Former casino executive describes the Las Vegas casino comp system and tells card counters and other blackjack players how to get more value out of casino complimentaries.
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Casino Comps: How to Get Your Share

 
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Counting Cards in Comp City
By Max Rubin

(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XIV #2, June 1994)
© Blackjack Forum 1994

[The first part of this article on Las Vegas casino comps is excerpted directly from the first edition of Max Rubin's Comp City: A Guide to Free Casino Vacations, Second Edition.

The second part of this article, subtitled Comp City Outtakes, is a Blackjack Forum exclusive.]

Comp Counters Who Count Cards

Do you know how to count cards and win? If the answer is yes, then you, my friend, have the absolute nuts from this day forward. Think about it. If the casino pit bosses ignore you all night long, you can combine comp counting with card counting and win the equivalent of two bets an hour (one in money, one in stuff).

If there's heat, cut your bet spread down to a level that's breakeven, and you'll still earn great comps. If you want deep cover, how's this? You can pound booze and never look at anyone else's cards all night long and still be an overall favorite because of the comps.

Meanwhile, no one on that shift will ever suspect you're a counter, and you'll be welcome forever. This book was written to show basic-strategy-level blackjack players how to crush casinos by earning comps valued at ten times their gambling losses. Every tactic portrayed in Comp City can also be used by an accomplished card counter, and you won't even have to fade the losses.

Although I've played my share of winning blackjack, I don't pretend to be a world-class blackjack player on a level with the legendary counters who earn hundreds of thousands a year. But based on my extensive experience on both sides of the table, I believe I have some insight worth discussing here. Some of these tips you'll be familiar with and some may be new to you. A few of them threw me off when I was working the floor. If they're not already in your repertoire, incorporating them might gain you years of card-counting longevity.

Laying Cover to Score Comps

You know all about cover, while most bosses don't even know what it means. But that's not to imply that you should underestimate the enemy. A few bosses in every casino have read the books and a handful of them can actually play a winning game. Although their numbers are few, you should assume that at least one sharp boss lurks in every joint.

This is paramount. Don't take your money back when the dealer shuffles. You're giving up a little, but pulling the money back confirms all of the boss's worst suspicions, especially if the shuffle was prompted by your big bet.

Watching the Pit Boss

If a boss catches you looking at him, smile and call him over. Ask him for something-a comp, directions, a recommendation for a show, anything, but don't ever let him see you divert your eyes away from his. It's a dead giveaway that you're up to something.

Tipping the Dealer

Tip the dealers. You should budget at least 5% of your expected win for the dealers. If you're a big player with a high hourly return, it's almost imperative that you give the dealers at least 10% of your expectation. So what if your profit is reduced by a little blood money? I've had hundreds of conversations in pits about counters and 90% of the bosses believe that counters don't tip. Tipping will buy you years of playing time.

By the same token, if you're betting more than $100 a hand, tip the cocktail waitress $5, no matter what. The bosses will think you're a sport and they know that counters are anything but.

Cover Bets

If a boss is watching, you want to look like a sucker. When you win a hand and he's watching, bet it up no matter what. If you lose, you can go up or down. (If the count's good, bet it up. If it's bad, bet it down.)

A boss only has to see you do this two or three times in a session to be convinced that you're a negative-progression or money-management player, not a counter. It will reduce your expected win by a few bucks. But I see it as a valid expense of doing business. Unless you're the type who plays till you're barred, it's the only way to go.

There are people in this country who play solo, live in penthouse casino suites, and make half a million dollars a year because they're not afraid to tip and lay cover. Some of these guys lay $500 in cover during a $1,000 session. Guess what the net result is here? $500 an hour, after hour, after hour, after hour.

Sucker Plays That Work

If you want to get a boss thinking you're a stone sucker, slam that first shot of whiskey and bet a quarter for yourself and a quarter for the dealer on the first hand.

Take insurance when you have a natural. You might even insure your twenties when the boss is watching. Do it with conviction and without hesitation (you know you have to protect those good hands). It'll come up infrequently so it won't cost too much overall, but it leaves a lasting impression with the bosses. A move with similar value is not hitting a soft 18 against a nine, ten, or ace. The word is out on this play; hitting the 18 identifies you as a player in the know.

There are other plays. It's fun to use Stanford Wong's Blackjack Count Analyzer software program to discover those that cost you only a few dollars in expectation for hundreds of dollars worth of cover. If you're a comp counter first, and only use card counting to defray your over-the-table losses, these moves are inexpensive indeed.

Appearance

I never trusted a guy who looked like he woke up just to play blackjack. Don't come in on graveyard shift between 4:00 and 7:00 am rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. No true degenerate gambler (which is what you want them to think you are) ever had to set an alarm clock to tell him when it was time to play.

Most graveyard bosses are on the lookout for the ghouls nesting upstairs who descend on the tables before sunrise. If you're playing the graveyard shift, stay up all night or make your plays later in the morning when you can wake up naturally.

