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THE TRAVELING GAMBLER: PRAGUE SPRING
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|THE TRAVELING GAMBLER: PRAGUE SPRING
By BJ Traveller (with Mark Dace)
(From Blackjack Forum XXIV #3, Summer 2005)
© Blackjack Forum 2005
[Editor's Note: BJTraveller is not only a successful professional gambler but the author of the best-selling Chinese language book in the U.S. market in 2002. Three of his Chinese-language books on gambling are currently available at all World Bookstores, including Beat 21, BJTravelling, and TZL Teaches. TZL is BJTraveller's Chinese pen-name, and it translates as "The gentleman carrying son (...to casinos)." Here is his account (again with partner Mark Dace) of counting cards, shuffle tracking, and scorching the blackjack tables of Prague. BJTraveller is seeing the world--one blackjack table at a time. --Arnold Snyder]
There are many casinos in Prague. Perhaps too many! I read a news article about Prague that stated that the Czech Republic has the highest casino density in all of Europe.
The VIP Casino Group, operating three casinos in Prague, started offering full early surrender (ES) on their blackjack games in early 2004. A counter I know of who played 22 sessions and won $40,000 was barred. He swapped the location of the game with me for some information on another game that I knew of. I had played at Prague before and believed that I was dealt seconds on that occasion, but I decided to go regardless.
Prague is known as the museum of architecture because it has not been damaged by wars for 800 years. I consider it to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city also has a great public transportation system, which allows travelers to stay at a not-so-centrally-located but much cheaper priced accommodation. There are also many good Chinese restaurants around the city central area, which is very important for my critical culinary tastes.
When I arrived in Prague late in August, many advantage players, including ChanceKing and some others from the UK and Greece, were already playing the game regularly. Except for two local counters, most AP's played hit and run for several days. I used to play like that on good games but with much regret as many good games deteriorated while I gave them a rest, playing other not so good games. I started playing a torch burn style for the Prague game, and decided that I would stop only after being barred or having the game deteriorate. The rules of the game were 6D, S17, early surrender, ENHC (however, the dealer did NOT take players' doubles or splits when the dealer had a blackjack, only their original wager), DoA, DAS, no RSA, and re-split to a total of 4 hands. The edge for the player was about 0.2% off the top. The maximum wager was $400. I jumped my bets without disguise, following along with the local card counters who had befriended the casino staff. I was half-shoed very fast while playing heads up at the higher limit table, while the local counters at smaller maximum tables with crowded playing conditions enjoyed 75% penetration. I made about $200 an hour in 2004 playing 4 to 5 hours a day against a slightly trackable 50% penetration game. I played it for two and half months, leaving only because of visa restrictions. A Malaysian card counter, who was winning about $400 a day playing long hours, and Mark Dace, who was tipped by me about the game, were barred during the period I was absent.
The casino group finally had enough of card counters and canceled early surrender as a New Year's gift on January 1, 2005. I might have been the first professional player to be informed of its unfortunate demise while playing in the casino on the morning of New Year's Day. (Note: This day is of little importance to me as Chinese mainly celebrate the Lunar New Year. Thus, I was "working" on that day.) The casinos also half-shoed all the blackjack tables. They still offered early surrender against 10 and the games were still trackable so I played on for several weeks winning about $100 an hour.
An interesting side story about daily life "working" at the VIP Casino involved a young girl, a restaurant owner who was also a Chinese and who played quite big. She played poorly and hated basic strategy players, so she changed tables when she saw somebody at her table hitting 15, 16 or A,7. It was the late stage of the early surrender game so there were advantage players at almost all four blackjack tables. She was hopping around like a grasshopper and complaining about why there were so many ploppies. What she didn't realize was that she was the real moron there.
I left the Czech Republic for another early surrender game in South America, but when I returned to Prague, in early May, I found that I had been barred. Luckily I scouted the Banco Casino, where Mark had played after getting barred by VIP, and found that they were now offering a double deck game. The game started on April 15. It was S17, early surrender against ten (ES10), DoA, DAS, ENHC, no RSA, and 50% penetration--about minus 0.04% off-the-top. One could play all seven boxes. The two local card counters, who had migrated to the game already, had won about $50,000 jointly. I attempted to show the casino some mercy by politely playing two hands of $20 off the top while the local counters spread from one hand of $4 to seven hands of $200! The casino started restricting player bets to five boxes, and shortly thereafter only two boxes. They also raised the minimum to $20. The 50% deck penetration was executed by inserting a shuffle card at the middle of the two decks and the game was dealt from a shoe.
The two local counters, a Japanese counter, and my assistant and I enjoyed the game for about half a month, winning about $100,000 combined. The casino also operated the only Hold'em tables in the city and had some big roulette players who bet multiple thousands of dollars a hand. A Chinese restaurant owner who was driven out by the VIP group’s bad penetration also migrated to Banco and lost about $100,000 in a month, which definitely prolonged the life of the game. This Chinese restaurant owner lost heavily most of the time and stood on totals of 6 or soft 17 sometimes. He thought poorly of my hitting hard 16 and offered me a partnership playing under his (very, very stupid) intuition strategies. I learned later that his wife watched his gambling losses closely so he tried to get other big players’ funds to satisfy his lust for bigger action.
