PAUL'S POINTERS: CONFESSIONS OF A BLUE-COLLAR CARD COUNTER
by Paul Wilson
BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November 2014 issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.
This month I've been asked to write about my experiences counting cards while playing blackjack. I'm not sure there is really much to say. After much deliberation, that is probably the moral of this story. My tale is not glamorous or exciting. It doesn't involve comped penthouse suits with Playboy-worthy centerfolds, gourmet meals, and untold riches. The following words aren't meant to be a lecture either, just my tale. If you read closely, I suspect you'll find some pearls of wisdom, but each reader's mileage may vary. Let's get to it.
IN THE BEGINNING
I discovered blackjack, along with casinos in general, in the early 1990s. For whatever reason, blackjack appealed to me because it wasn't all about blind "luck." Thinking about the composition of a deck of playing cards told me there was a "right way" or overall strategy to playing blackjack. It was also obvious that each card dealt affected what was to come, or the remaining composition of the deck for subsequent draws or new hands to be dealt before the dealer shuffled. In those days I played primarily single-deck games with what I learned later was called "Northern Nevada Rules." I remember being able to only double-down on two-card counts of 10 or 11. I suppose the importance of drawing a 10-count card (10, J, Q, K) in those situations and the frequent shuffles involved in playing single-deck amplified the importance of 10-count cards and Aces for blackjacks. I started tracking them in my mind and focused on how many were left, along with about how many cards the dealer had left to deal before the shuffle.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was on to something. That something was called Basic Strategy and the tracking of high-count cards was rudimentary card counting. I was already semi-familiar with sports betting and had begun to put a piece of my paycheck into mutual funds on a regular basis. I was learning about the stock market and bonds and knew the importance of shopping for a better number or price when making sports bets. It appeared that if I wanted to play blackjack with any degree of success, I had some learning to do.
TAKE THE MONEY & RUN
I ran across Dr. Tamburin's "Blackjack: Take the Money & Run" in a book store in Louisiana sometime in early 1994. At the risk of sounding like a shill for Henry, this book accelerated my blackjack knowledge and provided me with a formal version of blackjack basic strategy. I wrote out a version of the "Blackjack Master Strategy Chart" onto an index card and regularly quizzed myself for gambling road trips to the casinos in MS. Eventually I photocopied two versions of this card and laminated all three. In later years, I'd use it to explain the basics to new players that sometimes infiltrated my small group of blackjack playing friends.
In the mid-1990s, I began to travel to Las Vegas once or twice a year. I made sports bets and played lots of blackjack all over town. In those days, the games were pretty much the same, though there was a double-deck game dealt face-up that I especially liked to play at the old Tropicana. It made keeping track of the Aces and Faces much easier. I also logged lots of hours playing single-deck in the smoke-filled pits of Binion's Horseshoe and "the World's Most Liberal 21" at the Las Vegas Club. Looking back I was doing a lot of things right, but didn't necessarily realize it.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, I was playing because I enjoyed the game. Staying in nice hotels at "players' rates" and sometimes even for free, plus eating free meals and on occasion, getting comped show tickets, really helped stretch my bankroll. I felt very comfortable and used to tell my closest confidents that I could play basic strategy in my sleep; which I practically did many times in the wee hours after a long foray into the Las Vegas nightlife. I used to tell an old college friend that often met me in Las Vegas that I had to pay for the rooms and fun we just had, or would have the next day. Part of that equation was logging time on the table in the early AM hours before bed and part of that was winning small amounts, over and over.
Dr. Edward O. Thorp, author of "Beat the Dealer," kind of summed up my feelings about blackjack and what I was doing with this quote: "It isn't so much the money. It never has been. The big part of winning is being able to feel the way David must have felt when he killed Goliath."
I still feel this way, but it's not much fun these days. Don't get me wrong, playing blackjack has its moments, but its work now. I hated to lose in those days and still do. The psychology of gambling is complex and even though I have grown and become much wiser over the years, it's still something I strive to master. Conditions were beginning to change in the early 2000's and it seemed many places were reducing their comps for table games players, or refusing to rate your play unless you were a high roller. (I never was one and have no plans to ever be one.) I realized that I was going to have to get smarter and improve my game. The late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson said more than once, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." So be it.
