Winners and Losers: True Tales From the Blackjack Trenches
Bill Kaplan, co-founder of the MIT blackjack team that took Vegas for millions, has a few tricks up his sleeve. You may not bring down the house, but here are 11 of his tips that will give amateur.By Tobaksa, Tommy Hyland, Taylor James, Dan Paymar, Pro21, Dustin D. Marks, One More Shoe, Bob Loeb, Abbot Avarissa, Bill Haywood, Anthony Curtis, JC, Cizef, Max Rubin, James Grosjean, John Brahms, Moe Cash
(From Blackjack Forum XXI #3, Fall 2001)
© Blackjack Forum 2001
[New card counters are often astonished by what they consider to be 'impossible' bankroll fluctuations. I recently sent emails out to a bunch of longtime players, some professional gamblers, some writers, some known, some not, and asked them if they had any memorable stories of wins or losses they could share with Blackjack Forum readers.
I contacted card counters, shuffle trackers, blackjack team players, hole-card players, old-time concealed blackjack computer players, video poker players, tournament players, sports bettors, Internet gamblers, comp and coupon hustlers, and even an admitted cheater. If you think you’ve got an 'impossible' fluctuation or two, listen to what some of the pros have to say… — Arnold Snyder]
One hundred thousand dollars. Spelled out, with every zero, and a great big dollar sign up front that’s $100,000.00! When I started playing blackjack, winning one hundred thousand was the benchmark. If you had, you were a pro. Any amateur could win a thousand, or ten. That was fluctuation. A hundred thou was work. It took a long time, usually a couple of years to win a hundred thousand. Once won, we knew that you never had to worry about going 'lifetime stuck.' (Hah!)
Malcolm, a flamboyant fixture on the blackjack scene, won his in a little over a year. Unfortunately, his teammates lost $100,000 the same year. 'Woody,' (a mutual friend) 'has won $140,000 lifetime, and has saved $160,000!' (Woody had also invested in winning banks.) 'I’ve won $160,000, and I’ve saved… $1.40.' Over the years, the bankrolls got bigger, and the fluctuations bigger as well. Still, a hundred thousand was a hundred thousand.
In the late 1980s, the greatest game in the world was being dealt in Korea. The Walker Hill Casino in Seoul was quite polite, and would generally not bar you until you got up from the table, but bar you they would. Once barred, given that everyone else in the casino was Asian, it was hard to slip back in the door and blend in.
A team of friends and relatives got themselves barred, but one of them came up with a great idea. Most of Walker Hill’s patrons were Japanese. It was thought that the Korean bosses would never bar a Japanese player. Why not recruit some Japanese, and train them as Gorilla BPs? Why not indeed?This worked so well that a year and a half later, in the spring of 1988, Walker Hill limited the bet spread of one of our players (Rocky, the World’s Greatest BP), and also changed the rules that had made the place so attractive.
So in May of 1988 I flew down to Pusan, Korea, to try the Paradise Beach Casino on for size. Though I had been calling plays for the team for over a year, it was my first time in Korea with my brother, Pro21. After a dramatic weekend (see Pro21’s account elsewhere in this issue for details), he flew back to the States, while I went back to Seoul to hang around the team’s apartment. (One good way to get hired for the next trip, in preference to other freelance PCs (play callers), is to already be there, 8000 miles away, which saves the team airfare.)
Every few weeks, through the summer, a second PC would arrive, BP in tow. We played from Friday night through Sunday afternoon, because the casino was empty during the week. PCs needed to sleep a few hours between shifts, but we worked our BPs relentlessly. Rocky set the record: 39 hours at the table in a 44-hour period. Just one more reason he was the World’s Greatest BP.
Finally came a trip where a bad thing happened. The casino decided that Rocky was winning too much, and called Walker Hill to see if they knew of him. (It probably hadn’t helped matters that a Yakuza boss whom I had had run-ins with up in Seoul lost $50,000 playing with us one afternoon, and started screaming that it was all Rocky’s fault because he 'played like an American!')
No sooner had they hung up the phone, than Rocky was limited to a bet spread of 100,000 – 300,000 won. (Approximately US$150-$450, with a table limit of two million won). For good measure, they limited me too. 'But I’m only betting a hundred thousand won!' 'Doesn’t matter. From now on, 100,000 to 300,000.'
That was the end of it, I thought, until a month later a phone call informed me that a PC and BP would be arriving at the end of the week. 'Where are we going?' 'Pusan.' 'Not with me!' Had I actually been barred? Well, not really, but I was sure that the casino wouldn’t tolerate me. 'You’ll be working with Darryl. He hasn’t been to Pusan this year. And, you’ll have a brand new BP. He’s never been there. He’s never been anywhere. Never been in a casino in his life! Anyway, we’ve got no one else to send.'
And so on Friday night, while Steve, our new BP, checked into the Paradise Beach, and Darryl settled into our room across the street at the Green Beach (only $40 a night), I opened up a dead table in the casino.'You! You!…You!' The Shift Manager waved a finger under my nose while he tried to think of some other English word to shout at me. 'You! One hundred thousand – three hundred thousand!'
Oh, and because I was playing heads up, I would have to play three hands until someone joined me. As the only customer, I might have been the center of attention anyway, but since I was the nefarious American card counter, I was more than that. The manager brought together every boss, and every dealer, lined them up, and had them memorize my face, pore by pore. I smiled weakly, and prayed hard for a run of bad cards. Naturally, I drew more naturals than any session of my life. After 45 minutes, flat betting, I was up 65 bets, around US$10,000. I left before shift change, 30 pairs of eyes glaring at my departing back.
In the morning, at the end of graveyard, I put in my next appearance. Same story, same dialogue, slightly different cast. This time, I won only 35 bets.They hadn’t stopped me from playing, so an hour later I returned for day shift, and my first session with the BP.
For a Big Player whose entire casino experience was limited to his session with Darryl the night before, Steve did fairly well. He didn’t quite blend in with the other Japanese (they were all Yakuza chieftains, and he was a sushi chef), but he followed signals well, without any obvious hesitation, or inordinate interest in my hands and chips.
We played for 6½ hours, and won slowly but steadily. As the shift progressed, the pace picked up. The other players began to follow Steve’s bets, pressing when he pressed, backing off when he backed off. The dealer obliged, by turning ice cold. She began breaking, hand after hand. Since the Japanese players almost never break (it might be the dealer’s bust card, and the others would never forgive them), everyone won.
After 6½ hours, I sent Steve from the table. With him gone, the others immediately left. He had won forty-and- a-half million won. I had picked up another million and a half. The other players piling on had reaped twenty-eight million more. The table was down seventy million, or almost exactly that magic $100,000!
'Too much! He win too much!' Three bosses were there, the damage being too much for one to assess. They looked to me for sympathy, and I obliged: 'You’re right! That Japanese guy was the luckiest player I’ve ever seen!' They nodded, shell-shocked. Sweat dripped clammily from three sets of brows. 'Too much! Win too much!'
Swing and grave weren’t much to speak of, but on the plane to Seoul Darryl was crowing. Steve had won another twenty million won. We spent the week in Seoul, while Steve went straight from Pusan to Japan, to visit family. Next Friday, we were back at the scene of the crime. Steve and I did little damage overnight, but Saturday afternoon, Darryl led him to another twenty million win. Love that day shift!
We hadn’t been playing more than an hour Saturday night, when the tap came. Steve was pulled off the game, to confer with the Casino Manager himself. Ten minutes went by, then twenty. Finally, Steve and the boss returned. Steve tried not to look at me, but his eyes kept slipping sideways while he gathered up his chips to go cash out. He was plainly terrified. Well of course, it was the kid’s first trip to the dean’s office!
