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Lesson 7

Welcome, My People To Blackjack Heaven! I see a world where pit bosses direct traffic on the green felt streets and towering stacks of multi-coloured chips line the side-walks like so many lawn ornaments! Lucky bucks in every pocket! A cocktail waitress in every garage!

Welcome, My People To Blackjack Heaven! I see a world where insurance pays 3-to-1 and everyone counts and no one gets barred.  Where all the games are dealt from a single deck and all 52 cards are dealt because no cards are burned!

Welcome, My People to Blackjack Heaven! Enjoying his congregation, ‘ Learn ye to count these cards and thou shalt take from Caesar the chips that are Caesar’s’, Snyder set out his Commandments:
Blackjack is they game.  Thou shalt have no other game before it.  .. Thou shalt not overbet thy bankroll…Thou shalt not lose thy count …Thou shalt not imbibe intoxicating beverages while playing … Thou shalt remain cool in the face of heat …Thou shalt not obviously study thy neighbour’s cards…
Snyder edited for some while a little blackjack magazine which circulated among the faithful, mixing sharp and ironic advice with review of the latest developments in technique.  In the sub-culture of blackjack it had the status of a mock-serious devotional in which all the editorials were signed simply ‘Bishop’.
There was much truth in Snyder’s jesting.  At the academic conferences it had becomes standard practice for casino executives to discuss their campaign  against counters.  Bart Carter, a pit boss at Caesar’s in Atlantic City, has good humouredly described the avoidance plays of card counters as a subtle poker game of esespionage: it had forced casino personnel to achieve the same kind of expertise and sophistication as the counters had.  He started out as a counter himself, he confided to the 1984 gambling conference, but over-bet his bankroll a common mistake which leads to instant ruin.
There are three levels of expertise, as he explained it.  the average counter knows how to play but his betting is overly systematic and his behaviour pattern easily detectable; even betting at low limits attracts heat these days.  The good counter is better at counting and playing, understands money management and knows how to avoid give-away signals in his style of play.  the professional counter carries these traits one step further.  In addition to his technical mastery, he will have developed an ‘act ’ to avoid detection – either by looking and sounding like another face in the crowd, a tourist or junketeer, or by the opposite device of standing out as a flashy player, a high roller demanding instant attention – ‘Howdy folks, I’m Billy Williams from Dallas, my friends call me Tex!  Many very clever variations on these two basic themes are acted out by expert counters, such as coming into the tables in a bus driver’s uniform – ‘Ain’t got nothing to do till the ol’ but pulls out tonight …Jeez, if I could only get me back to evens.’  But the best disguise of all is to be a woman.

According to Carter there is an industry-wide prejudice that men are better players, a view shared even by women supervisors.  Many top professional counters are women under the guise of a dumb blonde image.  ‘If you come in with blonde hair and wear a low cut dress, and seem to be drinking …then you ’ve got it made, they won’t even watch you play poker .  You can bet almost anything.’  Many card counters take along a pretty woman as a decoy at the table, a woman who in reality either knows how to count well enough herself or can follow his signals.  ‘Now, honey, whaddaya wanna make that play for …splittin’ nines …Hey, is this one lucky lady!’
It is harder being a man.  Whatever role a professional counter chooses, he mut act it out.  No need to worry about the supervisors if they are thinking, ‘Oh, that ’s Joe, he’s a dentist from Philadelphia, he’s here every weekend.’  But a counter in disguise must not become known as a tough player or a lucky player.  Once he gets the reputation of being too tough or too lucky, the heat comes around.  It ’s time to move to another pit or another casino.  the best cover is being a losing player.  Obviously if a guy is losing at the table, he can’t be counting …pit bosses believe all counters win, that is why they are afraid of them.  I asked Bart Carter why he gave up the life of a counter himself and joined  the ranks of the casino.  his answer, which applies to many much people in the industry, is the security of a steady job.  Instead of having to weave and bob through the net of supervisors and pit bosses, seeking to snare him, it was far preferable – and just as much of a challenge – to work on the other side of the line.
In the game of espionage, the counters have developed still subtler methods to avoid detection.  One of the best is table hopping, also know as back counting or shadow counting, or ‘Wonging’ (after the recommendation of another expert, Standford Wong).  The idea is to count the cards at a distance, while strolling through the blackjack pit, or to have a confederate at the table give a signal when the count is good.  The table hopper then jumps in to make a few quick high stakes bets while the count is plus, before vanishing to repeat the trick somewhere else.  In team play, several players may play for low stakes at different tables, waiting to signal the big player – hair is brushed back or an ear is scratched.  Arriving him the count, and bets it up until the advantage changes.
Sometimes casinos make mistakes and jump on harmless little old ladies in sneakers.  The supervisors are especially sensitive to changes in the betting pattern, which is the easiest way of picking up counters.  To take one bizarre instance, an elderly gentleman, flush from a run at roulette, joined his wife at the blackjack table where she was playing dollar bets. In exuberant mood from his previous poker winning, he plunked down $ 500 on his wife’s bet.  The pit boss rushed over, scooped up the bet and with  dire warnings and imprecations, slung the couple out.  The real counters sitting at the table continued playing, undisturbed.