Don't drink mineral water. Don't ask me why, but an inordinate number of counters drink mineral water. Get juice, coffee, tea, Dr. Pepper, but stay away from the bottled waters. As far as the bosses are concerned, anyone sitting in a casino drinking anything that smacks of health is not to be trusted.

Card Counter Conduct

Introduce yourself to the boss and give him your VIP card. Talk to him. A lot. If you want to enlist a co-conspirator for the weekend, buy your favorite floorman a $25 three-teamer for Sunday's games (Monday if you're staying that long). The boss will be your buddy for the next couple of days. If you win big, yuck it up. Until you've established a pattern of winning (five or more sessions), if your cover is good enough, there's no way they'll throw you out of the casino for counting. When they like you, some bosses will even warn you if the heat is on upstairs.

Hiding Chips (Ratholing)

As a pro, you know you're doing well if you win an average of one big bet an hour. All you have to do is hide one big bet an hour and you'll be doing great in terms of preserving your welcome. Unless you're playing head up, where the boss can determine exactly how many chips are missing from the rack, you can swing with up to two bets an hour and you'll look like a loser forever. Most places are reluctant to bar "losers," unless they're blatant scufflers.

Buying In

If you're a cash player, don't ever buy in with a lot of currency. Don't buy in for $500 and make $15 bets, for example; gamblers don't do it that way. If your eventual big bets will be $100, buy in for $100 and start by playing quarters. Win or lose, you'll be able to move your bets into your normal spread within a few minutes. If you're losing, it looks natural for you to come out of your pocket, especially when you want to bet big. If you're winning, it looks like you're making a parlay play, also very natural. If you bet $5 for the dealer and $25 for yourself early on, you'll look real easy!

When you come out of pocket, let the money play. I haven't seen five counters in my life who let money play (unless they were trying to get around Regulation 6-A).

Drinking at the Blackjack Table

Buy an O'Douls or a Sharps at the bar. Pour it in a glass. Take it to the table with you. When the waitress comes by, ask for a shot of whiskey, making sure the boss hears you. Slug it down when the boss is watching. Then chug the O'Douls.

The next time the waitress comes by, order a real beer and sip it slowly. Time for a break. Take the beer and get rid of it. Buy another fake beer, pour it into a glass, mosey back to the table, and chug it while you're talking to the boss. Order another real beer. Then you sip again.

When it's a quarter gone (half an hour or so), order another cold one. By now you'll have to go to the bathroom again and, yep, go get some more fake stuff. In a two-hour session you'll consume the equivalent of a drink and a half and look like you're getting smashed. It works.

Wonging

Start your play with the best of it. Wong into a rich shoe and make those important big bets when you have a big edge. If you're good, you can back count the game next to you (make sure you're in a position to watch the other layout) and pop into that one when it gets juicy. Just let the boss know you're moving.

Getting Rid of Pit Bosses

If a boss is hawking your game, get in his face. Be nice, but bombard him with requests. Ask him for reservations for the show. He'll have to do it, even if he doesn't want to. If he comes back to your game, ask him for reservations for dinner. If he comes back again, ask him for a comp for the coffee shop. Keep this up long enough and he'll stay as far away from your game as he can get. The problem is, he'll also get mad, which will probably have an adverse effect on your rating. If you are playing primarily for the comps, you'll have to tolerate a boss's scrutiny.

Comp City Outtakes:

Beat the Heat

How can you tell when there's heat? It's pretty simple. If a floorman who's been gunning your game gets on the phone, and another boss comes over to watch your play (and they both talk while trying not to move their lips), it's getting warm. If either of them picks up the phone after that, you got heat!

Sometimes the second boss will go over to the computer terminal and pull up your "profile." The first thing he looks for is a history: how long you've played (lifetime!), how much they should have won, how much they have won, and the difference between the two.

It you're somewhere within the normal range, they'll surmise that you may not be that dangerous a blackjack player.

Theoretical Casino Win $10,000
Actual Casino Win $ 8,000
Difference $ 2,000

If they see that you're only losing about 10% of what is expected, their radar switches on and they'll surely tell the eye to watch what you're doing.

Theoretical Casino Win $10,000
Actual Casino Win $ 1,000
Difference $ 9,000

What you don't want them to see, although it's sometimes impossible not to if you book an extraordinary winner, is any kind of winner at all, especially if you have 100+ hours of play.

Theoretical Casino Win $10,000
Actual Casino Win ($ 1,000)
Difference ($11,000)

They know they should have won $10K, but they've lost $1K. What does that mean to them? Something's wrong, no doubt. What does that mean to you? If you want to play over a long period of time in one particular house for comps, monetary profit, or both you'd better learn to hide two units per hour.

But the issue here is heat detection and what to do about it. Most card counters really sweat the boss's scrutiny, but they don't need to. If a floorman is standing over your game and watching every hand, he probably suspects that you're counting, but it's highly unlikely that you're already being watched from upstairs. You still have time to implement some damage control.

