We've all been there: sitting in a casino, throwing good money after bad, trying to beat the odds at a blackjack table. It's small consolation that everybody else is getting massacred as well. Or almost everybody else. One guy hunches quietly in a corner seat, observing everything with an air of snooty detachment. He's scoring 17s, 21s, 19s, getting all the right cards, hitting with uncanny accuracy, and raising his bets at precisely the opportune moments. You and the others double down with 11s only to get dealt fives. You hit with 15s or 16s and draw picture cards. Once-handsome skyscrapers of chips slowly disintegrate into shabby little hovels of $1 and $5 disks.
Something is obviously wrong here, and you can't blame it all on rotten luck.
Skill, systems, strategies and discipline -- all of those things make the difference between a player who enters a casino to throw money around and one who goes in with the intention of actually winning. Sure, for most of us, gambling is entertainment -- and you probably have little intention of earning a living from playing cards -- but it's inarguable that winning is a hell of a lot more entertaining than losing. I decide that I'd like to be the detached guy who seems to have ESP and more chips than anyone else at the table.
Armed with $500 of Cigar Aficionado's money, I head to Las Vegas and check into the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. I am a man on a mission. My intention is to tilt odds in my favor by getting inside the heads of three successful gamblers: a blackjack player who always doubles down at the right moment, a roulette expert who capitalizes on each of his wins, and a craps shooter who bets intelligently rather than randomly shoving chips around the baize-topped table. The goal here, at least for the time being, is not to get rich but to get smart. Rather than being a willy-nilly player who has a blast at the tables and goes home broke, my plan is to plug into the game, to win money, to transform into the rare kind of player whom people look at with curiosity and envy.
I want to be a winner.
Larry Grossman hosts a local radio show called "You Can Bet On It!" (archived at www.larrygrossman.com). He's interviewed every gambler imaginable and has done more than his share of wagering. One thing he's discovered about roulette is that, over the long haul, players cannot possibly win. "You can beat a session of the game," he says. "But you can't beat the game itself. The zero and double-zero tilt the odds in the casino's favor. While some guys talk about finding roulette wheels where the bias is slightly off and favors the player, you'd need to be an MIT graduate who's devoted his life to finding these tiny biases in order to capitalize on them. And who has time for that? Life is too short."
The system that Grossman proposes is simple. "You start with, say, $40 in chips," he begins. "You place one chip on each of five numbers. You give yourself eight chances for one of your numbers to hit. When the number hits, you collect 35 chips. So, on the next spin, you put four chips on each number. If you lose on that spin, you go back to betting one chip on each number and you still have a $15 profit. If you win with four chips -- the payout would be $140 -- you raise your bets to $10 on each spot. The payout there is $350. That's real fun and you are pretty much guaranteed to go home a winner for the night. But you're now putting up 25 chips on each number. Let me tell you -- as somebody who reached that point one time -- your heart is pumping fast; you're getting the ride of your life; a nuclear bomb could go off and you'd still be standing there, waiting to see whether or not your number hits." What if it doesn't? "You always return to the one-chip bet."
He relates this in the lounge area of The Orleans Hotel & Casino. Just before we head over to a wheel, he adds, "Roulette is a perfect game for somebody who is drunk, stoned, or doesn't know how to play anything else. It's a no-brainer. You relax, put your chips on numbers, and the dealer does everything else. There is no work involved."
We pull up our chairs and sit down at the wheel; each of us fronted by stacks of 40 chips. As we select the numbers we'll play throughout this session -- I hope 32 will be luckier for me than it was for O.J. -- Grossman says, "The beauty of this game is that you can be seated right next to a guy with a Ph.D. in mathematics and you both will have the same chances. There's something nice about that."
The wheelman at the table is a slightly bitter but boyish-looking fellow who seems to enjoy it when people lose. He gets a kick out of the way we obsessively cover our pieces of real estate on the roulette board, laying down $1 chips with overblown care. A few spins in, the strategy pays off for me. But then, when I quadruple each bet, the little marble settles into the number 16 slot -- definitely not one of my numbers. The dealer sweeps his board of chips, looks at me, and says, "I guess you won't be able to buy that car you had been counting on." I play the good sport, smile, and go back to betting single chips.
After about 20 minutes, Grossman's $40 stack has been depleted. I win a few times with single chips but never manage to parlay the next bet into a bigger payoff. The possibility of how well things could go, however, becomes evident after Grossman refuses my offer to get him going again with a dozen chips and his numbers hit three times in a row. Looking a little heartbroken, Grossman calculates how much money he could have won -- $525. Then he says, "We started playing about five minutes too early."
After my 40 chips get wiped out, I ignore Grossman's advice and cash in for another 40. After about a dozen spins of the wheel, those are gone as well. I decide to save the rest of my money for the craps tables and depart to that annoying dealer's send-off: "Better luck next time, sir!"
