New Year's Eve, twenty years ago. Usually, I play cards with family and friends at home on this day to have a laugh and see who will be lucky next year.
It's as if winning in cards on a single night is a sign of luck for the next 365 nights.
But this year, I'm heading to a closed shop. The shopkeeper, a friend of friends, has invited a few people to play cards behind closed doors.
From the 20 people gathered, I must know less than half. We're total strangers to the rest.
"That sounds great," I thought. "They don't know where I'm coming from."
Card games are games of knowledge. The more you know of your opponent's hand, background or character, the better for you.
I park my car. A 1998 Lancia Delta. It will be three years until I get a Mercedes SLK with the money I made from gambling.
”Welcome,” says the shopkeeper as I step foot into the dark shop. “Down the hallway. The game is about to begin.”
We’re playing 21 tonight.
Twenty-one. It is a game of cards where each player takes turns becoming the dealer. The game’s aim is to make a total of 21 by drawing cards.
Cards from 7 to 10 count as their nominal value: seven, eight, nine, or ten. Jacks, Queens, and Kings count as two, three, and four, respectively, substituting the low-valued cards. An Ace counts as either one or eleven. There are no other cards in the deck.
Whoever scores closest to 21 wins. In case of a draw, the dealer’s hand always wins.
The game starts with the dealer creating a pot of his own money. Each player plays against the dealer, trying to get some of that money. If all money is lost from the pot, it’s the next player’s turn to become the dealer. But if the dealer gets “lucky” and the pot grows, he can take the pot only when that’s 3x the amount he began with.
But before he does, players get one last round against the dealer, betting whatever they like, up to the pot’s maximum! It's gambling time! That's when banknotes instead of chips fly over our heads!
The game may ring a bell. It sounds familiar with another popular card game played at casinos: blackjack.
Although there’s no pot and players never deal or touch the cards there, 21 is also the best hand, called a blackjack, if hit with just two cards.
Despite plenty of differences between the two games, there’s a striking similarity for advantage players: whoever “knows” the odds of drawing the next card has an edge.
And for a 24-year-old guy like me, who’s been counting cards at blackjack tables for a whole year, the stage is set perfectly that night.
I’m taking a seat at the table and taking a look around. There are a few old-timers with seemingly deep pockets. The majority, though, are young people in their 20s or even younger. And they’re about to take one of the first lessons in their adult life.
But my hopes for making a killing suddenly evaporate when a friend, sitting at the bar away from the table, can't control himself.
“Hey Jim, can you still make it into the casino nowadays?”
Everyone stops everything they are doing and takes a look at me instantly. They’re waiting for my response.
I’m about to give information. I’m about to show some of my cards.
The table has turned. The odds have shifted.
I’m no longer an unknown among unknowns. They already have information against me. And it’s the worst kind of information I want to reveal at that moment. I must choose my words carefully. Otherwise, it’s checkmate. It’s curtains. No one will dare play against me. Or am I wrong, and I will be challenged more now?
“Well, casinos don’t like losing, do they?“ I reply with a smirking face.
Other friends nod to the friend at the bar, signaling him not to continue the discussion, risking more reveals. He’s made a blunder, and it’s damage-control time.
“Why did he say that? Do you play at the casino?” quickly asks a player, who obviously wasn’t old enough to be allowed in the casinos.
I go on telling a short blackjack story of how excited I was to finally make it into the casino and play my favorite games. In fact, I have no favorite game unless I can make money off it.
“And why do casinos forbid people from entering?” he continues. “For various reasons, like disturbing others, picking up fights or touching cards and generally becoming a nuisance to other players or the casino itself,” I respond based on proper blackjack etiquette, yet not revealing the most significant reason why a casino bars a player; beating the casino in their own game!
All the reasons I gave do cost the casino money. So they do have a decent excuse to throw you out of their premises. Yet, not a single one can compare with the damage a disciplined card counter can do to the casino. And I happened to have done so a month before that New Year’s Eve when the local casino barred me as a card counter!
From blackjack to 21
As the two games are pretty different, you need a different strategy to improve your chances of winning.
While I had made a living from blackjack for a year at that point, I figured I could come up with a plan if I wanted to leave victorious from the table that night, even if it was a somewhat different card game.
“It shouldn’t be that hard; besides, we are playing with only two decks of cards,” I told myself on my way to the shop.
I was able to count cards in a six-deck blackjack game for 16 hours a day, five days in a row. Two decks would be a piece of cake. Now, the only thing I needed was to come up with a formula for how to count cards in twenty-one.
Let’s see. I’ll add +1 for each face card and subtract -1 for each 9/10/Ace. That way, if the “count” is, say, +10, I’ll know there’s a high chance the following cards are nines, tens, or aces, improving my odds of hitting 19 or higher with just two cards. If it’s -10, the deck is skewed towards low-value cards.
Similar to card-counting at blackjack, I can have a rough picture of how the odds shift depending on the cards dealt. But in contrast to blackjack, where every card is dealt facing up, the problem in twenty-one is that busted players aren’t obliged to show their busted hand. Not even the dealer.
So, my main aim from then on, having already come up with a very simple strategy, is to gather as much information as possible.
Knowledge beats luck each and every day.
Catch a glimpse of the cards falling on the table. Keep track of the cards that disappointed players throw on the table. Take a peak at the deck’s last card that the dealer accidentally reveals as they are dealing the cards.
It sounds like a plan.
And if that isn’t enough, I can estimate the kind of faced-down cards! If the player or dealer drew more than four cards before they were busted, there’s a very high chance there was at least one face card (K/Q/J) in their hand. I could increase the count by 1, even if I didn’t see their hand at all!