The point is that the casino staff are under terrific heat themselves, from their bosses, to catch counters.  They are often so frightened of losing their jobs they will over-react.  Competition for jobs in Las Vegas, where there is no other ready means of employment, and the choice is to work or starve, is very fierce.  Dealers have no trade union, no job security and no way of protecting themselves.  Everything depends on ‘juice’- an expressive term meaning ‘influence’, deriving from the bad old days when crooked operators employed an electro-magnetic current to  control the roulette wheel.  Juice in this instance is having a friend or knowing someone who will give them work when a vacancy comes up.
‘Dummy up and deal! Is the dealer’s self-mocking work slogan.  It means keep your mouth shut, your eyes on the layout and the cards flying.  The game must go on, no matter what.  Actions which threaten a dealer’s job include unnecessary talking to players, openly soliciting for tokes (tips), irritation, rudeness or impatience towards online poker players, losing streaks, emotionalism at the table or major errors (as explained in Dummy up and Deal by Lee Solkey, 1980).  Casinos, this resume of dealers’ experiences observes, would rather replace a dealer than lose a player.
I have been talking here about counting and the measures taken by the casinos to prevent it.  everything the counters do in their play is perfectly legal and according to the rules.  I have not been talking about cheating.  Perhaps you think casinos do not cheat, or only a few incorrigible bad hats?  Well, cheating and gambling go together:  cheats are drawn to gambling (on both sides of the tables )  like kids to candy.  So, yes, virtually all experienced card counters have encountered cheating.  As strong card players, they can usually detect it rapidly.  The forms of cheating are many and varied, the sleight of hand often extraordinary, and new cheating methods continue to be invented.  In Thorp’s experience, even the most experienced cheat spotters miss some of the moves, only becoming alerted to what hit them after a run of losses that is statistically so improbable as to defy credibility.  Ordinary players must take their chance.  The only advice one can offer is that if you are losing very rapidly, walk away.  It ’s a good rule in any case.

Thorp made several trips to investigate cheating.  Originally he supposed that, although skillful dealers could cheat if they so desired, they did not cheat.  The argument is that, as casinos enjoy a natural advantage in the game, they will win anyhow, so why risk exposure and bad publicity?  In the great majority of blackjack games, Thorp concluded, there was no cheating: but the average player would face a cheat perhaps five or ten per cent of the time, which was enough to make it a serious problem.  He played at most of the major casinos in Vegas and Reno on his field trips for periods ranging from a few minutes to several hours, with bets ranging from $ 1 to $ 125.  He found there was cheating at large plush casinos as well as small out-of-the-way places.  And there was cheating at all betting levels, even for twenty-five cents! All this was a few years ago, so perhaps things have now changed.  Perhaps the industry has cleaned itself up from top to bottom.  Perhaps human nature has undergone a magical transformation in the interval.  What do you think?
Marking cards, peeking at the top card, dealing seconds (holding the top card of the deck for himself, and dealing out a bad second card for the player), stacking the deck – there are a thousand ways of separating the mug from his money.  I am certainly not suggesting cheating is a one-sided affair.  Players cheat too; always have done, always will.  The commonest form of cheating among blackjack players is to peek at the dealer’s hole card, known as ‘spooking’; sometimes it can be done by a confederate standing behind the table and sending signals to the player; most easily by collusion between dealer and player.  Some cardsharps are so adroit that in cutting the deck they can place a sequence of cards where they want, or identify a particular card to gain a quick advantage.  As soon as one trick is exposed, another slips in.  That is why the casinos have such elaborate supervision of the games from the eye in the sky.  For all the easy-going, open style of modern casinos, it pays to be watchful, inside, and out.  Thorp was never careless:  if on his own, he avoided vacant men’s poker rooms, never ventured into a shadowy parking lot, always kept close to other pedestrians.  Paranoiac?  No, the word is street-wise.

