A professional gambler plays blackjack dealer tells in Las Vegas and Reno casinos, and discusses the fine points of this professional gambling technique.
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Dealer Tells

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Stalking the Elusive Tell

By Dog-Ass Johnny
(From Blackjack Forum Volume VIII #2, June 1988)
© Blackjack Forum 1988

About eighteen months ago, pursuant to a long-abiding but generally profitless interest in playing dealer tells, I began trying to apply the principles in Steve Forte’s Read The Dealer (Blackjack, Cards, Poker). Happily, after an uneven start, I eventually learned to turn a profit with these techniques.

In what follows, I hope to help you, the prospective tell player, avoid a few of my early mistakes, thereby saving plenty of cash. [Editor’s note: A tell is any subconscious mannerism of a dealer that indicates whether his hand is pat or stiff.]

As with card counting, your chances for successful dealer tell play will increase substantially if you have some time to invest beforehand. Think back to when you were first learning to count—remember how the excitement of being in real casinos, playing for real money, interfered with your ability to concentrate? How it could make you forget your index numbers, or the count itself, even though you could handle these things easily at home?

The hard truth is that, for most of us, only those skills that can be exercised reflexively figure to survive the awful crucible of casino play. By acquiring these talents before you go out to seek your hole-carding fortune, you’ll avoid many costly errors. In other words, you have to practice.

I suggest you begin by practicing at a place where the dealers don’t peek. This will give you a chance to experience basic dealer behavior in the abstract, plus you won’t be tempted to bet real money on your nascent abilities. Don’t distract yourself by trying to win; rather, just play basic strategy, bet the minimum, and enjoy being a gambler for a few days. Your purpose should be twofold:

1) Develop some systematic way of evaluating each element of the dealer’s behavior. Try to carry out a specific sequence of observations on every hand. If you don’t work out a methodical approach, then you’ll tend to become fixated on one or two areas, overlooking other possibilities. (The material on pages 81-83 of Read the Dealer should point you in the right direction.)

Practice until you can execute your routine quickly and automatically. If you’re not quick, then you’ll miss a lot, and if it’s not automatic then your counting efficiency will be adversely affected.

2) Learn to become aware of the dealer’s attitude toward the other players. Counting does not adequately prepare you for this; optimally, as a counter, you would prefer to have no awareness of the outside world at all—just keep the count, play basic strategy, and occasionally do the calculations for a potential departure play.

As a tell player, however, you’ll have to pay attention to everyone else’s hand as well as your own. One reason for this is that you need to know what a given tell is based on—where it’s coming from—to protect yourself from giving it undue weight when circumstances change.

For example, you notice a dealer who seems involved in the game. You sit down and immediately spot a good, strong basic tell. Great, you think—here’s a nice-guy dealer who wants the players to win.

You prime yourself to deviate from your count-related strategy—i.e., to make the wrong play—just on the basis of this dealer’s behavior. And yet your understanding of the situation may be quite mistaken; often the dealer just wants some particular customer to win, usually a toker, or maybe a cute girl.

When the toker loses a few tough ones and starts to complain, this dealer’s tell may begin to flicker; when the cute girl brutally rejects his pathetic advances, it will probably go out entirely. And if her drunk boyfriend were to show up, this tell, which just twenty minutes ago looked like it was going to make you rich, might actually reverse itself and puncture your lungs before you can get out of your seat.

Few Tells Last Long

Few tells are enduring. Few profitable situations are there time after time, waiting to pay off on demand. Until you’ve learned to absorb what’s going on between the dealer and the other players—thereby acquiring the means to identify situations like the one above—you would be unwise to assume that a particular dealer’s mannerisms are going to represent the same thing from shift to shift, or even from hand to hand.

In my case, I spent countless wasted hours at the tables, chasing various long-vanished tells that had once been so strong I was unable to accept that they had somehow become null and void. Eventually, more or less by accident, I wised up. Why stick your head in the propeller? Practice until your grasp of whatever player-dealer interaction is going on becomes second nature to you.

Beginning Tell Play

So—now you’re ready to play for real. The first thing I think you should do is to establish yourself in one or two well-scouted, high-probability casinos as a player the dealers are glad to see. In distinction to card counting, where most players aim for anonymity, tell playing can thrive on notoriety. If you play every day for a few weeks in the same small or mid-sized casino, word will spread to all the dealers on the shift that you’re a desirable player—that’s the sort of thing they talk about in the dealers’ break room.

Of course, some dealers are robots who will be unaffected by anything you do, but many others will be happy to see you sit down at their table, even before you’ve toked your first dollar. One dealer at Dog-Ass Johnny’s favorite casino strongarmed the first hand Dog-Ass Johnny ever played at that table. You will never get this sort of benefit if you spread your play around town, card counter style.

How to make the desired impression? Dog-Ass Johnny’s tactics, hardly revolutionary, are to lose well, sympathize with the dealer’s problems, and, of course, toke. You do not need to toke lavishly, but you must toke at least minimally.

