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Count Me In

Our intrepid gambling columnist learns how to card-count and takes his newfound knowledge to the tables
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

I've been writing Cigar Aficionado's gambling column for five years. I came into it knowing a fair amount about winning and losing money, but I wasn't especially seasoned at the tables. Over the years, I've become better versed in both sides of the gambling equation. I guess that's what happens when your job entails snooping around some of the greatest casinos in the world and engaging in a bit of gambling alongside people who really know what they're doing.

I've played craps with the Palms-owning Maloof brothers, practically sat in the vest pocket of David "Devilfish" Ulliott as he endured $60,000 swings in a pot-limit Omaha game, and spent an exhilarating Saturday afternoon in Manila with Alan Woods, one of the world's most successful horse betters. Without batting an eye, he blithely dropped a cool million that day, and said, "Well, if I'm gonna lose that kind of money, I'm glad to do it when it's being written about." Like all smart gamblers, he knows it's in his interest to look like less of a winner.

However, where you would have never found me during those five years is in a casino's blackjack pit, sitting at a felt-topped table, raising my fists in glory as I turn a 12 into 21.

It's because I never learned how to play blackjack—play the game well, that is—and that sinkhole of ignorance instilled a kind of 21 phobia in my soul. I just couldn't see sitting down to wager on a game where the casino has an edge and I haven't a clue.

So I avoided blackjack like hemlock, knowing full well that it's one of only three reasonably beatable enterprises in a casino (sport betting and poker are the other two), and a game that anyone with a serious interest in gambling should learn to play with an advantage. But I didn't think my math skills would be up to snuff for card counting. The few books I had read on the subject put me to sleep, and there always seemed to be an open spot at the poker table. My thinking went, "Stick with what you know." And I did.

Then, a year ago, I wound up doing a story on a female card counter who went by the name of Joanna Pandini. She was pretty amazing, managing to keep three continually changing sets of numbers in her brain, while acting like a ditzy, booze-swilling sucker at the table and winning a lot more than she lost. She inspired me to consider learning to count. Soon after I got a call from a guy named Rick "Night Train" Blaine. He's a card counter of note who's played on some of the big teams as well as for individual backers, and over the years has earned well into six figures from the game. He's also the author of a new book entitled Blackjack Blueprint (Huntington Press, 2006).

Blaine offered to teach me to count, using the system espoused in his book's pages. First, I wanted to see the book, just to make sure that my less-than-mathematical brain would stand a chance of absorbing his lessons, and that this undertaking wouldn't turn into a horrible embarrassment. Blackjack Blueprint proves to be an excellent book that combines a few existing techniques into a very manageable system for beating the casinos. Most critically, the tome is aimed at people such as myself who want to learn to count cards on the side, while maintaining a day job (which Blaine does as well). The fact that Blaine is a good guy and a patient teacher—I quickly began calling him my blackjack sensei—was a bonus. And the book's user-friendly step-by-step approach parallels his teaching style.

For starters, I read key sections of Blaine's book, focusing on pages that taught me to play perfect basic strategy. Using various charts, I committed to memory the optimal play for every conceivable situation. That in and of itself was something of an eye-opener. I thought I knew how to play perfect basic, but I was wrong. You think you know? OK, quick, what do you do with two 2s against a 7? Split 'em. How about two 4s against a 6? Split 'em. Two 5s against a 9? Double down. The same hand against a 10? Hit it.

Maybe this stuff is easy for you, but it took me a while to get the preliminary moves down. A big help was a software program called Casino Vérité. It allowed me to play hypothetical hands of blackjack. Whenever I made a basic strategy mistake, the computer would emit a razzy-sounding buzz.

As soon as I got reasonably proficient at basic, Blaine invited me to his home, where the living room—cum—blackjack lab is, much to his wife's chagrin, outfitted with an almost regulation-size felt-topped table. He played dealer and divvied out cards to test my basic strategy play. He also gave me a couple of decks of casino-quality cards (they're thicker than the Bicycles you buy at your corner store) and advised me to learn to count down the deck.

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