THE BLACKJACK LIFE
by Nathaniel Tilton
Editors Note: The following is an excerpt (Chapter 35) from Nathaniel Tilton’s excellent book, The Blackjack Life with permission from the publisher (Huntington Press). Tilton shows how he and his partner played blackjack at a professional level on a part time basis. The virtually undetectable small-team system that they developed is explained in this chapter.
We’d been making trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City almost every other week. We’d been comped at Caesar’s on our most recent getaway to Vegas. Caesar’s Palace was just a short walk from the fountain display at Bellagio where D.A. and I had celebrated our successes with a couple of cigars. That particular weekend had been wrought with tension, exhilaration, and luxuries.
We certainly experienced bankroll swings that seemed improbable and there were weekends that we returned home with less money than we started. But we were seeing firsthand the law of large numbers in action. Based on our statistical tracker, the past year had produced a very nice supplementary income. It was more than just the money, though, that kept us coming back.
The experience we were getting was priceless, as was the entertainment value. We scheduled our trips around big fights and special events. Just about anything we wanted was free. The invitations to private high-roller parties became commonplace and we rubbed elbows with some of the most famous celebrities in the world.
In terms of blackjack, we knew we had exceptional talent, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to improve further. We sought additional knowledge and new ideas for fine-tuning our system, because that’s what afforded us the luxuries we were getting. No longer was our goal to remain inconspicuous. The combination of tactics and the flexibility of their use allowed for more open play and greater creativity. We had our arsenal of five core tactics and a plethora of techniques to help us maintain our efficiency. Our system was the artful combination and timely use of them all.
#1 Playing through shoes on our own.
It wasn’t ideal because it meant playing through both positive and negative counts, but we’d memorized more than 130 different index plays, which included decision-making for negative counts. So even though we were often faced with disadvantaged situations, our games were as optimal as they could be. We knew the index plays so well that they became more than second nature to implement without error. They became a part of who we were. However, because of the potential exposure to negative counts, this strategy was used as infrequently as possible.
#2 Back-counting tables and wonging ourselves in.
Wonging was as simple a method as there was, aside from playing through shoes. By back-counting two tables at once, we had more options to find shoes with an advantage. For every negative hand we observed as we awaited a positive shoe, it was no different than having actually played that disadvantaged hand ourselves, but with a bet of zero. So in a sense, we were getting hands in even if we weren’t seated at the table. When a count got high enough, we’d enter the game, which meant betting only when the edge was in our favor. The ploy worked well, but was limited by no-mid-shoe-entry tables at some casinos and the fact that eventually it would be detected by surveillance.
Ironically, it’s widely believed that the very men we had been trained by were, in part, responsible for the concept of the no-mid-shoe-entry rule. Many of the other blackjack teams of the 1990s were reputed to have despised the MIT teams for their brazen nature and their violation of an unwritten code to not ruin games for other counters. When casinos caught wind that an MIT team "was in town," cut-card penetration worsened for all counters and surveillance and pit personal were on high alert. It’s likely the reason that some casinos instituted the no-mid-shoe-entry rule. Here we were, trained by those very players, now trying to identify ways to get around this prohibitive rule.
#3 Back-counting using call-ins.
This method allowed us to play in the very best of situations, too, but limited the ability for surveillance to detect it. Just like wonging, we were back-counting two tables at once. But unlike wonging, we never entered the game we were watching. Instead, it was a virtual stranger, the other teammate, who was swooping into the positive game. With high counts and enough decks remaining to make the call-in worthwhile, and the fact that between the two of us we could count four tables at once, call-ins were useful arrows in our quiver.
#4 Table signaling.
While one teammate, the gorilla big player, played the part of a reckless gambler with loads of money and a penchant for flirting with cocktail waitresses, the other player would be doing all the work. Although the spotter would only bet the table minimum in an effort to blend in, he spent his time signaling the proper bets for the GBP to make, as well as any deviations from basic strategy.
