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By Nick Alexander
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XXIV #1, Winter 2004/05)
© Blackjack Forum 2005

[Nick Alexander is a professional blackjack player who retires every three or four years. He currently lives a life of leisure in the south of France. After reading the last issue of Blackjack Forum he is considering coming out of retirement to tour South America.]

I retired from blackjack for the first time in 1983 after a trip to Europe with my friend Darryl. But then in 1985 I was reading Gambling Times magazine, and an ad caught my eye. A new casino was opening in Aruba, and they were going to offer single-deck. I thought this might not lead to much since many other card counters would surely see the ad. But it was worth investigating when combined with a second piece of information, which was that a casino in Curacao was offering early surrender. I have no memory of how I got that info, but I thought this definitely called for a Caribbean trip.

Back in the early ‘80s the blackjack world was very small. All the teams knew each other and would socialize at parties that consisted of 25 guys who stood around and talked about nothing but blackjack. You can see why it was difficult to ever get women to attend. At one point we made an effort to invite more women to the parties, and instituted a rule against discussion of blackjack or casinos. A few women came, but the rules were soon broken. As discussion turned to what a sweatshop the Hacienda was and, “I had a true +9 and the dealer hit her 16 with a …,” the women retired to the kitchen and talked about what nerds we all were.

I bring this up because I needed someone to go to the islands with me. My old team had gone off in different directions, but I had met Darryl at one of these parties. I was one of the investors in his Thor bankroll, and had gone to Europe with him on his first attempts at using Thor. (Note—when traveling in foreign countries with a blackjack computer, it’s a good idea to have someone with you.) I called Darryl, and gave him my pitch. I didn’t want to get involved in any long bankroll, and I had these potentially great games. Darryl’s response was exactly what I wanted to hear, “Let’s go play, and we’ll split up the money at the end of the trip. Of course if we lose we’ll have to play to make up the loss.” Great! How could we lose? Early surrender and a single-deck game with a bunch of island rubes.

I made arrangements and called Darryl. “Okay, we leave three weeks from Thursday.” “Three weeks? Why so far off?” I explained, “Well I needed 21-day advance notice for the tickets. These tickets are $540, but if we go sooner the tickets are over $1,000.” He said, “We’re going to play some games that may be worth $1,000 per hour, and you want to save $500 on airfare. Let’s leave tomorrow.”

This was my first indication that playing for this team would be much different from my last. You see, on my old team we pinched every penny. We played absolutely no cover plays, no cover bets, and no tipping. No expenses were covered by the team—none, zip. We all lived in Vegas, and were required to play 12 hours per week. If you had trouble getting your hours in Vegas because of heat, and you wanted to go to Reno, you paid your own plane fare and hotel bills. If the team had to pay for something, you’d better check the price at five different stores and make sure you got it on sale, and with a coupon. I admit that I called Darryl in the first place because I knew his team covered expenses, but this seemed quite extravagant. We left the next day.

I had managed to find a deal at the Concorde Hotel and Casino in Curacao. We each put up $20,000 front money. This gave us RFB and they would rebate some of our airfare based on our action. The only problem was that this was not the casino with early surrender, and their game sucked. We did put in some play to ensure our comp, but then went off looking for the other game. We found the game just as advertised. The casino opened at 1 p.m. and closed at 4 a.m. They had very few tables, but were willing to give us a private game with a limit of $500. We decided to each play an eight-hour shift. I would play from one to nine. Darryl would come in about eight, and we would play together for an hour. Then I would leave and he would continue until closing. Our plan was to do this for a week, or until we won so much they cried uncle. Then we would move on to Aruba, and attack that single-deck.

The next morning I went down to the pool for breakfast and a swim. One of the things I quickly realized was that Darryl and I didn’t fit with the normal Curacao crowd. We were lacking blue hair and liver spots. But that morning I met what may have been the only woman on the island close to my age. We spent the morning talking, but then I had to excuse myself to get ready for the casino opening.

