Success at card counting is about more than the card counting system you choose. This Blackjack Forum article provides practical tips on carrying out card counting in casinos, such as how to remember the count during interruptions, and how to practice card counting for better results in casino play.
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Low Stakes Blackjack: Graduating from Red Chip to Green

By Barfarkel
(From Blackjack Forum, Vol. XXIII #4, Winter 2003/04)
© 2004 Blackjack Forum

[Barfarkel is the author of You've Got Heat: The Vegas Card Counting Adventures of LV Pro ]

The first time I stacked up four greens on a maximum bet, my heart was pounding. My initial reluctance to make a max bet had only just been overcome, after almost two whole days of shying away from pushing out those four greenies on a single hand.

As the bored dealer routinely called out, "Checks play," I sank lower in the chair, and scanned the pit for signs of activity. Nothing happening. Were they deliberately ignoring me, hoping I'd hang myself with too much rope? Is that why they were over on the other side of the pit, far away from my table? Had they put the Eye in the Sky on me, hoping I'd get too bold so that I'd be an easy target to identify as a card counter?

As the questions and paranoia whirled through my mind, the lack of pit activity seemed to yawn at my mental histrionics. At first I couldn't quite believe that they were going to let this pass—after all, I had just made a max bet right under their noses.

But soon I came to my senses and calmed down, realizing that they couldn't care less that a player they didn't even know had bet $100 on a hand. That's chicken feed by Vegas standards. But not to me. Even though it was only $20 more than my usual $80 top bet, there seemed to be an emotional barrier to the magic sum of $100. Somehow, that figure became big money to me.

The risk of losing it was making my palms sweat. In fact, the $100 bet represented the fact that I was now embarking on a new era of my card counting avocation—green chip play.

OK, strictly speaking it's actually a red-to-low-green spread. As I'm now discovering, betting greens tend to create more paranoia in ones' mind. The tough part is knowing if and when this newfound fear is justified.

I've made higher bets than this in the past, but then it was part of a team's bankroll. Now it was my own hard-won money on the line. A few years ago, when I was just starting out counting cards in casinos, I bought into a shared-bankroll blackjack team. I threw in half of my personal blackjack funds, $1,000, and owned 10% of our five-man $10k team bankroll.

Fortunately, I had an experienced mentor to prepare me for the higher betting levels. Among other things, he told me that I must consider the chips I'm betting only as colored pieces of clay that are used solely to keep score, just like in any other game. Don't think of them as real money that you could use to buy a new laptop or DVD player. Think of them as marbles or Monopoly scrip.

I'm amazed now when I look back and recall that I had no problems betting green chips as part of a team, even at the very start of that venture. It's always easier betting other people's money. When I lost a $150 bet, I simply reminded myself that I had just lost $15 of my own money. No big deal. I'd get it back soon enough.

Plus, it was huge fun to be betting stacks of green every hand, while winning and losing hands at about the same ratio as when I was betting reds with my own bankroll. So why was I now so afraid of pushing out four greens on a hand of blackjack?

Casino Heat as You Move Up from Low Stakes Blackjack

In the first place, Las Vegas had changed for the worse. Pits were now quite intolerant of card counters—much more than they were even two years ago. The bean-counter mentality that had infected casino upper management now held that even lower-stakes advantage players were a direct threat, and must be dealt with.

In years past, red chip counters—and even low green spreaders—could fly under the radar and be somewhat tolerated, as long as they didn't camp out or get too outrageous with the bet spread. Now that had changed.

Later in my trip, I would get booted out of one of the Coast properties after making just one $100 bet. I had been playing for a half hour on swing shift and losing. I switched to another $109 double-deck table in a different pit. I had been betting $15 and $20 in negative and neutral counts. After ten minutes or so, the count started rising. I bet $40, then $75. The count stayed high. I pushed out a $100 bet and won. As I'm stacking my winnings, I get the tap on the shoulder.

"No more blackjack," the floorman said. "Your game's a little too strong for us." I just couldn't believe that they would back off someone playing at my relatively low stakes. But boot me they did. And this is a large casino with three or four blackjack pits and thirty-four tables—twenty-four of them double-deckers. Who would ever believe that the day had come in Las Vegas when one $100 bet would get you booted?

The Psychology of Moving Up from Low Stakes Blackjack

Another reason that I felt such trepidation purshing out max bets was that, despite the low risk-of-ruin numbers that BJRM 2000 had generated for me, I was quite protective of my bankroll. After some disastrous team losses, I went solo with the $2,000 I had left, late in 2001. Playing a red spread for two years, I had put a ton of time and effort into winning the $8,000 that I had netted over seven or eight trips since then. I wanted to continue to play conservatively.

When you play a green spread, variance can be vicious. I had not yet steeled myself to be able to accept huge losses. It's not unusual to lose 80 or 100 green units in just one session. Do that three consecutive times, and I'm right back in red-chip land where I started.

I had come too far over too long a time to piss away my hard-won $10k bankroll cavalierly. The emotional impact of radical bankroll swings and the increased possibility of getting botted were the two main reasons for my initial reluctance to stack up those four greens.

There was only one silver lining in this storm cloud. By the time this barring occurred, I had overcome my max bet gun-shyness. I was now having very little problem making a $100 wager. Thankfully, it didn't take very long. It still made my heart thump harder, but I got over it quickly and had gotten somewhat used to it by this point in the trip.

Come to think of it, making a $30 or $40 bet used to give me the same fearful reaction when I first started counting cards. I guess you can get used to anything, given enough time.

Still, I missed the relative freedom to spread and lack of heat of my former red chip approach. Then I could camp out and play long sessions with little or no scrutiny. Now that I'm spreading green, I have to limit my session times. In order to get in the same number of hours, I have to move from casino to casino more frequently. I have to play shorter sessions.