Tap tap! The boss was at my shoulder. 'Yes?' 'I would like to talk with you.' 'Okay, after the shoe.' No, whatever he wanted to tell me just wouldn’t wait. We went to his office, and he was polite, but firm. I was no longer an honored guest of the Paradise Beach Casino. Could I please go elsewhere – another continent, perhaps?
Back in Seoul, we took Steve around, and showed him the charms of Itaewon — silk suits and bar girls, both of which could be custom tailored for just $100. And Monday morning it was time to send him home. 'Here’s $5000. That’s all you can carry out of Korea.' 'What do I I do with all this money?' 'The money I advanced you last night? For shopping, and… ahem… miscellaneous? That came to $350, so when you get to LA, Craig owes you another $1650.' 'But what do I do with the $5000?'
So I explained. 'We won 98 million won. The Olympics are next month, but it’s the won that’s on steroids. It’s trading at under 700 right now. You get 5% after expenses, which works out to $140,000, so your end is $7000. You get the $5000, plus the money last night, plus whatever Craig owes you when you get back.'I get to keep this?'
I guess when they explained the deal back in LA, they hadn’t told him he could win this much money. Up to now it had been just chips. Suddenly, it was real money. 'When do we do this again!?' 'Uh, well, talk to them when you get to LA.' Let them break it to him that his blackjack career was over, just one and a half weeks after it began. Short it may have been, but I was sure that Steve would take the news like a pro. After all, he’d won his lifetime hundred thousand.
My most memorable win was probably about 15 years ago in Atlantic City. I was part of a massive project involving 25 - 30 people and as many as 10 or 12 on a specific play. To make a long story short, the project exploited dealers who shuffled in a certain way and we had every dealer in the place scouted to see if they met our requirements. Even though this game was very lucrative given the right conditions, there were relatively few dealers in each casino that were playable. We also needed to play head up for very high stakes.
Far and away the best dealer in this particular casino was a large, affable, black male by the name of 'Rosie.' Unfortunately for us, he was buried deep on a crowded $2 table. Thus our 'game openers' had to begin the arduous task of clearing the table. Their job was to get all the regular customers off the table then all leave close together without the pit noticing anything unusual. Our BP, who had already established himself as a major sucker, would then come and request that this empty table be made a private game.
Our 'openers' did many things to get the regular players off our target table. A few examples I remember are: (1) they would make rude comments criticizing the regular players' play, then split 10s themselves and laugh if the dealer made his hand and swept the table. (2) We had cigars and specially prepared clothes that were unbelievably foul. (3) Particularly stubborn customers would 'accidently' get a drink spilled on them.
The majority of the time we scheduled a play, for one reason or another, we would fail to get it down. Many times we’d have 10 or so people spend 4 or 5 hours and all we’d get for our effort would be a fair amount of negative EV. But on this night things went our way. We captured the table, got our BP on, then proceeded to win about $140,000. We had beaten Rosie before for a couple of medium-sized wins so we figured we’d wait a while before attempting to play him again. But we never got the chance. When our project ended about 6 months later, he was still where he’d been every night since our big win – THE BIG SIX WHEEL.
My most memorable loss was in the early 80s. I had just joined up with four very sharp guys who taught me to shuffle track. Probably because I was already mildly famous in the blackjack community at this time, they didn’t put me through the rigorous testing a new recruit would normally be subject to. They pretty much just showed me some stuff and turned me loose. I had won quite a bit of money in my career so far just straight counting, so imagine how much I was going to win now that I was a SHUFFLE TRACKER!
I marched off to the Fremont, of all places, and in the space of 5 or 6 days, I managed to lose $75,000 or $100,000. The Fremont bosses were ecstatic at their good fortune, but were mildly puzzled as to why a rich guy like myself would choose the Fremont to gamble instead of somewhere slightly nicer like Caesars Palace or the MGM. I explained that I preferred a small, friendly place like the Fremont where I was treated like someone special.
While managing to keep up appearances at the Fremont, I was devastated as my losses mounted, mainly because I wanted to win for my new teammates. They had shown a lot of confidence in me and I was repaying them with record setting losses. Unfortunately for the Fremont, just when they were probably planning what luxuries to spend their windfall on (maybe room furniture with knobs still attached or light bulbs that actually emitted light), the tide turned. I won my money back and have managed to continue to win a few bucks in the years since then.
In the winter of 1983 the blackjack team I was on was experimenting with a new technology. It involved a computer, hidden in our shoes, operated by our toes. The computer was powered by lithium batteries strapped to our ankles and connected by wires running through our crotch. We told the computer what cards were being played and then exactly how the deck was shuffled, and the computer told us how much to bet and how to play the hand through a ‘tapper’ on the bottom of our feet.
Because I was pretty notorious in Nevada at that time we needed to check out the efficacy of the system in another place. Perhaps we could make a little money, too. That’s what brought us to Leicester, England. The problem with us gambling at the casino in Leicester was that there was NO GOOD REASON for any person not living there to be there in February. Tourists?! Hardly a sellable cover story in the mid-England cold. Recreational gamblers?! Why not go to Las Vegas — one hour away from our homes by plane? When asked, 'What are two Americans doing in Leicester in February?' we said, 'Ah.. playing the folk festival in Enderby.. and ah, ..visiting the SOCK factory!' (Yeah, that’s it!!)
There were two casinos in Leicester at the time. Blackjack at seminole coconut creek casino. Annabelle’s was the one we ended up playing at. When we began to win, they began to sweat. It was a small win (about $10,000) but apparently enough for Annabelle’s to be wary of our play. When we stopped and tried to cash our chips, they told us they didn’t have that much cash and asked us to come back the next day. WHAT?!
This was remarkable — in all our years playing we’d NEVER been asked to come back the next day and pick up our winnings! When we raised a stink, they offered to give us a check. RIGHT. We kept the chips. We didn’t know what to make of the 'don’t have the cash' story — maybe it was true, or maybe they were on to us and were going to give us a difficult time about getting our money.
We talked long and hard that night about the correct strategy the next day and ended up deciding that we would wear the computer to the casino. (Actually, I was wearing the computer; Nicholas, who was a world-class player in his own right, was just overseeing the progress of the computer concept for the investors back in Las Vegas.) Our plan was that I’d cash out the chips and Nicholas would go sit down at the blackjack table and see if any important elements of the game had changed. (They had) If everything had been cool, we might have played some more.
Before we went inside the casino, I noticed a piece of paper in the car with notes from previous sessions in other England casinos laying about. Not the kind of thing casual gamblers would have around. I folded it up and stuffed it into a peanut wrapper. This turned out to be a good move, and the decision to wear the computer turned out to be PERFECT, because my legs (where the computer was) were the ONLY place they did NOT end up searching!
So we walked into the casino — Nicholas headed for the tables and I went to the cashier. A man asked me to come with him, he had a few questions. Being asked to come to the back room had happened a lot to us in Nevada and elsewhere, and was not unexpected. USUALLY, however, we did NOT have a possibly illegal electronic device on our bodies. (We had no idea how the legal system would treat the computers. There was probably no precedent, no law, sort of like LSD in the 60s.) We hoped to NOT find out anything about the legality of it on this trip. We had decided that if we were in this situation with the computer on our bodies we would not say anything and ask to see a lawyer.
Shortly after arriving in the back room, Nicholas, having discovered that the game had been changed, was led into the same room. The fellow that had ushered me there flashed a badge — Scotland Yard! They separated us to get our stories. Our first break was that both of us decided independently that it was better to talk to Mr. Scotland Yard and the casino people. We both broke the code of silence and tried to talk our way out of it.
The casino manager asked me if I was a professional gambler. I said, 'No, I’m a businessman/sometimes folk-singer.' 'Where do you work?' he asked. I made up a name of a company. 'What’s the phone number?' I made up a phone number. He picked up the phone and dialed. Just then a colleague of his walked into the room and he hung up the phone.