I was the first customer in the door at one o’clock. “Ah, sir. We have a table ready for you.” Indeed, there was a table with six decks of cards already in the shoe. This wasn’t my first time at the parade. “Why are the cards already in the shoe?” “We have them all ready so you can play.” I said, “That is very bad luck. Would you mind bringing new decks, and spreading them so I can see all the cards?” “No problem.” They brought new decks, and I satisfied myself that all the cards were in the shoe. By the time Darryl got there seven hours later I was stuck about $12,000. We played together for about an hour and agreed to meet for lunch the next day.

The next day at lunch I filled him in on the girl I had met. I explained that we had really hit it off. She was bright and witty. He asked me what happened. I said, “Nothing happened. It got close to one o’clock, so I went to the casino and lost $12,000.” He looked quite angry, “Damn it. We have rules on this team. If you have a choice between playing blackjack and getting laid, forget about the casino.” Now he tells me.

At 1 o’clock I went in to start my shift. I did much better that day; I lost only $8,000. Darryl came in at 8:00 and joined my table. This was always the best hour of the day because it is much more fun to play with a friend at the table. We were playing along when I noticed the casino manager talking to someone. Oops! It was the casino manager of the Concorde. He was not happy to see us playing at the Holiday when we were staying on a comp at the Concorde. I think he was also comparing notes with this casino manager since they weren’t used to players who bet three hands of the limit. “You don’t like my casino?” “Oh, we like it just fine. We thought we would try this place for a change.” They went back to confer, and I left Darryl to face the heat alone. Later I went to the casino manager of the Holiday and told him, “You know, you really have a much nicer casino than the Concorde, and we would be willing to move over here… RFB of course.” The next morning we packed our bags, and moved to the Holiday.

My routine was to go swimming or scuba diving in the morning, and get beat up in the casino in the afternoon. One morning I was out at the pool reading a book. A woman came over and said, “Oh, the sun is very dangerous here, and your skin is so white. You should get in the shade. Is this your first day here?” I said, “No, I’ve been here a week.” I guess sun block wasn’t as well known back then.

That morning I went scuba diving. When I entered the dive shop the guy working there was getting my gear. He stopped and looked at me. “You look really familiar. Are you from Vegas?” Jeez, please don’t tell me he has affiliations with the casino. Fortunately he didn’t. That morning I had the best dive of my life. Off Curacao the water was so clear that visibility was 200 yards. I was marveling at all the colorful fish when suddenly a giant sea turtle went cruising by with our dive master holding on to his back. It was his personal underwater sea scooter.

I wish I could tell you we crushed this little Banana Republic casino; that the counts would rise, and the blackjacks would fall, and we raked in the money. But the truth is that even with a game that offered an advantage off the top and 80% penetration, we couldn’t win. After ten days we had to move on to Aruba stuck $37,000. (I lost a little over $19,000, and Darryl lost about $17,500, which proves once again who the better player is.)

Aruba also had a Concorde Casino, and a Holiday Casino. We picked the Holiday since it had been so much better in Curacao. I sat down to play, and a boss came walking through the pit and did a 180 to turn and stare at me. “Hey, aren’t you from Vegas?” I hadn’t played blackjack in a year and a half, I’m 17 miles off the coast of Venezuela, and I’m still getting heat. So much for that casino.

Darryl and I set out to scout the island. We found the new casino. They had been open a week, but no single-deck. They had never heard of the ad, and had never had single-deck. We headed home, our tails between our legs. A few months later we heard the news that made us sick. There was another small casino that we didn’t find. They had put in single deck with early surrender. The counter that found it only spread 1-2, and the casino owner thought no game could be beat with that small spread. The player won $300,000 before the casino manager cried uncle. Note—if you’re going to scout a country, make sure you really scout it.

Remember that little clause in my contract? “Unless we lose.” We came home to find that one of Darryl’s blackjack teammates had been pulled up with a computer in his shoes after losing $200,000. After backrooming him, calling Gaming, and confiscating his money, they sent him out at 2:00 in the morning … barefoot. I was now on a bank stuck $240,000. So much for retirement. ♠

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