The method wasn’t flawless, however. Only one player at a time would be getting out the appropriate bet. It also required each player to act as a "spotter" at his respective table until a shoe was hot enough to call-in the GBP. When a spotter identified a hot shoe, the other spotter would have to exit his table, make his way to the hot shoe, and switch into gorilla big player mode. This had to happen right away and it could make for an awkward transition. The alternative was that only one player would act as a spotter, while the other would back-count tables and look for wonging opportunities unless the spotter signaled him in. In either case, it meant that only two (or three) total tables were being counted at once, rather than up to four when both players back-counted. So there was a time and a place for its use, which was typically when both of us were playing the same table and one player was chatting it up with the floorperson. In that instance, the player talking to the pit would take bet signals from the other player. That way he didn’t have to watch the cards. He only needed to catch the signal.
#5 Balanced betting.
With the balanced betting tactic, both players would play at the same table. It often began, though, with both players back-counting two tables of their own. The signaling was no different, but instead of wonging ourselves into a game, or calling in the other player, we did both. We would locate a hot table and both players would sit down. This required mid-shoe entry and two open seats, which was more likely to be found in Las Vegas than in either Connecticut or Atlantic City. Vegas has the best rules, the most casinos, and the most opportunities. Referencing our monthly subscription to Current Blackjack News, we frequented only those casinos in Vegas with games that had a basic strategy disadvantage of -0.26% (or less). We liked starting out nearly even with the house, as well as being able to enter mid-shoe and still find several open seats to choose from. Vegas is unlike anywhere else.
Our balanced-betting technique allowed us to play off of one another, signal for help in those rare instances when the count would escape us, and collectively monitor heat. More important, the balanced betting strategy was difficult for surveillance to recognize, especially when used sporadically and as a complement to our other tactics.
In a rising count, one player might lower his bet, while the other increased it enough to make up the difference. Because of this, when using the balanced-betting tactic, we often eliminated the cap on the betting ramp. A cap was too restrictive and it mattered very little anyway. The problem with any precise betting ramp to begin with is that it is easy for surveillance to see a pattern. With each increase in the true count comes a corresponding increase in wager size. But that wasn’t the case with us. In fact, an inversely correlated bet could very well follow a rising or declining count. Surveillance would need to calculate more than the true count in relationship to one player’s bet. They would need to add up both bets to see any real connection. They could know that we were friends, but still never think we were working together.
Putting it all together.
While our five core tactics worked well independently, the true strength of our system was in the clever mixture of them all. We agreed that both of us should have the ability to decide if and when a new tactic was to be used during the course of play, because we knew that at any given time, one of us might identify an opportunity (or a threat) that would warrant a shift in playing style.
Communication became even more important and we developed a series of gestures and code words that initiated a shift in playing style. To make sure that our signals had been received, we used a rub of the eye as the response that a signal had been successfully recognized.
To play through shoes individually, we would put our index finger up to our mouths, as if to form the "shhh" sound, a sign also used by a person in thought. It was this symbol that blended in well and was unnoticeable to anyone else.
To notify the other that we intended to back-count and wong ourselves into tables, we’d interlock our hands in front of us and rest them at waist level.
To back-count and use call-ins, we stood behind the tables we were counting and didn’t interlock our hands.
To engage in table signaling, we would either send a text message indicating what would be our strategy or, as in most cases when we were already seated at the same table, a simple code word would be passed: any phrase that contained the word "signal." At first we worried that it was too revealing, that we’d risk it being discovered that we were signaling, but the reality was that unless we were saying counts aloud, little else mattered to the dealers and pit. The real enemies were the cameras up above. Moreover, we used words that could easily be worked into a conversation.
Lastly, to shift to the balanced-betting approach, we said the word "balance" in any form.
It was all fairly simple and provided us great amounts of flexibility. We’d stumbled upon the balanced-betting idea months earlier at the Venetian, but the whole system was the result of a year’s work in progress, through our own experiences and observations and by plucking the best pieces of information from the many great blackjack works available to us. For months, we perfected its use at both the Boardwalk casinos in Atlantic City and amidst the lights of the Vegas Strip.
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