When these conversations were done, Mr. Scotland Yard and his assistant took us out to our car and searched it completely, finding only a wadded up peanut wrapper. They took us to our hotel room and began to look around. Mr. Scotland Yard saw my guitar case he asked if I had a Tommy Gun inside. We laughed. He looked anyway. Nicholas and I knew that there was only one thing in the room that we didn’t want them looking at — the BRIEF CASE. The brief case had spare batteries and wires; records of previous casino trips; decks of cards, etc.
They looked EVERYWHERE. Under the beds. Between the mattresses. Under the towels in the bathroom. Nicholas and I tried not to look at the brief case, and not to AVOID looking at the brief case. We were talking to the Mr. Scotland Yard and his assistant the whole time. By the time they’d about finished looking everywhere, they were more or less on our side, wondering why Annabelle’s would make such a fuss over a couple of Americans winning a little money.
Then one of them noticed the brief case and asked, 'What’s in here?' 'Papers,' Nicholas answered. He walked over and casually lifted the lid. But by that time he had become pretty certain everything was on the up and up — and didn’t see the wires that were looking right up at him, or didn’t think they were much of anything to be concerned about.
He closed the brief case and apologized for bothering us. We told our new friends that it wasn’t their fault and have a good day. They took us back to Annabelle’s, where the casino gave us cash for our chips. We hopped in the car, drove straight to Dover and took the next ferry out of England.
I have often heard tales about someone hitting royal flushes back-to-back, but I’ve never seen it happen. I have, however, experienced two royals in one playing session twice in the 12 years that I’ve been playing video poker. The first was at the Stratosphere. I had been playing a 10/6 Jacks or Better machine for about two hours when I hit a royal. While waiting for the hand pay, I started playing the adjacent machine. About five minutes after the first was paid, I hit a royal on the other machine. The slot attendants were very friendly and paid them off very quickly both times.
The other time was at the Plaza in downtown Las Vegas. I had been playing a Deuces Wild at the Keno bar for only about half an hour when I hit a royal flush in clubs. My wife was playing somewhere else in the casino, so I called her on our cell phones and held my phone close to the machine’s speaker so she could hear the music. They came to pay me off fairly quickly, but the change girl was finished counting at $1000. I just held where it was and said, 'Well, don’t stop there.' Both she and the slot attendant looked at me with a puzzled expression, so I pointed to the glass on the machine where it says, 'Win $1175 for a Royal Flush with no wild cards.'
They sheepishly took back the $1000 and came back a couple minutes later with the full amount. In the meantime, my wife had came to join me at the bar, so I continued playing. About half an hour later, I got another royal on the same machine. This time it took them almost half an hour to come back with the money. I suspect that they were reviewing the security tapes to see if I was somehow tampering with the machine, but nothing was said. I didn’t tip as well on that one because of the long delay.
There was one other instance of two notable royals. These were not in the same playing session; in fact they were about five weeks apart, but what is notable about them is that they came in the same way. In both cases, I was dealt x-x-Q-K-A where the Q-K-A were all clubs, and I got the 10 and J of clubs on the draw for a sequential royal worth $12,500. (This was at Texas Station in early 1996 when they had a bank of full pay quarter Deuces Wild machines with their Reversible Royal.)
Now a sequential royal is extremely rare (about one in 60 royals), so getting even one is amazing. To get two within five weeks of each other is almost unbelievable. But the fact that they came in exactly the same way must make one wonder. Both times they paid me off with no problems, but a few days after the second one the pay schedule on the games was cut to a common 95% schedule.
When I was in college I met a dentist in a bar one night. Over a few games of backgammon he told me that he had just returned from Las Vegas. He was in quite good spirits because not only had they paid all his expenses including his plane flight, but he had won several thousand dollars to boot.
I told him that eventually the casino would get all those expenses back, and his bankroll. 'Not from me they won’t. I count cards.' It was the first time I had ever heard of counting cards. For someone who loved to play cards this sounded too good to be true.
He recommended a book, Playing Blackjack As A Business, by Lawrence Revere, and the next day I special-ordered it at my local bookstore. After the book came I spent many hours studying the charts. I learned basic strategy backward and forward. Down in the basement I would deal hands to myself. Soon I knew the difference between single deck strategy and multiple decks. I knew about 'double after splits,' and 'soft 17.' Now all I needed was to wait for my birthday — to turn 21.
When my birthday came I booked a package deal to Vegas as a present to myself. $179 would get me a plane ticket and four days and three nights at the lovely Flamingo Capri. The Flamingo Capri used to sit where the Imperial Palace is now and it was really quite a dump. I was legal age and right in the center of the strip. Look out Vegas — here I come.
At the end of the trip I was ahead $220. I had paid for the trip and had some change left over. I remember so clearly, thinking, 'Man, if I can do this with just basic strategy, just think how much I will make when I learn to count!' I look back on that now and laugh at my naiveté, but this was a seminal moment in my life. It caused me to move to Las Vegas after college, and led to my playing professionally for 25 years.
Invariably every professional gambler is asked, 'What’s the most you’ve won?' or 'What’s the most you’ve lost?' I’m not sure this is the most of either, but this is the story I usually tell. In the late 80s my team was playing a lot in Korea. On one particular trip I was going to play with my brother in Pusan. We arrived on a Friday and that first night after we both played we got back to the hotel room to compare notes. We had won just over $100,000. Elated I called my teammates back in the States and told them we had hit our target on the first night out.
Then, on Saturday and Sunday, my brother and I proceeded to lose the entire $100,000 — ending up even for the weekend. People might think this was quite a tragedy but in reality this was probably the best weekend I ever had. The reason was because of the way our team was structured. At that time we had a target of $100,000. When the target was hit the money would be split, 50% to the investors and 50% to the players.
The player’s share was based on how many hours each player had played on that bank. Since this was a new bank I was the only player with any hours. (My brother was an employee of the team and worked for a salary.) When I called my teammates on Friday night it meant that I personally had a payday of about $60,000 (including my share as an investor). The $100,000 loss went onto the next bank. All in all it wasn’t a bad weekend’s work.
It seems like a long time ago. I had a lot more hair and a lot less belly. It was a time before all the crap that currently overruns the pits: automatic shuffling machines, biotech, and computers. I was working as a 21 dealer somewhere in the great state of Nevada, and I was doing what I did best: ripping and tearing.
All those hours of standing dead at the table gave me time to dream up new methods of making sure the casinos had less money to count. One of my favorite moves I conjured up was a method of stacking an agent a double down hand from a new deck of cards. If there were a Hall of Fame for cheating moves, this masterpiece would definitely be in the running. I always felt stacking a Blackjack from a new deck was too dangerous. Even a pit boss with no electrical activity above the neckline might come out of his comatose state if a player bet the limit and got a snapper on the first round of a new deck.
I managed to get on swing shift where it was normal to open a game at the start of the shift. When opening a game, the floorman brings a sealed deck of cards to the table. I would run down the cards and then shuffle. As I shuffled I stacked the double down hand. I would then spread the cards and wait.
Now, waiting is not my strong suit. (I think this will bring a hint of a smile across a certain face from the past.) You see if anyone else sits at the table the stack is ruined. I didn’t want a square to spoil all my hard work. Human nature is a funny thing. Most squares will not sit down at a game if there are no players. To make sure, I had a look on my face like I was about to projectile puke. (One lady tripped over a chair trying to get away from me. I guess I was convincing).
This technique was needed, especially with this agent I’m going to tell you about. After what seemed to be an eternity, my agent came to the game. Uncle B was an older gentleman who looked like he was lost. I don’t think this was an act. During large team plays, we had to assign someone to watch Uncle B, otherwise he would disappear.
