Monday, December 31, 2007

A Strategy Up Their Sleeves 

An interesting NY Times article about the latest breed of card-counters in blackjack.



When he hits the blackjack tables at the Foxwoods casino in eastern Connecticut, Mr. S is no longer a construction worker in his 20s laboring for a weekly paycheck. Dressed casually and acting as if he couldn’t care less what anyone thinks, he plays the part of a pushy rich kid who has no problem making bets that often exceed $1,000 a hand.

His act is observed knowingly by friends — his teammates, really, who hover incognito around the blackjack table. With time, Mr. S’s rich-boy persona may earn them all lots of money.

For the last seven months, the five friends — including a paralegal, a beer distributor and a pool cleaner — have been hitting the casinos in Atlantic City and Connecticut, risking their $50,000 stake in hope of winning hundreds of thousands of dollars by a strategy known as card counting.

Each team member knows how to count cards on his own, meaning he recognizes when the odds have shifted from the casino’s favor to the player’s. It’s then — when there are still a disproportionate number of picture cards and tens left to be played — that a card counter dramatically raises his bets.

Inspired by Ben Mezrich’s best seller, “Bringing Down the House,” a 2002 chronicle of a group of M.I.T. math whizzes who collectively won millions in Las Vegas in the 1990s, the team began visiting casinos in June, joining many others who came to card counting through the same route. The card-counters’ ranks will likely swell even more this spring with the release of “21,” a film based on Mr. Mezrich’s book.

Mr. S and his friends agreed to let a reporter observe two of their outings on the condition that they be identified only by an initial. Although counting cards isn’t against the law, casinos in most states can legally bar anyone suspected of the practice.

Foxwoods, the largest and one of the most profitable casinos in the country, doubts it loses much money to card counters, largely because it is a skill difficult to master. But anyone suspected of counting is shown the door. “Our position is that card counters disrupt the fun and excitement of other people playing the game,” said John A. O’Brien, the president of Foxwoods.

Because there are wild swings in the amounts a lone card counter wagers — a sure sign to a pit boss monitoring the tables — playing by oneself presents a problem. This is why the members of the blue-collar crew, like others before them, play as a team. At Foxwoods, Mr. S takes the role of the big player. Mr. T, the pool cleaner, stars as the high roller at Mohegan Sun, the other big Connecticut casino. The others serve as spotters, wagering the minimum and silently signaling when it’s time for the high roller to sit down and bet big.

For Mr. S, the role of a “pompous jerk” — Mr. T’s term — can be effective. When the team made its maiden voyage as card counters, Mr. S got the signal that a deck was rich with tens. He ignored a player who told him to wait. When she declined to slide over a seat so that he could play two hands at once, he barked, “I’m betting real money here.” The pit boss, part of whose job is to pamper high rollers, ordered her to scoot over.

Mr. S was dealt two sevens. The dealer had a two showing. Mr. S split the pair and doubled his bet — the correct play by the numbers, even if the casual player is reluctant to split anything but aces.

“I’m glad my husband is not here to see this,” the woman said.

“At least he doesn’t have to hear your mouth,” Mr. S replied.

The team won $12,000 that night. But its members were hardly ready to celebrate. Far more card counters lose than win. Mistakes are easy to make, and discipline is hard to maintain. Besides, $12,000 was a pittance compared with what they hoped to win.

MR. T and Mr. S. started going to casinos in early 2006. They didn’t play as a team but pooled their money and split their winnings and losses. A half-dozen times over the next six months, they won — until a trip to Las Vegas that summer. “We got crushed,” Mr. S said. They lost thousands.

The Las Vegas trip motivated the pair to adopt a team approach. They recruited Mr. K, the paralegal, and Mr. J, who declined to provide any details about himself. Later, a second Mr. J, a beer distributor, joined the group.

They also sought help from Mike Aponte, one of the stars of “Bringing Down the House,” and a founder of the Blackjack Institute in New York City. He says he has given private lessons to more than 50 people, most of them well off and between the ages of 25 and 40. These daylong individual sessions cost $5,000, more for a group. Several hundred others have paid $899 to attend daylong group workshops.

Mr. Aponte teaches the “Hi-Lo count system.” There are more complex strategies, but the advantage of Hi-Lo is its simplicity. A counter scans the cards face up on the table, subtracting one point for a picture card, a ten or an ace, and adding one point for the cards two through six. You ignore the sevens, eights and nines. The higher the count and the deeper the dealer is into the plastic card case, or shoe, the more the odds favor the player.

Mr. Aponte counseled the team: Learn the shift changes of dealers and pit bosses. Play for an hour or two before a shift change, take a break and then play again when a new crew is watching the floor. Communicate the count to the big player with code words when he joins a table: “baseball,” say, means the count is a plus 9, “football” plus 11.

Look natural, blend in, don’t get greedy. “You need to practice until you can do this in your sleep,” Mr. Aponte said.

That they did. Through the first half of 2007, they met as many as four times a week, dealing cards to one another, testing their ability to keep the count during a fast-moving game. That strained relations with girlfriends and bosses, and caused tensions inside the team.

Mr. K, the paralegal, felt the strain more than the others. Their sessions ate into both his overtime and his sleep. It also took him longer than the others to master the system. He grew so frustrated at one point, he threw a chair and stormed out, vowing not to return. “To be honest,” he said, “I wouldn’t still be doing this if not for” his friend Mr. T.

The four attended a refresher course at Mr. Aponte’s Blackjack Institute last April (where this reporter first met them). “Mike basically told us we were ready,” Mr. T said. Still, a month or so passed before they felt ready to start risking their $50,000 stake.

The typical blackjack player helps enrich casinos like Foxwoods. The Blackjack Institute says that the average weekend player who bets $50 a hand for five hours can expect to lose $400. Even the gambler who plays perfectly, according to the math, will still lose money, though more slowly: $100 over five hours, because the house still holds a slight advantage.

But a card-counting team can expect around a 1-percent edge over the casino, Mr. Aponte said. It can leverage the advantage by wagering more money when the odds shift in its favor.

Mr. T and his team play for lower stakes than some of the more renowned card-counting teams. The M.I.T. team routinely risked $5,000 to $10,000 per hand. The high roller on Mr. T’s team typically wagers between $200 and $600 a hand, though he often plays two hands simultaneously.

Lower stakes may mean less scrutiny by casino personnel, but that doesn’t make the men less paranoid. One trick employed by Mr. S and Mr. T is to give the impression that they are degenerate gamblers. They’ll lose $1,000 on a hand — and then dig into their pockets for more chips, rather than sit behind a small mountain of chips.

“That makes us look like losers rather than winners,” Mr. T said.

As of mid-December, after a dozen or so trips, the team was up $45,000. That’s not to say the adventure has been without its confidence-rattling moments. There was the time in November when the members lost $10,000 in 30 minutes of play. And on a recent visit to Atlantic City, they were down $13,000, and suddenly working to stay calm.

“We all decided to keep on playing, but it was hard,” Mr. T said. “We’re supposed to trust in the math, but in truth it hurts when we lose like that.”

They still try to get together to practice and test one another at least once a week, a routine certain to become more rigorous in the coming weeks. Soon, the crew plans on visiting Las Vegas for a week or two, depending on how much time can be negotiated with wives, girlfriends and jobs.

“That’ll be the big test,” Mr. T said in a tone that fell between confidence and trepidation.

All Content Copyright Iggy 2003-2007
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