Syph is a card counter who made a living for six months playing single and double deck blackjack games in Reno, Sparks, and Wendover casinos. This article discusses heat and casino countermeasures against card counters in Reno, as well as pit staff knowledge of card counting and casino surveillance information networks.
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Reno Heat: Advice from a Professional Blackjack Player in Reno

By Syph
(From Blackjack Forum Online, August 2006)
© 2006 Blackjack Forum Online

I spent about six months or so card counting at the blackjack games in Reno, surviving solely off silver and green play.

Here are some thoughts and impressions. I emphasize that these are only my experiences, so feel free to reject them.

You might well know better.

You will get backed off, barred, and chased out.

I know everyone says you won't get hassled at these stakes, but you will. Prepare for it. And the smaller the joint, the less gracious the reading of the riot act.

I was chased out of the Cal-Neva by half a dozen security guards. Twice. I believe my top bet was $14 the first time, $19 the second.

I was barred from the Sienna for spreading $5-$20. Looking back, the quickest I was ever backed off was spreading 1-4, with progressive betting in positive counts after wins. You know, count rises, you win, you double up the bet. For some reason, it would get me backed off within about 20 minutes every time I attempted this "cover" strategy.

It's garbage, don't use it. And I don't care how long Don says he's been backcounting shoes.

Now, on the other hand, I spent the entire week in Wendover playing strictly by the count, sometimes jumping from $5 to $100 and back to $5 in the same deck. I was not backed off once, and there was an amusing exchange between the dealer and the pit boss regarding my betting:

Dealer: "You've got to have the most erratic betting I've ever witnessed."

Pit Boss: "It's Canadian betting. Very effective."

Then they comped me a room.

You know, most counters are so deathly concerned about trying to hide their spread that they all sorta end up looking like each other in the process. I found the more I spread, the less likely I was to be backed off. I think Arnold has mentioned Ken Uston made use of this phenomenon.

One final point, while playing in Reno. Always carry a disposable camera with you. That way, when they start taking your picture, you can take theirs. Trading these sorts of antics is playing a losing game, obviously. And if you find youself in such a situation you've done something really wrong, but it does tend to make one feel better at the end of the day.

Depths of Ignorance in Reno Casinos

The depths of ignorance in Reno casinos are unchartable.

Never underestimate the sheer stupidity, paranoia, and fear of the pit critters.

I once, trying to pass myself off as a mentally handicapped compulsive gambler, muttered ...

"So, uhm ... like, if all the aces get played I can't get a blackjack?"

Man, you've never seen a Pit Boss's head shoot up so fast, twisting left and right, seeking out the guilty perp. And as I slumped in my chair, I was reminded you simply can't make a stupid enough comment to make them think you're an idiot.

Reno Blackjack Dealers and Card Counters

Can't we all just get along?

No, we can't. Sorry.

I have so many instances of befriending blackjack dealers who would then identify me as a "mark" and consequently expect a little extra toke for the shared good fortune. And if they didn't get it, they would turn on you faster than a fanged snake with a skin condition.

Even those who know better can get lured into this dynamic. In time, it will destroy your bankroll with 100% certainty. The dealers are exceptional hustlers, and once they identify a little bit of weakness, they will devour you.

It's like a relationship. And what gets people into trouble in relationships is not having clearly defined roles. Your relationship with the dealer is of the utmost importance when you sit down, particularly for the first time. Every dollar won costs you $100 in wagers, and if you are to go by Certainty Equivalents and other fancy math... perhaps closer to $200.

Just try winning a few hundred in a session and flipping the girl a dollar. You will not make any friends. But if you do any more than that, you're probably playing a losing game. And if you flip her enough to make her happy, I can guarantee you that you will be in the poor house.

Don't kid yourself on this issue. Fluctuations are not the number one killer of success in card counting. In my experience, and from watching those around me, it's really tipping that cute girl a dollar on every third win that destines a low stakes player to a flight back to home and a job.

Ok, I'm veering off topic. But the point is, the moment you sit down at the table you are being categorized. If you adopt a spineless persona, the dealer will come to expect a spineless persona, and all those tips that come from a spineless persona. You have become her bitch.

And once that identity is set, you have just fuct yourself (I apologize for the language, but this is kinda important). Conversely, if you never tip, she will also come to expect that as well. And the interesting thing is, provided you are consistent with your attitude, all will run smoothly. But if cracks start to form, then the trouble begins.

Whether you're a non-tipper that decides to be gracious or a tipper who decides to be chintzy, problems start when you deviate from your identity. You are introducing weakness into the relationship, and weakness is punished severely in this game.

