One Step Ahead
Sophisticated Gamblers Use Legal Techniques to Gain Small Advantages at Casino Games
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95
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When shuffled purely, cards will "move" to an easily predicted spot in the deck. If, for example, the ace of spades immediately follows the three of diamonds in the deck, after one riffle (or shuffle) the ace will be the second card away from the three; another riffle will leave it four cards down and a third will leave it eight cards from its original position. (Turn two touching cards face up, shuffle the deck and see for yourself.) By memorizing three card sequences--usually two "key cards" preceding or surrounding the "target card" (an ace)--the accomplished sequence tracker can collect enough data to follow the progress of desired cards through the casino's not-at-all-random mixing procedure.
At my request, Forte demonstrates the practicality of continual tracking: as he correctly predicts where the aces will fall on the first deal, he memorizes sequences to be applied on the next deal. Sure enough, five consecutive deals provide him with a steady stream of aces on his imaginary big-money bets. I ask Forte if sequence-tracking works in multideck games, including baccarat.
"Absolutely," he says.
In fact, the "lace" shuffle some casinos use in their high-limit baccarat pits--where the dealer often exposes five- and six-card clumps to the player nearest him--creates memorizable "slugs" (distinct sequences) that make the game particularly vulnerable to advantage players. The current issue of Blackjack Forum, a quarterly aimed at sophisticated players, provides more details about shuffle-tracking, including instructions on how to "map" a schematic of all known casino shuffles.
"Before trying sequence-tracking, you need to do some research," Forte advises. "Dealer selection is crucial. You want to find a dealer who breaks the cards evenly and shuffles correctly, just like they're taught in dealer school. Female dealers, especially ones with small, delicate hands are often the best targets."
While staking out a casino for trackable dealers, Forte also recommends looking for hole-card plays, when blackjack dealers inadvertently expose their hole cards. The advantage is obvious: when you know the dealer is "stiff" (holding 12-16) and prone to bust, you can waver from basic strategy and stand on bad hands you would otherwise hit. "You would be surprised how many dealers give up their hole cards," Forte says. "At one point, with some research, I had a journal of 300 Las Vegas dealers susceptible to hole-card plays. Walk around any casino in America and look carefully: the serious advantage player can still find them." (Strolling through one of the most famous casinos on the Vegas Strip, Forte finds three in 10 minutes.)
Be aware also of dealers with distinct "tells," the subconscious body language commonly associated with poker, the subtle mannerisms and gestures that frequently expose the value of a hand. Until the mid-'80s, nearly 100 percent of the "21" dealers in Nevada peeked at their hole card if they had an ace or a ten-value card and up. (They were looking for naturals, instant winners for the House.) Then Forte published a book entitled Read the Dealer, which taught advantage players how to discern the dealer's hole card through nonverbal signals. Thanks to Forte's powerful treatise--a book that helped teams of "tell" players win fortunes--only about 15 percent of the casinos in America currently peek. At the ones that still do, many dealers unwittingly employ a vocabulary of physical or verbal signs that the astute player can use to his advantage.
Although reading dealer tells is a rich and complex science that requires some practice, there are a couple of basic guidelines: a dealer who is rooting for the players to win will usually pull back from the table when he has a bad hand and lean into it when he is pat. And in a single- or double-deck game, when a dealer is pat, he'll usually keep his nondeck hand far from his body; when he has a stiff, the nondeck hand will wander inward, away from the players, as if to say, "you're fine, let me take the hit."
Another way to exploit dealer-furnished information is playing the "warps." For this advantage technique, Forte suggests looking for male dealers, particularly big, overpowering types who handle the cards aggressively. When this kind of dealer looks under his tens or aces to check for blackjacks, he is prone to put a readable warp into the cards. At a casino where the dealers peek under all aces and ten-value cards, it doesn't take long for the deck to become "set up": all the little cards get bent one way (convex) and all the premium cards get bent the opposite way (concave). Several years ago a player in a small Egyptian casino encountered an old deck so hopelessly buckled, it was like playing with the cards face up. With such a deck the big cards create discernible bows, distinct "breaths" between cards. Using this information, astute players can consistently cut themselves an ace or ten after the shuffle--a spectacular 20 percent advantage.
One caveat: when the dealer warps the deck it's an advantage play; when you "help," it's against the law. Resist the urge to assist.
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