Count Me In
Our intrepid gambling columnist learns how to card-count and takes his newfound knowledge to the tables
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006
(continued from page 1)
This is at the crux of card counting: the cards from 2 through 6 are given a value of plus-1, 7 through 9 have values of zero, and 10-value cards through ace are minus-1. You literally flip through the deck, assigning each card its value. The idea is to be able to do an entire deck in 15 to 20 seconds (at which point the count should be zero). I worked the decks and obsessively ran one of Casino Vérité's features: the Full Table Drill. The computer monitor presents a visual representation of seven blackjack hands; you track the cards and keep what's known as a running count (that is, the values for all the cards that have been dealt), always aiming to improve speed and accuracy.
Because most blackjack games are dealt out of six- or eight-deck shoes, one extra step of math is required to know how much to bet. The running count has to be divided by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. You do this by eyeballing the discard tray and making a damned good estimate of how many decks remain to be dealt. Extremely talented counters can tell you how many cards remain; guys like me are more than content to get the number of decks right. Then you divide this number into the running count to get a true count. Still with me? So, if the running count is six and three decks remain in the shoe, then the true count is two. The higher the positive count, the more you bet. Simple, right? Not for me. At least not at first.
Every week I'd spend a couple of hours in Blaine's living room casino, where he would comment on my progress, offer gentle advice and correct me when I was wrong. Occasionally he'd throw a curveball, grabbing my chips even though his hand had narrowly lost. Usually I'd be too focused on the counting to notice. That's when he'd let loose with a "baaaaah," which sounded uncannily like the mistake buzzer on Vérité.
"You just failed the MIT test," he said the first time, referring to the card-counting team immortalized in Ben Mezrich's best-selling book Bringing Down the House (Free Press, 2003). "You gotta catch those things."
I felt kind of dumb, but I was happier to have it happen in Blaine's living room than in a casino. Same when I'd make basic strategy errors, usually neglecting to split when I should have or goofing up on a surrender. The counting part of it, however, came to me with reasonable ease (and endless practice). Blaine would deal pretty much to the bottom of the shoe, and I became increasingly accurate. Things were going well enough that I planned on playing for real during an upcoming trip to Mesquite, Nevada. Following the completion of a practice session, I asked Blaine what he thought of the idea.
"You're ready," he said. Then he asked, "How much are you planning on bringing with you?"
"Not much," I told him. "I'm not looking to win or lose a lot of money. I just want to see if I can do it. They have $5 tables there, and I plan on spreading between $5 and $20 with a $500 bankroll."
Blaine told me to wait and he ran downstairs to his bedroom. He returned with five crisp $100 bills. He handed me the money and said, "OK. Now we're partners."
Following some last-minute advice from Blaine—look for good penetration (that is, dealers who cut deeply into the decks), drop out if the count goes below zero, try to find two-deck shoes (they'll be easiest to count)—things went reasonably well in Mesquite. Although I got completely crushed during a morning session and stood accused of card counting by a player at the double-deck table who didn't like my jumping out when the deck turned negative, I managed to win a couple hundred dollars. Admittedly, I felt a little shaky and made a few tactical errors and definitely got lucky, but considering that it was the first time I'd played casino blackjack since a spring-break trip to Vegas in the late 1970s, I felt pretty good.
Blaine was pleased with the positive result, but we still had lots of work to do. Most importantly, I needed to incorporate a weapon into my arsenal of blackjack tricks: play variations. Ten years ago, card counters had to memorize upwards of 100 of these exceptions to the rule: moves that deviate from basic strategy, based on the count. For example, according to pure basic strategy, you never double 11 against the dealer's ace, but when you incorporate variations and the count reaches plus-1, you do double down with those cards; greatest of all, when the count hits plus-5 you split 10s and picture cards against the dealer's 5. This really makes other players at the table go insane; they will unabashedly gloat when you lose. But be warned: if you split tens or picture cards when the count is plus-5, you run the risk of giving yourself away as a card counter. In Blackjack Blueprint, Blaine has a list of variations that have been dubbed the Illustrious 18 by gaming theorist and card counter nonpareil Don Schesinger. They're the most important ones and, while difficult to learn, can be memorized by anyone who puts in the time and effort.
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