For more than 40 years, there have been battles at the blackjack tables. Players attack with winning strategies and the casinos fire back with counter-measures. Can blackjack be beaten today? Andy Bloch - who won millions of dollars playing blackjack and is now barred from most casinos in the world – says: “You bet!”
In the early 60’s, UCLA Professor Edward O. Thorp proved that blackjack could be beaten through a counting system that tracked the ratio of high to low cards. When more high cards have been played, the odds favor the dealer. When more low cards have been played, the odds favor the player.
Thorp tested his system with an early IBM 704 computer and live play in casinos. In his best-selling 1962 book, Beat the Dealer, he reports that casinos noticed his unusual play – low bets when the count favored the dealer and very high bets when the count favored the player - and took counter-measures such as shuffling after each hand or two, switching dealers, changing decks constantly, and refusing to sell him large denomination chips. “One casino,” he reports, “even introduced a cheating dealer when we sat down to play.”
Beat the Dealer, which has sold more than one million copies, created a sensation among blackjack players. While card counting was supposed to be an unobserved mental exercise, some naïve players brought the book with them and cracked it open at the blackjack table.
Since casinos believe they have an edge in every game - in fact they must have an edge in every game to stay in business - Thorp’s system sent the gaming industry into a panic. For a brief time they even shut down the tables.
Recognizing that they were cutting off a substantial revenue stream, the casinos (also known as “the House”) declared war on the counters. The dealer can’t read a player’s mind but he can detect tell-tale behaviors. The red flag is small bets, small bets, and then large bets placed when conditions favor the player.
The casinos revved up their own computers and fired back with multiple decks instead of a single deck (the practice at the time of Thorp’s book), reducing even the best counter’s edge. Today, 2, 4, 6, and even 8 decks are commonly used at the tables. The players countered by redoing their math and coming up with strategies to beat the multidecks.
“Card counters,” as the sharp players were called, were vigorously watched and booted from the casinos. While card counting is not considered to be cheating, (it is simply intelligent use of information available to anyone), the casinos have the legal right to bar anybody, including winners. Soon a blacklist or “black book” (it actually has a silver cover) was shared around the industry. It lumped together members of organized crime, cheaters, and card counters.
The casinos continued to roll out their weaponry. As improved analog and later digital technology - the “eye in the sky,” sometimes called “Big Brother” - complemented human eyes, the casinos attacked again by watching the action, isolating the offenders, alerting the pit bosses, and putting “heat” on the suspects.
Cat and Mouse
The card counters were then challenged to skirmish with imaginative diversions. A game of “cat and mouse” was created. A favorite ploy was for the players who had been tossed out of casinos to take on disguises.
One famous card counter, known as “The Grifter,” would wear dark glasses, a stylish suit, and wield a blind man’s cane. A female companion would guide him to a table and ask the dealer to read off all the cards to him. She would give him a kiss, say, “I’ll come back for you later, honey,” and disappear. Carrying out his best impression of Stevie Wonder, the “blind” man would make a few dumb plays and then kill the table.
Still another line of attack had to do with the observation that clusters of cards, especially with multiple decks, were not shuffled in perfect random order. If one could “eyeball” this accurately, they could predict when a bunch of favorable cards would hit the table. Jerry Patterson, in Break the Dealer, called this “clumping.” Arnold Snyder, a member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, dubbed it “shuffle tracking” and devoted a whole book, The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker's Cookbook, to this strategy.
Another tactic, successfully used by Ken Uston in the 70’s, was to develop team play. Since a lone counter blew his cover with low bets, low bets, then high bets, Uston did this: he would have someone place uniform low bets (as they were counting cards), then signal another player to join the table when conditions were favorable (more high cards left in the deck). The new player would place high bets, then leave when the deck turned against him. Since the counter never varied his low bet, and since the new player always placed high bets, this worked for awhile. But consistent winners - however they win - draw the attention of the House and eventually this kind of play also drew heat from the pits.
