IN THE BEGINNING
by Frank Scoblete
Frank Scoblete's is America's number casinos gambling author. Frank Scoblete's new books are "I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack!", "I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps! "and "Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!" All available on Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.Visit Frank's Web site atwww.frankscoblete.com.
I was part-owner in a theatre company on Long Island, New York from 1979 to 1990. It was called The Other Vic Theatre Company in honor of the Old Vic Theatre in England. By the way, you never say "I live in Long Island" the way you would say "in New York" or "in Cleveland" or "in Las Vegas." For some reason you lived "on" Long Island. And that is exactly what Long Island is – a long island, going from Brooklyn and Queens which are two boroughs of New York City all the way to Montauk Point which is at the very eastern tip. Usually when folks refer to "the Island," they forget about anything to do with New York City and just consider it two counties, Nassau and Suffolk. I live in Nassau.
The theatre company was thriving. We toured various libraries, charitable organizations, dinner theaters and we also had our own 500-seat permanent theater. My partner in the company was a smart and interesting woman, a teacher by day, a producer, a director and an actress by night (with matinees on weekends). We had a good partnership.
In the late 1980’s, I decided to produce The Only Game in Town by Frank Gilroy – a brilliant play that (go figure) only ran for a couple of weeks on Broadway. My co-star was Alene Paone who had been working with us as a stage manager for about three years. Alene was a lithe, good-looking, effervescent 29-year-old woman; a perfect fit for the role of Fran Walker, a Vegas chorus girl throwing her love away on a rich businessman using her for the usual reasons a rich businessman uses a woman. Rich businessmen make great villains, don’t they?
I played degenerate gambler Joe Grady, a craps player who wished for luck on every roll of the dice but rarely had any. He did have an electric personality but he was a short circuit as a human being. He was down and out. He was looking – hoping – for one big score so he could leave Vegas and start a normal life. It did not look as if that score would ever come. He was to make this short and not sweet – a loser in life and a loser in love.
Joe and Fran meet; they fall in love and after some dramatic ups and downs; the play ends happily with Joe making the big score at craps and an even bigger score with Fran. And the businessman gets screwed – figuratively – and, as I said, a very happy ending.
The problem we had with the play was a problem we had with ourselves – we knew nothing. When it came to casino gambling we had no idea what we were saying. Yes, Alene knew about the idea of being a chorus girl. You danced and maybe sang some songs as a backup to a star. But she had no idea of what I was saying when I discussed the game of craps yet on stage she had to look as if she was totally cognizant of what everything meant. I had these great monologues that can really stretch an actor and rivet an audience but what the hell was I actually saying? I had never played craps; I knew nothing about the game. Indeed, I had never played any casino games, nor had Alene. Blackjack was news to me, although I did know what roulette consisted of – I had seen scenes in movies about roulette wheels and, of course, James Bond made a fortune betting on number 17. In college I had played poker but that was it as far as gambling went.
Alene and I decided we’d go to Atlantic City and learn the game and watch it being played. Alene, even at 29 in an age after the sexual revolution (the revolution that gave men the wonderful license to have sex without worrying about having to marry the woman – nothing like "getting the milk and not having to deal with the cow" as my late grandmother scornfully said), insisted on having her own room. After all, I was a married man with two young sons. I don’t know if she knew how much I actually did love her; in fact from the very moment I met her I loved her but that’s a tale I told in my book The Virgin Kiss.
We stayed at the Claridge, a small casino in a beautiful old-world building; the building where I was conceived which proves the saying "what goes around comes around" or maybe "you can go home again." At the Claridge I was lucky to meet up with the man who would ultimately become my gambling mentor, the Captain of craps along with his Crew of 22 high rollers. He taught me the game and when I performed my role as Joe Grady I knew exactly what I was talking about.
I also knew that casino gambling offered me a new life because I was becoming disenchanted with theatre, disappointed with my relationship with my partner, disenchanted with my life, my wife, my future – in short, I was a kind of Joe Grady, the very character I had played, looking to get out.
I did stay with the Other Vic Theatre Company for another year or so during which time I did one of the best plays ever written – my own Dracula’s Blind Date, certainly strong competition for Shakespeare’s best plays. During that time I studied casino games. I wanted to know if it were possible to actually beat them.
When I had been in the Claridge I watched a few blackjack games and I wondered, "If no aces are left in the shoe no one can get a blackjack. Is there a way to follow the cards to get an edge at the game?" I thought this was a profound insight on my part, not knowing that far greater minds than mine had figured out just about all the ins and outs of the game far better than I ever could. They had discovered something called "card counting" that allowed a player to follow the cards and bet more when the edge in the game favored him and less when the game favored the casino.