Of course, there's no use of that knowledge if I can't use it effectively. The ideal position for all this information to make it valuable is when I’m acting last, sitting next to the dealer. And unfortunately for them, that dealer will be in the most disadvantageous position against me unless he does the same thing I’m doing!
Actually, what’s even better than acting last is being the dealer myself!
I will have all the information I need as I’m dealing each card to me against every player. Also, if no one complains, I can peek at the cards that busted players throw on the table for me to pick up and put them back in the deck.
Pick your enemies
Let’s summarize the game’s conditions at this point. After all, what was seemingly a fun little card game that New Year’s Eve night had turned into a battle of knowledge, much like every card game.
- I knew how to improve my odds.
- I knew they didn’t know how to count cards.
- I knew they knew casinos had some trouble with me.
- I knew most youngsters were beginners and scared, and older players were fearless and experienced.
Naturally, I would expect very low heat after my friend’s blunder. Who would go up against someone that casinos feared?
Yet, I began noticing that younger players wanted to challenge me. They had been the loudest players, cursing their luck when they lost and bragging when they won. And their primary focus seemed to be beating me.
After all, they would return home, bragging that they beat a casino’s enemy!
During the game, old timers didn’t say a word. And by the end of the night they’re the ones who challenged me the least. Suffice to say, they had a good time. Some won, some lost, yet all of them had fun and enjoyed the game, as each one withdrew from the game.
Long story short, the night came down to the last hand. I held most of the money, and I was up against the youngest player, who had just tripled his pot as the dealer. I was the last man standing before he picked up his winnings.
“Wow, €150 is in there,” he said with glowing eyes.
Before placing my last bet, I put pressure on him.
“Give me €50, and I won’t bet the pot,” I told him. It’s common practice to make that kind of offer to the dealer when the pot gets that big.
But that was his chance to make a name for himself. The ideal scenario: beating the most hated player on the table and doubling up his money!
“No, play on,” he responds, and everyone gathers around the table to watch.
The most expensive hand of the night
My hand is a 9.
I don’t recall what his hand was. Probably a 7. But I do remember that the count favored face cards. In other words, there was a high chance that low-valued cards were about to be dealt. So, I don’t like my odds here of drawing a ten or an Ace and calling it a night.
This is going to be a game of psychology.
I bet the whole pot. €150.
That money was half of a single bet compared to what I was betting at casinos. But it was also what I was making after 4 hours of playing and counting cards at blackjack.
At the same time, I knew it was a massive lump of money for my opponent. More pressure on him.
He deals me the first card.
Another nine! My hand is now eighteen.
The deck favors low-valued cards even more now. I can draw for a Jack or Queen and improve my hand. But for €150, I won’t risk drawing a King or worse. Not when I can represent that I’ve hit 19 or better by standing at two cards!
Besides, no one knows my count.
“No more cards,” I shouted as quickly as possible, making my bluff even stronger as if I had hit the ten I was hoping for.
The young dealer begins drawing. One face card after another, he arrives at 17. My count was correct. A lot of face cards came up.
And now for the tough choice.
Does he think I have 17 or lower, and he wins, or am I sitting comfortably at 18 or better, and he has to draw?
By now, I’ve made sure I seem like the guy sitting at 19 or 20. So, according to my original plan, I wanted him to keep drawing until he busts.
However, I know the deck favors low-valued cards. The circumstances have changed now that he made it to 17.
In fact, I want him to stand at 17, as drawing any face card has me beat!
Thus, I begin showing nervousness and signs of fear. I’m trying to sell myself as losing this hand. I pretend I bluffed previously, as I'm supposedly sitting at 15 or something.
Initially, I have represented a 19 or 20. But as he drew to 17, I’m now representing a bluff, and I barely made it to 17.
It takes him five minutes to decide. Five excruciating minutes for him.
Everyone around us makes a case for not drawing since he‘s drawn only Jacks, Queens, and Kings, making it more likely for a nine or a ten to follow.
Despite that, my count still favored those cards, although I was the only one having that knowledge.
“I stand at 17,” he says with an almost trembling voice, eyes glued to my hand.
”That’s a pity,” I say, as I turn my cards, showing my 18.
Disappointed, he sees me taking away the pot from him.
“That would have been €300; I would buy a new phone with that money,” he cries.
”You should have drawn,” I tell him, adding salt to the wound.
He turns the card. A King.
He would have hit 21.
I bet he never forgot that night. Neither have I.
Takeaway for Your New Year's Eve Card Game (and more)
Maybe you also play a card game in your country on New Year's Eve. Perhaps you have a similar custom on this special night. As the year turns, people look for signs of luck; some turn to gambling for that sign.
If you indeed play some kind of card game on New Year's Eve, try and have fun. I see many people getting carried away by emotions. Even worse, I've seen friendships break apart due to money.
I've always urged my friends away from gambling.
But I do understand that card games with money are more thrilling. More exciting. Yet, it's a perfect setup for sharing stories like this and bringing families together. Cherish these moments.
In the rare event you find yourself in a situation such as the one in my story, I'd do the following if I were you:
- I would come up with a strategy, even the simplest one.
- I would pick my battles with weaker opponents.
- I would risk only what I could afford to lose.
- I would quit if I didn't have fun.
I found that luck doesn't exist in the long run. Getting lucky one night doesn't mean I'm getting lucky 365 nights.
More probably, by the end of the year, I'll be getting what I've worked for the whole year.
So, let's all work towards our goals and make 2024 the happiest and most prosperous year.
Happy New Year!