There was nothing worse than when we had a play set up and saw Uncle B in the wrong pit as he looked for us. (Well, I guess I exaggerate. Having a little old lady scream, 'Hey the dealer didn’t shuffle the cards, the uninteresting gentleman is wearing a computer under his jacket, and the guy at the bar is a BP waiting for the signal.' Yeah, that would be worse!) After five years of living in Vegas he would still ask, 'Where is that damn Dunes?' But this is what made Uncle B such a good BP — he was above suspicion.
Anyway, Uncle B dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out an enormous wad of C-notes. He made a table limit bet. I shuffled the deck, retained the stack, and set a brief where Uncle B needed to insert the cut card. Even though Uncle B was old, he nailed the brief with ease as he took a drag off his cigarette. To make it look good I asked, 'Do you want to play it or do you want change?' His answer was always the same, 'Play it dealer.'
I called 'money plays' and a boss waddled over. I dealt, Uncle B turned over his cards, looked disgusted, and went back into his pocket pulling out more hundred-dollar bills. He peeled off 10 C-notes and I dealt him his double down card. I turned my hole card over and hit out to a 20. Perfect. I turned over Uncle B’s double down card, a paint, giving him 21. My fingers danced over to a stack of black chips and I paid him. He gathered up our winnings, looked me in the eye and said as he always said, 'Thank you dealer,' and disappeared into the night.
The boss asked, 'Do you know who that was?' By now I had been whacking the joints long enough to know stupidity was about to rear its ugly head. I looked at him and said, 'No sir, I don’t who that non-toking old fart is.' The boss gave me a dirty look and retorted, 'He is one of the best poker players in Vegas.'
Now, Uncle B never played a lick of poker in his life. This is just another example of a boss with a single-digit I.Q. fronting off about something he knows nothing about. So the boss thought old Uncle B is a great poker player taking a one-time shot at the blackjack table. Great! I felt like saying to the boss, 'I tell you what pal, you let Uncle B take a shot at my table everyday because he is going to win every time.'
If you ever see some old guy walking around looking lost and if he gets up from a game and says, 'Thank you dealer,' it’s better than even money that’s Uncle B. Tell him Dustin wants to know 'Where is that damn Dunes?'
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I had read a few books about counting, had the drill down, and with a tiny bankroll, was making a few bucks. I hadn’t yet graduated to Blackjack Forum or gotten to know serious blackjack players. It was on a family trip to a Wisconsin water park that, lo and behold, the Native American casino was about three miles from our hotel. Obviously, I had to check it out. The crowded six-deck tables were filled with tourists itching to throw away their money and Wisconsin locals, itching to win the grand prize at the nightly drawing — a wheel of cheese. (And they say that the expansion of gambling hasn’t brought benefits to the new gaming locales!)
The first shoe was erratic, winning a few, losing a few. At one point we all have stiffs against the dealer’s small card, and one of the players stalls the game, announcing one of my favorite idiotic blackjack truisms: Somebody has to take a card or we’ll all lose. Of course, nobody takes a card and we all lose. Oh, well. The count goes up and I’m raising my bet after two decks. I catch small cards on my soft doubles and win these hands, keeping me in the game.
The count keeps going up, ending with about a +20 running count when the cut card comes out with a deck and a half remaining in the pack. I’m about even.The next shoe is more of the same. I’m losing a little and the count is still rising. By the end of the shoe, the running count is over 20 again. The third shoe has a constantly rising count again, and halfway through it my wife is ready to go, as I’m still losing.
'We can’t leave now,' I tell her.'The true count is +5.' We keep playing, losing more, and the running count is +25 when this shoe ends. I’m starting to get a little suspicious (DUH!), but I want to play one more shoe. Once again, there’s a constantly rising count, and I keep wanting to play just one more hand to see those high cards that should be coming, but never arrive.
I quit playing with a moderate loss (it was only moderate because my stakes were so low then). I stand behind the table and watch the low cards continue until the end of that shoe, and backcount the next shoe, which again has a constantly rising count. I hadn’t yet figured out the odds of five consecutive shoes with constantly rising counts, ending over +20, but I told my wife I didn’t think they were dealing an honest game.
Later, I figure out that this is a one-in-a-million phenomenon in an honest, random game. Three months later I discover the blackjack publications, and read reports about casinos that have removed many high cards from their shoe games. I guess you do need to know more than just how to count cards.
A little knowledge is a profitable thing. Double deck, morning hit-and-run in downtown LV. Play until count is strong, spread real large, and boogie. I’m going to hit six or seven casinos in about an hour and a half, and am at a $10 double-deck table at the Fremont. I’m spreading from the $10 minimum, hoping to get to a top bet of $120 or even $150. Playing for about 20 minutes with another guy who is betting $100 a hand, and he’s losing — big time. Soon he starts steaming and bets $200 — loses two consecutive hands. Dealer shuffles. I notice the yellow fingernails on the other guy, the three half cigarettes in the ash tray, and the one live cigarette. Still, he lights another cigarette.
After the shuffle, the steamer comes out with $300 cash. 'Money plays,' and he loses. Three hundred in cash again, and he loses that hand. Four hundred cash and he loses, then another $400 loss. Then two more losses at $500 each.
Finally he empties his wallet of the last $600 and puts it in the betting square. At this point, there is about one deck left, a plus count of 4 or 5, probably the last hand before the shuffle. I put out a bet of $125. The steamer gets a pair of aces, I get two small cards, and the dealer has a 5 up. He looks at his pair of aces, looks at the dealer’s 5, and asks to go to get some more money. 'Where?' asks the dealer. 'At my hotel,' the steamer says, 'it’s just across the street.' The dealer says, 'That will take too long, and I can’t wait. You’ll have to play the hand.'
My mind is racing. Splitting aces against a 5 has an advantage of over 60% under normal circumstances. At a count of +5, that has to be close to70%. 'WAIT!' I scream in a voice that feels like they can hear it in the Horseshoe, Golden Nugget, and Four Queens at the other three corners of this intersection. I turn to the Steamer, and say, 'You don’t want to hit that 2; you need it to be an eleven. Split the aces and I I will buy one of them.' He looks at the dealer and the pit boss, who came running over when she heard me shouting. The dealer shrugs his shoulder, the pit boss winces, and I take $600 out of my wallet and put it next to the Steamer’s $600. Time slows down in my mind. The dealer splits the Aces, and kisses each one with paint. I play out my hand, and the dealer busts. $725 profit on one hand. I love this town!
Once upon a Time, the good Sister Statistica and I made a Pilgrimage to the Shrines of Fortune in the Land of Tunica. At one Point I went into the High-Stakes Chapel at Ballsey’s to prey. I knew the Sister was in the Casino, but our Plans had been rather vague as to just what we would do there. As I was initially the only Preyer in the whole Chapel, the Pit Viper…. Thou knowest the one who looketh as though he doeth naught but lift weights when he is not leaning against the Offering Table…. was scrutinizing my every card as I preyed at DD. Needless to say, there was not much I could do to play to Advantage.
Suddenly, the Sister appeared and approached the Single Deck Game right behind his Back. She portrayed the very Image of Imbecility, calling the Cards beforehand, babbling constantly etc. The Pit Viper’s Attention was focused entirely on me, however, and I could tell that this most admirable Nun perceived this Fact also.
Consequently, as I could see out of the Corner of Mine Eye, she proceeded to start spreading multiple Green on Multiple Hands, collected her Reward of about $400 in five minutes, and left, as I did also shortly thereafter when some Ploppies arrived.I had always suspected that the Church had established Sexism for some good Reason. Now I know why.
Choosing my most memorable win is easy — it’s the one that launched my career as an online gambler. Like most land-based counters, I had heard of Internet casinos but remained highly suspicious. Then one day on impulse, I surfed a wave by the name of Omni Casino, which offered a $20 cash bonus for a $20 deposit.
