Blackjack Computers and the Electronic Gambler's Fuzz-Out Syndrome
By Bob Jenkins
(From Blackjack Forum Volume V #4, December 1985)
© Blackjack Forum 1985
[Note from Arnold Snyder: The following is a chapter from a blackjack book being written by Bob Jenkins. Bob was involved with several blackjack computer teams over a period of three years and is documenting some true experiences of these teams in a book to be titled Hot Wired to Win in Vegas.
The “Thor” system referred to in the chapter employed a blackjack computer program that tracks a multiple-deck shuffle and then determines where groups of cards (segments) end up in the shuffled decks. Bet levels and play decisions are determined by the blackjack shuffle-tracking computer on the basis of which cards remain in the segment currently being played.
The premier shuffle-tracking device was the Thor blackjack computer, which was employed by Bob Jenkins’ team. This blackjack computer was originally designed and developed over a period of years by three pioneers in the electronic gambling device field—Keith Taft, his son Marty Taft, and their associate Tom Shanks.
The Thor computers were first used successfully in 1980 and were in use by high-stakes players who purchased the devices directly from Taft until they became illegal. The Thor blackjack computer is actually an expanded “David” computer, which was designed for perfect-strategy card counting.
Shuffle-tracking computers made multiple-deck blackjack play as profitable as—and often more profitable than—single deck play. The Thor user first had to play through a shoe to establish a pre-shuffle “history” by entering the card values in the proper sequence as they were discarded to the discard rack. Computer to player communication is by coded buzzes of relays on the soles of the feet.
With this technical background, you should be able to follow Jenkins’ adventures.]
Introduction to Blackjack Computer Play
Sometimes in playing with a blackjack computer a phenomenon would occur that I have heard described as Electronic Gambler’s Fuzz-Out. After countless hours of sitting at numerous blackjack tables in equally numerous casinos, watching and entering every single card twice and in proper sequence, keeping a wary eye open for heat, gauging pit personnel perceptiveness, being constantly aware that the eye-in-the-sky is probably consuming reels of film recording your play while you surreptitiously determine who may be in back of you (watching your feet), knowing that a cocktail waitress who leans next to you on some pretext or other may be interested in more than the color of your shoes, interpreting the cryptic buzzes on the soles of your feet, wondering how a five-fold increase in the size of your bet will be received, continuously monitoring the reliability of your shoe switches, comparing what the computer tells you with what you see unfolding in front of you, watching for a battery dropout or a computer glitch, etc., etc., etc…. something happened that was almost surreal. That something that happened has been called Electronic Gambler’s Fuzz-Out. In other words, your brain makes a left turn after signaling a right. A few instances of this strange phenomenon are described in this chapter.
Blackjack Computers and the Tucked Cards Fuzz-Out Windfall
During a Fuzz-Out, all of the natural laws of the universe are suspended. In the grip of such a fugue, you are liable to violate the most basic precepts of security. I’ve seen it happen quite a few times. I’ve been guilty of it quite a few times. The first such event that I recall was early on in the training sessions at a downtown Vegas club. A teammate (I will call him Tom) and I were seated at a blackjack table. At this particular club the player’s first two cards were dealt face down. My blackjack computer output indicated that the next few cards were near the end of a segment (which is a crucial and powerful time) and I desperately wanted to tell the computer what all the outstanding cards were so that the accuracy of the play decision dictated by the computer could be greatly enhanced.
There were two cards on the table for which I did not know the value. Tom had quickly glanced at his cards and had immediately tucked them. A pat hand, obviously. But what were they? Maybe two face cards, maybe a nine and a ten; what were they? No problem. I simply reached over (to the unmitigated horror of the dealer), pulled Tom’s two cards from under his chips, entered the card values into my computer, and then replaced his cards. While the dealer reprimanded me in startled and no uncertain terms, the computer dispassionately informed me that I should most definitely take a hit. I took the hit, caught a five for 21, and serenely tucked my cards.
It wasn’t until then that the castigation by the dealer and the incredulous stare from Tom brought home to me the impropriety of what I had done. But I won the hand, and the sheer stupid brazenness of what I had done lulled the dealer into thinking (perhaps correctly) that I didn’t know the first thing about the game of blackjack. She didn’t even inform the pit boss.
