A Casino Odyssey: Part Two

Originally Published
Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 09:04:13 PM EST

My life was scheduled around casino tournaments. I had gotten the equivalent of almost a $10,000 raise by turning entertainment expenses into a small income using techniques similar to those revealed in this book. I had dozens of new, interesting friends. I could look at a rack of casino chips from five feet away and nail its total value within five bucks in seconds. I knew every single bet and payout on the Craps table. And my friend X was about to make my life really interesting.

This is part two of a four-part story.
In case you didn't see the first part, it's here.

One thing about being a smart gambler is that you quickly find out you are rara avis.

Innoculated against the ravages of gambling addiction by my early instructive losing streak, I was mystified when Y pumped a nice $500 win into a $25 slot machine because "my luck has been so good recently." This is someone who has an advanced degree in physics! And X, who had studied the math (not really complicated stuff, it's all basic algebra and statistics) until he could bore you for hours with the effects of a rule change or strategy variation on your Expected Value (EV), couldn't seem to avoid getting wiped out in tragic negative swings. Back to work, at least for a couple of months, back to the tables, oopsie, back to work...

I prosyletized. Many of my friends and coworkers gambled, and they found my success interesting. I made no secret of how to get the best edge, work the comp system, and parlay the tournaments into a win.

The most common response was: "Well, I really like to play the slots."

I can readily tell you the number of Normals who saw what my friends and I accomplished and took even a tentative step toward duplicating it. Not succeeded, but tried. It was zero, out of hundreds.

And then there were the folks we played against in the tournaments. Nice people, generally intelligent people, but prone to do the most amazingly ill-thought-out things in situations that were worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. We laughed and joked and of course much of the thousands of dollars a year I was taking home were coming out of their pockets. At times I got a bit weirded out by that.

Basic Strategies

Every casino game of skill has an optimal strategy which can be determined mathematically or by computer analysis. You always lose the least in the long run by playing this "Basic Strategy," no matter what might happen to happen on an individual hand. Thus, you always hit 16 against a dealer 10 at Blackjack. Yes, you'll probably lose; in a statistical sense you've probably lost the hand already. But computer analysis shows you will lose less if you take the hit and risk busting.

If you're playing correctly there really are no decisions to make, but almost nobody plays correctly. The theoretical house edge at most casino Blackjack games ranges from 0.1 to 1.5 percent or so depending on the rules. But the actual take is typically 2 to 5 percent. This reliable gap is entirely the result of incorrect play. (This EV is in terms of "action," the sum total of all bets made. The "hold," loss figured against only the "drop" gamblers buy-in for, is another matter entirely.)

Occasionally this preponderance of poor play encourages a casino to do something really stupid. One promotional idea which emerges infrequently is the "2 to 1 Blackjack" game where natural 21 pays 2:1 instead of 3:2. Most players still face a loss, but the perfect Basic Strategist sees the edge the casino usually expects to see, about one percent -- without counting cards.

The Boomtown Belle, one of the "me, too" riverboat casinos legalized in Louisiana, was desperate to get people on their boat during the legally required 1.5 hour cruises. In September of 1995 they decided the solution was 2:1 Blackjack, up to two hands of $25. X and Y literally scraped together all the money they could lay hands on and showed up. (I was now working full-time, and was unable to go with them.)

At first they nearly lost their stake of $1,200 because they were really betting too much and had early bad luck. But then they won $14,000 over the next 9 days in about 30 hours of play. At which time the casino became tired of their action and invited them to leave.

Card Counting Finally Succeeds

X was pretty much an expert on the mechanics of card counting. It doesn't work like the scene in Rain Man.

It's all in the faq.

X played smart. I watched him play and I knew exactly what he was doing wrong. Hell, he even knew what he was doing wrong on an intellectual level but he didn't really believe it.

When you are playing with an advantage, there is a calculation called "risk-of-ruin". It tells you that if you have such bankroll and bet at so level, you will have hmmmm chance of losing all your money before you double it. Card counting is high-variance; you are literally waiting for opportunities to bet (high counts). You can still lose those high-count bets. As a very vague rule of thumb you need about 100 big bets in your bankroll to count cards. X was playing with more like 20 big bets, if that. His advantage couldn't overcome his risk of ruin.

