Versatility at the Blackjack Ball
By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XXII #2, Summer 2002)
© Blackjack Forum 2002
Las Vegas, Nevada.
Sometime in the year 2000.
Max Rubin’s Blackjack Ball.
The new millennium had just kicked in and, for the first time in my life, I had made the final four. For a blackjack player, this was an honor beyond compare.
Max announced the next event — throwing a playing card into a bowl from a distance of ten feet.
I remembered the stories of the legendary Titanic Thompson, who could fling cards into a hat from a distance of 30 feet. And Ricky Jay, the actor, magician, and eccentric author of Cards As Weapons, who could sail playing cards hundreds of feet across an auditorium to hit a target.
Ten measly feet.
As much of an honor as it was to be in the final four, I really didn’t want to end up fourth. The contest was set up as a pari-mutuel event, with the top three finishers—win, place, and show—in the money. To come in fourth was no better than coming in fortieth as far as the payout, which was zilch. And, with this crowd, the only thing that mattered was the payout. Two of those present—including my date—had put their money on me. I didn’t want to let my fans down.
Ten measly feet.
I swaggered up to the starting line and, with a devil-may-care flick of my wrist, launched an eight of clubs toward that bowl that appeared to be so close I could almost reach out and touch it.
The eight of clubs did not cooperate. Like an autumn leaf on a windy October day in Michigan, it flitted and fluttered in the air, deciding in the last moments of its wavering descent to reverse direction. It came to rest on the floor behind my foot—a full eleven feet from that bowl that was just ten feet away.
A small voice in the otherwise hushed crowd summed it up perfectly. “That was pathetic, Arnold.”
My bruised ego was salved by the equally feeble efforts of the next two contestants. Alas, it is not easy to hit a target with a playing card, even at a measly ten feet. My forlorn look was slowly transforming into a smile of smug satisfaction.
Then Bradley Peterson approached the starting line. Max handed him a six of hearts and cautioned him to keep his feet behind the line.
Bradley shrugged, then casually crumpled that six of hearts in his fist, until it was a small, tight projectile. Just as casually, he tossed it into that beckoning bowl that had proven so elusive to the rest of us. No flitter. No flutter. At that distance, who could miss?
That same small voice in the hushed crowd once again broke the silence. “Is that fair?”
But we all knew it was just as fair as glimpsing a dealer’s hole card, or check-raising with the nuts. This was war, and in love and war, all is fair.
Although Bradley scored all the points for that round, I did ultimately manage to show in the competition, and I was ecstatic to finish in the money. I took third place by beating a professional card counter in the left-handed arm-wrestling event. I no longer remember exactly what Max’s justification for this event was—I mean, all of the contests were supposed to have some kind of a gambling angle. I only remember looking at the puny twerp I was going to be arm-wrestling with, knowing in advance that although he was earning half-a-million a year from the casinos, he was about to lose his shot at the hallowed Blackjack Cup that probably meant more to him than money.
Bradley didn’t win that year either, and the following year Max instructed all contestants in the card-throwing competition that they could not “alter” the shape or form of the playing card. Kind of like a casino installing auto-peek devices after a spooking team had already beaten their brains in.
But none of those present at the millennium Blackjack Ball ever forgot the lesson that Bradley taught us: the most important trait of the professional gambler is versatility.
In my Sermon in the last issue of this esteemed mag, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” (BJF Spring 2002) I said there was one big factor that separated the pros from the wannabes—persistence, the only thing that overcomes the whims of fluctuation.
But the truth is for every long-run winner, there are hundreds of persistent losers. If you persist in any game with a negative EV, persistence is your enemy, not your salvation. And if you play just well enough to kill the house edge, like Sisyphus, you can persist in going nowhere. More important than persistence for anyone trying to beat the odds for a living is versatility. You’ve got to be able to change with the times, adapt to the games, and let your strategies evolve with the playing conditions.