Blackjack Computers and the Broken Wire Fuzz-Out Snafu
Later, months later, in a Las Vegas Strip club, another team member (I will call this one Dick) and I were seated at the same table and were doing well at controlling the pace of the game for the full table. Both of us were experiencing a fair degree of success and I was playing two hands, thereby almost doubling my dollar win rate. The dealer was nearly perfect in that his shuffle pattern was ideal for our needs, and by various hand (and other) signals, Dick and I observed that we were in constant agreement on the bet index, the optimum cut point, and several other significant parameters. Since we were the big bettors at the table and had been careful enough to avoid attracting any unusual amount of heat, either he or I almost always got the cut card, which is the same as money in the bank.
After about thirty minutes of these favorable conditions, I couldn’t resist going for the gold. I jumped by bets from $25 on each hand to $125 each. Neither the dealer nor the hovering pit boss batted an eye at this precipitous spread, although I observed that a raised eyebrow contact was made between them that carried the message, “Boy! Are we going to nail this turkey!”
But it was Dick who “nailed this turkey.” During the first round of my stepped-up bet level, he suddenly grew grave and silent and, after a long pause during which he seemed to be contemplating the very meaning of life itself, he tucked his cards and excused himself from the table. I’m sure that everyone else at the table, the dealer, and the pit boss watching the action, concluded that he had succumbed to the usual gambler’s excitement and felt an urgent need to make some sort of deposit in a different part of the casino. I thought otherwise, and was soon vindicated in this belief when I was treated to the most blatant display of Electronic Gambler’s Fuzz-Out that I have ever seen.
Out of the blue, Dick suddenly reappeared at my side and, even though we had previously agreed that we “would not know each other” in the casino, announced loudly, “I’ve broken a wire. I think we had better leave.”
I could physically feel the eyes of the dealer and the pit boss boring through my scalp as I intently studied the stack of chips in front of me, the table rail, my fingernails, and anything else that would provide an excuse for not looking up. To say that our cover had been blown was an understatement of gigantic proportions. Not only had our acquaintance (to put it mildly) been announced to the world, but a direct reference to the electronics we were both wearing had been made in near unmistakable terms. I could almost feel the hands of the security guards grabbing me by both arms and dragging me into the much-dreaded Back Room.
After a few seconds of eternity I turned toward Dick and exclaimed, “What! That damn air conditioner is out of order again? Next time let’s rent a car with decent wiring.”
Dick just looked at me like he couldn’t figure out what I was talking about, then his face lit up in belated understanding and he verified that, yes indeed, a wire on the air conditioner was broken. With that clever little exchange, we scooped up our chips, cashed out, and beat a hasty retreat.
I’ve often wondered what the dealer and the pit boss really thought of that.
Blackjack Computers and the Cut Card Fuzz-Out Disaster
Once upon a time in a land far away (Atlantic City), in a fabulous castle (Park Place Casino) there sat a prince (me) who wanted the cut card very (VERY) badly. Therein begins a tale that caused me extreme embarrassment.
One of the primary requirements of the Thor system we were using at the time was that the cut card should be placed at the optimum point so that the richest segment of cards would wind up at the front of the deck. This allowed for placing sizeable bets “off-the-top,” that is, before any cards were dealt out of the shoe, and therefore “prove” that we were not card counters. A typical card counter does not have shuffle-tracking capability and will start off with nominal bets and then spread, i.e., increase or decrease the size of his bets, as the cards played out from the shoe indicate that the remaining cards give a positive or negative count. Anyone who places his biggest bet before any cards have been played out from the shoe is apparently committing financial suicide because at the outset the house is supposed to have the advantage.
I had carefully played through several shoes under highly satisfactory conditions and was sure I was giving the blackjack computer nearly perfect card “histories.” All the shoes, till then, had been boring ho-hum affairs—i.e., the count never seemed to wander by more than two or three points on either side of zero. Then the fabulous thing happened. The dealer slowly finished up the shuffle and I entered the final shuffle data into the computer. I asked it where the cut point should be and then, since I was sure I was going to get the cut and, due to the relaxed nature of the game, I felt confident I could place it accurately, I entered that cut point in the computer and waited to hear what the opening count would be. I almost fell off the stool. The opening count would be plus 14. Fabulous! Money in the bank! A can’t-lose situation, and this dealer faithfully gave each player his turn at the cut card, in order, and I was next! Technically, I had violated one of our basic rules by entering the cut point before the cut card had actually been inserted, but during that session everything was ticking along so precisely that my confidence was sky high.
