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HISTORY OF KANSAS CITY BLACKJACK FROM A CARD COUNTER'S PERSPECTIVE - Part 2

by JPB

JPB has been playing blackjack and counting cards part-time since 1996. He plays throughout the country but primarily in Missouri. He has been a Green Chip member of BJ21.com for five years and one-time winner of the Post-of-the-Month. JPB is a professional engineer with three engineering degrees and works as a consulting engineer. This article is a first in a series of articles on the history of blackjack games in Kansas City from JPBs playing experience.

INTRODUCTION

In Part 1 of this series, I described blackjack conditions from when the first casino, Argosy, opened in 1994 up to to 1997. In short, blackjack conditions were horrible. The fact that the casinos could not ban card counters (for cad counting) was irrelevant because the playing conditions were so bad. The bizarre rules including the $500 buy-in limit per session contributed to Sam's Town closing. However, by 1998 conditions started to improve. There were four casinos at the beginning of 1998:

  • Harrah's
  • Station/Ameristar
  • Flamingo/Isle and
  • Argosy.

Part II 1998-2008

By mid-1998, I started looking around at the other casinos once Sam's Town went belly up. A few things had changed. I had become a very proficient card counter and my max bet was in the $500+ range. I had chalked up several years of winning blackjack, and perhaps most significantly, once I had proven I could win, my risk tolerance started going up dramatically. I discovered the website bj21.com and purchased Don Schlesinger's book Blackjack Attack. Intuitively, I understood the importance of penetration, but I did not understand how important until I Schlesinger's book read. By mid-1998, all the Kansas City casinos were offering double-deck games. One positive development for players occurred around 1999 when "open boarding" was implemented. The $500 buy in for every 2-hour session was still in force; however, at least now a player could board anytime during the 2-hour session.

Harrah's

After Sam's Town closed, Harrah's became my preferred blackjack destination. I avoided it at first because of the poor double-deck rules: H17, no DAS, and D9-11 only. However, as I learned how important penetration was, I understand that this game with poor rules, but consistent 75% penetration, was very good. Harrah's had two "boats" so that the longest wait time for a session was 15 minutes. I spread from $10- $25 to typically ca. $250 but would stretch up to $500 on big plus counts. I started learning to stockpile chips. Remember, with the buy-in limit in force, if you did not have enough chips (and had reached your buy-in limit) to double on an 11 vs 6 or split 8s vs 5, you were out of luck.

Based on my playing experience over about a year period, I confirmed a double-deck game with 75% penetration (even with bad rules) can be very profitable. I started inching my maximum bet beyond the $500 table limits (if allowed). Harrah's table-limits were typically $500 or $1000. It appeared that their card-counter countermeasures were not well defined. On a few occasions, a pit boss observed my bet of $400 or $500 and told me, "You can only bet $100." I chose to just leave and return another day and I would be forgotten. This strategy worked, until one day, I decided to bet based on the table limit posted at the table. The overzealous pit boss made an unwise decision and stepped in to kill the hand (after some of the cards had been dealt out). I won the battle but lost the war. I raised the issue with the Missouri Gaming Commission and they confirmed that a table limit could not be applied solely to a card counter; it had to be applied to the whole table.

After this incident, Harrah's developed a different countermeasure policy (at least when I played): reduce the penetration to about 35% (if an undesirable card counter desired to play). Unfortunately, after that incident my play was much more conspicuous. Every pit boss and dealer seemed to know my face and name. If I was lucky, I could get one or two double-deck shoes with 75% penetration before the unbearable 35% penetration ensured.

Almost as if to rub salt in the wound and get back at me, within a few months of this incident, Harrah's changed the double-deck rules to H17, DAS, and double any two cards. The double-deck game went from good penetration and bad rules to good penetration and good rules (a rare combination) for just about every player, except me.

Flamingo/Isle of Capri

I started alternating between Argosy and Flamingo since countermeasures were being taken at Harrah's. The double-deck rules were good at Flamingo: DAS, H17, and double on any two cards. Penetration was decent but not as good as Harrah's. (I recollect it ranged from about 55-70% penetration.) Despite the fact that I was obviously counting cards, I never observed any countermeasures being taken; hats off to Flamingo. They appeared to understand that their financial risk to card counters with these rules was not that great. In the morning hours, I observed two low-stakes card counters that would blatantly count cards and express that fact to the dealers and anyone else that would listen. I was able to evaluate these two card counters and it appeared to me their game was weak enough such that the house still had an advantage.

Sometime around 2000, Isle of Capri purchased Flamingo, and sometime around 2002, Isle decided to shoot themselves in the foot to spite any, and all, card counters. They decided to change the penetration to about 40%. The first time I saw the 40% penetration, I thought I was being singled out; however, I returned again and observed the same miserable penetration. From around 2002-2008, I avoided the Isle because of the poor penetration. At the beginning of 2000, Argosy and Isle were competing for the low roller market. Neither had a hotel and both were smaller than Harrah's and Station/Ameristar. Argosy pumped money to upgrade the tiny, low-budget boat to a real casino, with nice hotels, conference rooms, and restaurants. Isle of Capri descended into the low-roller market and appeared to give up any hope of being a quality casino. By 2008, the "pile of debris" was well on its way to living up to its name. On the rare occasion, I stopped by from 2004-2007; the penetration was never better than 50% and the double-deck tables were crowded. The number of blackjack tables kept decreasing.

Argosy

I started playing at Argosy around 1999. I always found the staff and management professional and knowledgeable. Double-deck rules were always H17, DAS, and double any two cards. Penetration was about 50-55% when I first visited. Around 2002, millions were pumped into Argosy to build a hotel and new restaurants. Argosy went from a dump to a quality destination.

For several years, the management position appeared to be as follows: with 50% penetration and $500 maximum bet, and the other weird Missouri rules ($500 buy-in limit), the risk to card counters is fairly low. On one of my first visits, I reinforced their position. In order to get around the $500 buy-in limit, I made five trips to Argosy over a several days without playing a hand. I would arrive a few minutes before the two-hour session, buy in for $500, come back to the cashier a few minutes later and buy-in another $500 until I accumulated enough to play some serious blackjack. With some bad luck, I lost the whole load of chips in a few hours and learned an important lesson: Going forward, I made sure I had at least $5000 in chips when I walked in to play blackjack at any of the Kansas City casinos.

Once I cleared this investment hurdle, I think it actually worked to my advantage. Medium- and high-stake card counters shunned the Kansas City market because of the $500 buy-in limit. I believe I was one of the few high-stakes card counters regularly playing the Kansas City market.

For a few years, I continued to play at Argosy and the management position appeared to be the same: 50% penetration at double deck and our risk is low. In order to overcome poor penetration, I used a big bet spread (usually $25-500). I was able to find a few dealers that would deal close to 60% penetration. On one occasion, the penetration kept increasing as the dealer apparently misunderstood the pit bosses instructions on where to place the shuffle card. (The pit bosses were apparently given guidance to watch the dealer's placement of the shuffle card every shuffle.) Eventually, I had a few big wins, and the Argosy decided to reduce penetration further when I played (to about 25-40%). Sometimes, table limits were lowered to $100.

Unfortunately, I logged enough hours and talked to enough pit bosses and dealers that it was very difficult for me to...

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