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WINNING BIG WITH SMALL TEAM PLAY

by Nathaniel Tilton

Nathaniel Tilton is a former professional blackjack player, author of the new book The Blackjack Life (Huntington Press, 2012), and co-manager of the website BlackjackScience.com. He currently resides in the greater Boston area and works as a personal wealth advisor.

When I was growing up, I thought of little else except basketball. During those early years, I couldnít have imagined playing basketball if my only choices were gathering nine other guys to play 5-on-5, or only shooting hoops by myself. Yes, I spent many hours shooting baskets in my driveway alone. However, I also found friends to compete with in games of 4-on-4, 3-on-3, 2-on-2, or even 1-on-2 (coincidentally called "21" in my neighborhood).

So when I was introduced to the game of blackjack in a seminar hosted by Semyon Dukach, "The Darling of Las Vegas," and famed MIT team member featured in Ben Mezrichís book, Busting Vegas, I struggled to find resources that outlined, in-depth, the concept of small team play. Many books focused on the tales (sometimes tall) of large teams (e.g., MIT), while others highlighted the trials and tribulations of individual play. Some books reference small team play in a chapter or two, but they really just scratched the surface. Therefore, my friend (whom I met at Dukachís seminar) and I set out on a path to master small team play, which we did with astounding success. This eventually inspired me to write my own book on the subject, The Blackjack Life.

My friend and I did everything in our power to master the science of the game, while learning through trial and error how to perfect the art of it, as well. In doing so, we explored every avenue we could, from books to software to newsletters, like the one youíre reading. I treated the game as I had approached basketball when I was a kid. Short of having posters of blackjack legends on my bedroom walls, my free time was dedicated to perfecting the craft.

Where I think we advanced the game of professional blackjack was in the fact that we recognized there are many unique and effective strategies to beat the game, and we didnít have to limit ourselves to just one of them. Iím not talking specifically about the Hi-Lo counting system that we employed because we never deviated from it. What I am referring to are the various ways to camouflage our skills by using a mix of cover bets, cover plays, call-ins, back counting, and team play, among many other variables. However, herein lays the key to our small team success: we learned to move in and out of different playing strategies, and used a variety of subtle techniques, depending on the environment in the casinos in which we were playing. By utilizing different methodologies, we confused casino personnel and it afforded us longer (and often more profitable) playing sessions. Eventually, we learned to win consistently, with a lot less heat than our earlier days when we were rigid in our efforts and just following one camouflage methodology.

I admit that finding a large team to play on sounds exciting and glamorous. Thatís why, to the best of my knowledge, there arenít any original blackjack movies about a two-man team (Columbia Pictures, if youíre reading this, feel free to give me a call).

The major challenge in participating on a big team is in finding one. Equally daunting would be engaging in the game as a solo practitioner, with no one to lift you up during the inevitable downswings, or help you to fatten the bankroll and decrease your risk of ruin. How many aspiring counters out there would prefer the camaraderie of playing on a team, but donít have Tommy Hylandís phone number in their Rolodex? I would imagine a lot.

My story is a genuine account of the first five years of my playing career. Itís a narrative of our many playing sessions in different casinos across the USA, intertwined with a "how-to" for small team play. Since writing the manuscript, I had several more playing episodes that would certainly make it into a second edition, but the meat of the book would remain the same, which is this: Every AP can benefit from the great blackjack minds before them, and that small teams can be alarmingly productive.

The foundation of our process to gain the advantage over the casino was based on the system employed by the MIT blackjack teams of the 1990s. After all, we were initially trained by Semyon Dukach, and later on by another MIT great, Mike Aponte. Our discipline in perfecting our skills included bankroll management, deck estimation, optimal betting, and a fearless attitude ingrained in us through our training.

Nevertheless, our long-term profit was generated because we also incorporated lessons that we extracted from Andersen, Wong, Cellini, and countless other great minds. We also added new twists of our own that worked with our particular personalities, ethnicities, and comfort levels. Most importantly, we learned to play as a team, albeit a small team.

For example, many card counters avoid conversation with pit personnel while they are playing. Either itís too difficult to maintain an accurate count while looking natural, or they are trying to fly under the radar. In contrast, our strategy required that the player closest to the floor person was responsible to chat them up, purposely avoiding eye contact with the table except to wager or play their hand. During those moments, we shifted into signaling mode, with the other player signaling the "distracted" player. After the conversation with the suit was completed, the count would be passed through a code word, and weíd resume play as usual.

Youíve heard of call-ins, where a Spotter calls a Big Player into a game when a shoe gets hot. That works well unless youíre in a casino with no mid-shoe entry. In those instances, we used a form of call-ins in the opposite manner; namely, if a player was at a cold table, theyíd call-in another player who was back counting elsewhere. When that player tried to enter the game, the dealer would inevitably remind them of the no mid-shoe entry policy. The teammate, already seated at the table, would "offer" to let the dealer shuffle up to let the new person into the game. The dealer would get the ok from the floor person and weíd start a new shoe, without having to bounce around as much from table to table, and without having to play through that negative shoe.

You donít have to play on a large team to get the benefits of team play. In addition, you donít have to grind through shoes on your own. If you dedicate yourself to the craft, draw on the wealth of resources available to you, and use some creativity and imagination, small team play can be an incredibly attractive and lucrative way to live the blackjack life.

In future articles in the BJI, I will go into detail on some of the techniques we successfully used to camouflage our small team play. Stay tuned.

Note: Tiltonís new book, The Blackjack Life, is available in our BJI store at a discounted price. Click here for details.

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