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
(continued from page 1)
Grosjean distinctly remembers discovering a world beyond card counting. He was in the midst of earning a graduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago. Hitting the local riverboats between classes, he found blackjack games to be countable and profitable. On Halloween day, 1997, Grosjean had a $40 bet on the felt, and the count was slightly positive. The dealer slid him a pair of 8s. She had a 6 showing and he saw a corner of her hole card as she tucked it below the top one. That down card was a Queen. Grosjean split his 8s, ran into a bit of good fortune and wound up with six bets on the single hand. He played his cards exactly as he would have without knowing what the dealer had.
Still, though, it was a revelatory moment. "To know that I would not get burned by the dealer having a 5 in the hole was a great feeling of power; while splitting and doubling, I knew she had a 65 percent chance of busting," he remembers, his voice rising with excitement. "She continued to expose her cards. I nicknamed her Front Loader, and I can say that, to this day, she remains one of the best dealers I've ever had. As recently as a year ago, I played her table, and she is still just as good."
Nearly overnight, Grosjean reconfigured his playing strategy and changed his plans for the future. At that point he had been interviewing with Wall Street firms and nearly landed a position at Goldman Sachs, where he would have been working with an elite crew of statisticians. A dip in the market caused the position to be back-burnered, but Grosjean had already seen bigger possibilities in casinos. He found that the best source for information on what is known as hole carding was a book by blackjack pioneer Ken Uston called Million Dollar Blackjack. It provided tips and stats and claimed that perfect hole carding, under optimal conditions, generated a 9.9 percent advantage. Grosjean recognized this as huge—these days, however, he regularly plays games where he attains upsides of 30 to 60 percent—but he decided to do his own calculations and discovered that Uston had underestimated the edge. Optimal blackjack hole carding could create a mind-blowing 13 percent advantage (as opposed to the maximum of 2 percent generated by straight-ahead card counting). This meant 100 hands of blackjack, with an average bet of, say, $200, would be worth $2,600. But there was a problem: the information one can get is rarely perfect. You might see a corner of a card without knowing exactly what the card is. "Often you only know that it's a 10 or a picture card or an ace," says Grosjean. "So people did a lot of guessing. I figured that there had to be a chart that could be made for partial information."
Grosjean coded software and came up with a proprietary strategy for hole carding with partial information. He worked out a long list of deviations from basic strategy that could be applied against most every imaginable circumstance. The new data gave him a 6 to 9 percent advantage and provided a real-world strategy. Suddenly the notion of working on Wall Street seemed unappealing. He figured that he'd rather play games for a living. During 60 days of hole carding over three months, he made more than $35,000. Grosjean jettisoned from an in-debt grad student to a player with an exponentially expanding bankroll. Then the inevitable happened: Grosjean got banned from the boat.
He felt awful but soon found greener pastures, first in Las Vegas and later in the hundreds of small, independent casinos that have sprouted up across the United States. Not wanting to rely solely on one game, he quickly expanded his repertoire. "I realized that there is nothing special about blackjack," recalls Grosjean, who analyzes games, works with partners who do the serious betting (they're known as Big Players, or BPs, in gambling parlance) and orchestrates their moves through discreet visual and verbal signaling. "Blackjack is a game where cards are supposed to be completely hidden by the casino dealers but, by their error, may not be. Many games fit that description."
However, as Grosjean emphasizes, seeing part of a card is not very profitable unless you can capitalize on the information. "Without the right chart, if you're doing a lot of guesswork, you may have a 1.5 percent edge," he says. "But that's not enough. So many bad things can happen with that small of an advantage."
In recalling one of his great exploits, Grosjean looks back to a seemingly innocuous single-deck blackjack game being dealt at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. During his career, Grosjean recalls 10 instances in which he and his group won more than $100,000 during a single session of play. Two of those sessions took place during his run at the MGM, the bigger of which yielded $225,000.
Thanks to a Chinese woman who had a habit of dealing cards high, Grosjean was able to get a very good read on what she held. The game was a gold mine. Even better, Grosjean cultivated a source inside the casino. So he knew where his favorite dealer would be each evening. With that knowledge, he had players locking up the all-important last seat—from which Grosjean could spot cards and run plays while making minimum bets and keeping himself protected from casino wrath. "If all goes well, no one looks at me," says Grosjean, who, just in case, has been known to wear one set of clothing over another. A quick-change session in the men's room can instantly make him difficult to identify.
At the MGM, Grosjean estimates that his crew hit this particular dealer 12 times and earned more than $500,000 during 90 or so hours of play. Through it all, there was no heat from casino security. But other teams got wind of this profit center, played without subtlety (say, hitting a 19 when the dealer had a 20), and it became clear that this great game would soon burn out. More importantly, says Grosjean, "The way they were playing, the casino would quickly recognize what was going on, and that could bring heat on our Big Player. So we shut the game down ourselves, rather than waiting for MGM to do it." The team enlisted a Chinese friend to tell the dealer, in her native tongue, that she was exposing cards. "The dealer got a doctor's note, saying that she had carpal tunnel syndrome and couldn't deal pitch games anymore." The casino moved her to baccarat, the Big Player maintained his clean status and Grosjean resumed his search for the next great game.
While Grosjean's financial results are unquestionably impressive, he can be a polarizing figure. Despite the legitimacy of his techniques—the Supreme Court of Nevada has declared hole carding legal—there are some in the blackjack world who look down on Grosjean's endless quest to find sloppy dealers. Not surprisingly, casino executives are completely unimpressed by the advantage player's tireless work ethic. Their feelings are pretty well summed up by the way Palms boss George Maloof responds to me when I mention hole carding: "Oh, you mean cheating?"
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David Subpeo — March 2, 2013 10:23pm ET
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