The Twenty One Club
If you're under the impression that the gambling industry loves all patrons equally, making no distinction between suckers and experts, consider what might happen if the management of the world's biggest casinos knew the date and location of Max Rubin's annual Blackjack Ball.
"A nice little Scud missile aimed at that party would wipe out a lot of our problems," one casino executive confesses. "In five minutes we could get rid of most of the guys we don't want in our joint."
The executive is joking, of course. To prohibit (or strongly dissuade) the world's best card counters, shuffle trackers and other expert advantage players, many of whom attend the Blackjack Ball, casinos don't have to resort to finely targeted terrorist attacks. Or even random murders. By law they may simply "bar" the customers they don't care to serve.
But the threat of being charged with criminal trespass usually does not deter serious blackjack professionals. A change of name, a different look (sometimes by disguise), and they're back in business. No matter how many detectives from Griffin Investigations (a firm specializing in casino investigations) roam casino floors searching for sophisticated players, the most successful blackjack practitioners will find a way to escape the surveillance net and extract hundreds of thousands of dollars from the gambling industry. Which is why precise directions to the Blackjack Ball are of more than passing interest to the people who run the casinos.
Cigar Aficionado isn't telling. But we will say this: the Blackjack Ball takes place somewhere in suburban Las Vegas; it's held during a time of year when all of the world's major blackjack teams have representatives in town; and the guest list includes the greatest collection of gambling talent on the planet, including most of the members of the famed Hyland team (as in Tommy Hyland, ringleader of the most successful and best-organized syndicate) and the M.I.T. crew (as in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from whence the three dozen or so teammates took degrees in math and computer science). The Ball also attracts an equal number of soloists, whose names would mean nothing to the average gambler but are legendary to those who make a living in the casinos.
According to the Blackjack Ball's popular host, Max Rubin, the nom de plume of the garrulous professional gambler who authored a wickedly revealing book on Las Vegas casinos' perks system (see "Comp City," Cigar Aficionado, Autumn 1995) getting an invitation requires a background check and the recommendation of a former participant who will vouch for the newcomer's integrity. Each year about 70 people qualify. If it all sounds vaguely akin to the process for becoming a "made" man in the Mafia, there's a reason: one "rat," and the best blackjack players in the world would be instantly out of business. "If a Griffin [agent] could infiltrate this party," Rubin says, chortling, "it would make the guy's career."
Think of it this way: as a group, the guests at Rubin's Blackjack Ball easily earn at least $10 million a year playing cards. Assume that one Las Vegas casino is a particularly easy target and therefore absorbs the brunt of the financial assault. Given that most gaming stocks trade at approximately 20-times earnings, Blackjack Ball guests could cost the casino's parent company $200 million in stock value.
The Blackjack Ball started about three years ago as a lark, a semiannual party that was part lodge meeting, part secret society. Most times, whenever the big teams converged in Las Vegas, 20 to 30 players would informally congregate in a sprawling hotel suite to trade stories, money and insider information. And while the get-together was primarily social, according to Max Rubin, the early incarnations of what would eventually grow into the Ball always had an undercurrent of professional pride. Success as a gambler, a profession that produces exponentially more losers than winners, demands not only tremendous talent but a prodigious ego as well. One does not achieve long-term gambling success of any sort without an enormous belief in one's odds-defying excellence. "If you're making a quarter-million a year playing blackjack, you tend to think you're the best hustler to ever step foot in a casino," Rubin says.
"At the early parties, guys would be off in a corner, seeing who could count down a deck fastest," Rubin recalls. "And who could cut most accurately, and all the other things blackjack players do. I decided to make it into an organized event." While the imbibing, storytelling and merrymaking remain, the Blackjack Ball these days is primarily a competition, an evening-long test of knowledge and skill that's meant to identify the best blackjack player among the best of blackjack players. Picture a series of friendly bar bets in which all the participants happen to be expert con artists trying to outsmart every other grifter in the joint. It's a swell party.
Rubin sees to that. In addition to providing a sumptuous buffet and a safe house, the King of Comps is also the Master of Ceremonies, the Head Adjudicator and the Grand Quiz Master. In other words, it's Max's party and he makes the rules, esoteric as they may be. The most peculiar of these is the one that goes something like this: to gain admittance to the Ball, each guest must pay an entry fee of one bottle of Champagne or wine acquired solely from a casino comp (some participants bring their bottle of bubbly still demurely wrapped in the room service linen). Furthermore, each guest must bet at least $20 in the Blackjack Ball pari-mutuel pool.
"You gotta make 'em," Rubin quips, "'cause most of these guys won't bet on anything where they don't have an edge." Immediately upon entering the spectacular Rubin estate, an adult playground with the kind of outdoor recreational facilities one normally finds at the better beach resorts, a visitor sees a handwritten tote board. But instead of horses, the entrants in the Blackjack Ball "race" are the guests themselves, whose odds of winning the championship are listed in ascending order. For the 1999 gala, top "ponies" going off at short odds include Arnold Snyder, the publisher of Blackjack Forum; Anthony Curtis, the publisher of Las Vegas Advisor and a former professional player; J. Chang, the 1998 champion; as well as the luminaries who prefer not to see their name in print.
The winner gets a sparkling trophy known as the Blackjack Cup, the grudging admiration of his peers and the unofficial title of "Most Feared Man in the Casino Business."