Johnny Moss, the poker legend, and the only three-time champion of the World Series of Poker, didn’t start out his gambling career as a poker player. Moss spent twenty years of his youth hustling golf. He only turned to poker in his later years, when the younger golfers could drive farther and had better eyesight than he did.
To the average person, golf and poker may seem like extremely different activities. Skill at one would not necessarily translate to skill at the other. To Johnny Moss, however, they weren’t really all that different. In his youth, though he’d developed a considerable level of skill at golf, he had never thought of himself as the world’s greatest golfer. Instead, his talent lay in sizing up his opponents, matching his strengths against their weaknesses, and getting them to bet against him only when he had the best of it. That is how he beat a lot of better golfers out of a lot of money.
Poker is a game where, in the long run, everybody gets the same percentage of good hands and bad hands. The successful pros are the players who can read their opponents and make those with stronger hands fold, while keeping the weaker hands in the game. To Johnny Moss, there wasn’t much difference between winning money from golfers and winning money from card players. He simply adapted to conditions.
For blackjack players, this ability to adapt is just as crucial. When Thorp exposed the secrets of card counting in the 60s, it took a few years for the casinos to catch on. But they did catch on. All pit bosses today know basic strategy, and they know the common changes from basic that card counters make.
For a while, the casinos felt they were safe again when they started dealing shoe games. Thorp’s ten-count wasn’t designed to work against a four-deck shoe—it was just too difficult to apply at game speed. But the pros turned to easier point-count systems, to Lawrence Revere’s revolutionary “true count” method, then to concealed computers, shuffle tracking, hole-card strategies, ace location—the shoe games were being attacked by pros from a dozen different directions.
The successful players will always be those who adapt to the latest conditions. Forty years after Thorp, blackjack remains one of the most beatable games in the casino. The thing is, you’re not going to be able to beat the game by using Thorp’s ten count. The game itself has simply changed too much.
Every time a gambling pro publicly reveals his methods of winning, the value of that information suddenly has a “shelf life.” That shelf life is based on how widespread the dissemination of that information is.
When Doyle Brunson published his Super System
in 1978 (originally titled How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker), a book that revealed, among other things, how he played no-limit hold ’em, Brunson found almost immediately that he had to change his strategies. His opponents had all read his book, and he’d lost his edge.
Once he realized that the players who had read his book would assume he played in certain ways because his hand was strong or weak, or because he believed their hands were strong or weak, he could use their assumptions against them. He adapted.
The casinos have read all the blackjack books. They know about card counting. They know about shuffle tracking. They know about front-loading, first-basing, ace-sequencing, warps, tells, spooking—you name it, they’ve read it all. And because they’ve read all the books, they assume they know all about what all of these strategies look like. But the pro doesn’t quit because old secrets have been revealed; he uses the casinos’ assumptions against them.
An amateur blackjack player today, who has read all the books, is usually like the amateur poker player who just finished reading Brunson’s book 20 years ago. He goes out and plays “by the book,” wondering why his competition seems to be reading him like a book!
When a blackjack pro reads a book that reveals a new method of winning, his first thought is not, “Hmmm, I wonder if I should give this a try?” Instead, it’s “Hmm, interesting, but the casinos have probably read this too… How can I pull this off without looking like this is what I’m doing?”
If you play by the book, you’ll never make it as a professional gambler. You’ve got to write your own book, and then, whatever you do, DON’T PUBLISH IT! If you don’t have the versatility to adapt quickly to changing conditions, give it up. Go play golf. But just don’t bet serious money against golfers you feel sure you can beat. I hear Tommy Hyland spends a lot of time on the links these days. ♠
For more stories about professional blackjack players, see The Big Book of Blackjack by Arnold Snyder or Arnold's novel, Risk of Ruin, about a biker/professional hole-card player. Also see Michael Konik's The Man With the $100,000 Breasts
For more information on professional gamblers, see Arnold Snyder's Professional Gambling Library
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