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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

(continued from page 2)

Although Blaine offers a good way of doing this—basically, learning the moves in clumps and grouping together variations that have certain similarities (for example, you stick 12 against a 2 when the count is plus-3, and 12 against a 3 when the count is plus-2)—it does get kind of tricky. Especially when you have to incorporate those variations into everything else that card counting involves, all the while looking like a casual blackjack player. It's along the lines of riding a unicycle while eating a hamburger and breathing fire. During a post-tutorial telephone call, I bitterly complain to the aforementioned Pandini about this particularly arduous task. She agrees that variations are tough to memorize, then sort of twists the shiv by acknowledging that she incorporates them totally instinctively at this point. Pandini maintains that she can't rattle off the variations but is incapable of playing without employing them. Great.

So I struggle through the variations, endlessly striving to commit them to memory, using flash cards as Blaine's book suggests, programming Casino Vérité to buzz me every time I make a mistake with the Illustrious 18. Then something strange happens: one night, as I'm playing Texas Hold'em for more hours than might be considered prudent (I'm looking at flops and my sleep-deprived brain clicks over to instinctively calculate them as blackjack situations), I feel that the variations and attendant blackjack moves are finally being tattooed into my memory. Beyond being disturbed by my inability to focus on the game at hand, I think that maybe one day I, too, will be able to tell people that I can't rattle off the variations but that not playing them would be as unthinkable as forgetting to breathe.

This past July, I headed to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker championship and planned on putting my multi-tiered lessons to the test. But I failed. However, I honestly don't believe I did anything horrendously wrong. Blaine happened to be in town for some of those days, attending, of all things, a genealogy convention. He and his wife met me at the Palms, sat at my table, and watched me do most things right, yet I still lost big after positive situations failed to pan out the way they should have. That was the story of this trip: I would win when the counts sank and lose when they rose, but that can decimate your bankroll, because when the count is high (and, improbably, you are losing), that's when you are making your largest bets.

I dropped $500 (not a lot of money, and maybe not bad for someone who spent 10 days in Vegas, but, factoring in the $300 win in Mesquite, it represented more than one-third of my bankroll and I had expended a lot of psychic energy on trying to win) and came home feeling pretty disgusted. For a brief flash I even thought about giving up on blackjack. But then I attended a social gathering and happened to be drinking alongside a guy known as MIT Mike, a fearsome card counter who played on the original Ivy League team. I related my experiences. He smiled, sipped his drink and told me that it takes at least 100,000 hands before the luck factor evens itself out. In other words, what happened to me could have been nothing more than a standard deviation. Or else, I completely screwed up and played improperly and suck. Although I believe it was the former, I nevertheless hunkered down with Casino Vérité and continued to put in my weekly sessions with Blaine in preparation for another Vegas trip that had planned or the fall.

On my autumn trip, I stayed downtown and bopped between Binion's, the Golden Nugget and the Las Vegas Club, hitting the single-, double- and six-deck games. And hitting 'em pretty well. This time things fell into place nicely. I started with a playing bankroll of $300 and ran it up to $1,200 by jumping in and out of games as soon as they turned negative, counting intensely, ignoring players who got pissed off by my on-again/off-again betting. They kept talking about me hurting the rhythm of the cards. I was like, "Huh? Cards have no rhythm. They're randomly shuffled. The 10s don't know that they're supposed to be clumped together." Amazingly, dealers seem to buy into this screwball rhythm method as well. Late one night at the Nugget, a dealer advised me not to reenter if everybody starts winning, lest I hurt the table's rhythm. I met her eyes, smiled and said, "If you don't tell the cards what I'm doing, I won't tell them."

She looked annoyed, and I left 20 minutes later (after the count spiked and dipped again).

One night I beat up the Vegas Club a bit, but the following morning, I got spanked there and gave back a few hundred dollars' worth of chips. Intending to reverse things again, I returned to the casino and was about to sit down, when a big-boned gentleman in a suit greeted me. He seemed to be awaiting my arrival, and I thought he was going to offer me a big, fat comp. But there was something else on his mind. "I saw you playing here last night and I know what you're doing," he said. "You're welcome to play any other game in the casino, but we don't want you playing blackjack anymore."

I tried to weasel my way back into the pit, truthfully pointing out that I had given up a chunk of my winnings just a dozen hours earlier. But he seemed unimpressed. It was nonnegotiable. No more blackjack for me at the Vegas Club. While feeling bummed at being backed off from a good game, I was also a little thrilled. Walking out of the casino and onto bustling Fremont Street, I felt as if I had just hazed my way into an exclusive club. The ousting felt like proof that I was doing something right. Then I set my sights on a more welcoming cluster of bright lights and green felt. v

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.

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