Most casino games are stagnant. The casino’s edge is the same from decision to decision and there is no way a player can change that. However, with blackjack the play of the cards changes what will come up in the following hands. If there are no aces left in the deck there will be no blackjacks. A player can wish, pray and hope but if those aces are gone those blackjacks are gone. Such knowledge of what remains to be played can be exploited by card counters.
Most casino games can’t be beaten – at least not beaten by average people such as me. There were some methods of following the ball at roulette and figuring what section it would land in. Forget it. When I tried to do that I got nauseous. Baccarat couldn’t be beaten; nor could other games, known as carnival games, that were showing up in the casinos. But blackjack and craps were different. Blackjack could be beaten with card counting and the Captain was showing me that craps could be beaten with dice control. During my time with the Captain and his Crew I got to see the Captain roll and I also got to see the greatest dice controller of all time, a woman known as "the Arm."
The difference between card counting and dice control is the difference between night and day. Blackjack probabilities change with the play of each hand; what cards have been played determines what cards will be coming up. If the decks favor the player, the decks will favor all the players whether those players know it or not. In craps, the probabilities do not change – unless a controlled shooter can change them with his skill. The shooter determines whether the game favors him; not the play of the cards or the play of random shooters who compose the overwhelming majority of craps players. The shooter dictates the nature of the game.
While I toured in Dracula’s Blind Date during my last days of working in theatre, I studied the game of blackjack. Unlike craps, I did not have a personal mentor. I went it alone and studied constantly.
I bought many books such as Beat the Dealer by Edward O. Thorp (the first real card counting book ever written); The Theory of Blackjack by Peter Griffin (filled with math and also fun stories); The Big Player by Ken Uston and Roger Rapoport (a knockout book with the story of the most famous, flamboyant "big player" of all time, Ken Uston, who has inspired many blackjack players over the decades); Million Dollar Blackjack by Ken Uston; The World’s Greatest Blackjack Book by Lance Humble; Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong (a bible for me, Wong put it all into perspective); Playing Blackjack as a Business by Lawrence Revere; Ken Uston on Blackjack by Ken Uston; The Beginner’s Guide to Winning Blackjack by Stanley Roberts; The Blackjack Formula by Arnold Snyder (whose magazine Blackjack Forum was must reading in my early career); Two Books on Blackjack by Ken Uston; Blackjack Your Way to Riches by Richard Canfield and Blackjack’s Winning Formula by Jerry L. Patterson.
Some other books, not put on this list, were basically junk, selling betting systems which could not beat the game. I learned about betting systems when I used a Martingale at the Sands casino in Atlantic City. The Martingale is a betting scheme where you double your bet after a loss, the philosophy being you have to win sooner or later. True. The problem is that after six to eight losses in a row, doubling your bet after each loss, you usually hit the table limit and are destroyed. I was betting five dollars and doubling after each loss, while successful for two days, each win only won me five dollars. When the axe fell I lost a lot of money – so much for betting systems.
It was one thing to read about blackjack but I had to practice card counting to get any good at it. I bought a blackjack shoe (the contraption that holds multiple decks of cards) and practiced a count called the Hi-Lo. In this count, the 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are counted as plus one and the 10, jack, queen, king and ace are counted as minus one. The 7, 8 and 9 are neutral. When the shoe favored the player, meaning the 2’s through 6’s had come out in sufficient numbers to make the shoe positive (favoring the players), you bet more money; when the 10-valued cards and aces came out, making the shoe negative (favoring the casino), you bet your minimum bet.
The idea was simple. You bet more money when the count favored you and you bet less money when the count favored the casino. To be sure, there are many wrinkles in this method. The count has to favor you sufficiently so you really do have an edge and you have to bet enough in these counts to overcome the overall edge the casino has in the game. For example, if you are playing a four-deck shoe and the count is a +8, moving your bet from $10 to $20 is not going to be enough to overcome the overall house edge. If $10 to $20 is the only increase you make in counts that favor the player, you will not win at the game in the long run. In shoe games you also had to establish the "true count" in addition to the "running count" – by dividing how many cards remained into the running count. This "true count" gave your true edge, which was the edge you used for wagering amounts. Positive edge, bet more; negative edge, bet less. Simple idea with a profound impact on playing the game.
Another very important aspect of playing advantage blackjack is making the correct decisions on your hands against the dealer’s up card. This method is the computer-derived "basic strategy." Playing by whim is a poor way to go and probably a losing way too – even if you do count cards. (I doubt there are card counters who play their hands by whim.) Certainly, there were slightly different basic strategies for different games, usually based on the number of decks. But the changes are relatively small and certainly in four-, six- and eight-deck games not all that important.
In 1990, Alene Paone – forever now known as the Beautiful A.P. – moved in to live with me. She had her own room in my rented condo. I was not going to let my sons think we lived together as anything other than friends – which of course we were. We married on Valentine’s Day in 1993 (now that is smart, guys, because I can never forget my anniversary) and bought our lovely little house in 1994.
