The following is an excerpt from my Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.
“One warm evening in Las Vegas, a young man was walking on the famed Strip, contemplating what had just happened. He was a good card counter; he could count down a deck of cards accurately in 20 seconds flat and knew his strategy deviations cold. At his level of skill, he had nearly a 1% edge over the casinos, meaning he was capable of winning more than he would lose over his lifetime of playing blackjack. Yet, moments earlier, he had been barred from playing. An experienced professional card counter told him several days later, ‘Son, you know how to beat the game but you haven’t learned how to beat the casino.’ I know the facts of this story so well because I was that young man.”
Those sage words, “Son, you know how to beat the game but you haven’t learned how to beat the casino,” resonated in my brain for many days after my first barring. Yes, I could count down a deck of cards in 20 seconds. Yes, I could make the right bet and the right play depending on the count, even in a noisy casino atmosphere. I had invested a lot of time and practice to become a competent, successful blackjack card counter. However, the pro was right: no matter how skillful I was at card counting, if the casinos would not let me play, all my card-counting skills were for naught.
When I started my card-counting avocation in the mid-1970s, there weren’t many places to play blackjack (only in Nevada, and then a few years later in Atlantic City). Moreover, I had two goals, namely, saving all the money I would win playing blackjack so that I could:
- Retire early from my full-time job.
- Buy a condominium in Las Vegas.
I was in my late-20s when I set those two long-term goals. To achieve them, I would have to play a lot of blackjack over many years on a part-time basis. Being tossed out of casinos was a big roadblock to achieving those goals. I knew that there was always a risk that I could be caught and thrown out while card counting. However, I believed I could minimize this risk by playing in a manner that would keep me under the casinos’ radar. What follows are some of the techniques that I successfully employed over 25 years of card counting.
Taking a Team Approach
I was fortunate that shortly after I started my blackjack card-counting avocation in the 1970s, the first Atlantic City casino opened (Resorts International) with terrific playing rules, which included early surrender. Moreover, they were not allowed to bar blackjack card counters.
However, soon afterward, they were given the green light by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to implement counter-measures against card counters (moving the cut card up, flat betting a suspected card counter, and more.) This is when I first decided to use a team approach to playing blackjack, which I described in my book Blackjack: Take the Money and Run.
The team was just my wife and me. Our ploy to stay under the casinos’ radar was straightforward and it went like this.
I would find a blackjack game that had two open seats (preferably first and third base). I entered the game and bet the table minimum on every hand. I kept the count and played the majority of hands by the basic playing strategy. My wife would enter the game about 10 to 15 minutes later and sit at third base.
We wouldn’t give any indication that we knew each other. She played the role of the happy-go-lucky gambler, who was only playing to have a good time, not to win money. She talked to her fellow players, the dealer, the pit boss, and never looked at the cards as they were dealt. She would bet the table minimum until I gave her a discreet signal to increase her bet when the count became positive.
We had different signals corresponding to different bet sizes so when the count went very high she would bet the maximum in our bet range. (I was using the hi-lo counting system during this time.) We only had a few signals for strategy deviations. To keep everything simple, we focused more on bet-size variation. We used this type of camouflage in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. This ploy kept us under the casinos’ radar because:
- We never played together for longer than an hour in the same shift at any one casino.
- We never entered or left a casino together.
- We never ate together at the same casino buffet or restaurant where we just played.
This tactic of playing kept us under the casinos’ radar and allowed us to gradually increase our bankroll and our betting levels.
(Note: We implemented this type of “team play” long before professional blackjack teams began exploiting casinos by using a more sophisticated version of it. I’ll have more to say about this in a future article on team play.)
Using Some Camouflage
Linda couldn’t always accompany me to casinos to play blackjack. Therefore, I started implementing a repertoire of other camouflage techniques. Most of them were non-punitive, meaning it didn’t cost me anything to implement the camouflage. Others, which were punitive and involved some cost, mostly involved purposely making a “bad play” (i.e., deviating from basic strategy) to give the appearance that I was an unskilled player. I’ll give you some examples of both camouflage techniques that I used.
My goal, as mentioned above, was to look and act like a typical unskilled gambler. I had to check my ego at the door to play the role of a completely clueless player, when, in fact, I was card counting with an edge over the casino. Here are a few of the ploys I used.
(Note: Some of these ploys involved doing something that was against casino procedures to give the perception that I was not a very experienced player. When I did this, the dealer would say something to me about it. Those types of camouflage plays are marked with an asterisk below.)
- Always brought a basic strategy card with me when I played.
- Always dressed more or less like the other gamblers in a casino.
- When I bought in, I tried handing my money to the dealer.*
- In Las Vegas casinos, I often had a slot machine ticket sticking out of my front shirt pocket.
- In a hand-held game, I held the cards with two hands.*
- Instead of making a $100 bet with one black chip, I stacked a rainbow of different colored chips in my betting spot, being sure to place a small denomination chip at the bottom of the stack.*
- In a hand-held game, I would tell the dealer “I want to stand” without using a hand signal.*
- Joined in when my fellow players congratulated the third-base player for his “smart” play that saved the table.
- Asked the floor supervisor how I should play a hand.
- When I lost a big bet, I complained loudly about my “bad luck.”
- When I won a big bet, I would talk it up about “how lucky I was.”
- When I had to double down, I would touch the initial chips in my betting spot to count them.*
- With the floor supervisor nearby, I would make a tip bet for the dealer.
(Note: For more non-punitive ploys, see Chapter 10 in the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.)
Some of the punitive plays that I sometimes implemented in a shoe-dealt game were:
- When a hand pushed, I often left the same bet out for the next hand even if the count increased.
- If I won the last hand of a shoe, I would keep the same bet out for the first hand of the next shoe.
- I would double down on 8 against a dealer’s 6 upcard.
- I would double down on 9 against a dealer’s 2 upcard
(For more punitive plays, also see Chapter 10 in the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.)
Play the ‘Clueless at Cards’ Act
Here’s another one of my favorite cover plays that often raised the eyebrows of my fellow players, the dealer, and the floor supervisor. When I was dealt a hard 12 against a dealer’s 2 upcard, no matter how much I bet, I would double down for $1.
Remember your goal is to give the perception that you are one, or more, of the following:
- A typical gambler out for a good time, not to win money
- A clueless player
- A stupid player
As I mentioned earlier, you have to leave your ego at the door if you want to have longevity as a card counter. Never mention the word “skill” when you are playing, only mention “good and bad luck.”
Nowadays, there is a new breed of younger card counters that have a “damn the torpedo, full speed ahead” approach to card counting that does not involve camouflage. Soon I’ll explain how this works.
(Note: Do you remember my two long-term goals from the money I was optimistically going to win by card counting? I eventually achieved them: I was able to retire early from my full-time job, at age 57, and I purchased a house, rather than a condominium.)