Winners &Losers

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Lesson 4

Born into a comfortable middle class family.  Uston had a college education, served a spell in army, proceeding to Yale and Harvard Business School, and then to a job with the Pacific Stock Exchange, where he rose to the rank of senior vice-president.  In those days he was a clean-cut young executive in a three-piece suit, who spent his time with bankers.  There was always something of the showman in him, or as he would say, the ham.  ‘I guess the real reason I was originally drawn to blackjack  was because of the mathematical challenge and the “Mission Impossible” aspects of being able to use skill and imagination in beating the casinos at their own game, ’ he has written.  He first joined a group of blackjack players  while vice-president of the stock exchange and when the team disbanded he wrote a book about the experience.  The Big Player( 1977).

His experience in running a team of players at Atlantic City is instructive.  A team comprises several players who work together by pooling their capital and their winnings, but play separately, as individuals, to avoid for as long as possible being picked up by the management and barred.  Barred what for?  For winning.  The edge which an expert counter enjoys is  very, very small.  Uston describes it as follows:  Imagine a game in which you have three jars filled with white and black beans.

  If the players pulls out a white bean he wins.  If he pulls out a black bean he loses.  One jar has 50 white beans and 50 black beans.  When the player pulls beans out of his jar, which constitutes a dea-even game, he bets $20.  the third jar has 51 white beans and 49 black beans, decidedly favoring the player, who accordingly bets $ 100 when he pulls from this jar.  In this three jars game the player has an edge over the house of just under 1.4 percent.  This essentially describes the game of blackjack as played by the counter.
Not exactly lucrative, is it?  If the player makes 300 pulls from the jars (100 from each ) as Uston outlines, on average he should win $ 180.  The total amount bet is $ 13,000, so his edge is $ 180/$ 13,000, or 1.38 per cent.  If the game average 45 hands per hour, 300 pulls would require six hours forty minutes play, or earnings of $27 an hour.  What ’s more, there can be wide fluctuations round the average.  In fact in four out of ten 300-pull sessions, on average, the player would lose; in six out of ten he should win.  The advantage of playing as a team is that it helps even out the bad swings – when a player hits a long run of black beans – and thus to equalize the psychological pressures.  As Thorp noted the first time he tried out his system at the tables, heavy losing runs may be mixed with lucky streaks of the most dazzling brilliance.
In January, 1979, an ideal situation, a unique opportunity, arose for Uston to take a team to Atlantic City, because the only casino then open, Resorts International, was operating on a provisional licence, waiting for its full licence to be approved.  In such a situation, being on its best behavior, the casino was likely to treat professional card counters with the kind of courtesy the pit bosses in Las Vegas would suppose existed only in fairy stores, if they every read fairy stories.  The Atlantic City game was different in some respects from the Vegas game but judged to be favorable.  Organizing a team is not like whistling up a tennis foursome.

Uston took out second mortgages on his property and was only too well aware of the financial risks he was running, in getting into debt in order to gamble.  Assembling a team of player who were both expert and trustworthy was also a major task.  Resorts itself was doing fantastic business, up to $650,000 a day, despite the fact that, unlike the 24-hours –a-day gaming in Nevada, the casino was open only from ten to 4 a.m.  The desperate droves of gamblers, bussed in from New York and New Jersey and Philadelphia, were actually lining up – a most un-American habit –at the tables, waiting to get in and blow their money.
Uston’s team got to work but without making any profits.  The hourly ‘expected value’ was only about $ 50, which multiplied by four or five players working an eight-hour day would yield only $ 11,000 a week.  Another high-rolling team was scooping all the money, and there was a number of freelance counters  around, too.  Uston’s team did not have sufficient capital to risk betting at high stakes.  The atmosphere in the casino seemed to take on a bit of a chill.  After weighing up the prospects Uston decided they might as well raise their stakes while the going was good and ‘go for the gusto’.
And the results were exciting.  In four days of intensive play, raising their stake levels as their working capital increased, the team got ahead $ 51,000.  That might not seem like such a big number, viewed from this distance; at the time, when everyone concerned had to strain their financial resources to the utmost to get a bank together, it seemed sensational.  Uston was hoping and praying that the Resort ’s licence hearings would run on and on, so that they could continue to play in these ideal conditions for another three or four weeks.  In the past his teams had endured many long losing spells, when they would try to console themselves – ‘We do have the advantage … (pause)… but they have the money!’  When the team reached $ 75,000, the players split their winnings and formed a new bank worth $ 100,000, which meant that their top bet on a hand could go up to $ 1,000.

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