at basketball, golf, and baseball. He played all of them in high school. He also developed a fondness for betting on professional sports. Tommy attended college in Ohio, but he wasn’t cut out for the life of a university student. Hyland confesses that he displayed an indifference to many of his college classes, preferring to shoot pool, play poker, or hustle golf matches instead.
His time at college was a turning point, however. It was there that Tommy Hyland first discovered blackjack. He obtained a copy of Lawrence Revere’s Playing Blackjack as a Business. Hyland’s college roommate was very interested in the game of blackjack, and he and Tommy would spend hours practicing the card counting methods described in Revere’s book. The roommate had more initial interest than Tommy did, and in one weekend managed to win several thousand dollars in Atlantic City. The success of his roommate convinced Tommy Hyland that he should take the game of blackjack more seriously. In 1979, Tommy Hyland became a full-time professional blackjack player.
Many blackjack authors were writing about card counting at this time. A few of them, such as Ken Uston, had begun to advance the idea of blackjack teams. In this scenario, skilled blackjack players would pool their resources and knowledge to attack the casinos. It was working very well for some players, and Hyland decided to assemble his own team of card counters.
Tommy Hyland’s first blackjack team was comprised of only two people—Tommy and a golfing buddy named Leo. Tommy and Leo began applying their card counting techniques in tandem, and the results were nothing short of amazing. The two men didn’t have a huge bankroll to begin. With just $1000 they began a serious assault on the game and within six months had quadrupled their money. As successful as they were, however, Tommy Hyland only saw their team as an experiment. He was convinced that there were much bigger profits to be made from playing blackjack.
Two more men were added to the team. The four men took a combined $16,000 and ran it up to more than $100,000 before the end of 1979. It was clear to Tommy Hyland that his future involved creating the biggest, and most powerful, team of card counters ever assembled. The team swelled to 15 members. At times it had as many as 40 men working the casinos. Tommy Hyland was the manager of the team, and his work in this regard was legendary.
Tommy Hyland’s blackjack career has not been untouched by controversy. At one casino in the Bahamas, Hyland was caught using a computer. Edward O. Thorp had developed a wearable computer and these were becoming common. In fact, at the time Tommy Hyland was caught using one they were considered perfectly legal. Even so, Hyland was arrested and charged with a crime. The prosecutors offered Hyland a deal. He could plead guilty, pay a fine, and go home or he could fight the charge and remain incarcerated while he awaited trial. Hyland chose to plead guilty and return to the states.
In those early days of card counting, getting charged with a criminal offense was sometimes the least a player had to be worried about. Tommy Hyland was actually collared by casino security and forced at gunpoint to return $100,000 he had won from a casino. These things happened a lot in the early days of casino gambling, especially in Las Vegas.
It was an event in 1994, however, that would ultimately change Tommy Hyland into an activist for card counters and their legal rights. Tommy and his team were arrested in a Canadian casino and charged with cheating. The trial that followed saw the prosecution allege that blackjack teams were a form of cheating. Many professionals, including Arnold Snyder, rushed to Hyland’s defense.
The judge in the trial, after many days of testimony from both sides, ruled that blackjack teams were essentially highly trained professionals who employed highly developed skills. Tommy Hyland and his team were cleared of all wrong doing.
Hyland is a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, and has devoted much of his time to advocating for the rights of blackjack players and card counters. He has actually brought legal action against many casino operations demanding fair treatment of card counters.