In any other setting than a blackjack pit, most people would not be afraid of the 1999 champion, "Terry," one of the MIT boys. With thinning hair, extra thick eyeglasses and the pasty complexion of someone who spends far too much time indoors, Terry is not an intimidating presence. But put a stack of chips and a deck of cards before him and he's like Kasparov at a chess table. He's been transformed from nebbish into trained killer.
Indeed, most of the participants at the Ball are generally unprepossessing men and women, the kind of people whose job demands that they learn to blend into a crowd, keeping their true talents secret from all but their closest colleagues. An outsider would not gaze upon one of the world's best blackjack players and think, "That guy has blackjack expert written all over him." He would think, "Nothing particularly remarkable." A guest at Rubin's Blackjack Ball could easily be your neighbor or your attorney or your friend from the gym. But there is nothing average about this group. The average intelligence in this congregation of professional gamblers is preposterously high, especially when it comes to problem solving. Few parties in Las Vegas can match the group's claim that almost 5 percent of its guests scored perfect 800s on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The players have had an hour or two to trade war stories, exchange money ($50,000 loans made on a handshake are not unusual here), and read about themselves in the latest editions of the Griffin book--"Man, that is one ugly mug shot they've got of me!" one well-known counter exclaims. Rubin then gets on a wireless microphone and calls the congregation to order. "Welcome to the Third Annual Blackjack Ball," he says. "May everyone I bet on win."
Each participant completes a 20-question preliminary test, meant to weed out the merely very good from the great. [See box.] The test is a mix of gambling trivia, rudimentary statistics and general knowledge, which Rubin includes because he feels a world-class blackjack player should "know about lots of stuff. You never know when it might come in handy."
The 15 top scorers enter the semifinals, where Rubin administers an even more difficult test, this one consisting of 15 questions. The four players who answer the most questions correctly advance to the final table. (If a playoff is necessary, it's conducted in the form of a putting contest--partly because Rubin thinks it's the fairest way, but mainly because watching a bunch of blackjack pros with a piece of sporting equipment in their hands is a recipe for instant comedy.)
Any well-read gambling dilettante could conceivably ace Rubin's written test and find himself competing for the coveted Blackjack Cup. But the finals gracefully separate the hardcore professionals--those who spend most of their waking hours in casinos around the world betting the house limit--from those who merely make a good living at the game.
The final table is a practicum, a thorough test of the requisite skills (as well as some not-so-necessary ones) for being a serious blackjack player in the real-world arena: counting down a deck in 20 seconds and determining if a big, little or neutral card has been removed; cutting exactly 21 cards out of a 52-card deck; playing expert strategy when all the 5s, 6s, 7s and 8s have been thrown out; tossing playing cards into a spittoon; memorizing a 13-card sequence; shuffling two pillars of chips with one hand; setting up a "cold" (prearranged) deck; figuring jackpot odds; and, in the (possibly specious) interest of "manliness," arm-wrestling the competition.
Each of the four contestants begins with $500 in casino chips and, naturally, must wager on himself, varying his bet depending on his level of proficiency at each task. The player with the most chips at the end of Rubin's blackjack Olympiad is the winner and, until next year, the king or queen of the Ball.
Discretion prohibits this magazine from publishing the visage of this year's winner. Terry plies his trade anonymously and would like to keep it that way. But next time you're in a casino and see an altogether unremarkable fellow with a mountain of chips before him, minding his business and getting phenomenally "lucky," quietly mention Max Rubin's name. Mention the Blackjack Ball. And see if the nameless gambler offers you a bottle of complimentary Champagne.
Michael Konik is the gambling columnist and contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.
Contestants at the Blackjack Ball must prove their competency on a mostly multiple-choice test; top scorers advance to the next round.
Here is a sample from the actual 1999 test. If you score higher than 50 percent, you may have a future as a professional gambler.
1 Japanese consider it bad luck to stick your chopsticks straight up in your rice bowl except at: a. Weddings; b. Funerals; c. Sumo wrestling matches; d. Business meetings
2 True or false: In Thailand a good-luck amulet for strength and mastery of games is a crocodile penis.
3 Who is generally credited with making the statement "anything worth having is worth cheating for"?
a. Dustin Marks; b. Steve Forte; c. Ken Uston; d. W. C. Fields
4 Played perfectly, which game has the highest odds in favor of the house?
a. American Roulette; b. Caribbean Stud Poker; c. Red Dog; d. Let it Ride
5 If you are triskaidekaphobic, what are you afraid of?
6 In Nevada, how much do you have to buy in for to make it is a "suspicious activity transaction"?
a. $1,000; b. $3,001; c. $10,000; d. $10,001
7 True or False? Lucky numbers notwithstanding, in Las Vegas the average monthly video poker drop, per store, is higher at the 7-11 chain than at any other convenience stores.
8 Which of these is the worst bet in a casino? a. Craps "any seven"; b. Baccarat "tie bet"; c. Keno "eight spot"; d. Let it Ride "side bet"
9 Playing Las Vegas Strip rules, if you remove a five from a single deck, what advantage does it give to the player?
a. .45%; b. .55%; c. .69%; d. .88%
10 True or false? On Monday evening December 21, 1998, more people in the United States watched professional wrestling than Monday Night Football.
Answers 1 b; 2 True; 3 d; 4 a; 5 the number 13; 6 b; 7 False; 8 d; 9 c; 10 True