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Professional Gamblers at Work: Outwitting Your Opponents

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  Honor Among Thieves
By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum, December 1988)
© Blackjack Forum 1988

Seoul, Korea. September 20, 1988. U.S. Olympic swimmer, Matt Biondi, is favored to win the gold medal in his first event, the 200-meter freestyle. Biondi leads from the start. On the third lap, the TV announcer points out that a relatively unknown Australian swimmer, Duncan Armstrong, who is in the lane next to Biondi, appears to be keeping pace with Biondi by swimming close to the rope and riding on Biondi’s wave. Biondi was allowing his draft to be taken advantage of in this way by swimming too close to the rope. In the last 10 meters of the last lap, Armstrong turns on the juice and passes Biondi to take the gold medal.

“What,” you ask, “does this have to do with blackjack?”

Following the race, Armstrong and Biondi are interviewed. The announcer asks Armstrong point blank about how much of a factor Biondi’s draft was to his speed. The Australian swimmer smiles broadly and acknowledges that he was “taking every advantage I could get,” adding that for most of the race, “I was just body surfing.” Biondi made no complaint. He just smiled with gentlemanly resignation. An Olympic gold medal had been stolen from him, not by skill, but by cunning.

“Sure, Bish, but this has nothing to do with blackjack!”

Oh, ye of little faith! Have you not learned yet that everything has something to do with blackjack?

Most competitive sports, based on skill, speed, strength and/or endurance, also allow for cunning. You can get away with sneaky tactics so long as you don’t break any rules. Gambling is a noncontact “sport,” i.e.. a contest in which the outcome is dependent on various levels of chance, as well as the participants’ skill and cunning.

Professional gamblers strive to minimize chance and maximize skill. They depend on their cunning to outwit their opponents. The trick is to exploit a flaw in your opponent’s strategy, while hiding the superiority of your own tactics. Armstrong, for instance could see that Biondi was too close to the rope, creating an exploitable tow on the water’s surface. After 3½ laps of being pulled, Armstrong had strength to spare for the finish. Kind of reminds you of blackjack, doesn’t it?

“Not really.”

Well, maybe not yet. This is more of a poker tactic, where you don’t take advantage of your opponent’s weakness until the pot is big enough to go for it. You’re not trying to educate your opponent; you’re trying to win his money.

The best poker players, those who go on to become pros, have great respect for worthy opponents. You learn to play by being beaten by better players. If you’re perceptive, this is education. You have to respect the man who’s just stolen your pot. That’s the object of the game. Unless he’s cheating, he’s an honorable thief.

The problem with casinos as opponents is that they are not professional gamblers, they’re businessmen who want to sell the illusion of gambling. They want to stack every game in their favor, putting all chance on their side in the long run. They want to eliminate the skill factor, and if you beat them by cunning, without breaking their rules, they’ll call you a cheat.

Since Ed Thorp penned his cunning text on how to beat the blackjack tables, card counters have been barred, back-roomed, blacklisted and physically beaten. There may be honor among thieves, but not among thugs. Ken Uston had his face broken (Blackjack Forum, June ’86). His crime? Counting cards. Taft and Weatherford were publicly humiliated, arrested, branded as felons, and imprisoned (Blackjack Forum, December, ’84). Their crime? Using a “device.” Forget the fact that Nevada’s “device law” was not passed until the following year. Law or no law, Nevada would not tolerate players who found a cunning legal edge over them. The casinos own the courts in Nevada.

Now comes Wong’s new book on how to beat the video poker machines (Professional Video Poker, Pi Yee Press). Again, professional gamblers will exploit the opponents' weakness. How will the casinos respond?

As with gambling tournaments, professional video poker players don’t hurt the casinos. They simply win the “pot” from other players who have lost on that bank of machines. The progressive jackpot is all money that the casino had already reserved for some “lucky” winner. But the pros, alas, probably don’t qualify as “lucky” to the casinos. Their crime? The same as all professional gamblers. They’re walking around with a functioning brain.

Card counters notwithstanding, blackjack is still offered in casinos. Casinos, to their dismay, find that it is difficult to sell the illusion of gambling if they trash their most popular games every time real gamblers find a cunning edge. I suspect video poker will also be around a long time.

But watch out.

Casinos are already barring known teams of video poker pros, and I suspect they will soon start going after solitary players who exhibit that fatal flaw that tips them off as vile scum on the casino floor. Their crime?

They win.

Honor among thieves?

Don’t bet on it. ♠

For more information on professional gamblers at blackjack, video poker and other games, see Arnold Snyder's Professional Gambling Library.

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