Card Counters are not Welcome at Casinos, but they Use Disguises to Sneak
in and Win the Big Bucks
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.
Learning the basic rules of card counting is nearly as easy as memorizing the rules of the game; putting them to practical use is the hard part. Contrary to a widely held belief, professional blackjack counters don't memorize every card in the deck or decks. They can't tell you, for instance, at any given moment in a deal whether the queen of clubs has been spent or if all the red sevens remain to be dealt. Using a variety of tracking systems , the card counter tabulates the proportion of "good" cards (aces and tens) to "bad" cards (fours, fives and sixes). When the deck is rich in good cards and poor in bad ones, the player has the best of the game. By closely monitoring the favorableness (or unfavorableness) of the remaining cards, a blackjack counter can vary the size of his bets, wagering the minimum when conditions are unprofitable and increasing his volume when conditions are optimum.
A rich deck favors the player for two significant reasons. In a "normal" deck, blackjacks will appear once every 21 hands. When the deck is full of aces and tens, blackjack frequency will be noticeably higher. Granted, the dealer will receive a proportionally higher number of blackjacks, too. But his "21's" are paid at even money, whereas the player gets 3 to 2 on his action. (In addition, the player can profitably buy insurance when the dealer shows an ace. Though taking insurance is usually a bad play, a heavily skewed count sometimes makes this a correct move.) Furthermore, when playing with a rich deck, the dealer will frequently bust on his drawing hands (12 through 16), which, according to the rules, he must hit until he has at least 17. But the player, conversely, may stand.
As outlined in numerous books on blackjack, there is an irrefutably correct basic strategy for every combination of player hands and dealer up-cards. Exhaustive analysis, for example, has shown that standing on a 12 versus the dealer's 10 showing has a negative expectation of 17 cents per dollar bet. Standing on a 19 versus the dealer's four showing has a positive expectation of 41 cents. And splitting eights (if your first two cards are of the same value, you may split them, playing them as two separate hands) versus the dealer's five showing has a 26-cent edge over merely standing. The expert counter not only knows the correct basic strategy play for every conceivable situation, but, armed with powerful information, he can determine when it is statistically correct to vary from basic strategy. In essence, he knows the right play at all times.
Understandably, this does not thrill the casinos.
Ron's biggest obstacle isn't beating the game but being allowed to play. Perhaps the biggest lie in Vegas is the casinos' frequent assertion that they'll welcome anyone's action, even so-called card counters. Despite the undisputed legality of playing blackjack expertly, using only hundreds of hours of research (and an unusually nimble mind) to beat a game most people cannot defeat, the truth is casinos throw out card counters faster than you can say double down. Whether you're a $5 or black-chip bettor, if you play the game too well, you'll be asked to leave. (The casinos are considered private businesses and by law are allowed to determine whom they will serve.)
According to one Las Vegas casino executive, "No matter what you bet, if you play expertly you're perceived as a threat. We've got plenty of customers who don't play well. We don't need to have our tables filled with counters." To that end, he explains, the casinos employ pit bosses trained to recognize expert play, surveillance crews armed with computer software that mimics the betting patterns of a counter and, most remarkable, a private detective agency, Griffin Investigations, which maintains and distributes profiles of known counters to their casino clients. For players like Ron, walking into virtually any casino in the world without an elaborate disguise is nearly impossible.
"I've tried to play in some of the new Indian casinos and the riverboats that have opened in the Midwest, but they don't let you wager very much--and when you show any bet variances whatsoever, they ban you. I've been reduced to playing two or three times a year, during very big events, where there's so much money on the table and so much commotion I'm not noticed. These heavyweight title fights are about the only time I get out nowadays."
His largest challenge, Ron says, is acting the part. Bookish and soft-spoken away from the casino, Ron labors to appear boisterous and indulgent at the tables. "I have genuine difficulty ordering around the floor personnel, yelling for drinks, insulting the dealers. But it's all part of doing business."