En route to valet parking, I can't help but wonder what happens if you work your way up to a $25 spin and your number hits again. "You go up one more increment, to $50 on each bet," says Grossman. "Then, if you lose, you walk. You're done. Go to the bar and buy yourself a glass of Champagne to celebrate having accomplished what you set out to do: you beat a game you really shouldn't have beaten. The gods smiled on you." Then he shrugs and adds, "But even if you don't win, you get a good ride and the most you stand to lose is $40."
Craps is arguably the most exciting game in any casino. When a dice thrower gets hot, the table seethes with so much action that it feels likely to levitate off the ground as players scream for numbers and spray chips all over the felt, making random bets based on hunches and intuition. It's a lot of fun -- in a team sport kind of way -- but it also tends to be costly when those hunches fail to pan out.
Michael DeMarco is a former stockbroker who moved to Las Vegas 10 years ago. For a while he made a living playing craps and, under the pseudonym Mickey Day, recently wrote an entertainingly surreal book about the game, entitled Master Craps with Einstein. DeMarco is a friendly guy with a brushcut of gray hair and a booming voice. He's devised a craps system that minimizes losses, maximizes wins, and is easy enough to learn that you don't need to be Albert E. to put it into practice.
DeMarco waits for me at the bar inside Binion's Horseshoe, an old-school temple of craps and the casino where a gambler named Archie Karas enjoyed a legendary run at the tables that generated many millions in winnings before his luck turned and he gave it all back to the house.
We order a couple of Cokes and I wonder why DeMarco chose Einstein as his metaphorical gambling partner. "A girl I know gave me a book about Einstein; I started thinking about how he would play craps," explains DeMarco, as if this would be the most obvious consideration after reading about a genius mathematician. "Two of the things he believed in were a unifying principle to the universe -- which you could call a god -- and closed systems. I started to think of 7 and 11 as the two gods of craps. The closed system is the 36 combinations of numbers that you can get from rolling two dice. When you massage those numbers, you find out that the average number of rolls before a craps decision gets made is 3.75. If you were Einstein, what would you do with that information? You would devise a system for three rolls, which honors the 7 and 11 when they do show."
If you're Michael DeMarco, and you are playing with $10 units of chips, your system translates thusly: $10 on the pass line (in which you bet on the first number that the shooter throws, the "point"), $10 on the come (in which you bet on the next, nonpoint number that the shooter throws), and $20 for a second come bet. It's a conservative money management system in which you double every second wager. The idea is that if numbers fail to hit, your downside is limited, but, if a thrower suddenly gets hot, then your bets escalate quickly. Most importantly, since the come bet's opening roll pays off on 7 and 11 (but loses on 2, 3 or 12 on the opening roll), you protect your money against crapping out on the second or third roll.
Because craps is a streaky game, DeMarco likes to increase his chances of making some early headway by finding a good table. "Good" in this case is defined by dense crowds of bettors who are cheering wildly. This means that the dice are hot and people are winning money. "If you see somebody walking away from a table, even if it is crowded, don't be too quick to slip in there," warns DeMarco. "You have to figure that the guy is leaving because he's lost money."
No wildly ecstatic crowds are in sight. So we settle for a table that's fairly busy and lively. I throw a pair of $100 bills on the table; the croupier hands me stacks of chips. The first thing DeMarco does is tell me to put four of the $25 chips into my pocket. Then we lay out $1 and $3 bets (this is about testing the system, not about being a high roller). Every time 7s or 11s hit on the opening roll, DeMarco tells me to put those chips in my pocket. "That way," he says, speaking with the logic of a true gambler who's sweated through his share of god-awful nights, "you know you'll have something to bring back to the cage with you when this is all over."
We spend about an hour at the table, throwing dice, making bets, watching the cubes bouncing off of felt bumpers. When our numbers come up, we put additional chips behind the pass line, taking odds that the number will hit again (this bet gives the craps player the best odds against the casino). Post-point 7s hit with alarmingly high frequency, and I am grateful that I have some money down on the come line.
"These are surrogate 'don't pass' bets," DeMarco says, referring to wagers that put money on the thrower hitting 7 before making his point. "What you want to do is last long enough till a streak comes up and maybe clip a few bucks along the way."
Unfortunately, hanging in there and clipping a few bucks are about all we're doing. When a lanky blonde has a hard time establishing a point, DeMarco mutters, "Cold as ice. This table is horrible. Let's play somewhere else."
We find a table that seems a bit livelier and have better fortune. Then the croupier passes me the dice. I blow on them for luck and let the bones roll. They bank off of the felt, establishing my point (9). I don't get it right away, but we make our come bets, and a couple of those happen to hit. The 9 eventually comes through as well. So, yeah, we make some money. We have a little bit of excitement. But other players' roars turn to groans when I crap out before hitting the point again.
I'm ready to lay down a fresh bet when the dice get handed off to an elderly man, rail thin and miserable-looking. At a table full of players placing money on the pass line, he drops his chips upon the "don't pass." DeMarco grabs my wrist before our chip hits the felt. "This guy is death," he says. "I don't like it."