The doyen of the theoreticians who followed the first wave of blackjack innovators was Peter Griffin , a professor of maths at California State University, Sacramento.  Although he took the subject itself seriously, he brought a light-hearted approach to blackjack, which is refreshing, depicting himself on the back cover of his book disguised as a happy-go-lucky monkey, reaching out for a beer as the dealer pushes another stack of winning chips in his direction.  Scenes such as this, Griffin averred, had struck terror into the hearts of Nevada casino bosses for the last ten years – ‘His winnings are rumored to run into hundreds.  At the present time Hollywood has no plans for a move about his life.’
Griffin debunked a lot of the hucksters and plagiarists who followed Thorp, and in the foreword to his book The Theory of Blackjack (1979) quoted Senator Eugene McCarthy on the similarity between politicians and football coaches: ‘you have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it matters.’
The interesting thing about Griffin is that he does not claim to be a winner at blackjack – on the contrary.  I spent a night on the town with him in Las Vegas and was able to observe his approach to gambling – both amused and amusing – at first hand.  He first encountered the game when he was preparing to give a course to a class of maths majors on the mathematics of gambling.  It occurred to him that he had absolutely no gambling experience at all.  Whenever traveling through Nevada with friends he had always stayed outside in the casino parking lot, ‘to avoid the embarrassment of witnessing their foolishness’.  At first he had no interest in card counting but after totaling up his losses on his brief initiation at the game, he vowed revenge.  ‘Short of armed robbery or counterfeiting chips (and I had considered these), there was only one way to get my money back.’ He anted up for Thorp’s book and soon recouped his losses.  But then the pendulum swung the other way again.
Typical of this experience, indeed the weirdest experience Griffin ever had, was a certain memorable trip through Reno.  During the first six days he won a hundred a day.  After this, no matter where he went, no matter how he tried, he could not win.  His continuous losses were devastating not least to his self-esteem.  As a mathematician he could not understand it.  He re-analyzed his game and checked his calculations.  Everything was correct.  Yet he had now lost 30 sessions in a row.  This was equivalent, so he estimated. To ½ 30 or about 1,000,000,000 to 1 odds against losing in an even game.  He was not playing an even game, he actually had the advantage.  So how on earth could this happen?  It simply wasn’t credible.  He went to new places, drove out to Tahoe, everywhere it was the same.  He lost back all the money he had won, $4,000.  He had no emotional problems, he says, no evidence of poker cheating, and is still groping for an explanation.  I recounted this little tale to Thorp, who did not hesitate for a split second.  ‘He was cheated.  Once they’ve marked you down, they’ll get you.  One casino will warn the others no matter where you go.’

Griffin candidly admits in the introduction to his book (which by the way is more of a mathematical treatise than an easy guide to blackjack ) that he can offer no encouragement to those who hope to profit from casino blackjack.  ‘Today I find myself farther behind in the game than I was after my original odyssey… My emotions have run the gamut from the inebriated elation following a big win which induced me to pound out a chorus of celebration on the top of an occupied Reno police car to the frustrated depths of biting a hole through a card after picking up what seemed my 23rd consecutive stiff hand against the dealer’s ten card up.’  The deeper he delved into the mysteries of the game, the more he lost!  He can console himself by reflecting that he is acknowledged as the mathematical authority on the game he can’t beat.
On our night out in Vegas, Griffin treated gambling as a form of farce.  The idea was to get as much out of the casino, for free, as we could, but at a very low level.  Thus, on checking in, hotel guests are customarily issued with a booklet of vouchers entitling them to a free cocktail, or a half-price hamburger, or sucker come-ons like the offer of a dollar bonus on your first one dollar bet at blackjack if it wins.  Some gamblers indeed make a serious practice of going around collecting vouchers and expect to gross up to twenty bucks a day at it, I  was told.
Griffin and the others in the party rushed around using up our vouchers in a spirit of carnival, the climax coming with the one bet you can’t lose, at dice.  With the bonus of an extra dollar paid out on your first bet if it wins, one player puts his dollar on the pass line and the other player puts his dollar on the don’t pass line.  The result is that while one player will lose, the other must win two bucks-net profit one silver dollar! Except of course if the dice roll double one, ‘snake eyes’, in which case one player loses and the other merely breaks even.  Griffin and I put our silver dollars down full of confidence…and up cane a double one.  ‘That , ’ said the professor ruminatively, ‘has never happened before.’ This particular casino was rumored to be going broke.  It was very careful indeed.  Griffin’s companion Lydia put down three  bucks for a bet at blackjack, let her winnings stand, and the dealer shuffled up.  ‘Lydia has more heart, she just shoves it out.’ Griffin’s addiction to blackjack has nothing to do with the game, it ’s a fascination with how far the human mind can be pushed, a gaming equivalent to running the four-minute mile.

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