A professional gambler counting cards and shuffle tracking in a Korean casino encounters a card cheating method called the 21 card grab.
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Professional Gamblers at Work:
Blackjack in Korea and the 21 Card Grab

Professional Gambler plays blackjack in illegal Korea casino and encounters casino cheating
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Stickin' It to the Safari Club

By Nick Alexander
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XVII #1, Spring 1997)
© Blackjack Forum 1997

August 2, 1988, Tuesday. Read an article in the Sunday Times entitled, “SAFARI CLUB’S MYSTERIES MAY BE UNSOLVABLE.” The article details an account of Park Chong Kyu’s dealings with Northrop Corp. You may remember that Northrop paid him $6,250,000 to build a hotel in Korea and was bilked out of the money.

What this translates to is: Northrop paid him a bribe so he would convince the government to buy F-20 jets. The article goes on to detail that Park, who died in ’85, left behind an American Legion Post in Seoul known as the Safari Club. This was to be the site of the hotel.

This club and the rest of Park’s legacy now belong to his partner Ma Myong Dok. In the article, Ma is called “an elusive businessman with a checkered past.” The story tells how he was busted for illegal gambling at the Safari Post in ’85 and spent eight months in jail, which brings me to…

Ma is Not My Mother, and the 21 Card Grab

It was August of ’86, and my first trip to Korea. I had stayed at the one legal casino in Seoul for a week and it was time to give them a rest. I went to Inchon to play and lasted three hours before they told me that I couldn’t play anymore. They were very apologetic about the barring. Much nicer than they ever are in the States. So, I made my way back to Seoul and decided to try one of the illegal casinos. Yes, it had been closed in ’85 but after Ma spent eight months in jail, he opened right back up.

I had been told about the Safari Club by Woodpecker, but his directions were impossible, and pronunciation of a Korean word with an Australian accent left cab drivers stupefied… “Oxy dong… Take me to Oxy dong.” Well, that sure didn’t work.

Woodpecker was in Hong Kong so he couldn’t take me. I tried sidling up to Americans and speaking in hushed tones out of the side of my mouth. “Do you know where the Safari Club is?” No one seemed to know. I had visions of sneaking down a dark alley, rapping on the door and telling the guard, “Cho sent me.” Then I met a guy in Wendy’s one day who opened one of the magazines printed in English to a full-page color ad that said, “Come gamble at the Safari Club.”

As in the U.S., some things are more illegal than others, and it helps to have a brother in the Police Department.

One of the things I’ve learned traveling around the world as a professional gambler is that a casino that’s privately owned hates losing even more than a multi-billion dollar corporation. The smaller the club, the more careful you have to be.

The Safari Club had six blackjack tables and one baccarat table. It was a quiet little place and I was the only Caucasian there. Koreans are not allowed to gamble (even in the illegal casinos) so the other 25 or 30 players must have been Korean-Americans or Japanese.

I sat down at a table and noticed the limit was 300,000 Won, about $350 U.S. Not much compared to the two million limit at Walker Hill ($2500), but what the hell? After 20 minutes I was winning about $1,500 U.S. and the boss brought four new decks of cards to the table.

This is a common practice even in Vegas, although usually it’s stupid and unnecessary. This is also the time to be on your toes. The most common move at this point is for the boss to bring four decks that have a bunch of tens and aces removed, or four decks with lots of extra 4s, 5s, and 6s. The card counter in either case will start counting all these small cards coming out of the shoe and increase his bets, waiting for all those blackjacks that will never come.

This dealer carefully spread each deck face-up on the table as they are supposed to, and I carefully checked each one and found everything to be in order. But don’t relax yet. You never know what you might see if you watch that shuffle closely. And here it was…

The 21 Card Grab

After spreading the four decks the dealer placed two decks on her left, and two decks on her right, as is common when shuffling four decks. Now the procedure is to grab a clump of each stack and shuffle them together, working your way through all four decks. But what my dealer did is grab exactly 21 cards off each stack and shuffle them together.

How do I know it was 21 cards? Because she made the grabs very deliberately and then tilted both grabs exposing the 8 of diamonds on the bottom of both packets. Now to understand why this is important, we must look at a new deck of cards. They are arranged like this:





The suits are arranged clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades. So, at this point the dealer has shuffled the first 21 cards of two decks together… No big deal. Now she grabs 10 cards off each deck and shuffles them. So this clump is going to have 16 tens and four nines. Now she shuffles the rest of the cards and arranges them so that this clump is just above the middle of the four decks.