Additionally, while you are introducing yourself to the selected casinos, limit your card counting behavior so as to avoid arousing any defensive sensibilities among the dealers; you’ll be able to get a fabulous spread once you’re established—after all, you’ll be playing against dealers who want you to win. Whenever you feel you’ve gotten across especially well to a dealer, be sure to play through his break, so he’ll have a chance to communicate your wonderfulness to the relief dealer.

And losing well is a must. Should you feel yourself on the verge of violating this commandment, leave immediately, lest you poison one of your primary venues. If coping with bad losing streaks is tough for you, don’t worry; I think you may find it surprisingly easy at a casino where you feel known and liked. The usual emotions when losing big—hostility, anger, and paranoia—are a function of your perception of yourself as an unwanted felon in enemy territory. You will find yourself much less prone to experiencing these feelings when playing with a dealer you know is on your side.

Don’t expect to get rich quick. Try to regard the first few weeks as a time for undergoing painful learning experiences and laying the groundwork for future success. Be satisfied if you can win, on balance, one bet per day that you would have lost with counting alone.

Above all, over your first fifty hours or so, you absolutely must limit acting upon your predictions to those cases where the evidence is extremely compelling. I suggest that during this time you favor a tell play over what’s indicated by the count only when the tell is a ghost or strongarm tell (Editor's note: ghost and strongarm tells are defined below). Reading accuracy for these tells is quite high. In fact, even if you never go beyond this relatively easy-to-achieve level, you’ll have made a major improvement in your game.

And you can expect to acquire this nifty ability without making a lot of expensive errors. Indeed, you’ll positively enjoy your leisurely stroll up the pleasantly-shallow learning curve. Here’s an idea of what to expect.

Ghost Tells

[Editor’s note: In Read the Dealer, Steve Forte defines “ghost tells” as tells you can pick up from the reactions of the dealer to another player at the table. To employ dealer ghost tells profitably, you must sit to the left of whichever player(s) the dealer might be reacting to, so that you do not have to play your hand until after you’ve seen the tell.]

All you need to do to play ghost tells properly is keep your attention on the game. By this, I mean that you must be able to maintain a background-level awareness of what the other players are doing and how the dealer is responding to them. If you had practiced more diligently, you’d already have this ability. You’d be right there inside the dealer’s head, reading his mind. But nooo…

Fortunately, you can expect very good reading accuracy when playing ghost tells, even if you are a beginner. This is partly because you are under no pressure to act on your own cards at the time, and can thus devote all your attention to the play of the other hands. But primarily it arises from the fact that many otherwise careful dealers don’t see any harm in commenting on an already-completed hand; they assume that only the player of that hand can understand their cryptic remarks.

The information you acquire as a result of their innocence is as pure as the driven snow. Read The Dealer contains examples so common that you’ll find it difficult to believe you never grasped their meaning before.

Naturally, you should begin by trying to spot a high-roller. These players offer the greatest potential for success. For various reasons, however, you won’t get much tell playing done if you rigorously insist upon such advantageous circumstances.

First, there just aren’t that many big bettors around, especially during the day. Then, if you do find one, he may be playing against a robotic dealer, or the dealer’s responses may be inhibited by a pit boss at her elbow.

Finally, when at last you manage to sit down to a promising situation, you’ll invariably lose your first hand (despite getting a clear read and successfully executing the required departure play), at which point the high-roller will angrily leave, claiming that your foolish play has ruined the order of the cards.

A more common situation for ghost tells is a crowded, talkative table with a friendly, slightly dull-witted dealer, and happy, talking players who are winning. To get a seat at such a table, of course, you will need to fight off several prospective TARGET players, so remember to bring some sort of bat or truncheon.

Always sit in the last available position, maximizing the chance of catching a hint before you have to act on your own hand. You’ll want to monitor the biggest bettors first, of course, but I have found that the relative size of the bet can be more important than the absolute size of the bet; that is to say, dealers are generally aware of the bet structure of most customers, and many will react more strongly to a $25 bet made by a $5 player than to a $100 bet made by somebody who’s been betting black on every round.

Strongarm Tells

[Editor’s note: In Read the Dealer, Steve Forte defines “strongarm tells” as the most blatant, reliable dealer tells, in which the dealer virtually plays your hand for you prior to your having indicated how you intended to play it. You may still receive strongarm tells from dealers with the ability to deal seconds. We've run into a couple of these dealers who used their ability occasionally for the good of players. Always listen when such a dealer tells you to walk.]

In distinction to ghost-telling dealers, strongarm dealers seem to be brighter than average, and will generally appear to be more in control of the game. While the degree to which these dealers are aware of their revealing mannerisms is a topic on which much could be written, suffice it to say that some which are quite blatant are nevertheless not intentional.

No matter how obvious a tell may seem to you, never mention it to the dealer, and do not attempt to socialize with such a dealer away from the tables. This is elementary. If you find yourself wanting to inform the dealer of how impossibly clever you are, you’re probably playing more for ego than for money.

