Card counting. That’s what the strategy to beat the casinos at blackjack tables is called. Anyone can learn how to count cards and any disciplined advantage gambler can win money. Eventually though, every card counter will be kicked out of the casino.
This the story of how it happened for me.
I’ve shared stories of my blackjack career in the past but I never got into the details of how I was barred from casinos. To spill the beans, no, I wasn’t dragged out by security stuff, or beat to death by huge men in a basement.
I was simply denied entrance the following day of an… event.
First, a little catching up with what was happening at the time at my local casino.
I had been practicing card counting for months, usually as a bystander at blackjack tables. When the count was quite favorable, I bet on players’ hands and hoped they didn’t mess up, like hitting a 16 against the dealers’ face card.
That started around Christmas holidays and by summertime my bankroll hadn’t increased a bit. I decided I had learnt to count cards quite well, so it was time for me to take a seat and get dealt my own hands.
Lady Luck was very nice with me and despite my puny bankroll, I ran hotter than the sun and doubled my money in a month or so. While it wasn’t any big money, it had been the first time I was making my own money in my life. And you all know that feeling. Now, imagine experiencing that by playing a game of chance!
Of course, I was super excited.
I had been visiting the casino quite often and in late October I was playing blackjack every day, except weekends. I went in at 1 PM and left around 5 AM of the next day.
If you visit your local casino that often, you are going to be noticed. Not only by other gamblers but by the casino stuff as well. If you are not losing money, eyebrows will be raised, both from other players and dealers.
Still, I wasn’t making a killing there, so I felt pretty safe. Who would care of a 24-year-old lucky champ?
Then came my best ever month. November. I made 10 grand that month alone.
I had now a 15K bankroll to risk at blackjack.
My Christmas’ starting bankroll had increased 10 times!
I don’t recall increasing my bets at any point, though. I was already risking more than my bankroll allowed at the beginning, so by having a bigger bankroll, I was running a smaller chance of ruining my dream. It’s called risk of ruin for a reason.
By making that much money in such a short time, I was approached by other professional blackjack players. Card counters usually prefer playing together, as there are some advantages gained when collaborating.
So, at some point three or more competent card counters were sitting at the same table! That was ridiculous. We all bet the minimum when we didn’t have an edge according to card counting, but when the count skyrocketed, so were our bets.
Let me draw the picture for you.
I and two other players were regarded as the most skilled and disciplined card counters. We were to sit down and play. Other fellow card counters with smaller bankrolls or less skill would stand nearby and jump in when the conditions were favorable for us.
Most of the time, we risked the table’s minimum. Ten euros each. We occupied three spots, so our total risk was 30 euros. Applying basic strategy rules all the time, the dealer’s edge had been about 0.5 to 1%. Thus, casino was making about 30 cents tops from each deal, or about 15 euros per hour (assuming one hand dealt per minute).
No casino can sustain its business under these conditions. They have people on payroll, liabilities, operating costs.
But it gets worse. A lot worse.
Sooner or later, the count would increase into positive territory. When the true count was hitting 2, we would increase our bets to about 20 euros each. We now had an edge over the casino of about 0.20%, so each of us would be making about 4 cents in the next hand.
Not a big deal.
And then the count would climb to 5, 6 or more and we would max our bets. My maximum stake was 120 euros. Given I could trust my card counting friends, I would bet on their hands as well, wagering in total 360 euros in the next hand!
And that’s just me.
They were doing pretty much the same thing. The total wagers of the three active card counters on the next hand summed up to a thousand euros! Our 2 to 3% edge would net us 20 to 30 euros profit during the next hand.
We were effectively turning that particular blackjack table into a loss for the casino in a single hand.
And it still gets worse.
Remember the card counters that were watching the game behind us? Like vultures, they would push everyone aside to get a piece of the action. Suddenly, a previously quiet and uneventful table would turn into mayhem.
Of course, that drew attention from other ‘regular’ people gambling at roulette or other games. “Whoa, look at that money, they all seem excited at that blackjack table, let’s gamble there”, they would think. “Hey, those people are card counting! Isn’t that impressive?” Out of nowhere, ten, fifteen or twenty people would gather around us, throwing chips and money on our table.
The casino was bleeding money there. We were momentarily turning losing gamblers into winners.
And as long as the count was favorable, we had no intention to slow down. Hand after hand, the stakes remained at their peak.
And it gets EVEN more worse.
