Friday, May 1, 2009

Kicked Out for Counting Cards

In the summer of 2004, I became infatuated with the game of blackjack. Although I had played the game a lot in the past, during drunken escapades in Atlantic City, I never took it seriously. I bought the book Blackjack for Blood and learned how to count cards. Hour after hour, day after day, I methodically trained myself to become a blackjack machine; my skill increased as I counted down hundreds of decks and played thousands of practice hands.

In that first year, I made three trips to A.C. and two to Las Vegas, playing a few hours at low table stakes. My records show that I had spread action in 13 different casinos, playing about 23 hours, with a net profit of $834.5 (a good run of slightly more than $36 per hour, but definitely no reason to quit my day job).

This is when the most interesting experience of my blackjack experiment occurred; a casino actually barred little ol’ me from play.

I had scouted out a good table in a tiny casino located at the heart of the Vegas strip called Barbary Coast. Sitting between the mammoth Caesars, Flamingo, Bally’s and Bellagio, this dinky little casino looks completely out of place; I have to believe it won’t be long before it is knocked down for another lavish coin fountain or some other pricey Vegas trinket (ok., so maybe I have a little grudge). It was 11 in the morning and I had been playing for an hour when I encountered a good deck, stacked a win on top of my bet for a max bet, and prepared for a nice little payday. At this moment, a pit boss stepped up, pushed my bet back, and said “No more blackjack for you.” As he walked off without further word, I feigned shock and looked at him, then the dealer, then the stunned old man playing to my left. What the hell? I was even down $85 for the session. I muttered that fact as I left, a little pissed, but also a little proud. The staff of a Vegas casino considered me too good to let play.

To this day, I have not figured out what gave me away. I didn’t feel any “heat.” The pit bosses didn’t even seem to be watching. Maybe the dealers spotted me…maybe my lips moved slightly as I followed the count…maybe it was too early in the morning for a player that seemed to magically pick good spots for big bets…who knows?

Thinking back over the memory, I have never been able to forget how unsurprised the man to my right was by the events. In all my years of gambling in casinos, I’ve seen a lot, but never anyone getting kicked out before, and this guy didn’t even blink. While the old man on my left sat agape, this bearded fellow placidly sat there and avoided eye contact with me. There is the strong chance that he was a shill, working for the casino, and tracking my play.

The end result of my barring was negligible; I was playing at another casino within ten minutes.

While any form of cheating in a Vegas casino is considered a felony, counting cards is not cheating. It is merely a method of using math and intelligence to gain an edge over a game and beat a casino, or, in other words, beat an industry that is so accustomed to beating everyone.

Personally, I consider counting cards to be very, very boring. My two year blackjack experiment was only relatively entertaining and the tiny stakes were only slightly profitable. By the end, I grew tired of thinking like a machine. As if my brain was ruled by binary coding, numbers dominated every conscious thought, even away from the table. Becoming a machine might be exciting for some people, but I cannot stomach the boredom.

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