Strongarm dealers especially shine when dealing a face-up game. As you wander about the casinos, always check the face-up games carefully. You’ll be amazed at what a helpful dealer can do for you when he knows your cards—in the best cases, you need only give an ambiguous signal, and the dealer will hit or pass your hand as necessary.

Playing in such a game will also serve to remind you to make sure that friendly dealers know what you’re holding whenever you need help. Don’t be shy; you need to get the most out of each potentially profitable situation as a hedge against the inevitable hard times to come.

One familiar subgroup among strongarm dealers are those extremely other-directed types, usually males, who are always entertaining their players, as though the table were a miniature night club, with the dealer as master of ceremonies. Invariably, they give you a lot of advice on how much to bet and how to play, often grabbing some of your chips and adding them to your bet, refusing to give you a card or demanding you take one, and so forth. You are supposed to follow their suggestions as Revealed Truth, ring up a handsome win for the first time in your drab, uneventful life, and in return, shower them with love and admiration (and tokes).

Clearly, your mission—should you decide to accept it—is to play out your assigned role in the dealer’s scenario, while at the same time ignoring or minimizing all his “help” except when he’s showing a ten. This is not difficult if you are sufficiently theoretically inclined as to have a good grasp of how much a given deviation from proper strategy figures to cost you.

Alternatively, if you’re a jovial, gregarious sort—or if you’re not but can induce this behavior with, say, alcohol or powerful drugs (Editor’s Note: We assume, of course, that Mr. Johnny is referring to legal drugs such as No-Doz or Jolt Cola), then you should be able to get into a bit of friendly one-upmanship with this kind of dealer, indirectly challenging him to make you a winner. Within this framework, you can periodically question his advice, daring to match your opinion against his. When your play turns out to be correct, project a sense of relief at having tempted fate so foolishly and surviving; when your play turns out to be a loser, bewail your dunderheaded stupidity and vow that you’ll never again ignore this fine dealer’s sagacious counsel.

Among the most blatant strongarm dealers are some who will admire your perceptivity and tell you so. More than one such dealer has explained to me the comic frustration of trying to get across to players who are too opaque to grasp that when the dealer shows a ten he always knows the right move.

(Editor's Note: This was true only back in the days when dealers peeked under tens to see if they had a natural. Now dealers slip their hole card into a card reader, and most no longer know how strong or weak a hand they have. Still, this article is of great value in other casino situations, so we recommend you keep reading.)

You will generally have little trouble settling into a mutually agreeable quid pro quo with such a dealer, though at some point it becomes appropriate to ask whether this activity really qualifies as tell-playing. A side benefit with these dealers is that you can expect them to be frank about whether you should sit down at their table or not. Consider that some strongarm dealers may have helped you on the assumption that you were a weekend tourist they’d never see again; they may not be interested in a long-term association. Others may have been losing all week and can’t afford you for a while.

Whatever the reason, you can be sure that if a dealer who has knowingly helped you in the past warns you not to sit down (“Better watch out, I’m really hot today”), it’s a good idea to follow his advice.

Finally, you should be aware that many strongarm dealers correctly perceive themselves as not giving away a lot. Some are simply hustling tokes, and know they can control your advantage to whatever degree they might find necessary, just by giving an occasional misleading signal (avoid them, toke less, or find a way to squeeze out a little more information).

Some, generally the more empathetic types, will help you if you’re losing but not if you’re winning. (Hide your winnings). Others, aware when holding twenty that they figure to win no matter what you do, will groan and roll their eyes theatrically with a ten in the hole, but will give conflicting signals or no signals at all with nineteen or less (only play against dealers who get a lot of twenties).

In all these cases, you must weight your prospective costs (tokes, time, exposure) against your anticipated gains, as your advantage with these dealers is considerably less than with the kind of strongarm dealer who’s actively trying to build you up. Still, I advise you to take what you can get, and to remain alert to the possibility that dealers who like you enough to give you a little overt help may be unintentionally telling you a lot more on a more subtle level.

In closing, I must remind you that the sun is setting now on the golden age of hole-carding and reading dealer tells. The shadows lengthen and the purple twilight looms, as with each passing moment another casino goes no-peek forever. Some say that somewhere in this wide, mysterious world of ours, there will always be casinos with dealers that peek. Others, less optimistic, point out that these are the same people who accept dualism, posit a deterministic universe, and think that Charlton Heston still has all his real hair.

Whatever the truth of these matters may be, dealer tell opportunities certainly do exist right here and now. Why not get yours while you can? ♠

Recommended Books on Tells

Steve Forte's Read The Dealer is directed specifically at reading dealer tells in casinos where dealers peek under tens to see if they have a blackjack. Since dealers no longer peek under tens (at least, not in any casino we're aware of), few players now read this book.

But it is a terrific book with far-ranging applications in professional gambling. For example, we recommend it for anyone who may want to play dealer signature or steering at roulette (see Arnold Snyder's article on roulette dealer signature and steering, coming in January 2013). If you can get your hands on a copy, we recommend you read this book.

We also recommend Peter Collett's Book of Tells.

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