Another weapon was to hit the casinos during betting frenzy times: Super Bowl weekend, Monte Carlo during the Grand Prix race, and the Grand Opening of the largest casino in the world, Foxwoods, in Connecticut. Casinos were crowded, there was lots of action, and the card counters slipped under the radar screen.
One way that casinos know that the enemy has hit them during busy times is to analyze the daily “take” from the blackjack tables. When casinos show significant losses after a big sports weekend, they know, de facto, that they had been ripped off by a team of counters. Then they go to the memory banks of their surveillance technologies and try to identify unusual betting patterns and the suspected players.
The MIT Team
In the mid-90’s, a group of men and women from MIT – most of them math and computer science geeks - took counting, clumping, and team play to a new level. Under the tutelage of an unnamed MIT prof, these blackjack soldiers perfected their card counting and shuffle tracking methods as well as betting systems and the mathematical probabilities of each play. They practiced, practiced, and practiced some more.
They had role differentiation: “Spotters” sat at the tables, making minimum bets and counting cards. When the count was favorable, they would signal in the “Gorilla” (the big bettor of the team). Once the Gorilla was seated, the spotter would give a verbal signal, such as, “Damn, I just lost my whole paycheck.” “Paycheck” was a code for the size of the bet.
The Gorilla was “brain dead.” The spotter did all the counting work and gave the betting signals. Once the count was unfavorable, the spotter would give another verbal signal and the Gorilla would walk away until the next call-in by another spotter at another table.
Playing against type was a key part of their strategy. It was Oscar time for many of them. Jill, a redhead in a miniskirt, graduated at the top of her class from Harvard Law School.
"During the day,” she said, “I'd dress like I was going to the pool. At night, I'd wear tons of makeup and a low-cut top. I'd play the dumb chick, and nobody ever suspected I was spotting. The pit bosses helped me play my hands."
Underwritten by people they would never meet and maybe didn’t want to, the team bet up to $50,000 per hand. Did they win every time? Nope. In one horrible session, one of the most gifted players lost $100,000 in two hands when the odds were extraordinarily high in his favor. They painfully learned, as statistics professor, Lynne Seymour of the University of Georgia, teaches in her gambling class, that “probability is not the same as certainty.”
But they knew the probabilities of every play and could predict that, in the long run, profits – big profits – would be made. According to one member of the team, “We returned 154 percent to our investors. Try doing that on Wall Street.”
As long as they looked like high rollers, the casinos comp’d them to limos, suites, and shows. They schmoozed with big shot celebs like Jack Nicholson, Howard Stern, and Michael Jordan. When approached by casino personnel they were never sure if it was to offer them goodies or kick them out.
The casinos caught on, of course, because winners of any kind draw attention. Some of the team were politely shown the door. They asked, “Why do I have to leave?” The standard response of a casino official is, “Because you’re too good for us.” This is “casino-speak,” for, we know what you’re doing and we are giving you an “easy out.” Beat it! When some didn’t get the message, they were roughed up.
Ben Mezrich’s best-selling book, Bringing Down the House, documents the MIT team’s advances, retreats, defeats, and lap dances. The book (redubbed “21”) is slated as a Columbia movie release in late 2006 with Kevin Spacey in a starring role.
While it is clear that the team took millions from the casinos, no one wants to put a specific dollar amount on the loot. Why not? The IRS conducted audits on many of the team members and would like to know more - a lot more - about their success.
There is also a book for the other side. Casino Executive, Bill Zender has published Card Counting for the Casino Executive to help pit personnel identify and discourage card counters. It is, of course, must reading for the card counter.
Toward the end of their run, the MIT’ers ran up against face recognition software that the casinos used. Photos of them taken by the eye in the sky in one casino were fed into networked computers and they were fingered in casinos as far away as the Bahamas. The casinos even matched up photos of the team members from MIT yearbooks. One irony to all of this is that face recognition software was developed at MIT.
Can Blackjack Be Beaten Today?