That happens when variance favors the bold gamblers. That’s when card counters run hot. And that’s when we hit blackjacks, we split Aces and double nines, tens and elevens while the dealer busts.
EVERYONE is making money but the casino.
Not to mention that we are treated as kings by other players. Make a dollar for a stranger and they will trust you a hundred!
While this happened rarely, it drew a lot of attention from pit bosses. And let me tell you a well-known… secret. Pit bosses and some dealers know how to count cards. They count with you and if they see you increase your stakes when the count is high, you are busted.
It’s very, VERY easy to get spotted as a card counter. No matter how much you are hiding, how much you are mingling with other gamblers, how much a degenerate gambler you are trying to look like, your bets will always reveal your intentions.
That’s why card counting teams are formed.
Now, back to my own story, I had a 10-grand month under my belt and I was looking forward to the next month, December. On the first Friday of the month, I was sitting and playing with the same card counters.
Friendly pit bosses had notified me that my name were among the ones they were instructed to keep a tab on. I let my colleagues know that we should split up and never again play at the same table.
We were drawing TOO MUCH attention, even before playing. I was sensing roof cameras turning to our every move.
And then, Lady Luck decided to abandon us on that very Friday. Despite the count being high, we ran bad. Very bad. Hitting twenties and dealer hitting blackjacks bad. I was down two grand and by the looks of other card counters, they were also suffering heavy losses.
Me? I am a very disciplined gambler. I kept my nerve and bet emotionless. That wasn’t the case for most of the other advantage gamblers. Some of them even ran out of money, perhaps by overbetting and, wanting to make a comeback, they began borrowing money from the skilled card counters at the table. They gave them money for chips.
That’s a big NO-NO from the casino.
You always, ALWAYS play with YOUR money and ALWAYS exchange money for chips with the dealer.
Heat was up at our table. Major heat. I then caught the pit boss talking to the phone. She was looking at us while on the phone. That’s when I leaned to my friend next to me and whispered:
We should leave. Now.
How could they leave, when they were losing money and the count was still favorable? We should keep betting. We had an edge. That’s why we count cards all day. To exploit. At all costs.
Well, that cost included my blackjack career.
In ten minutes’ time, some very serious men came down to the pit. By the looks of them, they were certainly very high-ranked stuff. We hadn’t seen them before.
They were informed of the situation, then one of them stood next to our dealer. He was card counting.
“Deal”, he said to the dealer.
We wished for the count to drop for the first time in our lives. To get below zero and bet our ten euros.
While that wouldn’t make much difference, since there were sirens all over the place, maybe we stood a chance. But the count kept rising.
We had to max out bets once again.
“What do we do?”, I whispered to the card counter next to me, a very reputable gambler coming from USA. I was half his age.
Well, in all honesty I think WE were.
It was too late. It was obvious that was my last day I would play blackjack there. I placed my bets, looking at the casino guy. He looked me back and left to meet the other important people.
They gathered around, discussed for what seemed like an eternity, pointing to us and left. For a moment there, I expected to be thrown out of the casino like in movies.
In an hour or so my friends were all gone, disheartened by the heavy losses. I was left playing alone for the first time in that day.
I didn’t leave that table and managed to turn around a 2K drawdown to a 1K profit before midnight. Lady Luck had returned, but the damage was done.
I would stay and play till morning. Yet, I felt it was futile. I knew I was barred.
I left earlier that day, greeting the dealers and pit bosses, telling them that would probably be the last time they saw me. They nodded back.
On Monday, I was refused entrance. So was my Greek-American ‘colleague’. The card counting companion had suffered two casualties. No other gamblers or card counters were denied to enter the casino’s premises, though.
Even the ones who borrowed money. Even the ones who “broke the rules”.
It goes to say that those gamblers are the best customers for the casino business.
Rumor says that I was barred because I was young. “If you are making 10 grand in a month at 24, how much will you be making in two years or when you become 30?”
So, casino… feared me? Maybe. Perhaps they were mostly afraid of the disciplined character I had been showing for a year, rather than my age or recent winnings.
I will never know.
After that incident, I visited other casinos in my country. Upon sitting down to play, limits were changed from 10-500 euros to 1-50 euros. Pit bosses were on a lookout for my next move. Casino directors were sitting next to me.
I was done as a card counter. Burnt. But it was one hell of a ride, that I’m still sharing stories from, fifteen years later.
Stay tuned for stories of my much more recent rides!
Image via Flickr