Coming to terms with the likelihood of loss, I whipped out a credit card and gave them the number. The first few hands were wins, so I increased the bets. Rather quickly, five dollar bets became ten, then quarters, and soon even a few hundred dollar bets. A $20 experiment suddenly involved real money. The balance ran up to more than $1,000, then I cashed out after dropping back to $900.
Well that was amusing, but money does not drop from the sky. Not expecting to ever see such a huge sum, I kept no vigil at the mailbox. But lo, about two weeks later, an envelope from some place called Cryptologic in Canada showed up, and in it was a $900 check that did not bounce. Hmmm.
From there, I began seriously pursuing bonuses offered on the Internet and regularly found offers of 20% on a $1,000 deposit, and even more. A basic strategy blackjack player can last a long time before using up a 20% edge. As long as one can stop playing before going broke, it was genuinely easy money. I eventually raked in tens of thousands of dollars and got a book out of it. A pretty good win!
My worst gambling experience also involved the Internet, but it was truly surreal. Based on the exposure of my book, I was solicited to join an online sports betting team headed by a person I will call Cabron (a Spanish word). I had previously heard of the individual and some material written by him revealed a very mathematically oriented mind, hopefully interested in long-term gain through collaboration rather than quickie ripoffs.
The team made money from the bonuses offered by sports books, and from arbitrage betting. Arbitrage bets are placed when two sportsbooks offer different odds on the same game; betting both sides can gain a modest profit. The more sportsbooks with deposits, the more opportunities there are for comparing lines, hence it lends itself to team play. Another source of team profits was referral bonuses. Books routinely give you a 10% bonus on the deposits of friends you refer. An important implication of this is that team members became known as associates of Cabron.
Anyway, I took the plunge and joined up. Coordination required a great deal of time on the phone, but things moved along. Team members’ money quickly became intermingled, my money going through Cabron’s account, his coming through mine or another teammate. I received and cashed checks.
After a time, we began having trouble getting paid by a couple of places, I’ll call them book Red and book Yellow. As luck would have it, the wind blew lots of the arbitrage money into my account in Yellow Book. There was $14,000 of team money in the account, $10,000 was my share.
We believed the books simply had cash flow problems, so whomever squeaked the loudest would get a partial payment from time to time. Requesting withdrawals became a chore, requiring real inventiveness to get past the phone answerers, and even then it was just a variation of 'I promise the check really will go out this time.' A disaster, but also something that comes with the territory.
Before moving further into this Byzantine tale, you must know that different online sportsbooks often get their software from the same developer. Our slow-paying sports books Red and Yellow were such an example. They had entirely different owners, but they were both beholden to the same software firm, and it held the plug.
The software company also handled the sportsbooks’ cash processing. More time and phone calls passed into the void. The next development was that Red Book was bought up by a bigger company. This was good news. Books usually slow-pay because they are broke, so a new owner would hopefully pay off the scores of people stuck in Red.
Meanwhile, Yellow Book still wasn’t paying. After weeks of our bothering them, Cabron up and called one day to say that Yellow had flatly told him they would never pay. That was odd. Not that they’d rip us off, but that they’d say so. According to Cabron, the software company had ordered Yellow not to pay us. 'What was the reason they gave?' says I. Cabron mumbled something about chargebacks and changed the subject.
This set my antennae tingling. Chargebacks are the bane of online gambling — it’s when a customer tells the credit card company not to pay a merchant, for one reason or another. Banks routinely agree to do this on transactions that do not have hard-copy signatures, i.e. phone and net. This is probably the single biggest expense to online gambling houses.
I recalled that some time previously, Cabron had mentioned that Red Book (before it was sold) was so hopeless, he’d have to do chargebacks. (This wasn’t an option in Yellow Book. Western Union.) Suspicious about what was going on, I began asking Cabron a series of questions. These queries came days apart, popping up one-at-a-time in the middle of other subjects.
It went something like this: Blah, blah, blah, 'oh by the way, how much were the chargebacks to Red Book?' $26,000 was the answer. That was all the deposits he had made in a year-and-a-half, possibly understandable under the circumstances, but still far more than what he was owed. After a time, another nonchalant question, 'how did that Red Book business end up, did they ever pay?' He said yes, the new owners paid in full. A couple weeks later, the clincher: 'did you stop those chargebacks to Red Book?' 'No.'
Now it was out. The reason the software company demanded that Yellow Book freeze the funds was because Red Book had been ripped off for an astounding $26,000. Yellow Book was holding $10,000 of mine because Cabron never reversed the chargebacks.
I was a known associate of Cabron and they assumed it was all his money and I was just a beard. As an old-time Tammany boss of Manhattan once said, 'there’s honest graft, and there’s dishonest graft,' and this was definitely the latter. He made a $26,000 score, screwed up the rest of the team, and was refusing to take responsibility for it.
On top of that, I was now thoroughly blacklisted — casinos refused my deposits — and it was all Cabron’s fault. 'I know,' he said, 'and I’m deeply, deeply sorry.' Well, that certainly clarified the situation. The only alternative was militant action, which wasn’t worth it, and might not work. (The one upside was that my household got a new catch-phrase: 'What? My dishes have gone so long that they stink? I’m deeply, deeply, sorry.')
But the weird part is still coming. A few weeks later, the software company that froze my funds was sold. The new management told Yellow Book that its accounts were its own, and it could make its own decision on seizing money for Red Book. Ting, magic. Yellow began taking my calls again and cheerfully worked out a process for paying. Their finances were tough and the money did not come all at once, in fact it took awhile. But amazingly enough, I eventually got back the entire 10k. So much for the chargebacks being an excuse to steal funds.
In the end, I did not lose a cent in the whole project, in fact, I came out 1k ahead. The only costs were the hours and hours of my life span and a pound of flesh. And I am still blacklisted. Me, Bill Haywood, the guy who literally wrote the book on Internet gambling, has been almost completely driven from his chosen sub-profession. There you have it, two tales of winning and losing, neatly bookending the rise and collapse of an Internet gambling career.
Although this involved the Internet, not land blackjack, it has a lot to say about team play in general. The same issues of trust, honor, and bizarre mishaps come into play in a blackjack team. The problem is not that an associate may disappear out the back exit — presumably anyone who can count can avoid the crudest thieves. What’s needed are partners who remain trustworthy during disasters.
Honesty is easy when everyone’s making money, the real test of character is how a person reacts when the unpredictable calamity strikes, and it is certain to. Team gambling presents an odd irony. The whole activity is devoted to grubbing as much filthy lucre as possible, but comity requires members who value their connection to other human beings far more than money. When a meteor strikes, are your colleagues likely to remain open and free of artifice, or will they turn inward, submerging themselves in a monologue of self-serving rationalizations? Some character flaws do not show up right away. Watch for tells, and fold early.
Biggest Win: I’ve had a number of big single-day wins due to my heavy participation in tournaments in the 80s and 90s. Tournaments are very high-variance endeavors, which lead to lots of small- and medium-range losses, while you wait for a few gonzo wins that make up for them.
The biggest of those wins, for me, came in a crap tournament at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City. I believe the entry-fee was $2,500, and live-money buy-ins were $1,500 per round. This wasn’t one of those tournaments during which I felt particularly in control of the situation. I played relatively non-spectacularly through the qualifying rounds, and barely squeaked through the semis for a spot on the final table.
The buy-in at the last table was $2,500 and there were 12 players. To throw a little wrinkle into things, a Caesars boss came up to me minutes before the start of the final. He told me they’d just realized that I was a professional tournament player (not one of the high-roller suckers they actually hope to attract to these things), and that there’d been discussion of disqualifying me. As it was, I would be allowed to play, but I would be watched closely for potential rules infractions.
No real problem, since I had no intention but to play by the rules. The more worrisome matter was that another pro who’d made the finals had drawn a very favorable (for him) position two to my left, a positional advantage that is enormous in this game.