If you keep moving your money, and he goes to the phone, it's time to go on red alert. (Floormen can't order a surveillance check. The order must come from a pit boss or higher.) Here's what happens in most places:

Floorman agitated, calls bigger boss ==>

Big boss watches you and/or pulls up your computer file ==>

Big boss notifies surveillance ==>

Floorman "gives you air." (Acts disinterested so the "eye" has time to evaluate your play.) ==>

Eye tries to match your face to mugs in Griffin Book. If no match, they do a "skills check" (30-60 minutes). Reports to management. ==>

If you are labeled as "counting," you will be barred and possibly photographed. If you are labeled as "not counting," your name is logged as such, and you have a free pass (until you win a lot of money).

So what do you do when you know you're under the microscope? At this point you have three options: leave, keep counting, or lay some cover.

Leave

If you beat a hasty retreat, every time a pit clerk calls up your computer file (marker, rating input, comp request, etc.), SKILLS CHECK! flashes on the screen. That means you'll be branded as a potential counter for at least the duration of this trip and maybe for a whole lot longer. Your counting life expectancy in that joint has just been reduced.

Keep Counting (And Moving the Money)

Sure, it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for a good surveillance expert to tag you properly. You should be able to win at least a piece of a big bet before they take your picture, post it in the security office, give it to Griffin, pass it around to other casinos, bar you for life and terminate your comps. Nice move.

Play Like a Chump

If not for the rest of the trip, at least for the next couple of hours. You'll still get your comps and you'll still be a slight favorite, but you can't move your money with the count, unless it's real, real natural. What you must do is keep moving your money randomly, with no consideration of the count. If all of a sudden you turn into a flat bettor, you're going to embarrass the boss who alerted surveillance, and he's going to follow you like a dog in heat forever.

I know this play's going to crumble your corks, but the heatiest play you can ever make is not insuring a natural. It'll cost you about eight bucks every time you do it (assuming a $100 bet), but if you have a snapper and don't insure, the other players will get bug-eyed, the dealer will stop the game and ask you why you didn't, and the boss will head straight to the phone and put Big Brother on your butt, especially if the dealer doesn't have the ten. You'll only get a natural against a dealer's ace once every four or five hours, so give up the two bucks an hour and you'll live to play another day (or swing).

If you choose to play like a chump, you can decide for yourself how to alter your play depending on how much you're willing to give up in expectation. Here are some examples. None of these plays will cost you more than $4. (The following were derived using Stanford Wong's Blackjack Count Analyzer, assuming a $100 bet on a six-deck shoe.)

Player Dealer Up-Card Cover Play Cost
       
14 4 hit $0.40
14 6 hit $1.80
12 3 stand $1.80
11 A double $3.10
A7 10 stand $3.50
10 10 double $3.60
12 2 stand $3.90
13 3 hit $4.00

Card Counting Index Plays

The real savvy guys upstairs know the index plays. If you suspect you're being watched, don't use them. Either stick to basic with a few cover moves or vary from them on things that look natural, like standing on 16 vs. 10, etc. Do not hit stiffs against stiffs when you should. It's a dead giveaway.

Spotters

If you get spooked by someone on your game who appears to have a keen interest in what you're doing, remember this: spotters do not sit on blackjack games. Period. They stand behind or beside the game. They try to remain invisible, but they can't. If you want to spot one (or freak him out) stand up when you play. If you suspect he's trying to see your cards, move your body so he has to move his. Very few disinterested game watchers will contort themselves to watch your cards. If he's squirming like the snake that he is, he's a spotter. Gaming agents and coppers are a different matter (they will play on a game), but if you're just counting, you don't have to worry about them.

Counter Catchers

Most clubs have a designated "counter catcher" (who's called to confirm the suspicions of spotters, other bosses, etc.). They usually work in the pits or upstairs.

The technology they use to catch counters is getting more sophisticated every day. Suffice it to say (and it's always been this way): It's much more important to have a world-class cover than a world-class card counting system.

The only way they'll catch you is if they suspect something in the first place. Don't let them think that you're smart. Don't be a stiff. Don't be a nerd. And don't move your bets up and down precisely according to published guidelines (counter catchers read the same books). If you play with a casual and relaxed style, bosses aren't compelled to surveille you.

Comp Notes for Team Players

If you're calling plays for a Big Player, always get rated, but not necessarily with the same name every time. You'll be amazed how much money you'll save the team's bankroll if you keep expenses down by getting free rooms and food.

If you're calling plays and the BP scores a big gourmet room comp, you can't go. How would you like for your (un)favorite shift boss to saunter in to say hello to the BP and see you, a measly $25 bettor, swilling $100 wine with him? You wouldn't. If you want to feast together, do it with room service. The same goes for other members of your teams. If you want to party together, do it when you make bank. And do it in a joint other than where you went over the top.

For the same reasons, don't ever use a BP's gourmet comp for yourself in a Las Vegas casino. The shift bosses often cruise the big rooms at least once a night. They look at the maitre 'ds comp log and then exchange pleasantries with the RFB customers. You might wind up exchanging blows if you're the wrong guy in the wrong chair. ♠

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