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by Kevin Blackwood

Kevin Blackwood has lived what many would consider the American dream, earning big bucks while working only part-time. He chose the profession of card counting for only one reason: to make money…easy money, and he succeeded, winning consistently at blackjack tables all over the world.

His unusual life experiences inspired him to write a novel in 2002 titled The Counter. Tina Hergott, a former producer for Oprah, said, "Somebody in the movie industry is going to option this novel and turn it into a feature film." The Midwest Book Review wrote, "This is the kind of riveting fiction from which Hollywood blockbusters are made!"

Blackwood also has written Play Blackjack Like the Pros (HarperCollins 2005) and Casino Gambling For Dummies (Wiley 2006). He has contributed to many gaming magazines and currently has a monthly column in Casino Player Magazine.

Note: What follows is an excerpt (Chapter 19) of the e-book, Legends of Blackjacks by Kevin Blackwood and Larry Barker. (By permission from the author.)

Over the years, author Kevin Blackwood traveled all over the world searching for the very best conditions at the blackjack tables but most places failed to live up to his high expectations. However, one riverboat casino in Mississippi proved different—it was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Here is a slightly embellished version of his trip to that casino and two other stories from his card-counting career.

My first morning at the Jubilee Casino went by in a high-speed blur as I won hand after hand at their single-deck blackjack table. An older pit boss with a few thin strands of gray hair nodded politely at me as he slapped a new deck onto the felt and slid the shiny cards out of their jacket. Though a smile still plastered his face, it had become more insincere with each passing hour. I could easily guess why—his casino was getting crushed and I was the player inflicting most of the damage. I paused for a quick tally of my chips, and the total astounded me—I had over $50,000 piled high in gigantic stacks that towered like skyscrapers in front of me.

If I cashed in, it would be the biggest win of my life. But the well-intentioned advice to "quit while you’re ahead" applies only to those relying on lady luck. For a professional, the only time to head for the door is when you’ve lost your edge, and that was far from the case here. In fact, this was the day I had been waiting for since I first became a card counter. The rare confluence of the perfect conditions—an extraordinary single-deck game with great rules and no heat from the pit bosses—made it easy to jump my bets when the odds turned favorable. And best of all, they dealt nearly all the cards from each deck before shuffling, making my advanced card-counting system exceptionally strong. I had stumbled on to what could best be described as blackjack heaven—a Neon Nirvana.

Typically, a cat-and-mouse battle exists between casinos and expert blackjack players, with the crafty pros trying to outwit the high-tech surveillance systems of the "eye in the sky." My aggressive style of spreading from $200 to $1000 in a single-deck blackjack game would normally set off an explosion of fireworks across the pit. But this club was different. This was a candy store. The usual camouflage and disguises that I often needed to stay under the radar weren’t necessary. It all seemed too good to be true, and I wondered how long it would last before the balloon burst.

This fantastic opportunity existed because of one man, Gerald Souder, casino manager for the table games at the Jubilee Casino. Until I met him, I thought there might be a better chance of all the planets lining up for the perfect Kodak moment than finding a casino manager who didn’t believe the game of blackjack was beatable. But Gerald Souder had grown up in England, and he believed the stories of card counters hammering American casinos were urban legends. Well, on this day, when he gave me a private table, myth would become reality for him.

Playing at a private game one-on-one versus the dealer offers many benefits. It eliminates the constant interruptions of new players jumping in and out, or the annoying person next to you who is chain-smoking like he’s on death row. This game was fast and exactly what every card counter in the world goes to bed dreaming about—and it looked like I had been the first one to find it. Now I had to make as much money as possible before the gold mine vanished like a mirage.

Normally, my expectation was to win about two grand a day, but this situation was anything but normal. Here, I could pull in about two grand an hour. If they let me play long enough, I might even own the whole riverboat. But fluctuation has a nasty way of playing havoc with one’s expectations, and I knew from experience that what goes up can just as easily come crashing down. So, I settled firmly into my seat and prepared to see which direction the roller coaster was headed.

A furtive glance at my watch confirmed what I already suspected—decks of cards are typically replaced every few hours in handheld games, yet this was the second switch in the last forty-five minutes. Most modern high-tech casinos would realize they were losing money because the deadly combination of single-deck blackjack with great penetration meant they no longer had an edge against smart players—but not this small, backwater casino. It almost seemed as if someone in upper management had never graduated from etch-a-sketch to computers. Instead of relying on the cold calculations of math, the Jubilee dug deep into gambling superstitions and hoped that switching from blue cards to a red deck might stop my remarkable good fortune.