It turned out to be one of the most ramming sessions I’ve ever been involved in. This was my first dice final with honest-to-goodness high-rolling dice shooters. While I had the minimum $50 on the line, six or seven of the others were betting $500-$1,200 per roll. Bankrolls skyed and plunged, and I just hung around waiting for the end to make a decisive move.
But something I hadn’t counted on occurred: As we got closer to the end, the betting actually escalated. I was behind nine or ten players, and everyone was betting, everywhere. There was no way to get money onto the table where it wouldn’t correlate with at least one person who already had more than I.
We reached the end of the tournament; it would continue only until the next seven-out. I was sweating hard, trying to concoct a way to have a chance. Chips were everywhere—place bets in front on the numbers, bets behind the numbers looking for the seven-out. I was amazed at this point to see that one small escape hatch had materialized: There was almost nothing on the 8. I took everything in my rack and loaded up on the 8 alone. The 8 came.
I now had one shot to win by betting my entire bankroll against the 7. The pro to my left had more money and could have mimicked me. He paused, then went the other direction—a correct move on his part, in that any non-seven would have given him multiple chances to win on subsequent rolls. Me? I was left with my one chance and it came through when the 7 rolled. I had needed the 8 then 7, in precisely that order—a 1 in 30 shot. It happened, and I took down the prize of $125,000, my biggest single-day win (to date).
Just an aside. The Caesars exec turned the color of a rotting grapefruit and ran up to me yelling about reviewing the tapes or something. I fired back with something equally foolish, I’m sure. The guy who played next to me didn’t have a clue about what was happening, and couldn’t figure out what I was so upset about. 'Chill out, man,' he said. 'You just won!'
Biggest Loss: This also occurred in the tournament arena, and also in Atlantic City. I had been pulled out of tournament semi-retirement to play a particularly juicy baccarat tournament with a $1 million first prize. Those doing the pulling were my tournament teammates of earlier years. As always, we would each enter and play separately, but pool results at the end. This, of course, greatly smooths the fluctuations in this very risky mode of gambling investment.
I played well in this one, but an unlikely result bumped me from the finals on the last hand of the semis. I wasn’t too demoralized, as teammates had made the final. Baccarat-tournament finals are long-running affairs, but it appeared to be over. One of my teammates had a lead that seemed insurmountable.
For one of the few times in my career, I was ready to celebrate before the last hand. After all, there is a certain point at which probability provides the sort of cushion that allows you to feel safe in projecting a result. This was one of those times. A co-investor and I left the area for a nearby bar to toast what looked like a six-figure day for us both. We banged a few Heinekens and partied it up out of sight of the tournament gathering.
When we decided to return, we were surprised to see a huge crowd surrounding the playing area. That was a bad sign, and sure enough, our player had been caught. I don’t remember what I was later told, but the opponent had won something like 12 out of 14 bets. And since he was seated directly to the left of our player, his bets were all placed on an opposing side, resulting in max-bet+ gains (one side’s win coupled with the other’s loss).
What was amazing was that this player still had to win his last three bets to win the tournament. I watched in amazement as he did that.The sure million dollars turned into the $100,000 second place prize, and even though I still profited, my win came to less than $2,000. Having already pocketed the winner’s share in my head, it was a turn of events that seemed every bit the same as an actual loss of more than $100,000.
I arrive in Las Vegas about 11:00 pm from the East and am pretty tired. On the agenda for tonight is to meet a team mate to pick up some cash and hit the sack. I take a taxi to his hotel, we talk for a while and it’s well after midnight (3:00 AM eastern) when I leave his room. Problem is I’m kind of itching to play.
As I am walking through the casino and talking myself into going to bed I spot a fresh shoe with a true count of +2. It’s crowded but I squeeze into the last two spots and sit down. The shoe goes very positive and soon I’m betting my max bet 2x$1000. Happily two other players leave. This identity is only one trip old and has little play. This seems good to the bosses as I start winning steadily and they seem cool and send in a host.
I really start winning and laying on the act. A small crowd gathers at this $5 table. The bosses love me too. Luckily there is now only one other player, a nice older Asian woman who is losing steadily but seems to be enjoying my winning. A couple others try to jump in but I ask them to wait and they acquiesce. Boom, boom, boom it goes and I win the last round with two blackjacks. The crowd goes wild. I walk with $17,000 plus on a $600 buy-in. Not a bad way to start a trip.
Back in 1999 my buddy Calvin in Chicago was watching the Sting one night, and saw the famous past post scene. He lost track of time, and frantically phoned in a bet to his offshore. He got down on his over on the Lakers, and as they were confirming his over 201 bet, to his horror he turned the game on to see a 0-0 score 1:10 into the game.
You guessed it! 101-99 final. Calvin had seen the light. No more handicapping was going to occur! It was past post city. For the next three weeks, every night Calvin was on the Internet pounding on the refresh button at Yahoo sports. He also was frantically switching channels on his NBA package. All to get a game with 2 missed shots to start the game (UNDER!) or 2 shots made (OVER!). He expected to hit around 54% with this strategy. And 54% he hit, with wild fluctuations.
But storm clouds appeared. Calvin was talking slower and slower on the phone, stalling right as the games tip off. Also, he would start cursing if a foul was called right after tipoff ‘robbing’ him of any information. Calvin would even past post while driving by listening to the game. Every now and then he would get confused and bet the wrong team while handling a conversation, the road, and two games on the radio switching back and forth! Really, it was his driving that suffered.
This place does not let Calvin bet anymore; nor do they let people bet after the game starts. How much did Calvin win? Just enough to pay for his extensive car bills after wrecking his car while confirming a Bulls under bet.
Most devastating losses for Cizef: 1. 1996 USC +7.5 vs. Arizona State. I had gotten a bizarre mistake line from a Casino and bombed it in all weekend. I was looking at winning over 10k on this game. Imagine my pleasure at seeing the game had gone to overtime.
Now, in the back of my mind I new the College game had just gone to a new OT format, but so what if it didn’t end in a tie? I had 7.5 points for God sakes. Circle the winner! I remember seeing a Az St 42-35 OT score on the news, and laughing at all the guys who went down with USC at 6 to 6.5, and I had 7.5. OH YEAH!
On sports center that night I saw 48-35 OT final score on the ticker, and laughed at it. Those idiots! They couldn’t run bingo night at the Senior Citizen Center. You cannot win by 13 in OT!
Oh yes, you can. In college each team gets the ball once in OT. ASU got their TD and extra point, and then USC got their chance. The 42-35 OT score I had seen was an OT score, NOT a final OT score! Flushed in the pocket the USC QB heaved the ball downfield. Incomplete pass. Except a Sun Devil (aptly named mascot) picked it up and ran 70 yards. And amazingly the zebras ruled it a fumble for the 6 point play the other way. Good bye winnings. Deal with the loss instead!
2. 1998. Buffalo +3.5 @ NE (another outlaw line). Buffalo got hit with about 3 questionable late calls but was still up 4 with 1 minute to play. I HAD IT! Except on the LAST PLAY of the game with time expired, NE got into the endzone. NE 23-Buf 21. Final. Final? By rule, even with time expired an NFL team must line up for the extra point. Big deal I think. Kick that ball out of the stadium, it only counts 1 point.
But I start worrying when I see ONLY the NE players coming out of the locker room. The beaten Billies are not going to show. What the heck is going to happen?? The snap goes to the holder who is confused. He flips the ball to the kicker who will obviously take a knee. No, he is running parallel to the goal line and is just going out of bounds. YESSSSSSSS!!! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He turns at the last minute and goes in unmolested (there wasn’t a Bill within 200 yards after all). 2 point conversion. New England 25. Buff 21. LOSER. ....amazingly the next year at home vs. Buff NE was a 3 point favorite. I searched that weekend and could not find a +3.5 or -2.5. NE won by 3 exactly.