Ron began his peculiar career in the late '70s while attending college at an esteemed university within striking distance of Atlantic City. An economics major with an astounding facility for numbers, he became interested in card counting after reading Edward O. Thorp's seminal blackjack work, Beat the Dealer. Curious but incredulous, Ron and a few friends trekked to the boardwalk to experiment with what they had learned. "We started out betting the minimum, getting a feel for the game, growing more confident with the theories," Ron says. "By the time we graduated, we had mastered a couple of sophisticated counting systems and increased our bets substantially. I must have won $50,000 in college alone."
Shunning a career in academia, Ron moved to Nevada, where he became part of a six-member syndicate that developed a computer that could track various styles of casino shuffling. By inputting data with his toes to a keyboard hidden in his shoe, Ron and his crew could successfully predict whole clusters of cards, based on how the dealer mixed the deck. Because their computer was only marginally based on the count, Ron's syndicate was seldom suspected of card counting. "We each cleared in the high six figures every year."
In 1986, though, using computers--concealed or not--became illegal in Nevada. After a confederate was severely beaten and extorted in the basement of one well-known Strip casino, Ron returned to straight counting. "It became almost impossible to make a living," he recalls. "I was banned from just about every casino in the world. Forget Vegas, I couldn't even play in Europe. One week a friend and I tried to play down in the Bahamas. They made us give back everything we had won, maybe $50,000, and we each spent a night in jail. The world--not just Vegas--has grown very intolerant of counters."
But on Fight Night everything changes. He's like a convict on work release.
Perched on the edge of his chair, resting a hand precariously low on the blonde's back (she's an escort rented for the evening), Ron appears to be concentrating on everything in Caesars but the cards. He's joking with the dealer, splashing his $500 and $1,000 chips in messy piles, casting lascivious glances at the seductively clad women strolling past. You can see what the pit boss is thinking behind his obsequious smile: "What a fool."
For nearly an hour Ron bets the minimum, seldom changing the size of his bets despite the occasional richness of the deck. He is, however, letting his comely companion play a spot every so often, in effect doubling the amount he is wagering. In a few rounds, Ron and his lady are up several thousand dollars. A crowd begins to form around the table. You can hear people whispering, "He's betting a thousand a hand" and "Look at all those chips." Everyone is mesmerized by the magnitude of his wagering--everyone, that is, except Ron, who appears more interested in working his fingers into the blonde's dress.
A large crowd, according to Ron, provides good cover. The casino is loath to boot out a customer--especially one who's betting so big--in front of other patrons. When five hands in a row produce a disproportionate number of low cards, Ron makes his move.
Looking like a bitter drunk who's miffed at losing his last three hands, Ron covers four different spots with $2,000 each. The pit boss takes a step closer to the table. The woman, seemingly on her own volition, takes a handful of chips and stacks them on the other spots. She looks at Ron for approval. "What the fuck!" he yells. "You feel lucky? Go ahead! Go ahead; it's only money!" The table is loaded with four $5,000 bets. He's successfully increased his wager nearly twentyfold--and the deck is clearly in his favor.
The dealer has an eight up. The woman, peeking at the cards, reveals Ron's hands: a 20, a blackjack, a 12 and a 19. Ron hits the 12 and busts; naturally he stands on the others. The dealer flips over her hole card, a 10. He wins three out of four, including a blackjack: $12,500 profit.
Ron must be tempted to return to a minimum bet; the deck is no longer rich. Instead, to the crowd's delight (and no doubt the pit boss's, too), Ron yells, "Let it ride! What the hell, double the son of a bitch!" His escort stacks the chips into $10,000 columns. The pit boss grins. The dealer takes a deep breath. And before a card can be dealt, Ron spills his drink all over the table.
The woman shakes her head. "That's bad luck," she says, pulling back the bets. "I know," Ron says to nobody in particular. "The cards are getting cold." Pushing the dealer two $100 chips, Ron gathers his tokens and stumbles to the next table.
For the next six hours, well into the wee hours of the morning, Ron continues to work. Shortly before the sun rises on Las Vegas, when the all-night gamblers start to drink black coffee instead of whiskey, Ron quits. He's up nearly $90,000. "I gotta stop," he says to the dealer. "My luck is changing." Ron leaves one last $100 tip and smiles at the pit boss. "You can never be too superstitious," he announces. "Especially when it comes to cards."
Michael Konik is a writer based in Hollywood, California.