You don't want to give the pit and the Eye too long a look at your betting and playing strategies. This results in more down time during which I'm traveling rather than playing. As a result, I've had to put in more hours out of my day in order to get the same amount of playing hours in.

The added time is spent moving from store to store, and there are more sessions played, albeit each one of shorter duration. And I guess I could factor into my trip expenses the added wear and tear on my car and the additional gasoline expenditure, but I haven't yet figured out how to adjust my accounting procedures to integrate those new factors.

Offsetting the additional travel time is the fact that I'm now getting more hands per hour. Since the $25 minimum tables are rarely as crowded as the $5 and $10 tables, I'm playing faster. Not only that, but there are fewer ploppies at the green tables, so I get more out of my high counts. The tens and aces don't get as dispersed among the other players as they used to, so I now get more hands at high counts, and the plus situations last longer.

Each time I calculate my spread and risk of ruin on BJRM 2000, I now have to remember to set it to a greater number of hands per hour. This is a better situation, but comes at the price of higher, swifter variance. Because it's a better game, with more high count situations, I tend to win or lose more quickly. The old saying that "You lose the most at the best games," now seems truer than ever. That's the underlying irony of this double-edged sword. Be careful what you wish for.

And again, naturally they watch those $25 double-deck tables more closely. While betting a green spread, I now have to keep track of how many minimum-to-maximum bet cycles I've gone through. I know I should flee once I've gone through two cycles, but sometimes I try to push the envelope and stay for a third one. That's how I mark the session time these days—not the minutes and hours played, but the number of min-to-max cycles I've generated.

Betting green is a whole different culture. I had been used to playing pitch games in downtown Las Vegas with relative freedom and ease. With my former red spread, I was one of the lowest bettors in the casino. As such, I would be totally ignored. I would have to keep pitching the floor people for a coffee shop comp throughout the session. It was part of my act to try to get noticed. Hopefully, they would regard me as a harmless comp-hustling nuisance. That's what I wanted them to think.

Now the dealers call out "Checks play" almost as soon as I sit down at the table. You get noticed right away. I've found that I have to use a lot more betting cover, especially early in the session. My plan of attack has changed so that now I'm considering how to fool the pit and Eye in the Sky. This has become one of my primary concerns, especially at places where they don't know me. Now I'm trying not to get noticed.

Like most of you, I hate to lose. We all feel the unjustness of a loss when we know we have the advantage and are supposed to come out ahead over time. In my red chip days, I'd camp out if losing and play marathon sessions in order to get even. Can't do that anymore. Win, lose or draw, I have to end the session after those two or three bet cycles.

I've had to become more philosophical about booking a loss. In fact, I've taken a page from Ian Andersen (author of Burning the Tables in Las Vegas) in this regard. I now advertise my loss to anyone who will listen. While not allowing myself to whine, I try to present a nonchalant front, aided by a sense of humor about the losses. Of course, I'm doing this so that they'll remember me as a loser and welcome me back when I return. Longevity has now become one of my primary concerns.

Longevity as You Move Up from Low Stakes Blackjack

In concert with this is the need to rat-hole chips. In my red chip days, I would always forget to use this technique, but now it becomes increasingly important. As many of you know, you don't hide the highest chip denomination, but only the lower or mid colors. If you are playing at a $25 table, it's smarter to hide the green chips, and not the blacks. Otherwise it's too easy for them to figure it out later when they count the chip tray, after you've left the table.

If you get busted hiding chips, this puts real suspicion on you the next time you appear. They keep a much closer watch on the higher denominations. Of course you can only employ this tactic if there are other players at your table. Rat-holing chips while playing heads-up is suicidal. They'll be able to tell rather easily.

One of the things I've learned from reading Cellini's book The Card Counters' Guide to Casino Surveillance is that you should avoid using your shirt pocket to hide chips. Try to use your pants pockets instead. The reason is that once several chips are stored in your breast pocket, they distend the shape of the pocket. In most cases, the Eye will be able to see the impression they make on the outside of your pocket, in the exact shape and size of the chips.

If they suspected you at all before they notice this, it confirms their suspicions. That's not good. Now they'll really be watching you. The only exception to this guideline is if you have a business card in your shirt pocket. Then you can drop the chips behind the card so that the hidden chips don't push against the fabric and make a chip-shaped impression.

Of course, the comps are better at the green-chip level. I'm now getting restaurant comps for the mid-level eateries, like the Mexican and Italian cafes, instead of the former buffet and coffee shop comps I used to score. With negative and neutral count bets of $15, $20 and $25, I'm not yet getting the gourmet restaurants, but that's only a matter of time. Part of the reason is that since I'm playing shorter sessions, I'm not giving the casinos the number of hours they require to qualify for those better gourmet comps. I have to put together several short sessions, on different shifts, rather than one long session like in the past.

Oh, by the way, I never did tell you how that first max bet hand at the beginning of this article turned out. I had played a half-hour already, bleeding away my buy-in (mostly with negative decks). When the count finally rose to a true of +5, this was my first opportunity to make a $100 bet. After several prior sessions of shying away from it, I finally pushed out those four greenies with trembling hands, and triumphantly turned over my first blackjack of the session!

This turned my hitherto losing session into a winning one. I hesitate to think how I would have reacted if I had lost that one. I guess I would have found out quickly how much heart I really had. ♠

Recommended Books on Moving Up from Low Stakes Blackjack

For more information on getting away with winning as you move from low stakes to mid-level stakes, see Arnold Snyder's Blackbelt in Blackjack, Rick Blaine's Blackjack Blueprint: How to Play Like a Pro... Part-Time, and Ian Andersen's Burning the Tables in Las Vegas.]

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