Andy Bloch was a member of the MIT team. “I was invited to become a member because I beat another game, called Hickok 6-Card Poker, a new game at Foxwoods,” says Bloch, who has an engineering degree from MIT and a law degree from Harvard. As a member of the blackjack team, Bloch played both the spotter and Gorilla roles. “I think I liked being a spotter best,” he reports. “I was in complete control of the table and no one suspected it.”
Today Andy is officially barred from playing blackjack in most of the world’s casinos. He is in the Griffin Book, one of the blacklists that is circulated among casinos.
“I know I’m in the Griffin Book because I’ve seen my picture there,” he says. One of the team members got hold of some of the pages – no one is saying how – to check out how much Griffin, a security company retained by the casinos, knew about them. They knew a lot.
Bloch, now a poker pro, has just released a DVD, “Beating Blackjack,” which he calls “an educational combination of Ocean’s Eleven and Good Will Hunting.” Unlike many instructional blackjack DVD’s which are just talking faces, Andy creates a story line that takes place over a weekend in a Vegas casino.
He begins with “Basic Strategy,” a system of play (the basic building block) that allows you to play almost even with the casino without counting. Then he adds the counting system used by the MIT team. Do you have to be a genius to count cards? Not according to Bloch. “At MIT,” he says, “we said that we could teach plywood to count cards.” Next comes optimal betting, then team play. He takes you into a fictional casino on a weekend crazy with traffic, as there is a major Music Awards show in town. Bloch’s team attacks the casinos using the MIT strategies. Andy sets the scene: the viewers experience the drama of the cat and mouse game. The tension and stakes increase as the audience sees Andy go through the thinking process. What’s the count? Call in the Gorilla. Will they win or lose? Will they draw heat? Will they get busted? Andy puts on a disguise (a really bad wig). Do they leave the casino with a suitcase full of dough or an empty wallet? You’ll have to buy the DVD to get the answer to that one. It is available at www.expertinsight.com.
Andy tells of an informal annual gathering of blackjack pros, known as the “Blackjack Ball,” where he and his peers come together in a secret Vegas location to share current information. Max Rubin, who runs the annual Ball says, "If a Griffin agent could infiltrate this party, it would make the guy's career."
Are there teams playing Vegas and elsewhere today? Bloch says, “Sure.” How are they doing? Andy reports, “They do better with ‘hit and run’ tactics rather than grinding it out as the MIT team did. Let a spotter signal in a Gorilla with an extraordinarily high count, play just a couple hands, and split. Move to another casino. Stay under the radar screen.”
So, Who’s Winning the War?
Call it an uneasy truce at the moment.
Mathematically, a counter can still have just a razor-thin edge over the House - perhaps 1% under ideal conditions - but is it worth it? Bloch says it is when you only bet with a 1% advantage or more. And how would you fare if you averaged a 1% gain on your stake per month or even (take a deep breath) per week?
The action is fast and distractions abound: the visual and auditory clang of a casino, chatter among players, cocktail waitresses draped over your shoulder asking if you’d like a drink, and pit bosses looking in - seriously looking in - on the tables. One or two mistakes per hour can wipe out the small advantage. Because of variance - enormous up and down swings - the most skilled card counter with a modest bankroll can easily be wiped out in the short run.
Multiple decks are now the standard. Casinos have brought in automatic shuffling machines to insure randomness. The number of security cameras has increased. New technologies in visual surveillance and memory are in use. Casino personnel are trained to spot counters. The dealer can shuffle at any time to break the count. Some joints have initiated rules that a new player cannot be seated in mid-deck to thwart the Gorillas. Some offer an unfavorable blackjack payoff of 6:5 instead of the standard 3:2. The House can still ask a player to leave.
But how about if you just plain love blackjack? The first bit of sound advice is, don’t quit your day job. But how about if you and a few friends can put together a decent bankroll? How about if you like to play David vs. Goliath? How about if you scope out the casinos with the most favorable conditions? How about if you apply the techniques in Andy Bloch’s DVD?
So where are we?
Blackjack is still one of the most popular games for players. It is still a substantial profit center for the House. Andy Bloch says, “It can still be beaten.”
So, who’s winning? Grab a seat and start counting. It ain’t over till it’s over. SLV