The Game Killer
Using his custom-made computer programs, James Grosjean goes way beyond card counting in beating casino games generally considered impenetrable
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009
A small-town Holiday Inn is not where you expect to find one of the world's most astute and notorious casino gamblers. But James Grosjean doesn't hustle high-roller suites and comped meals at the steak house. With the money he extracts from casinos, Grosjean can buy his own porterhouse and fries. Right now he sits on the edge of a twin bed, in the small room that he shares with his partner on this trip, a part-time folk singer who's nicknamed Pepper and is known as the world's fastest card counter.
Grosjean is slender, unshaven, dressed in jeans and a hoodie. He looks vaguely Asian, but could also pass for Spanish or Native American. His eyes lock on the screen of a laptop computer running numbers that will help him to strategize against a new game, currently in an introductory phase at a riverboat casino near the Holiday Inn. Common wisdom among casino executives holds that the game is safe from advantage players. Grosjean flew here from his home in Las Vegas, armed with more than $100,000, which is stashed in a crevice above the hotel room's TV, and he intends to prove the casino execs wrong.
The game's rules are simple: Prior to a card being exposed, players bet on the suit it will be. If they guess correctly, the money that can be won increases. It goes that way for four additional steps, until you reach the top tier and can win 25 times your original bet or lose it. Grosjean has devised a counting system for the game, which will let him and his partner raise their bets as the shoe of cards becomes weighted toward a particular suit.
This strategy alone allows them to play at an advantage. But, as is his wont, Grosjean has carved out a few other edges: if he can maneuver himself in a way that permits a peak at burn cards, the game's expected value increases. The deeper the dealer cuts the shoe's eight decks, the more of an advantage Grosjean and Pepper can develop. And there may be an additional side count that will add value to the undertaking.
The game's table is situated in a barely trafficked spot on the lower casino floor. With no other players there at the moment, Grosjean and Pepper mosey over, sit down as if they don't know each other, and buy in. Over the next five hours something happens that the casino could not have expected: two players win a total of $2,600. "The max bet in this game was only $100 and some things went wrong," admits Grosjean. "For example, we can maximize the number of cards we see"—which makes for a more accurate count—"by my betting hearts and Pepper betting diamonds when red is strong overall. We didn't do that. But we will." Refinements fall into place for the second session. Grosjean and Pepper employ several dozen physical signals and verbal cues, confirming counts and sharing information, that go undetected by security. They work their way through a terrible downswing when a shoe that is rich in black-suited cards consumes $9,000 worth of wagers. Trying to be helpful, the dealer advises Pepper to change tack. She tells him, "It's a red shoe"—which is based on the fact that one red card after another has been coming out. Unbeknownst to her, of course, the preponderances of reds makes bets on black cards all the more valuable. After hearing the dealer's suggestion, Grosjean stews and thinks to himself, Lady, you have no idea. The two people at your table know more about this game than anyone else on the planet.
But there are nice surprises as well. Some of the burn cards prove to be identifiable, and a new dealer cuts much deeper than she is supposed to. After the smoke clears, Grosjean and his partner have spent a total of 16 hours winning $17,100 from a game that is designed to be a sucker bet. As Grosjean explains with a shrug, "It's a carnival game, so the casino doesn't take it seriously. But, like a lot of carnival games, this one can be exploited."
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Harvard University, with a degree in applied mathematics, 40ish James Grosjean has made it his life's work to win money from casinos. He's outlined some of his strategies in a dense treatise called Beyond Counting, which was published in 2000 and sold out of its first printing by 2003. This year he self-published an updated edition, Exhibit CAA, which sells for around a whopping $250. The title refers to what Beyond Counting was called when used as an exhibit in a court trial that arose from imbroglios between Grosjean, Caesars Palace, Imperial Palace and Griffin Detective Agency. Jurors agreed that the casinos' security guards roughed up Grosjean without justification. The result: a six-figure jury reward against Imperial Palace (currently being appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court), an undisclosed settlement with Caesars and Chapter 11 bankruptcy for Griffin, which remains in business and still specializes in catching cheaters and advantage players for the casinos.
Grosjean's skills are so effective that casino personnel were convinced he was cheating. In reality, he makes it a point to avoid cheating at all costs; Grosjean was merely winning by capitalizing on casino shortcomings. It's something that he has a knack for doing. Though he's reaped his largest cash rewards from blackjack (a game at which some casinos have limits as high as $10,000 per hand), his true passion is uncovering games that casinos view as impenetrable and police poorly. Running the math, and using his custom-made computer programs, he finds cracks that can be profitable (often in spite of low betting limits) and difficult to pick off.
It's a modus operandi that has helped Grosjean and his crew to reap millions of dollars by playing stone-cold sucker games that include baccarat, three-card poker, pai gow poker and single-deck blackjack, which is generally viewed as unprofitable for card counters due to low payouts and limits. In these situations, his biggest concern usually centers around whether he wants to win so much, so quickly, that the casino gets suspicious and ultimately corrects exploitable mistakes. One alternative, of course, is to slowly milk a game, taking smaller amounts per session, but keeping the game alive longer.
When Baccalette was introduced at Sam's Town, a Vegas casino favored by locals, Grosjean and a couple of partners took the former approach. "The game was basically roulette, played with cards dealt out of a shoe," recalls Grosjean. "Baccalette was so obviously beatable that if we didn't kill it, somebody else would have. I remember seeing a guy, standing around the table, watching us destroying the game. I'm pretty sure it was the inventor. He looked sicker by the minute." Grosjean considers this for a beat and emits a burst of mad laughter. Then he adds, "I almost felt sorry for him. Almost."
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David Subpeo — March 2, 2013 10:23pm ET
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