A Year of Card Counting: The Results
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A First Year In The Blackjack PitsBy G.K. Schroeder
(From Blackjack Forum, Vol. XIV #2, June 1994)
© 1994 Blackjack Forum
One of the things that happen when you take up card counting is that you start running into blackjack players everywhere.
My optometrist, for example, has played the Hi-Lo count for several years. He knew exactly what I meant when I asked for a pair of contact lenses that would provide optimal vision at the distance of from 3rd base to 1st base.
And there are a couple of people at the office who claim to count cards, as well as a multitude of basic strategy players of varying skills.
My neighbor, Gordito, is a newer member of the card counter culture.
He was stopped for speeding one night on his way back to southern California from Las Vegas. He told the lady CHP officer that he was in a rush to get home to tell his wife about a sizable win at blackjack. He let it drop that he was kind of a “semipro” blackjack player.
The next thing he knew the officer was asking him questions like whether or not you should split 2s when double after split is allowed. He claims that he got out a deck of cards and, while she held the flashlight, played a few hands on the hood of his car. I don’t believe the part about playing cards on the hood, but I know Gordito well enough to know that he did talk his way out of the ticket.
Most people have a good time with blackjack (it can be played just for fun) but most of them don’t win. On the graveyard shift at the Golden Nugget or Frontier in Las Vegas you may find a card counter at every table. Sometimes they don’t play well and you wonder how they’re feeling about blackjack, overall. Blackjack is a gloomy business when you’re in a losing streak. You begin to speculate about which curve of what fluctuation you were born on.
The blackjack mathematicians refer to the card counter’s financial journey through time as a random walk with an upward drift. This definition does not serve for the ups and downs of single-deck blackjack. Single-deck is too often like a sweaty calamitous trip through heaven and hell that ends with your wallet being on fire. But a good part of the time the cards and the casinos will give you an average chance to win, and that should be all you need.
Our blackjack literature is filled with amazing techniques, statistics and formulas, but most of it comes from professional players who bet black chips, or from the blackjack scientists. What is it like for the average player? Since many Blackjack Forum readers are part-time players or blackjack hobbyists, I thought it might be interesting to review the playing records and experiences of a serious nonprofessional card counter. My neighbor Gordito, mentioned above, has complete records of his first year in the pits as a part-time card counter.
Gordito had been playing basic strategy with some occasional casual counting (if “casual” card counting is possible) since Playing Blackjack as a Business came out in the 70s.
About two years ago Gordito was in Laughlin with his family and late one night won $300 in a couple of hours of play at a $5 table. He knew that this win was due to good fortune rather than skill, but he began to wonder… could an expert player beat the house in the 90s? Could a man approaching middle age with a stressful job, three kids, two dogs and two mortgages make blackjack into a profitable hobby? (He claims that he took a green chip and placed it on the pillow beside each of his sleeping children and asked for help from above.)
Did he have the discipline? Did he have the time? Did he have the money? He picked up a couple of the newer blackjack books (especially Arnold Snyder's Blackbelt in Blackjack), bought a few decks of cards, and spent the next three months playing 11,000 hands of double-deck blackjack on the breakfast bar. He played four hands against the dealer, naming three of the players after his children and the fourth after one of his dogs. He kept meticulous records.
A little over a year later Gordito owned 30 books on blackjack and related subjects, six blackjack software programs and had spent at least 100 hours programming a blackjack database. He had made 22 trips to Las Vegas and Laughlin. Gordito would never be the same. Following are some of the results of his first year as a card counter.
As you can see from the chart below, Gordito did not “clean up” at the blackjack tables, but he did make more than enough to pay for his trips. His expenses were modest. For most of the year he had a company car with free gas, and he got a few free rooms at the Frontier. He did not make enough to cover the blackjack books, subscriptions and software, or the gifts for his children (they got tired of slot cups after a while).
So far blackjack has been a positive experience for Gordito, although the game has become something of an obsession. He practices every day and, no matter how dreary things may be at work or in life in general, he always has the next trip to prepare for and look forward to.
He has increased his efficiency at day-to-day chores. He gets them done quickly so that he can find time for blackjack. He still never misses a little league game or a school program, but he attends these events with his pockets full of flash cards and charts (he can often be seen standing in some lighted area passing pieces of paper between his hands and mumbling to himself).
His family is also generally enjoying his experience. They’ve gone along with him on four of his trips. The children argue about whether the buffet is better at Palace Station or the Mirage. They anxiously await his telephone reports when he’s away by himself. If no one is at home when he calls, he leaves messages on the answer machine such as “I just got my throat ripped out at Alladin’s but I’m still up three dollars. Be in Barstow at about seven and home by 9:30.”
The family plays blackjack together with Gordito as dealer. He tries to analyze the personalities of his children by how they handle doubling and splitting.
He has a kitchen cupboard full of stacks of cards glued together at different thickness with the correct number of cards in each stack written on the bottom. He likes to strew these throughout the house so that he can walk into any room, see a stack of cards, and call out something like “12 cards! Multiply by .7, 1 ace” and then turn over the stack to see if he’s right.
On the other hand, he endures considerable flack from his family for spending too much time with blackjack. Being a blackjack player has its ups and downs. Following are a couple of Gordito’s learning experiences:
Card Counting Lesson #1: Losing
Gordito started out his career by winning the first three trips. On the fourth trip he paid $18 for a brand new room at the Golden Nugget in Laughlin—they had just opened the hotel portion—and he danced happily out into the casino thinking things like, “What a deal… What a life!” and then lost $390 in two hours with an average bet of $10.