The most I ever won in a single session was $60,000 at Caesars Tahoe, on a two hour break from the slopes, in the early 90s. Of course, that was on the heels of a $50,000 bad run the night before, but the net for the weekend was still $10K.
And, as luck would have it, I got barred the next time I stayed there, not for my blackjack skills, but for being a total hog with comps. I was flying into Reno, ready to catch a limo to the lake, when I saw an old chum on the plane. We were frat bros from UNLV who’d shared many a not-so-rememberable evening together in our youths and we hadn’t partied with each other for a couple decades, so I invited him up for a night of revelry.
We decided that we’d just hang in the top-of-the-tower suite—complete with roman columns, toilets nicer than most people’s homes, twelve TVs, the works—and had a champagne tasting festival. The two of us, count ’em two, had five bottles of the best they had, including Crystal Pink, Dom, and other stuff that we’d never heard of that cost $500 a bottle, along with several platters of cracked crab claws, cold lobster and such and ran up an F&B bill over $2,500, which they tacked on top of the $1,250 suite.
He left the next morning and I was in no shape to test my luck on the tables so I waited to dry out and got a call from a nephew in Reno who told me he’d gotten married the night before. So I invited him and his bride up for dinner at Le Posh (no kidding, that was the real name of their Gucci gourmet room).
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We strolled in and were met by the Maitre’ D, who knew me well. I told him that my nephew (a 23 year-old blue collar kid, by the way) was on his honeymoon and we wanted 'one of everything and don’t worry about the cost.' He smiled as I slipped him a mallard and the waiters started to bring it on.
The sommelier brought a bottle of Crystal and asked us if we’d like to sample the Louis XIV brandy, which in those days was going for $75 a pop. I nodded and he cracked open a new bottle and slowly poured an ounce into a Baccarat crystal snifter, warmed it with his hands and presented to the youngster. He tossed it down in one gulp and exclaimed 'right tasty,' so I had them leave the bottle, which we polished off between two more bottles of champagne.
I’m not sure what the bill was, or what we did the rest of the night, but the next morning my host called and said 'Mr. R, we’re going to have to see some play before you can have any more comps.' 'No problem,' I said. 'Just let me sober up a bit and I’ll be right down.' About five minutes later the shift boss called me and said, 'We’ve been looking at you account, and we’d prefer that you not play blackjack here anymore. Of course, you’re welcome to play...yada, yada, yada.' (My lifetime win on their single decks was pretty strong and my comps were beyond outrageous, even for me).
I said, 'No problem, can I get a limo back to the airport?' and he said 'No.' So I packed up, took a taxi back to Reno and flew home, somewhat worse for the wear, but still pretty happy with the weekend.
I got a bill for the whole schmear about a week later (I won’t even tell you how much, because you wouldn’t believe me) and immediately didn’t pay it. I called my host, reread the personal invitation he’d sent me telling me that I could have 'the run of the house' any time I played there and threatened to take him and his bosses to the Nevada Gaming Control Board for false advertising, mail fraud and everything else I could think of if they didn’t honor my comp. They did and I never played there again.
Summer 1999. I am in Vegas with my buddy, Andy R. He has played with me before, but because he has been spending so much time on a 'life,' he is not an experienced enough card player to help me take down this good blackjack game I have downtown. Because the dealer rotation is 'rubberbanded,' we will have only an hour to crack the game. Fredo is in town playing with Mike R., so on Friday, Fredo and I hit the game for $13,500. Because everyone knows about this game, there is pressure to hit it again soon, while it is still there.
Since I have never had heat at this joint, I am still clean as a spotter. We need a new bettor, though. Mike assures me that he is clean as a Big Player there, so the plan is for me to meet Mike at the joint when the graveyard dealers start at 4 a.m. Though we played until about 1 a.m. the night before, Andy and I show up on time at 4 a.m. I see no signs of Mike, so Andy and I sit at the bar to wait and take in the atmosphere.
The place is dark, as always. The volume is turned down on the slot machines. As I point out things to Andy, it is as if we are watching a black-and-white movie that we have seen before. The lifeless characters on the screen cannot hear as we discuss their scripted destinies: 'See that dealer? That’s our girl. She’s giving it up to the center seat. See that guy sitting at her table? That’s The Acrobat. He’s the first spotter I ever met.'
With that The Acrobat looks over and smiles at me across the casino floor. He is a truly charming man, and the only character in color in this unfolding drama. 'See the old man sitting by the slot machine over there? He knows what’s going on; he likes to watch.' The Acrobat looks at me again. He has vacated the center seat, the 'lucky' seat at this table. He is offering the seat to me.
I am honored by his generosity and respect. I shake my head to indicate that I am not going to play, and he slides back to the middle to go to work. I know he isn’t going to bet enough to kill the game, so I stick to the plan, which is to wait for Mike to bet this game.
After the dealer’s hour ends, The Acrobat leaves the table, and talks to another player I don’t recognize. I see Mike has entered the joint, so I know our game will be on in about fifteen minutes when the dealer returns from break. I walk by The Acrobat, and he says, 'James, come to the coffee shop. Meet my friend.' We chat in the bathroom next to the coffee shop. I tell him that I can’t join him, because I am going to play the next set. I invite him to come play with us: 'In about fifteen minutes it’s going to get really hot in here, but you’re welcome to join us. You know the signals?' He nods, but he doesn’t look interested. I think his partner wants to make a run at it, but I sense that The Acrobat wants no part of it.
I go back upstairs to the gaming floor. Counting The Acrobat, his friend, Andy, Mike, Old Man, and me, there are six people in this hole in the world, at almost 6 a.m. in the morning, because a dealer is flashing her hole card. The gamblers go about their business of losing money. The bosses go about their business of standing around pretending to know it all. The brooding ambiance is, I think, one of the reasons that counters wax nostalgic about this place. But why anyone would count here is a mystery to me.
6 a.m. Game time. The dealer walks up to a dead $5 table. I immediately take the lucky seat in the center. With military precision, Mike materializes out of nowhere and plops two gray $500 chips in the third-base betting circle. We have the chips from yesterday, so no time is wasted buying in.
Immediately, Mike moves to lock down the game: 'Can we make this a $25 table?' The boss changes the sign. An unknown man sits down to my left in spot #5. He is apparently also registered in the hole-carding convention. A civilian sits down in spot #1, and leaves after a few hands. With an hour or less to work, we can’t afford these slowdowns.
This is where experience is critical. Mike knows exactly what to do: 'Can we make this a $100 table?' Again the limit is raised. I am grandfathered in at $5, and Unknown Man is betting $25, his grandfathered level. Andy is standing behind me to the right, and Old Man is standing behind me to the left, so my backside is fully protected.
The boss knows Mike on sight, and believes him to be a counter, but we aren’t afraid of being ratted out, because we have something on this pit critter. The dealer’s English is weak, so her ability to communicate with her superiors is limited. Unknown Man is apparently unable to intercept my signals to Mike. The table is locked down. It is a perfect game.
Mike receives many pat hands, and catches some lucky breaks, and starts pressing his bets. A fill of $4000 in black is brought quickly, but is obviously insufficient to cover our action. Old Man mutters in my ear: 'Make them bring the gray. There’s no limit to how much you can win. This [dealer] she hates seeing players win.'
The second fill includes the gray $500 chips. As the session nears the end, Mike’s bet has reached $4000. The dealer gets tapped out, and we play a few minutes with the new dealer. Mike bets $500 per hand as cover, and is fortunate to receive several pat 20s and a blackjack. When Mike finally loses a hand, he quits, ahead $27,000 after 50 minutes of play.