Ruefully I gazed at the measly single black chip that I had already placed on the spot (another rule violation) for the single hand I was playing and wondered what the pit’s reaction would be to my dropping three more blacks on top of that one. Such an action should have been perfectly acceptable because the cut card hadn’t even been inserted yet, but I would attract attention which might turn to heat when the first round of cards came out and painted the table in brilliant hues, i.e., almost all the cards appearing would be faces and aces.
Then the second fabulous thing occurred. The player to my left suddenly grabbed his chips off his spot and left the table, leaving me free to play his spot, which I eagerly did. In the wink of an eye I got carried away and dropped four black chips on the vacated spot and then, making some nonsensical remark about how two hands should be bet the same, I placed three more blacks on my original spot, resulting in a total bet of $800. That’s quite a jump from $100. But I felt I was set and fully expected this to be at least a $2000 shoe. Then the impossible happened.
Beyond all comprehension (to me, anyway) the dealer placed the deck on its side in front of the elderly lady to my right and handed her the cut card. I was devastated—until the Electronic Gambler’s Fuzz-Out took over control of my actions. Without the slightest hesitation I reached over, snatched the cut card from the startled old lady, growled at the dealer “It’s my turn,” and then deftly sliced it into the deck at precisely the 78% point the computer had told me. That all the more remarkable because the deck wasn’t in front of me, it was in front of the alarmed little old lady to my right. But I just knew that I had nailed it to within a card or two.
Not only had I been extremely rude and done something that you just do not do at a blackjack table, but my making it so obvious that I desperately wanted the cut card right after jumping my bet eight-fold was sure to mark me as counter of some sort or other, and thereby bring on the heat. Realizing this, I didn’t look at anybody and probably turned scarlet red. The only reaction from the dealer was a long silent pause and then a dry, “Sorry, sir. I didn’t realize that anybody could want the cut card that much.” Now all that was needed to get me barred as a professional was for the first round of cards to paint the table. I was dead certain that nothing but faces would show up.
Sure enough, the paint hit the table. All cards were dealt fact up and practically every player had a pat 20, and the dealer had a 10 showing. I groaned. Then groaned again when the dealer checked his hole card and, grinning broadly at me, turned over an ace for a natural 21. Without hesitation, I pocketed my remaining chips and left the casino, went for a long walk on the beach, and did not return to that casino for the remainder of the trip except to cash in my chips.
The Blackjack Computer Triple Fuzz-Out Ignominy
As a general rule the practice of more than one of us playing at the same table at the same time was avoided. Occasionally, however, this rule was temporarily suspended in order to get a really good game. One instance of this that I recall most vividly happened at a Las Vegas Strip casino where three of us locked up a table to do some serious shuffle tracking. Each of us played two hands and we discouraged civilians from coming into the remaining spot by crowding our stools in that direction and cluttering the vacant spot area with ash trays, glasses, chips, and anything else that happened to be on the table. This type of play was extremely effective for Thor because we could absolutely control the pace of the game, always got the cut card, could make sure that everybody saw everybody else’s cards, and by discreet signals, verify that we were all getting basically the same information from our respective computers.
During this particular session, my computer suffered a massive cardiac arrest and fell silent. But I didn’t want to leave the table and have civilians come into the game and screw it up. So I made my plight known to my teammates, reduced my bets substantially, and simply waved off the cut card whenever it was presented to me. I could play an almost even game by using basic strategy for play decisions and could tilt the odds slightly in my favor by increasing my bets during positive count periods, which was easily determined by observing my teammates’ bet variations (as well as noting the enthusiasm on their faces).
Everything was proceeding nicely. But after waving off the cut card several times (dealers like to give it to those who don’t want it) the first in this series of Fuzz-Outs appeared. I was offered the cut card and I took it. Not till I actually extended my hand to insert the card did I realize what I had done, and then I froze. I had no idea where the card should be inserted. My hand, holding the bright red plastic card over the proffered deck, simply remained motionless while I pondered what to do. Then a loud, clear, deep baritone boomed out from my left. My teammate, let’s call this one Harry, must have experienced his own inimitable brand of Fuzz-Out (number two in this series), because he told me where to cut the deck, loudly, clearly, and in front of casino personnel and everybody.
“I’d say about a quarter from the end.”