X lost his share of the Boomtown Belle $14K and went back to another work, quit, lose-stake cycle. In May of 1997 the Jubilee (now relocated in Greenville, MS) decided a 2:1 promotion was the way to lure monied gamblers to a dumpy burg located at the most inconvenient possible point between Jackson, MS and Memphis, TN. Most of the monied gamblers who showed up knew how to beat the promotion and it only lasted a few days, but X and Y made off with almost $10,000. Not long afterward the Lighthouse Point, also in Greenville, got the same bonehead idea and yielded several thousand dollars more.

Time to quit the job again, time to...

...call me, as it turned out.

I spent the next few weeks fielding calls from X. He was actually going over the risk-of-ruin calculations to convince himself they weren't bullshit. After some algebra refreshers and a quick course on QBasic, he built some simulations and did some figuring and convinced himself. He dutifully went to the soon-to-close Flamingo Hilton and started playing a modest $5-$25 bet spread. It was a fortunate choice, because a bureaucatic screw-up of titanic proportion had lost them their gaming license, and the lackluster staff at this doomed boat were in no mood to protect Hilton's already-lost investment against X's faint probing.

When counting cards, you make the money by betting small when they have the edge and high when you do. The count tells you this; each card has a point value, negative or positive. When the count is positive the deck is rich in tens and the odds favor you; you bet more. When it's negative the deck is rich in fives and sixes. The dealer is less likely to bust, you're less likely to get dealt good natural hands. You reduce your bet or go to the bathroom.

The gap between your smallest and largest bets is your "spread." It's also how you get caught. While the count does tell you to play some hands contrary to Basic Strategy (you stand on 16 against 10 in high counts, for example) this strategy variation isn't enough to beat the game. You have to spread your bets, and the more you spread the more you win. And the more noticeable your play is.

In February 1994, when he had been playing with red chips and losing anyway, X had been "backroomed" by [censored]. Security guards literally dragged X into a back room, took his picture, and read him the Trespass Act. But the lackluster staff at the Flamingo gave him an excellent game and once he'd built up his bankroll he found himself still able to play at some other properties.

As 1997 rolled over into 1998 he parlayed his modest stake into $80,000. But in that course he was kicked out of every casino on the Gulf Coast. His big bets were now in the $100 black chip range, and everybody knew he was a counter from his losing days. Once he began to win, he was shown the door, although usually with more politeness than [censored] had shown.

"Ah, Mr. X. We must contratulate you on your really excellent play. Yes, we have noticed that you are very, very good. In fact, you're really too good for us. You're welcome to play any of our other games, but we really can't offer you a Blackjack game any more."

X now had a bankroll but couldn't play. We could play, but had no bankroll. X knew we could be trusted to play by the agreed strategy (as we had in so many tournaments) and to account properly for the money (as we had in so many tournaments and as Y had in the 2:1 promos.) He called and offered a deal: If we played for him we could keep half the profit. I didn't have the time, but Y weighed half the win against none of the risk and decided it was a no-brainer.

Y was no card-counter; we knew the theory but with no bankroll had had no reason to drill the ability to actually maintain the count. There is a large gap between knowing that tens are -1 and sixes are +1 and being able to count up and down as cards are dealt in a live game. Y drilled with the computer for about a month, an hour or two a day, then after favorable testing by X entered a casino with several thousand dollars of his money. Y was nervous but X pronounced the results acceptable and Y continued to play. Known as the cheapskates that we were, we covered the story of our newfound "wealth" with a white lie about an inheritance. Since I didn't have the time to do the drills or play enough to make it worthwhile, when I accompanied Y we covered my own continued cheapness with vague hints that I was worried about Y's incipient gambling addiction.

It worked like a charm, and before long we were being wined and dined like royalty. At least, until our hosts figured out what we were doing...

Continues in Part 3: The American Dream?

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