Luck had nothing to do with it, and they should have been changing the rules rather than the decks. There are no such things as card gods, hot tables, or cold dealers. All of those beliefs are common gambler’s fallacies, and only one thing matters in the long run—who has the edge. The game of blackjack is unusual because it yields a small advantage to skilled players, but today that thin edge had swelled as the great single-deck conditions made me a heavy favorite over the house.

Card counting shares some similarities with covert operations, and just as in the spy-world, daily activities often become mundane tasks, even a grind. Normally, there is little flash and glamour as the smarter players do everything possible to avoid attention, wanting to blend in with the crowd as faceless infiltrators.

Yet, this day was the exception to keeping a low profile—I felt like James Bond, as I was the center of attention for the entire casino. The Jubilee rarely got big-money action, and a small crowd had formed behind my table to watch the show. I can’t deny that I enjoyed the attention—it was a real heady experience for a kid who grew up poor in rural New England. But I hadn’t journeyed to this out-of-the way casino for accolades or for therapy. I came to make money. None of the other perks of the business kept me heading back to the tables—it was the chance to fulfill the American dream. And now the vision looked very vivid, and very real.

A relief dealer arrived along with the new deck. Her nametag read "Tatiana from Moscow." She skillfully fanned the cards over the felt, rapidly inspecting each one, and then flipped them over to repeat the process on the other side. With the new deck finally washed and ready, the cards hit the felt. There isn’t any significant edge on the first hand after a fresh shuffle, so I started off with a minimum bet. A counter sometimes needs to be dealt several hands before enough excess small cards tip the scales and give an advantage big enough for a maximum bet. But on the opening round Tatiana dealt me a pair of deuces, which I promptly split. I pulled a 9 on the first one and quickly doubled down. Then she dealt me another 2. Again I split. The first deuce drew consecutive 5s and the final 2 attracted an 8 causing yet another double down.

The crowd behind me buzzed over the flurry of activity. However, when I play, I rarely get excited and maintain a stoic demeanor regardless of the results. The few times that my heart starts beating faster almost always involve the really big bets and these were all relatively small.

The dealer followed the cue cards correctly and busted her hand. She paid off all three of my winners, two $400 double downs and one $200 bet. The abundance of small cards had shot the count up dramatically, so I left all ten black chips out in the betting box.

A lady in a wheelchair was trying to watch the action, but her view of the table was blocked, so a middle-aged couple standing close to her provided a loud, running play-by-play commentary for her.

"He got dealt a 12 and the dealer’s got a 4 up."

Short pause.

"I can’t believe it! He’s standing on his 12."

Then the husband chimed in: "The guy’s got a thousand bucks out there and he’s too gutless to hit his hand. I’m never afraid to hit my stiffs."

The dealer flipped over the hole card and revealed the 7 of clubs. A few of the onlookers groaned, but the chatterbox lady and her husband each flashed a smarmy smirk when I glanced at them. The dealer hit her 11 with a 4, and then busted it with an 8. I couldn’t resist turning around and grinning at the couple.

They looked like a marriage concocted in hell rather than made in heaven. She wore a mustard-green T-shirt with the imprint "I’m with Stupid" that barely fit over her plump, pear-shaped frame. He (evidently "Stupid") had a lanky, rail thin body with his pants hiked up almost to his nipples and his fly patriotically unzipped to half-mast.

They shook their heads and waddled away, muttering how it wouldn’t be long before my luck ran out and the consequences of my stupidity kicked in. This wasn’t the first time others criticized my play. Many decisions card counters make go against conventional wisdom. Splitting tens is an unusual play that experts will make at high counts, and it usually clears out the table faster than grandpa passing gas at the family picnic. But the conventional wisdom of the masses is what has financed every huge casino, and few average players, or even dealers, know the correct way to play each and every hand.

If some local expert wanted to berate my card-playing skill, as well as question my intelligence, that was fine with me. They could go ahead and think my great-great-uncle was a chimp who got demoted for taking too many banana breaks. Such disparagement never bothered me or affected my play. As time wore on I quietly tucked C-notes away into my pockets while many of my critics foolishly burned through their paychecks.

With the talkative couple gone, I went back to work. There was a lot of paint left in the deck, and I had high expectations that one of the picture cards might hook up with a lonely ace and make their way over to my side of the table.

