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Blackjack Counters

Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

(continued from page 1)

Learning the basic rules of card counting is nearly as easy as memorizing the rules of the game; putting them to practical use is the hard part. Contrary to a widely held belief, professional blackjack counters don't memorize every card in the deck or decks. They can't tell you, for instance, at any given moment in a deal whether the queen of clubs has been spent or if all the red sevens remain to be dealt. Using a variety of tracking systems , the card counter tabulates the proportion of "good" cards (aces and tens) to "bad" cards (fours, fives and sixes). When the deck is rich in good cards and poor in bad ones, the player has the best of the game. By closely monitoring the favorableness (or unfavorableness) of the remaining cards, a blackjack counter can vary the size of his bets, wagering the minimum when conditions are unprofitable and increasing his volume when conditions are optimum.

A rich deck favors the player for two significant reasons. In a "normal" deck, blackjacks will appear once every 21 hands. When the deck is full of aces and tens, blackjack frequency will be noticeably higher. Granted, the dealer will receive a proportionally higher number of blackjacks, too. But his "21's" are paid at even money, whereas the player gets 3 to 2 on his action. (In addition, the player can profitably buy insurance when the dealer shows an ace. Though taking insurance is usually a bad play, a heavily skewed count sometimes makes this a correct move.) Furthermore, when playing with a rich deck, the dealer will frequently bust on his drawing hands (12 through 16), which, according to the rules, he must hit until he has at least 17. But the player, conversely, may stand.

As outlined in numerous books on blackjack, there is an irrefutably correct basic strategy for every combination of player hands and dealer up-cards. Exhaustive analysis, for example, has shown that standing on a 12 versus the dealer's 10 showing has a negative expectation of 17 cents per dollar bet. Standing on a 19 versus the dealer's four showing has a positive expectation of 41 cents. And splitting eights (if your first two cards are of the same value, you may split them, playing them as two separate hands) versus the dealer's five showing has a 26-cent edge over merely standing. The expert counter not only knows the correct basic strategy play for every conceivable situation, but, armed with powerful information, he can determine when it is statistically correct to vary from basic strategy. In essence, he knows the right play at all times.

Understandably, this does not thrill the casinos.

Ron's biggest obstacle isn't beating the game but being allowed to play. Perhaps the biggest lie in Vegas is the casinos' frequent assertion that they'll welcome anyone's action, even so-called card counters. Despite the undisputed legality of playing blackjack expertly, using only hundreds of hours of research (and an unusually nimble mind) to beat a game most people cannot defeat, the truth is casinos throw out card counters faster than you can say double down. Whether you're a $5 or black-chip bettor, if you play the game too well, you'll be asked to leave. (The casinos are considered private businesses and by law are allowed to determine whom they will serve.)

According to one Las Vegas casino executive, "No matter what you bet, if you play expertly you're perceived as a threat. We've got plenty of customers who don't play well. We don't need to have our tables filled with counters." To that end, he explains, the casinos employ pit bosses trained to recognize expert play, surveillance crews armed with computer software that mimics the betting patterns of a counter and, most remarkable, a private detective agency, Griffin Investigations, which maintains and distributes profiles of known counters to their casino clients. For players like Ron, walking into virtually any casino in the world without an elaborate disguise is nearly impossible.

"I've tried to play in some of the new Indian casinos and the riverboats that have opened in the Midwest, but they don't let you wager very much--and when you show any bet variances whatsoever, they ban you. I've been reduced to playing two or three times a year, during very big events, where there's so much money on the table and so much commotion I'm not noticed. These heavyweight title fights are about the only time I get out nowadays."

His largest challenge, Ron says, is acting the part. Bookish and soft-spoken away from the casino, Ron labors to appear boisterous and indulgent at the tables. "I have genuine difficulty ordering around the floor personnel, yelling for drinks, insulting the dealers. But it's all part of doing business."

Ron began his peculiar career in the late '70s while attending college at an esteemed university within striking distance of Atlantic City. An economics major with an astounding facility for numbers, he became interested in card counting after reading Edward O. Thorp's seminal blackjack work, Beat the Dealer. Curious but incredulous, Ron and a few friends trekked to the boardwalk to experiment with what they had learned. "We started out betting the minimum, getting a feel for the game, growing more confident with the theories," Ron says. "By the time we graduated, we had mastered a couple of sophisticated counting systems and increased our bets substantially. I must have won $50,000 in college alone."

Shunning a career in academia, Ron moved to Nevada, where he became part of a six-member syndicate that developed a computer that could track various styles of casino shuffling. By inputting data with his toes to a keyboard hidden in his shoe, Ron and his crew could successfully predict whole clusters of cards, based on how the dealer mixed the deck. Because their computer was only marginally based on the count, Ron's syndicate was seldom suspected of card counting. "We each cleared in the high six figures every year."

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