HOLE CARDING 101 - Part 2
by Eliot Jocobson, Ph.D.
Eliot Jacobson, Ph.D. is the author of the new book "Advanced Advantage Plays" (www.advancedadvantageplays.com) and "The Blackjack Zone." He also hosts www.apheat.net which contains the latest information on beatable games, side bets, and promotions. This article is reprinted by permission from Dr. Jacobson.
Editor's Note: Part 1 appeared in November issue of BJI.
Getting Away with It
The final part of hole-carding proprietary games has to do with the art of getting away with it. The skilled hole-card player understands the delicate balance of optimal strategy, bet size, and good cover. I was never good at either getting big money down or getting away with it, so I can speak more from failure than success here. In many cases, what I did was a model for what not to do. But I certainly knew some extraordinary players.
Hole-card play has its own idiosyncratic tells. An uninformed pit boss watching a player who is catching a hole-card will be watching a player who is, at times, significantly violating sensible strategy. The boss may think that the player is an idiot who is getting lucky, concluding that the player's luck is sure to change soon. This type of scenario plays out every night in most casinos. That's one of the stereotypes the hole-card player wants to embody: the lucky idiot.
The first step is to admit you don't know and ask the question. The usual answer is "I've been in the industry for xx years, so ..." Time does not, by itself, instill wisdom. Hence, from Shakespeare's King Lear, Act 1, scene 5:
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
I was therefore overjoyed to get the following question through the contact form on my site earlier this week:
If an individual were to make the same wager every time on blackjack, but deviated from basic strategy according to the true count, could that person actually gain any significant edge?
The answer to the question that was actually asked is "no" if the game is played with two or more decks. My hunch was that the person who contacted me was really asking about a player who was flat betting and making odd plays who was apparently gaining a significant edge. I smell hole-card play.
The hole-card player would rather not be noticed at all. But playing maximum bets holding 7, 2-offsuit in Mississippi Stud is going to be hard to do without being noticed. Likewise, it's tough to fold an Ace in Three Card Poker if the cards for each hand are spread face up before being put in the discard tray.
The team will usually seat the heavy bettor as distant from the accessible information as possible. This can be accomplished by using the well-known "big-player" and "spotter" combination. The spotter's job is to get the hole-card and relay the information to the big player. The big player's job is to get big bets down while using the hole-card information signaled to him in an effective manner.
The spotter will typically play near the table minimum and try to blend in as much as possible. She will play the unbeatable side bets. She will play as if she does not know the hole-card information. She may arrive at the table well before the big player. She most likely will stick around after the big player leaves, to pick up any chatter about what just happened and to give distance to any questions of "relationship" between the players. She may be a young Asian woman, just barely 5-feet tall.
A strong team will have the resources to rotate in different big players and spotters, as needed, to maximize what they can take from the game. The game will soon be burned out by this team, but that doesn't mean they want to be caught doing it.
A big part of successful hole-carding is knowing what to do in the dead time. It may be necessary for players to play on a game without the edge. They may be waiting for a certain dealer to arrive on the table. It may just be break time. It is therefore necessary that every team member have a solid understanding of basic strategy for the game being targeted. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that James Grosjean published basic strategy cards for many of the most popular novelty games. (Available in the BJI online Store.)
I was never a member of one of these large formal advantage play teams. But, in conversations with members of some of these teams, I did learn a bit about the sub-culture. It was darker than I could have imagined. The mystique of valiant slayers of casinos quickly gave way to stalkers, drug addicts, and a gang mentality with turf wars and threats of violence. After my old website cardcounter.com was hacked by a member of the "Las Vegas Hole-Card Mafia," I received the following email warning from a top Las Vegas hole-card player:
If I were you, I would get rid of the bulletin boards completely on your site ... I wish it weren't so, but the advantage player underground is littered with psychopaths and miscreants.
Games are as likely to be burned out by competing teams as by the team that is first to spot the game. It's a turf war, with multiple teams competing for the scarce resource of top games. Teams are no longer motivated to milk opportunities, understanding that another team is not far behind. It is not unusual for one team to burn a game just so members of another team are identified. A simple anonymous phone call to surveillance will do the trick: "There's a dealer who is showing her hole-card on Ultimate, and the guys on seats 1 and 5 are working as a team against her." <click>
A fantastic book that describes the great big world of "getting away with it" is Advanced Tactics in Casino Advantage Play, by Abram Alexander. It is available as an eBook only (here is a link to it at Amazon). Get it. Read it.
I have been told that, in days past, there existed an "us vs. them" mentality among advantage players, leading them to cooperate with each other, because they perceived the casinos as a common enemy. In such a climate, rivals would be easy to deal with, because they would almost certainly be open to cooperation and sharing. I can say that this is not the case anymore. There is no honor or agreement to be had among rivals anymore, and the competition can be quite fierce. Each team usually plays according to its own rules and interests; there are no industry standards for how to deal with other advantage players. Some rivalries are so bitter that they involve players ratting each other out to surveillance or the pit.
APs employ expert mathematicians and programmers to determine the edges and strategies. They relentlessly scout for vulnerable games. They are members of well-funded and highly organized teams that are ready to travel at a moment's notice.
Success is the meeting point of preparation and opportunity. With plenty of each, the current generation of APs are running the tables on the table games industry. It is time for the industry to wise up. Everything is broken. We've got a lot of work to do.
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