To get the edge in a casino, there’s only one game you should be playing: blackjack. While dice games are always random, once a card is played in blackjack, you know it’s no longer in the pack. That’s what makes it beatable. The average casino blackjack player faces a 1.5-2 % disadvantage, but if you can count cards and you’re good at it, you can jump the fence. You can turn the tables on the casino so you’re the one with the advantage.
An expert card counter can get pretty close to a 0.75% advantage on the action. It’s pretty skinny as we say, but I made a pretty good living out of it for 15 years. When I packed it in a decade ago, I had enough money to start my publishing business, Las Vegas Advisor, out of my winnings. My biggest victories in blackjack tournaments were in the $50,000-$60,000 range, but I also played a lot with teams. You’ve probably heard of the MIT team because of the book Bringing Down the House, but there are many smaller teams out there and together we won hundreds of thousands of dollars. If not millions.
You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to be a card counter. It’s simply about monitoring the cards and assigning a weight to the cards left to be played according to what you’ve seen. If your count is going up – plus one, plus two, plus three – that means what remains is good for you. If the count is going down – minus one, minus two, minus three – then now the deck is bad for you. This system effectively allows the player to get a feel of how the odds are shifting with every card.
You bet more when it’s positive and less when it’s negative. It’s certainly not rocket science – I’ll tell you that straight up. Saying that, however, you can’t just take a magic pill to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to read the right books and use the right software. If you really want to understand the game, you need to read the card counter’s bible, The Theory of Blackjack by Peter Griffin. It tears the game apart. Then it’s all about practice, practice, practice.
Rule number one is always project the most affable presence you can. If the dealer likes you, he won’t want to suspect you.
Once you’ve mastered counting at home, the real crunch comes trying to pull it off in a casino. I thought I was the best card counter in the world having practised for five years, but when I stepped up to a table, the dealing was so fast I got mixed up. I started hyperventilating because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
That’s not the only pressure you’ll feel. Card counting has been deemed legal in court, but casinos still treat card counters like crooks. If you got caught in the old days of Las Vegas, almost anything could and did happen – usually in a darkened back room.
These days, if they spot you, casinos will take a series of countermeasures to blunt your edge. They’ll either start shuffling more often or a boss will come over and ‘Flat bet’ you. That means he’ll ask you to stick to the same wager every hand. If that doesn’t stop you, they’ll use the old ‘Backing off ’. That’s when you’re asked, very nicely, not to play there. Finally, they’ll read you the ‘Trespass act’, which is when they formally bar you from the premises under threat of arrest.
Surveillance methods such as the ‘eye in the sky’ have made it very tough for the modern card counter. If your play makes them suspicious, casinos will employ the latest software to keep detailed records on you. As such, the key to avoiding detection is not to frequent the same place, don’t bet too big and don’t overstay your welcome. There are thousands of places to play blackjack all over the world – even the top players have to move around a lot.
As a card counter, you’ve got to think about your image – it’s very important. Rule number one is always project the most affable presence you can. If the dealer likes you, he won’t want to suspect you. Rule number two is make sure you look casual. You don’t want to appear like a card counter who’s doing business. You want to look like a guy who’s having fun and just getting lucky. When I was playing for high stakes with a team, I was usually the ‘big player’, the guy with the money. I’d assume the manner of an out-of-town visitor. I’d wear nice clothes, tell them that I published children’s books and drink a lot of beer. Drinking in fairly decent quantities without losing control is one of the greatest deflectors of scrutiny.
The key is to stay under the radar for as long as possible. When I worked in a team, we would have several members counting cards throughout the casino. When their deck became worth wagering, they would give me a signal. It could be anything from the way they touched their arm, counted their chips or held their cards. Eventually, though, no matter how good you are, you get to a point where the casino will catch on. Every card counter has a shelf life, so you’ve got to have an exit strategy. Mine was to go into publishing, which is why I’m happy to reveal these secrets of card counting today.
My advice to anyone who wants to start card counting is to take it up as a fun sideline rather than a career. It’s an extremely difficult life. It’s dangerous because you’re always carrying lots of money around and solitary because you can’t tell people your job. When I started, I expected a James Bond lifestyle, but the truth is it’s a very workaday sort of existence. The beginner with a low bankroll has probably got quite a grind in front of them with a lot of up and downs… and those downs are pretty difficult to take.