THE GOING GETS WEIRD OR KISS
I'm not certain when I first heard or read about card-counting. However, after being a solid basic strategy player for many years, I realized in 2004 it was time to take things up a notch. I set out to save up a bankroll solely for casino gambling. I also began to keep records of my play and start running my gambling operations more like a business. I had a lot of time on my hands, thanks to a divorce, and found myself very isolated from the rest of the world. I was putting in a lot of hours in my career, but when not at the office, I was on my own. I could use this time to become an alcoholic and feel sorry for myself, or I could start studying blackjack in earnest. It was time to learn how to formally count cards. (For the record, I also spent a lot of time learning and practicing strategy for a few video poker versions during this period.)
By this time I was a regular visitor to the book section of the Gambler's General Store (GGS) on my Las Vegas trips and a member/subscriber to the Las Vegas Advisor (LVA) newsletter. I perused books at the GGS store, and ordered my share of books from Anthony Curtis' Huntington Press (publisher of LVA). I settled on the Hi-Lo method, which I ran across from various sources, one of those "Burning the Tables in Las Vegas" by Ian Andersen. This card-counting system assigned plus/minus counts to each card. Aces, K, Q, J, and Tens (high cards) are assigned a value of -1; small-value cards 2-6 are assigned a value of +1; medium-value cards 7-9, are assigned a zero value. When the remaining cards to be played are rich in low cards (meaning your count is negative), this favors the dealer. This occurs when more high cards have been removed from play in previous rounds. Conversely, if more small cards have been removed from play, the remaining unplayed cards are rich in high cards (i.e., tens and aces) and this favors the player (this is referred to as a positive count). I read about a few other card-counting methods, but the basic Hi-Lo was simple and I've always been a fan of the KISS Method (Kiss It Simple Stupid).
So Hi-Lo it was for me. I learned the canceling method to increase my speed while on the tables in live play. Canceling merely is a technique where a plus and minus card negate each other and you don't bother to count them separately. For example a K and a 3 would be a -1 and a +1; their net is 0. A 5 and J would be +1 and -1; also a net of 0. I practiced at home with a deck of cards by shuffling them and then drawing the top card and assigning the value, +1, 0, -1 and adding and subtracting each card in the deck until I could count down 52 cards comfortably and accurately in less than a minute or basically as quick as I could draw them. I also dealt myself hands on the kitchen table with multiple player spots to practice a different look.
Adding and subtracting the count values (i.e., +1 and -1) values of each card is known as a running count and is useful data. However, a count of +4 is much more significant in a single-deck than in a six-deck shoe. I had to learn to convert running counts (RC) into true counts (TC) by dividing the RC value by the number of decks that have not been played. For example, a RC of +4 with one deck remaining in a six-deck game yields a TC of +4 (4 divided by 1 = 4); however, if there are four decks remaining the TC is only +1 (4 divided by 4 = 1). It's simple, right? I think I could teach anyone the basics in 30 minutes or less. Now keeping a running count is second nature and I find myself instinctively doing it when I walk past a table with cards being dealt face-up or while I am waiting for a new shuffle before joining a game. Converting the RC to a TC is still a bit of a challenge, but I rarely play six-deck games. In a double-deck game I convert into half-decks (0.5), but find the RC and TC don't tend to get too extreme. Using half-decks to convert is useful in six-deck games also, just be prepared to deal with fractions (like 4/3 or 1 1/3) and make quick conversions back-and-forth.