There is a kind of nausea and paranoia that can afflict even experienced players when an uncommon losing streak happens. Just one terrible session can do it if you don’t have much experience, and that is what happened to Gordito. He went to bed in the room that had now cost him $408 and, prior to falling into a restless sleep, determined that in the morning he would make up his mind about whether or not to quit blackjack forever.
In the morning he felt a little better. He made some instant coffee from the hot water tap and reviewed the grievous session of the previous night. He quickly realized a couple of his mistakes.
For one, the game at the Nugget that night had been lousy. He had played with half a dozen dealers and none of them were offering decent penetration. He should have abandoned the Nugget after a few minutes instead of playing for two hours. (He was greedy, he not only wanted the nice room for $18, but he also wanted to come away with a big win.)
Secondly, he had allowed a hot dealer to irritate him. The dealer was a wimpy guy with a bald head and an insubstantial mustache. Instead of being apologetic, like many dealers will be when they are hot and the customers are getting restless, this dealer was arrogant and kept saying “bribery helps” and then would sweep up the losing hands with sadistic pleasure. In addition, the dealer would suddenly shuffle after only a round or two though there were only two players at the table. The longer Gordito played, the madder he got, and the madder he got, the more he lost.
Having had these insights in the fresh light of morning, Gordito decided to not give up blackjack forever, but rather to get better at it and to never let a dealer get to him again. He then walked over to the Pioneer Casino next door and lost $90 in 20 minutes.
He stayed in Laughlin another day and, by winning $10 or $20 here and there, managed to go home down only $305. Gordito refers to this trip as “Blackjack: Lesson No. 1.”
Card Counting Lesson #2: Winning
Driving home at the end of a trip, Gordito stopped at Whiskey Pete’s on the border of California for one last session. At the time, Whiskey Pete’s was a good place for low stakes single-deck blackjack. He thought he might add a few dollars to his winnings. The dealer was the friendly, talkative sort. He was a tall man and dealt very quickly from the high position with the cards floating down onto the spots. A card would just be settling down on one spot as the next card left his hand, so there was a nice effect of cards being continuously in the air.
Gordito was tired so he decided to just bet the count and not worry much about camouflage. Sometimes in these types of casinos you can get away with almost anything if you bet nickels. If it looked like they were getting on to him, he would simply get up and leave—he was already going to be late in getting home.
As it turned out, he had one of those miraculous runs of luck where everything worked. As the dealer gabbed about some property he was buying and about the other job he had at Arizona Charlie’s, Gordito spread mercilessly between one hand of $5 and two hands of $20, and played every hand to his advantage regardless of how it might look to the pit bosses.
Within a few minutes he was up $200. The other players were caught up in his win streak and applauded when he split tens on one of his hands and doubled down on a soft total on the other, and won all three. He kept checking for pit boss eyes but, during the entire session, despite the exclamations and applause, a boss never approached the table.
After about a half hour he began to lose his big bets and realized that he wasn’t playing well. He not only wasn’t counting aces, but he was having trouble remembering the running count. When he cashed out he was disappointed to discover that instead of a good win, he was down a few dollars. He had apparently lost more big bets toward the end than he had thought. In any case, it had been exciting to take over a blackjack table for a while and not get any heat.
Gordito initially marked this session up as the lesson: “Don’t play when you’re tired.” He didn’t know that the lesson was not over.
Gordito keeps detailed playing records and follows a basic rule of waiting three months between sessions at the same casino on the same shift. Three months after the above session, he returned to Whiskey Pete’s on the way into Las Vegas. As he walked between the blackjack pits the lady boss in the pit to his left took one look at him and picked up the phone. Gordito looked to the right and observed the boss on that side answer his phone and then look directly at him. Two pair of eyes watched as Gordito suddenly looked at his watch, muttered something about being late, and attempted to look casual as he turned around and exited the casino.
After another three months had passed, wearing a baseball cap and mirrored sunglasses, he crept into Whiskey Pete’s through the side door, where they displayed Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled car, and cased the blackjack pits from a bank of slot machines.
He spotted a nearby blackjack table with an empty stool and walked directly to it, counting down the cards on the table as he approached.
He sat down just as a hand ended and bought only $40 in chips so that the dealer would not have to announce his buy-in to the pit. The count was high, so he placed $20 on his spot. He won the hand and the count was still high, so he spread to two hands of $20. At this point he noticed a red dress pressed up to the table next to the dealer. He looked up into the unfriendly eyes of the lady pit boss. Her name tag said Carol. Gordito flat bet $20 for two rounds, losing both bets, but the red dress didn’t leave. He suddenly looked at his watch, muttered something about being late, and once again tried to look casual as he exited the casino.
It would be another six months before he could safely play at Whiskey Pete’s and, ironically, by that time they had ceased to offer single-deck blackjack and instead offered double-deck blackjack with bad penetration. There were several lessons to be learned from the Whiskey Pete’s blackjack experience but, as in lesson number one, the main lesson has to do with the various and insidious aspects of greed.
During the period covered in this story, Gordito played the Hi Opt I with indices from -10 to +10. It required a full year of play for him to get the ace count and true count adjustments down to where they were almost automatic. He is now halfway into his second year of card counting and is feeling comfortable playing the Omega II. His average bet is up to $20 and rising.
I asked him what advice he would give an aspiring counter and he said: “Practice every day, don’t over-bet your bankroll, never drive on Las Vegas Boulevard, and avoid playing blackjack in places where they don’t have the casino name on the backs of the cards—otherwise you may not know where you are.” If this seems a bit sarcastic, Gordito’s general view these days is that the only way you learn to play for keeps is to play for keeps. ♠
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