We back away from the table and I realize that we've beaten the game by about $60. It's not all the money in the world, but it is a decent return on $100 -- especially when the dice never got particularly hot. DeMarco suggests that we end this session while we're ahead and the tables are cold.
As we retreat to the bar for a couple of beers, he recounts his best-ever run at a craps table: "I was playing at the El Cortez, a real dumpy place, not too far from here. Suddenly the shooter began throwing numbers without hitting craps. I was playing with $25 chips and they became $500 chips real quickly. I saw a statistical aberration taking place and I began pushing everything." He takes a swig of beer and says, "You never know when it will come up or where it will come from. So what you need is a system that will escalate your bets without letting you go broke while you wait for the aberration."
This is in my mind a couple hours later, when I return to the Mandalay and stroll past an obviously busy craps table. I cash in $100 and follow the Einstein technique. By the time the dice turn chilly, I'm ahead by another $80 and heading up to my room.
The London Club inside the newly renovated Aladdin Resort & Casino is Vegas's elite place for gambling. Designed to have a racy James Bond air, the room features female dealers in evening gowns, men in tuxedos, and a private dining room for super-high rollers. Posh though the joint may be, a blackjack wizard whom we'll call David Tall doesn't like it one bit. All the games with minimums below $100 a hand use six decks. Tall recognizes this as a serious disadvantage to any player who wants to count or at least keep track of cards that pass through the dealer's shoe.
He suggests that we seek our fortune elsewhere. Heading out of the casino and across Las Vegas Boulevard to the Bellagio, he says, "I'll walk past 1,000 tables before I'll sit at a bad one." Tall has been counting cards since he was a teenager. He played in a gang headed by the notorious Ken Uston, and he's good enough that most of the casinos in town have banned him from playing. Tall views the lack of hospitality as a nod to his prodigious talents. "There are only two ways to win at blackjack," he says. "You must understand basic strategy, perfectly, and learn to count cards. If you only want to play on a casual basis, then at least learn basic strategy and stick to it. That cuts the casino's edge down to .05 percent, which is as close to 50/50 as you're going to get."
The most basic of basic strategies is that players hit with 16 and under as long as the dealer is showing a seven or higher. More detailed strategies and card counting systems can be found in the book, Blackjack For Blood, a bible for serious players. To brush up at home, Tall suggests, order a computer program called Ne Plus Ultra: The Master Course and Practicum. "It will teach you to count cards," promises Tall, "and uses flash cards to help you with memorization."
But it's more than just playing the cards at the table. Being successful at blackjack has a lot to do with how you handle the money in your wallet. "Let's say you have a mythical bankroll of $1,000," Tall suggests, leading the way through the high-end shopping mall that fronts the Bellagio. "Try to avoid betting more than 2 to 3 percent of that bankroll at any given time. And never chase your losses. I've seen guys lose two or three bets and then they start doubling up to win their money back. They think they're due for a win, but I don't believe in 'being due.' I've seen too many guys get unlucky; they count cards like foxes but can't catch a good hand and find it impossible to win. The public comes to Las Vegas with the intention of gambling for the entire time that they're here. Instead of taking a break when they're losing, they head for the ATM machine. You get angry, you probably have a few drinks, you chase money. How can you possibly win?"
After cruising the Bellagio's blackjack pits, Tall comes upon a table with a two-deck shoe and a $25 minimum. Perfect for our purposes. He stands around the table awkwardly for a couple minutes, fumbling through his pockets, looking for his money, moving very slowly. What he's doing is watching the cards being dealt for two hands and contemplating the status of the deck. Judging by all the low cards hitting the table, he figures it's heavy in 10s and aces -- a real advantage for players. Tall lays down a $50 bet and hits blackjack immediately.
Since his two cards are the only high ones on the table -- and it seems as if 10s and aces should be rolling out in rich profusion -- he bets $100 on the next hand. A pair of fives come his way, he doubles down, and draws an ace. He shifts down to $50 for a third hand and gets a 17 to the dealer's 15; she promptly goes over. While Tall clearly is getting good cards, he is also maximizing his opportunities, and the display being put on here is impressive. The dealer shuffles her double decks and Tall wagers only $25 because he has no clue as to what cards will be coming next. They turn out to be ace-three for him and a visible six for her.
Tall doubles down and draws an ace. Then she turns up her bottom card to reveal a 16, exactly what Tall figured she'd have. But she draws an ace, instead of the expected 10, which turns out to be the fourth ace dealt in this single hand. He watches as the dealer sweeps away his $25 chips that had been on the table. Then Tall suddenly gathers up the $700 in front of him, looks at me, and says, "We be gone."
"That's it?" I ask, a little disappointed at having watched him for such a short session.
"Once four aces are out, that deck is shot," he says. "There's nothing there for us anymore. Besides, we almost doubled our money." Eagle-eyeing around the casino for a place to cash out his winnings, he says, "Here's another thing to remember: when you win money, it's not the casino's money anymore, it's yours. A real fallacy is when people think they're playing with the casino's money, so they play looser. Once you win the money, it's yours. Take it. Then leave the casino."
And that is exactly what we do.
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.