I continued my "education" by reading articles and other books about blackjack and card-counting methods. "Knock-Out Blackjack" by Dr. Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs introduces another card-counting system and is a good read. Every serious, and even casual player, should read Dr. Thorp's classic, "Beat the Dealer." In fact, if you read one blackjack book in your life, Thorp's is probably the one I'd recommend. After I was semi-smart and full of myself, I read Peter Griffin's "The Theory of Blackjack." It reminded me of a pre-calculus class I took my freshman year at Millsaps College, not a pleasant experience. It was a tough read for me, but if you have a semi-advanced understanding of the game (or strong mathematical inclinations), it will help you fill in some pieces and answer the "why" question on many of the things you do or should be doing at the blackjack tables.
THEORY AND REALITY: DO YOU KNOW THE DIFFERENCE?
One day a young man asked his father the difference between theory and reality. The father thought for a moment and told his son to ask his mother if she'd sleep with a stranger for one million dollars. Reluctant at first, the lad finally did as he was instructed and was shocked when his mother answered that she would for one million. The father then told his son to ask his 19-y.o. sister the same thing. Embarrassed, he set off and was again surprised when his sister said she would also have sex with a stranger for a one million. The father was not surprised by the answers as his son shared them, somewhat in disbelief.
"Well, Son, now you know the difference," the Father said.
Still confused the boy replied, "I don't think I get it."
"Well, Son, let me put it this way. In theory you and I are living with your mother and sister, but in reality, we're living with a couple of whores." That's the difference in theory and reality.
Card counting and even basic strategy is heavy on theory, but everyone wants to know about reality. After all that's the world in which we live. We either use these tools to help us win more or lose less doing something we enjoy doing or we're just living with mom and sis, right?
Here's the short version of theory and reality for a card-counter. All things being equal, in theory a blackjack player will win 44 hands, lose 48, and push 8 of every 100 hands they are dealt over the long-term. How do you make a profit over the long term when you are only winning less than 48% of your hands? You have probably heard someone sum up winning at blackjack by saying "Oh, it's easy; you just have to win the right hands." That's an oversimplification, or is it? In reality, counting has helped me and others identify when to put an extra chip or two on our bet or when to pull back to the minimum even if things have been going well. Sometimes the count even tells us when to deviate from basic strategy (that's a topic for another day). I want to play more hands when the deck composition is rich in high-value cards (Aces, faces, and 10s). I also want to have more chips in the betting circle in these situations. When the deck composition is rich in low-value cards, I want to bet less or sit out entirely by flirting with the cocktail waitress and taking a restroom break, whether my bladder needs it or not.
I'd be remiss if I didn't refer back to the 44-48-8 per 100 hands line mentioned above. The rules on the games you play are paramount because of this. You have to get paid 3:2 for your blackjacks and you have to be able to double-down and split when it is to your advantage. These are ways we cut into the house edge and give ourselves a fighting chance to come out a winner. That's really all there is to it. Card counting just advances this concept of getting more chips in the circle in plus situations another step or two down the proverbial "yellow-brick road."
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
I warned you at the outset this story wasn't glamourous. I've never played on any professional teams, like the MIT bunch made famous in Ben Mezrich's book"Bringing Down the House." I don't pay my bills with my blackjack winnings (yet) and I don't go hungry when I lose. Thus, by my own definition I'm not a "professional" player. However, someone once told me when I was a kid, "If money's involved, you're a professional." I actually tend to think of myself as a semi-pro player. I take the game very seriously and have logged countless hours on tables all over the blackjack landscape. I've always felt that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Hence, I've logged lots of hours reading books by people much smarter than me and trying to improve my skills and knowledge.
I've never been reckless with money and learned to respect it at an early age. No one in my family or close to me has every supported or understood my interest in blackjack. For the most part, once you master basic strategy and begin to employ a card-counting system, you've gone down the rabbit hole and you'll never view the game the same way again. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but for me, it has been a lonely journey. One lesson I've learned in all my adventures over the years is that half of the success we have in life is just showing up. Think about it: your career, your relationship with your wife or girlfriend, being a parent, going to the gym regularly, managing your gambling bankroll, even your financial goals. Persistence and the ability to stay in the game so you can keep suiting up is the key. If you want to win more or lose less in blackjack, learn basic strategy and then learn to count. It's kept me in the game for a long time and it can do the same for you.
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