The reason for that is that most people, when they cut the cards, do it in about the middle. A cut like that will put these tens at the back of the shoe, behind the stop card. The same as if they had been removed from the deck altogether.

“Well… let me cut that deck. I feel lucky!”

The dealer smiled and handed me the cut card. I cut that little clump right to the front of the shoe. Now I knew that for 20 cards, there would be 16 tens and four 9s. I bet three hands of the limit…300,000. I got 19, 19, and 20. The dealer had a ten up. I surrendered my two 19s. (That means I gave up half my bet and surrendered the hand.) The dealer had 20 so I pushed the other hand.

I bet three more hands of 300,000. I got 20, 20, and 20. The dealer had a 9 up. Wait just a minute here… I think I’ll split this here pair of tens. I received another 10… split again, another ten, split again. I split out to four hands and got twenty on three and 19 on one.

Well, at this point the bosses went crazy. They weren’t sure what had happened but they knew I had just won another $2,000 U.S. with the most hare-brained play imaginable. There is one thing that all foreign casinos have learned… if an American starts winning, throw him out! This is true from Africa to Aruba, and from Monte Carlo to Macao. Well, I lasted less than two hours and won about $3,000 U.S.

The Wendy's in Seoul

I was in Wendy’s the next day telling this story to Tom C. It’s very important for anyone visiting Korea to know about Wendy’s. If you’ve seen the movie Casablanca, Wendy’s is Rick’s and Tom C. is Sidney Greenstreet. Anything you need Tom can introduce you to the person who can procure it for you. Need a visa extension? Sure. Want to meet the ambassador from Samoa? No problem. Listen… I know a girl that’s perfect for you. See the one there with the eye patch… And so it goes, every day at Wendy’s.

Anyway, I told Tom the story and he asked me if I wanted to go back. I told him that I didn’t think they would let me back in, at which point he said, “I’ll introduce you to Ma.”

“I thought your Mother was in Maryland?”

“Not Ma… Ma. Ma is not my Mutha.”

Yes, he really says things like “Mutha.” Well, Ma is “a good friend of mine.” It turns out that almost everybody in Korea is a “good friend” of Tom’s. He explained that Ma owns the club now that Pistol Park is dead.

“Pistol Park?”

It seems they called him that because he loved guns and always wore a six gun with a pearl handle. He paid some outrageous amount of money for it because the American that sold it to him claimed it had belonged to Jesse James or Billy the Kid.

I was not keen on meeting someone that was a business associate of anyone with Pistol in his name, but Tom insisted. We went back to the Safari Club a few days later. As we entered, Tom greeted the three Sumo types in the lobby and they all bowed and scraped until they saw me. Their eyes got very wide and they started saying, “No, no. Ahhhh…no no!” and waving their hands back and forth. I think this was the only English word they knew.

One guy picked up the phone and started jabbering away. At this point, Ma appeared from the casino and the three men started pointing at me and a heated discussion ensued. Tom, who has been in Korea for 15 years and still doesn’t speak the language, jumped right in.

“What’s the problem, Ma? This is a very good friend of mine.”

Well, Ma had not been there the night I was barred but had heard the stories. He told Tom that there wasn’t any problem but would prefer it if I would only play for fun and not bet too much money. We stayed for about an hour. I played while Tom and Ma sat at the table talking. I never bet more than $10, and still felt conspicuous. So, Tom did get me back in, and I did meet Ma, but it was very clear that I would not be able to win any appreciable amount of money.

On my next trip to Seoul, Tom told me that Ma had been called by his brother at the police station, and told that he was going to be raided, so Ma shut down for a night, but the raid didn’t come. This happened four or five times and Ma got tired of his brother crying wolf.

The next time the call came, Ma stayed open and was busted. He was back in jail, but I now hear that he’s out, and the Safari Club will be open again soon. ♠

For more stories about professional gamblers, see Arnold Snyder's Big Book of Blackjack and his novel Risk of Ruin, about a player on a blackjack hole-carding team. Also see Richard W. Munckin's Gambling Wizards: Conversations with the World's Greatest Gamblers .

To read more about professional gamblers and how they win, see the Professional Gambling Library

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