The casino general manager was a blackjack player and very experimental. The double deck game now became 33% penetration and H17. However, he also started offering a single deck game and it was S17, two hands maximum for any one player, table limits of $20 to $200, and 50% penetration! I won $6,000 very fast but ended up dead even on the first night. There was a shuffle card used and the game was dealt from a shoe.
The single deck became a regular game several days later. I noticed one of the local card counters cashing out quickly so I inquired as to why he did this. The local counter urged that I not get too greedy for the purpose of the longevity of the game. I agreed and complied. On this session, I stopped playing after a win of $4,200 in two hours.
The nice single deck rules did not last long, however. Within days, the table limits became $40 to $200, S17 was changed to H17, and 33% penetration substituted for 50%. Sensing that the game might not last long, I tipped off several capable advantage players. Only one, Orson, showed up in time. The single deck deteriorated further, down to two rounds per shoe regardless of the number of players. I happened to be sitting at a table opposite Orson and we could see the decks’ back cards on the opposing table. I signaled Orson to meet me in the men’s room and we agreed on signals for big and small bottom cards. One exposed back card is worth much in single deck and we could sometimes see two cards, both before and after the player cut the deck. Sometimes the small bottom card (which was cut out) was offset by a new big bottom card. With the poor penetration, depending on how thin the player cut was, we could easily steer both cards behind the cut card placement. When both bottom cards were small cards, we could bet big off-the-top.
The fun lasted only about an hour. The dealers became quite aware and alert and asked for another cut card to cover the bottom of the pack of cards. The two-rounds games were still beatable, however, and I won about $2,000 a night.
Additionally, Banco gave a 5% rebate on session losses of over $1,000. I lost $3,900 on day shift and received $200 in loss rebate. The loss was fully recovered, plus some profit for good measure, on the night shift. The casino, unfortunately, did not see the humor in this recovery and the single deck became a game with only one round being dealt for me. Time to leave.
There have been many discussions on blackjack sites about cheating in Prague. I believed I was dealt seconds in two casinos. A third casino name came out in the discussions I read. One of the cheating casinos, The Royal, was closed down after a grenade explored in front of it. The grenade was thrown by the Israeli Mafia. The casino was reported to be closed due to its problematic ownership. However, a manager at a VIP casino told me it was closed because of their cheating the players. The other two cheating casinos were still operating. A former staff from one of the casinos confirmed the cheating to me.
The Austria Gaming Group also runs a casino in Prague. The penetration was only so-so but they allowed ES10 and RSA. I did not have much patience for such a game and spread up to 140 times my minimum. The casino didn't like this and half shoed me whenever possible. This casino was giving players $4 a day to play through a coupon promotion, so I still played there sometimes. Banco gave also $4 a day. My assistant was more patient and won some money through a similar deal.
I scouted other Prague casinos. Most were not playable. A casino on the riverside was block trackable but gave bad penetration after several winning sessions. Another casino nearby did not regulate its dealers’ shuffles. Some dealers were sequential trackable.
I believed I had made most decisions correctly in how I played the Prague games and extracted maximum or near maximum value from the good games. The only move that might have been more profitable was to have continued playing when the single deck was S17 with 50% penetration, ignoring the local counter's warning.
Prague is one of the "must see" cities. The hotel reservation service at the airport can provide ample choices. I stayed at the Olsanka Hotel and the Hostel Akat. Both places posted walk-in prices and I got a 10% to a 20% discount as a long time guest.
Last but not the least, some important issues. A tour guide warned me about the three pests of the Prague tourism scene. They are the money changers, the taxis, and the con men/thieves.
1. Money Changers
Many post two prices. You lose 20% or even 30% changing several hundred dollars, as the attractive price posted is for changing more than $3,000.
2. Taxi drivers
Most taxis parked in the downtown area used crooked meters. I was cheated twice. The taxi drivers fled after I mentioned the police. Another player told me he had asked for the police but was forced to pay at gunpoint many years ago. The Prague mayor was charged five times the correct fare while wearing a disguise. Always ask the casino or the hotel receptionist to arrange for a taxi.
3. Con men and thieves.
A stranger holding a map asked me directions to the Metro station bus to the airport. Two big guys, wearing ties and dark blue sweaters, showed up questioning whether we were changing money and asked to check for fake Czech currency. The stranger handed over a big stack of money for inspection immediately. I took out my wallet, which also contained some Euros. The "police" then asked to check the Euros too, which aroused my suspicion as this had nothing to do with their initial request concerning their own country’s money. An American card counter had warned me that he once encountered fake Romanian police on a train checking money. I put my wallet back and asked to see their IDs, which did not have photos. The police flashed their IDs again. I invited them to go to the police station with me. One of the alleged policemen asked in a threatening tone of voice for my cooperation. I walked away. The three of them stood there watching.
[Note: I went back to Prague a month after Banco started shuffling up after one round on their single deck. Splitting was not allowed and there was no more surrender. The single deck was shuffled after every round and players were restricted to two boxes. The double deck's penetration was 25%, but one to seven boxes were allowed. They only allowed a 1-6 spread per box, however.] ♠
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