And now here comes Fuzz-Out number three in this sequence. I could not figure out which end he meant—the front end, or the back end? After all, everybody knows that a stack of cards, like a rope, has two ends. My hand, emblazoned with the card, remained embarrassingly immobile. I waited for Harry to figure out my dilemma and give me a clue. No further advice was forthcoming. The dealer stared at me quizzically, wondering, no doubt, if I had sunk into some kind of catatonic trance. With a belated flourish I slid the cut card in 25% from the front and glanced at Harry for confirmation. His scowl told me everything. I was completely unnecessary for him to add his final comment, loudly and clearly.
“Not THAT end, you dummy!”
Needless to say, for the remainder of that trip, our conversations revolved around the semantics of the word “end.” I wouldn’t admit that I agreed with him, after the event, that the word “end” correlates more closely with the back of something rather than with the front. Oh well, to live is to learn. A corollary to that might be, “To cut the deck at the wrong place can be expensive, and may invoke the wrath of other team members.”
The Surprising See My Wire? Blackjack Computer Fuzz-Out
As in all endeavors, some people are more adept than others. It’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that these people can do no wrong and to try to emulate them. A senior member of one of the teams I was on was this kind of person: always expert, composed, and self-possessed. He was so skillful and careful that we tagged him with the nickname “Ace.”
Then one day I saw Ace do something that brought home to me the fact that even he was only human. I caught him in the middle of a beautiful Fuzz-Out.
I was in a casino looking over the prospects when I saw him enter the gaming area. As always, he looked just like any other well-to-do tourist who was itching to gladly give money to the casinos. Halfway from the door to the tables he suddenly stopped stock still and just stood there for a while. Then, turning toward a nearby row of slots, he placed his foot on the base of the slot row and lifted his pants leg to knee level and proceeded to fish out a connector that had come loose and dropped down into his sock. Finally retrieving the errant wire from his sock, I watched in astonishment as he blissfully reconnected it to the wire hanging a good ten inches out from under his rolled-up pants leg. This was in full view of everybody. I almost expected him to stand up proudly and ask, “Hey! Did everybody get a chance to see my pretty little wire?”
A Blackjack Computer Fuzz-Out From An Unexpected Source
We had all heard that there were people out there who attempted multiple-deck shuffle-tracking without the aid of a computer strapped to their bodies, but we didn’t take that seriously. To do it right, you had to have a computer. But something happened one night that pointed out quite clearly that these people were active and that they could, at least, determine where the deck should be cut. I didn’t see this but was told about it from two other team members.
These two team members were seated at a table in one of the Cowboy Clubs. Directly between them was a young Asian man who seemed unnaturally alert. For reasons that only she knew, the dealer never gave the cut card to either of my teammates, but occasionally gave it to the attentive young Asian. Throughout the session my teammates were happy to see that whenever the young man seated between them got the cut card, he accidentally placed it approximately where it should be.
Finally, the dealer screwed up and gave the cut to one of my teammates, who promptly sliced it in at the most opportune cut point. Instantly the young Asian jumped up, grabbed my teammate’s hand to shake it vigorously, and loudly congratulated him on making a good cut.
Other Blackjack Computer Fuzz-Outs
I would suppose that fuzz-outs happened occasionally with all team members, but I rarely heard any being reported. Those which occurred during a time that they wouldn’t be witnessed by another team member stand a high probability of never being related, and even if the embarrassing debacle was witnessed, what really transpired would be downplayed to the extent that it would appear to be only a minor lapse.
During discussion, I’ve heard comments such as, “I’ve just had a case of fuzz-out, what did you say?” Or, “I must have fuzzed-out because I did such and such…,” and then a silly or minor case of absentmindedness would be related. Once, during one of our meetings, two team members arrived late and they seemed a trifle subdued. Finally, one turned to the other and caustically remarked, “Ya know, you just don’t do things like ask me at the table if I also got an 80% cut point call.” Nothing further about that was said.
I’m sure that many humorous, and some not so humorous, cases of Electronic Gambler’s Fuzz-Out happened that will never be revealed. ♠
Recommended Books on Blackjack Computers and Other Professional Gambling Plays
For more information on Keith and Marty Taft and blackjack computer play, as well as stories about other high-stakes professional gamblers, see The Big Book of Blackjack, by Arnold Snyder. For a story about a professional blackjack hole-card team, see Arnold Snyder's novel Risk of Ruin.
To read more at this web site about blackjack computer card-counting and shuffle-tracking play, see the Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library
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