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Blackjack Counters

Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

Nothing lures money to a casino's gambling tables like Fight Night. Nothing. Not the lure of complimentary limousines or call girls or gourmet meals. Not fawning employees, not enormous suites, not even private yachts or chartered jets.

This particular Fight Night is at Caesars Palace, perhaps Las Vegas' premier shrine to unbridled opulence. Even before a lunatic hang glider crashes into the ring ropes during the main event, you can feel this will be a memorable evening. Just look at the dealers, standing expectantly over empty roulette wheels and bare baccarat pits: they resemble anxious actors waiting to make their first summer-stock entrance. Fight Night attracts big money from Europe, the Middle East, the Orient. They'll come from Dallas and Chicago and Miami, too--in fact, from every corner of the planet. And big money means big tips. Tended to correctly, a roomful of VIPs tosses $100 gratuities the way a bougainvillea sprouts blossoms. This evening is going to produce a bumper crop.

Celebrities, money and sex are all flowing freely tonight. Bruce and Demi and Sly and Dustin and the Reverend Jesse are at Caesars tonight watching Evander Holyfield regain the belt from a pudgy Riddick Bowe. Guys you've never heard of before are here, too: a supermarket owner from Connecticut, Minnesota's king of tires, the largest chemical manufacturer in Oklahoma. When the fight's over, the gamblers among them will throw so much money at the casino's gambling tables that it will make you nauseous. Sure, to them the wagers are just so many colorful chips. But to the amazed onlookers, their gargantuan bets are a new Ford Escort, Junior's freshman-year tuition, the down payment on a Florida condo.

The big boys attend Fight Night primarily to be seen, to mingle with the famous and powerful, to assert their place in the hierarchy of high rollerville. They go because they can. Stars, newsmakers, the most prodigious gamblers on the planet--there are some seriously heavy hitters at Caesars Palace tonight. And a man named Ron* is also here--playing blackjack.

To describe Ron would be difficult, because although he has a distinctive hairstyle, prominent facial features and a fancy wardrobe, none of these outward trappings are really his. The gold-encrusted man swaggering through the crowd with a deliciously naughty blonde on one hand and a tumbler of whiskey in another appears to be yet one more of the clueless high rollers heading toward the $500 minimum-bet blackjack tables, ready to blow off $20,000 or $30,000 in pursuit of a night's entertainment.

In fact, this particular high roller is the creation of a $1,000-a-day makeup artist, who, through the magic of latex prosthetics and costume jewelry, has transformed Ron from a nerdy nebbish into a flashy playboy. And not only will Ron definitely not lose the stack of $1,000 chips before him, he will likely win something approaching $100,000--or as much as he thinks he can get away with. Because although he looks like one of the crowd, an extravagantly wealthy man in search of a good time, Ron is at Caesars Palace to work. He is here to count cards.

"You've got to love these Fight Nights," says Ron. "They're about the only time guys like me can still make a score."

A guy like Ron, an expert blackjack counter, can obliterate the usual house advantage. Where the novice player clearly takes the worst of the gamble and accomplished basic-strategy players get an almost even proposition, the expert counter actually has an edge of a few percentage points over the casino. While a 1.5 percent or 2 percent advantage may not seem like much, consider this: the house edge in craps and baccarat is even less, yet the entertainment emporiums in the desert seem to have little trouble keeping the neon glowing along Las Vegas Boulevard.

Statistically speaking, for every $1,000 the expert counter puts into action, his expected return is $1,020. Playing three "spots" at the table at $2,000 a piece, players like Ron have a mathematical expectation of $120 profit for every round of cards dealt. A good dealer can easily deal 100 rounds per hour. So although Ron's edge may initially seem infinitesimal, it is, in fact, enough to make a sizable profit. Enough that Ron hasn't worked a regular job since he was a teenager.

His office is a felt-covered table and his tools, a deck of cards--in this case, at Caesars, six decks dealt faceup out of a rectangular container called a shoe. The game is simple: picture cards are worth 10 points; aces are one or 11; and all other cards have their face value. On each round, the person at the table (including the dealer) closest to 21, without going over, wins the hand.

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