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The Twenty One Club

The annual blackjack ball hosts Gambling's Most Furtive (and Quirky) Fraternity
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

(continued from page 1)

"You gotta make 'em," Rubin quips, "'cause most of these guys won't bet on anything where they don't have an edge."   Immediately upon entering the spectacular Rubin estate, an adult playground with the kind of outdoor recreational facilities one normally finds at the better beach resorts, a visitor sees a handwritten tote board. But instead of horses, the entrants in the Blackjack Ball "race" are the guests themselves, whose odds of winning the championship are listed in ascending order. For the 1999 gala, top "ponies" going off at short odds include Arnold Snyder, the publisher of Blackjack Forum; Anthony Curtis, the publisher of Las Vegas Advisor and a former professional player; J. Chang, the 1998 champion; as well as the luminaries who prefer not to see their name in print.  

The winner gets a sparkling trophy known as the Blackjack Cup, the grudging admiration of his peers and the unofficial title of "Most Feared Man in the Casino Business."  

In any other setting than a blackjack pit, most people would not be afraid of the 1999 champion, "Terry," one of the MIT boys. With thinning hair, extra thick eyeglasses and the pasty complexion of someone who spends far too much time indoors, Terry is not an intimidating presence. But put a stack of chips and a deck of cards before him and he's like Kasparov at a chess table. He's been transformed from nebbish into trained killer.  

Indeed, most of the participants at the Ball are generally unprepossessing men and women, the kind of people whose job demands that they learn to blend into a crowd, keeping their true talents secret from all but their closest colleagues. An outsider would not gaze upon one of the world's best blackjack players and think, "That guy has blackjack expert written all over him." He would think, "Nothing particularly remarkable." A guest at Rubin's Blackjack Ball could easily be your neighbor or your attorney or your friend from the gym. But there is nothing average about this group. The average intelligence in this congregation of professional gamblers is preposterously high, especially when it comes to problem solving. Few parties in Las Vegas can match the group's claim that almost 5 percent of its guests scored perfect 800s on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.  

The players have had an hour or two to trade war stories, exchange money ($50,000 loans made on a handshake are not unusual here), and read about themselves in the latest editions of the Griffin book--"Man, that is one ugly mug shot they've got of me!" one well-known counter exclaims. Rubin then gets on a wireless microphone and calls the congregation to order. "Welcome to the Third Annual Blackjack Ball," he says. "May everyone I bet on win."  

Each participant completes a 20-question preliminary test, meant to weed out the merely very good from the great. [See box.] The test is a mix of gambling trivia, rudimentary statistics and general knowledge, which Rubin includes because he feels a world-class blackjack player should "know about lots of stuff. You never know when it might come in handy."  

The 15 top scorers enter the semifinals, where Rubin administers an even more difficult test, this one consisting of 15 questions. The four players who answer the most questions correctly advance to the final table. (If a playoff is necessary, it's conducted in the form of a putting contest--partly because Rubin thinks it's the fairest way, but mainly because watching a bunch of blackjack pros with a piece of sporting equipment in their hands is a recipe for instant comedy.)  

Any well-read gambling dilettante could conceivably ace Rubin's written test and find himself competing for the coveted Blackjack Cup. But the finals gracefully separate the hardcore professionals--those who spend most of their waking hours in casinos around the world betting the house limit--from those who merely make a good living at the game.  

The final table is a practicum, a thorough test of the requisite skills (as well as some not-so-necessary ones) for being a serious blackjack player in the real-world arena: counting down a deck in 20 seconds and determining if a big, little or neutral card has been removed; cutting exactly 21 cards out of a 52-card deck; playing expert strategy when all the 5s, 6s, 7s and 8s have been thrown out; tossing playing cards into a spittoon; memorizing a 13-card sequence; shuffling two pillars of chips with one hand; setting up a "cold" (prearranged) deck; figuring jackpot odds; and, in the (possibly specious) interest of "manliness," arm-wrestling the competition.  

Each of the four contestants begins with $500 in casino chips and, naturally, must wager on himself, varying his bet depending on his level of proficiency at each task. The player with the most chips at the end of Rubin's blackjack Olympiad is the winner and, until next year, the king or queen of the Ball.  

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