This is the most efficient play I have ever experienced. In 90 minutes over two sessions, we have taken $40,500 off the game. (Mike isn’t thrilled to cut Fredo in on the $27,000, but that is the agreement, so we each receive a third of the $40,500. I don’t think Mike realizes that if we chop each session half-half, he still would receive $13,500, Fredo would receive $6750, while I would receive $20,250.) I still have some of the chips from that session, just in case.
Fall 1999. I am about to embark on a trip overseas for a family get-together. I figure there’ll be enough time to stop off in Vegas. There’s always enough time.I arrange to meet up with Andy R., a lifelong friend from home. I give him the standard last-minute instruction: 'If I’m not at the airport when you arrive, you know where to find me.'
I hit the Strip a bit before noon and go straight to the table. Sure enough, the game is there. Boy, is it there. I plop my travel bag on the floor and settle in. With a bit of luck, I’ll have expenses covered by the time Andy arrives in an hour. Andy would allow me to exceed the table maximum of $500 by adding another spot. Or, if I want to bet less than $500, it will lower my variance to have the action spread over two spots. Andy would also make the play look good—two buddies out gambling. In return, he gets a free roll on my bankroll and experience. The real benefit to Andy is the dream vacation in Vegas—16 hours a day walking around with me.
I have done well at this game in the previous months, and have accumulated $24,000—48 white chips—for this session. My bankroll has grown enough that I am ready to make a run at it. I start slow, feeling out the dealer and the pit with some $100 bets, and creeping up to $200. No problem. I am ahead $1000-$1500, but getting anxious, as Andy has not yet arrived.
I can’t afford to leave the table. To spend an hour picking him up would cost a few hundred dollars in expected earnings, and more importantly, I’d probably lose the 'lucky' seat that I need to spot the hole card. As competence would have it, Andy walks up to the table with his bag. I give him the signal to follow me away from the table, so we can review the game plan: 'Our edge is about 3.48286%, but this is a risky game. We can get hurt. It’s probably better if I take the risk.'
He agrees that if we lose, I will stomach the entire amount. I don’t specify what will happen if we win. At the end of the play, I will give him whatever I consider fair. I am not about to waste time on hypothetical scenarios right now. Enough talk. I slip him four chips to start. I start betting $500 per hand, and he bets $300 per hand for me. We have no cash buy-in, and no player-rating cards. Even with our higher bet level, the dealer’s style is unchanged. This game is as soft as they come. The boss watches casually from a distance. It is a perfect game.
Except that we are losing. And losing. And losing. I keep funneling chips to Andy, and pulling more white ones out of my pocket. After about two hours, the guy in the third-base seat, who has been betting $50-$100 per hand, notices that the dealer is handling my payoffs from the center column of the chip rack. He looks over and tells me, 'You’re betting $500 per hand! I thought you were betting $5.'
It’s no wonder civilians never notice hole-card games. A special host comes to offer us whatever it is that hosts offer. I take her business card, but ignore her otherwise. The shift boss comes through the pit. I can tell from the look in his eyes that he knows nothing about the game. I don’t think he even knows whether this is normal or not, but he is more puzzled than concerned. After all, the rack now has an entire extra stack of $10,000 in white chips.
But the game is not over. The chips keep flowing into the rack. There is nothing that can be done. The information is perfect. I have had sessions where I have won over 80 bets in this game (but betting only $100). Why couldn’t I get that monster session now, when I am betting $800 per round?I don’t know what is going through Andy’s mind. I’m sure he is relieved that he agreed to let me take the risk. I’m sure he feels some sympathy as he watches my blood flow into the rack. Perhaps he feels the bite of reality. He has heard about some of my losses, but has never witnessed anything other than success at the tables. (Profits from cards should be added to the list that includes sausages and laws.)
For my part, I feel a sense of nonsensical inevitability—that the only possible outcome of this game is for me to walk away with nothing. I can’t say much about the hands, except that the dealer always edges me out, pulling 'miracles' on the last card. When the dealer has weak hands, I can’t capitalize. It is the exact misery that everyone who has ever played this game has experienced.
As 7 p.m. approaches, the dealer’s shift is nearing an end, as is my supply of chips. I finally place my last bet, then throw out my last black chip to complete the hand, and lose. I look at the rack. I have made a run at it. Most big losses are accompanied by large cash buy-ins or markers. The strange thing about this session is that I brought all the chips to the table. The rack now holds $24,000 in extra white chips, a poignant reminder of the devastation of the afternoon. I tell Andy to get a 'free' room by giving up his ID, while I remain 'Mr. Refusal.' As we walk away from the table, I tell Andy, 'That’s why it’s better that I take the loss.'
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In Malaysia, I was busy playing over/under 13. On one particular hand, I gave the signal for 'all in,' which means cover every betting square, including the four not controlled by me or my friend, with table maximum wagers, in order to wager on the over/under for the table max.
We had $3000 at risk on the various blackjack hands and $3600 at risk on the over/under. We had a full-time supervisor hawking our table as well as a gallery of customers behind the table because of the large size of our wagers.
All hands at the table were stiffs, including the dealer. The dealer hit to 17, then hit again and busted. A very large cheer rose from our table. Then, with the supervisor looking on, the dealer began cutting into the wagers to pay them off. But by the time the dealer got to the second hand, one girl in the gallery exclaimed, 'but he hit 17!' The dealer looked down, burned the offending extra card, then began sweeping the chips into the tray.
My friend unleashed a barrage of the choicest Hokkien swear words known to exist, and the girl slunk away. I lamented the loss of a $6000 dealer error, which would have ranked as my largest ever, and had to get ready for the next round, another 'all-in.'
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I arrived at my favorite casino and found a seat at a well cut $50 minimum, 6-deck game. The first shoe was uneventful and when the count went south mid-way through, I took a lamer and a restroom break. I came back in time for the next shoe, which was unproductive with a positive count, causing me to lose hand after hand. I was down about $3,000 when the cards finally turned and while spreading to 2 hands of $600; I turned a profit of $400 by the end of the shoe.
For the next shoe, I had to make a decision to play or not and if I decided to play, what bet should I place for the beginning of the shoe. Since I was only ahead $400 and I only showed my maximum bet for part of one shoe, I decided to play one more shoe, so I came off the top with one spot of $200.I couldn’t stop winning and soon the count was going up as well so I started parlaying and chipping up.
I had to surrender one hand along the way and with about half the shoe to go, the remaining players at the table decided to drop out, leaving a high count shoe all to myself! I kept on winning and chipping up. On the 3rd hand from the end, I lost an $800 bet, which was my only total hand loss of the shoe. I pushed out another $800 for the next hand and won. I knew that the next round would be the last of the shoe, so I left $800 on the spot. Then said: 'Oh what the hell' for all to hear and added two black chips for a nice even $1,000 bet (the count was Hi-Lo true of +7).
As luck would have it, I was dealt an Ace, 2 against the dealer 5! Without hesitation, I slid another pile of 10 black chips out there for the double, knowing full well that I was probably still not a favorite to win and furthermore, figuring that I would grab a 10 to have $2,000 riding on a stiff hand. Of course, I did receive a 10, but the dealer dutifully broke by flipping a 10 in the hole and drawing another 10! I colored up with a $5,800 win in less than three shoes of play, $5,400 coming in one high count shoe of a lifetime!
Moe Cash: To survive as a card counter with a limited bankroll it’s critical not to overbet. Once a small casino ran a bonus hour five times a day. Blackjacks paid double; any 21 paid three for two, and every conceivable good rule was in force. They used a single deck with strip rules and dealt a fair game. I lost every bonus hour for three days. Then I wanted to show that I was just a gambler. I flat-bet table max ($500) for two hours, never leaving the table. Though the rules were good, I didn’t deserve to win 59 bets and yes, I still got kicked out. Fluctuation rules!! ♠
To learn how much to bet to limit fluctuations and maximize your win rate, see Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder. To run simulations of different betting strategies, we recommend Casino Verite Blackjack Software.
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