One Step Ahead

Sophisticated Gamblers Use Legal Techniques to Gain Small Advantages at Casino Games

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The vast majority of decks, he explains, including the Bee variety we are experimenting with, are cut slightly off-center. At first glance, the backs all look the same, but when you carefully examine the edges, the small "triangles" around the sides vary dramatically in size. "As he receives his cards, the advantage player simply turns them to the desired alignment. Eventually, after a few deals, he's got the deck 'marked.' All the little cards have the little triangles on top; all the big ones have big triangles on top." Playing the turn provides hole-card information and top-of-the-deck values--and it's perfectly legal.
Forte heads downstairs to one of the most famous casinos in the world.
"Unbeatable, right?" he is asked, walking past a craps table.
"Wrong," Forte says matter-of-factly. "There's a lot of controversy surrounding this game. Has a player cheated by controlling his shot? According to the law, it's impossible to dictate how to throw the dice," he says.
"You're saying advantage players can control the outcome of the dice roll?"
"Absolutely. Only a few people can do it, but, yes, there are several methods. Walking the die, where the dice wobbles around its axis, but never changes position; spin shots, where the shooter slides the dice down the felt; puck or wall shots, where the shooter kills the number off the disk they use to mark the point--rule out nothing."
Several weeks later, demonstrating for a group of students at the William F. Harrah Institute of Casino Entertainment, Forte blithely rolls double sixes three times in a row--a 43,000-to-1 proposition.
We pass a bank of video poker machines. "Those," Forte says, pointing to a row of units, "cannot be beat. But those," he says, gesturing to a bank with a progressive jackpot meter, "definitely are beatable. Many knowledgeable gamblers play video poker for a living. You have to know which machines to play and the correct strategy for playing them. For instance, in most home poker games, if you were dealt ace-jack-seven-five-three, you would keep the ace, or maybe the ace-jack. Here, the correct play is to keep only the jack."
When he passes a bank of slot machines, a challenge is unavoidable: "Don't say there's an advantage technique for slots!"
"No, unfortunately, today's slot machines work on a microchip," he says. "You can't beat them. But up until the early '80s, when they still used electromechanical machines, you could definitely win at slots using what we called rhythming--timing the machine's so-called variator. They definitely did not produce true randomness. You might find these old machines, like Bally's wide-reel Fruit, in some foreign casinos, but not here," Forte says somewhat wistfully.
"But I'll show you one old game that's still vulnerable to advantage play," Forte says, stopping at a roulette wheel. "Albert Einstein once said you wouldn't win at roulette unless you were stealing chips." Forte shrugs. "I guess even geniuses make mistakes."
Forte instructs his visitor to watch where the ball "falls off" the track and into the dish of spinning numbers. It loses its momentum and dives down at the "10 o'clock" position. On the next spin it does it again. And again. And again. Thirteen times in a row. "There's no such thing as a perfect wheel," Forte says. "They're basically a piece of furniture. They take abuse, they get dirty, they get worn down. They produce biased results." Using a technique called visual prediction, advantage players exploit the wheel's imperfections.
Outlined in How to Beat Roulette, a book by Laurence Scott, the visual-prediction method is built on an immutable law of physics: regardless of how fast the ball is spun by the croupier, it must necessarily end at the same speed. Advantage players beat the wheel from the "back" of the spin, not the front. They play the last four or five revolutions of the ball. After finding a wheel with a clear bias--Forte says there's probably at least one in every major casino in the United States--they clock the speed of the rotor (the spinning dish of numbers), looking for one that takes between two and three seconds per revolution. (This is surprisingly easy to time in your head, without a stopwatch.)
By correlating the speed of the rotor with the ball's predictable "drop point," the advantage player can gauge which number will be sitting directly under the ball when it dives into the dish. Even taking into account the volatility of the ball's bounce, when betting late enough in the spin, advantage players can essentially narrow the list of probable numbers from 38 to 19, obliterating the House's normal 5 percent edge.
In the course of Forte's explanation of visual prediction, the ball has fallen off the same spot on the wheel 25 out of 27 times. At a nearby high-limit blackjack table, he detects the dealer's hole card in four of the last five hands. And at the craps table behind us, they're looking for a new shooter.
Forte is ready for lunch. But, really, it would be more fun to watch him play a rack of chips.
Michael Konik is the gambling columnist for Cigar Aficionado.
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