And don't think that your tipping puts you in anyone's good books. In my early days, I was tipping more than I was making in EV, but it didn't prevent the backoffs. Remember, the backoffs come from above, and every tip you give is one less dollar the casino can make off you.

(One further thought, and this came from someone far more experienced than I. He recounted a story of how he witnessed a group of dealers together at the end of their shift, laughing about how much money they had collected from all the "losers" who had tipped them.

This is not the final word on the subject, but you would be better served viewing them in this light, than the urge to see them as struggling wage slaves trying to put food on their table. They WILL portray the latter identity, hold to the former.)

Card Counters and Reno Pit Staff

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Subtitled: And you thought the blackjack dealer was evil ...

Story time.

Nice Pit Boss: "You know, you should really be playing two hands on positive counts."

Syph: "Yah, but I don't want to wear out my welcome here. Besides, I think your dealer likes me."

Nice Pit Boss: "She's married. Let me get you a dinner."

Syph: "Hey, thanks!"

While eating, the Nice Pit Boss joined Syph for dinner. They laughed and talked about the game. Turns out, the Nice Pit Boss used to be a card counter himself and even wrote a small book on the subject, and as the rapport developed, Syph popped the question:

Syph: "So, you don't mind if I come in and play?"

Nice Pit Boss: "Son, I've been through three divorces... you think I care about this shit?"

The next night, the moment Syph raised his bet, the dealer shuffled. Then another early shuffle. And another. And one look over at the smirking Pit Boss told the story. An uncomfortable feeling of betrayal pierced Syph's soul...

Syph: "Hey, I thought you said you didn't care?"

And the Nice Pit Boss, with a benevolent smile and detached grace that would humble a buddhist and shame a trappist monk, responded:

"I don't."

(True story. In my defense, it happened relatively early in my career.)

Blackjack Card Counting and Surveillance in Reno

Be Kaiser Soze.

This article may be a little long winded, but I now need to address those who would like to try and be a bit more genuine than the rest of the cloak and dagger-like card counting community. I can respect this approach, but I must warn you, it won't work. I know, I tried.

Ya gotta be more Kaiser Soze than Forrest Gump.

The simple reason is that Gump is just too easy of a target. And if there's one truth in the casino industry, it's that surveillance will go after the easiest perceived threat to justify its role.

Insofar as the surveillance personnel's relation to you is concerned, they are not interested in protecting the game as much as they are interested in protecting their jobs. Your EV of a few dollars an hour isn't really going to affect the bottom line much (though this has been argued), but card counters tend to stick out like a sore thumb. So while backing you off may have negligible impact on the casino's EV, it has immense value (social, hierarchical, and economic) to a surveillance goon looking to move up, hold on to his job, or earn respect.

Remember that the surveillance guys don't have the skills to catch the true threats to their bottom line, but they can obscure this by racking up large numbers of small time counters.

Reno Blackjack Wrap Up

Ok, so you're spreading like a maniac, you're flirting with the dealers, you're not having dinner with the pit boss, and you're keeping your sessions brief.

For myself, most of my backoffs happened when I got stuck for a good chunk, then spent the next six or seven hours digging myself out.

Don't do this. Thirty minutes tops, and twenty would be better.

Now, you've asked about how the intel is in Reno. Unless it's changed recently, I can assure you that (at least at low stakes) it is virtually non-existent. I would get backed off or barred during the day shift, then return for the graveyard. My grainy, black and white picture was probably in every book in Reno, but there was always a shift (or two) in the same casino that hadn't gotten the memo. And, yes, I was probably backed off a dozen times at the Peppermill, hell... who wasn't?

(Incidentally, this was the same Peppermill chain where they consequently comped me a room in Wendover a few months later. Same name on the player card. And they're still sending me promos.)

I've never had problems getting a game.

So any concern about your name/image getting out can be laid to rest. If you are caught, it won't even get around to the next shift. And this was first brought to my attention by a man who had been playing in Reno for 20 years.

'Nuff said.

Needless to say, these are only my experiences. But as a guy who tried to live off a small bankroll in Reno, I thought I'd venture my two cents. Again, none of this is meant to replace your own experience, but if you are undecided on a certain area, I don't mind giving a bit of a nudge. ♠

For more information on casino surveillance, see D.V. Cellini's The Card Counter's Guide to Casino Surveillance. For information on how professional players avoid detection by surveillance, see Arnold Snyder's Blackbelt in Blackjack.

For more information at this web site on casino surveillance, heat, and card counting camouflage, see the Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library.

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