At least that was what I had hoped. Instead, I lost five of the next six hands and dumped $6,000 into the dealer’s tray after being dealt three stiffs and coming up short on two double downs. Those are the moments that etch themselves into every card counter’s mind—the cruel negative swings that cause many to question their profession. But I’d played long enough to take such blows impassively, and view even the big losses as only temporary corrections. So I dug in a little deeper and prepared to take back my chips.

I’d like to say I won so much over the rest of the afternoon that Gerald finally fell to his knees and begged me to end the massacre. But reality is often much different than the movies. The best blackjack players have only a slim edge over the house, and almost every trip is peppered with brutal swings and some disastrous moments. Before the day ended, I’d given half of my huge win back to the casino. When I finally gathered up my chips and headed for the cage, it was easy to imagine the thoughts floating through the minds of the dwindling crowd. Some of them probably wondered why I didn’t walk away when I was so far ahead. I’ve heard that advice many times, and it’s undoubtedly sincere, but not applicable to my situation. It’s a myth that you can somehow know when to leave. Unless you’re psychic, there’s absolutely no way to determine when you’ve reached the high point or pinnacle for the session.

However, the cards turned favorable over the next few days and I again pounded the casino. I won back far more than the twenty-five grand I had lost during the negative slide on my first day and set new all-time highs for my bankroll.

The last deck I played at the Jubilee provided the most memorable moment of my entire blackjack career. The count shot up on the first round and I won six straight hands, all at the casino maximum bet of $1,000. The last three hands were especially unforgettable as I finished with a stunning trifecta of blackjack, a double down that made 21, and then another blackjack, all at max bets. A shell-shocked Gerald finally became a believer in the power of card counting. With an ashen face he placed a trembling hand on my shoulder and said, "Kevin, I’m afraid we can no longer take your action. You’re just too damn good for our blackjack tables."


Unfortunately, not every trip in my blackjack career went like that episode in Mississippi. Every good player eventually had trips that tried their very soul. For me, one of my worst moments came on the heels of a peak experience. It was early December and I had just surpassed $100,000 for the year. This was always the goal I had been shooting for and this was the first time I’d ever broken that magic mark.

Unfortunately, it came right in the middle of a five-day road trip to Wendover, Nevada, and I had a non-refundable plane ticket with two more days remaining before I was scheduled to return home. Many other players would have bitten the bullet and taken the small hit on their ticket and flown back early. But, not me. I’ve always been frugal and I had built my bankroll up from a small amount by watching my pennies.

The only practical solution was to stay the course and stay in Nevada. And if I was to do that, then it only made sense to play. Despite my recent wins over the first three days in town, the games were still good. The pit bosses were surprisingly friendly and relaxed. All the clubs in town offered deeply dealt single-deck blackjack and exploiting those handheld games was always my specialty. I gave only a fleeting thought to quitting in order to end the year with a six-figure win. Logic dictated that I play as long as possible, for as much as possible, whenever a gravy train like this one appeared.

Unfortunately, logic and fluctuation seldom find their way into the same sentence. The next day felt like I had been cast as the main character in a tragic Greek play. No matter how hard I rowed the boat, I kept finding myself further and further adrift from the shore. When I went to bed that night, I had dumped almost twenty grand—nearly 20 percent of the money I had so diligently won over the entire year. It was a stunning turn of events. However, I knew those swings could happen at my chip levels. There was nothing to do but dig in and hope the last day of my trip went better. I actually slept well that night. Rather than being hounded by nightmares, I was fairly optimistic that the worst that could happen to me had already happened. I anticipated that the next day might reverse the tide and bring some, or perhaps even all, of the money back into the proper hands—mine.

However, the twisted plot continued and the cards stayed brutally cold. I finally caught a little run near the end of my trip and won a few thousand back, but I still ended up down thirty grand for the last two days of my trip.

Did I make a mistake? No. These brief descents into the abyss are to be expected. Obviously, in retrospect, I wished I would have quit and gone home happy. It would have been fun to tell my wife and friends that I finally had hit the big time and won $100,000 for the year. But there is never any way to predict when those negative swings will occur. Playing on that trip was the right thing—even if it left scars.

However, the worst disasters are the ones that afflict players who think they are winning players—but are not.

To be continued in next month’s issue of BJI.

Note: To order a copy of the Legends of Blackjack e-book click here.

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