I spent every afternoon and many nights playing hands on the dining room table. I dealt myself round after round after round of hands; keeping the running count, converting to the true count, and betting accordingly. I played four-deck games, six-deck games and even eight-deck games which were starting to take over Atlantic City. The more decks the more patience you must have as the counts change somewhat slowly. The casino generally has a higher edge the more decks a game contains. [There are some exceptions to this; for example, the new single-deck games that only pay 6-to-5 on blackjacks – they are probably worse than just about any multiple-deck games that I played.]
I did learn certain things that served me well. There are many false notions held by many advantage-blackjack players. One has to do with how fast you can count down a deck of cards. You just keep flipping the cards over as fast as you can to see if you can count down the deck properly. Some blackjack teams actually use this as a test of how good a card counter is.
At first I thought this was important and I would practice counting down a single deck – bam, bam, bam, bam. Then I watched games in the casino and realized that even the fastest of the fastest dealers were actually pretty slow. The key was not to watch the dealer scurrying through his cards but simply to watch the cards on the table. The dealer could not deal like the superhero Flash and those cards sat on the table for a sufficiently long enough time to have no problem counting them. It was nothing like the bam, bam, bam, bam of counting down a single deck. You just keep your eyes on the cards and not on the dealer’s motions.
Gamblers have myths about play – just about all of those myths being wrong – but so do advantage players. Belief systems can make you see what you want to see. This is called "confirmation bias." Counting down a single deck in a few seconds does not have any real meaning in a real game. The speed of blackjack games is actually easy to handle. I would say that all blackjack games are relatively slow, even the ones everyone thinks are fast. As I said, just don’t watch the dealer, just watch the cards.
Once I had a handle on how to play and I knew I was good, I told the Beautiful A.P., "I want you to learn blackjack. I want us to eventually become a team. I want us to take it to the casinos."
"Okay," she said. And she then went about learning the Hi-Lo count as well.
The Problems Pile On
Even though we were living together, at that time my financial state was a mess. My wife Lucille was dragging her feet on our divorce. I had written up what I felt was a fair divorce agreement that we could take to mediation and avoid conflict and unnecessary expense (my lawyer thought I was nuts, "You are giving her everything"). She’d get the house, I’d pay for her to go to graduate school to get a degree in library science, I’d pay child support, I’d pay the mortgage until the divorce and I’d take the kids every weekend. I’d also give her spending money until she could find a job. Yes, I hate to say this but I even took the kids to Atlantic City and Vegas.
While Lucille happily took everything I offered; she wouldn’t budge on giving me a divorce. She was a woman who never wanted to work; indeed, she refused to work before she had kids and after she had kids. She hired a radical feminist attorney who wanted all of the above stuff I gave her plus half my pension from teaching plus both of my testicles, nicely roasted, on a sterling silver platter. These had to also be buttered.
I had sold my theater company by this time – another idiotic situation developed here too; my partner had tried to get me to pay off all the company’s liabilities while she got all the assets. Our company’s lawyer explained to her that any liabilities the company had must be bought along with all its assets. The company was in a great financial position. The liabilities were small; the income was great. Simply, that whole situation was nuts.
Still, I wanted out and I took a minimum payment for my half of the company. My partner – my former partner that is – could have it. I was done with theatre and the prospect of going through endless "negotiations" with her made me essentially walk away.
During this period of time, it seemed that life was done with me. I was a loser, perhaps a worse loser than Joe Grady. Even though I actually wanted to lose some of those things I lost, I was sinking into deep debt.
I remember sitting on the beach at Cape May, New Jersey, a place I have always considered my retreat, with the Beautiful A.P. just before we started our team play. I was morbidly reflecting on my life’s situation. (I’m a good morbid reflector.)
I intended to send my kids to Chaminade, a private Catholic high school, perhaps the best on Long Island; I was sending Lucille my (I wish "ex") wife to graduate school. I couldn’t get the damn divorce now without a battle in court meaning lawyers’ fees and to top that my theatre partner had acted really strange during the sale of the company. I was almost fifty thousand dollars in debt at that point (remember this was in the early 1990’s) and with the ongoing child support payments and giving Lucille spending money, I was in quicksand. I was sinking.
Oh, yeah, another little (make that BIG) knife plunged into my back during this time – I was told I would lose my teaching job (of 16 years) at the end of the school year. The threat of losing my teaching job had been a killer. The superintendent of The Lawrence Public Schools in Cedarhurst, Long Island was Doctor Alvin Baron and I had alienated him over the years by being obnoxious (totally my fault – as a young man I was too stupid to be cordial to those in authority; I always had to shove it – whatever "it" was – into their faces) and also being a strong union head at the high school when he was principal there for a year before assuming the superintendent’s position. I set the framework for this guy to screw me.
Doctor Baron figured a clever way to screw me too. He was "excessing" me after 16 years in the English department, which meant that even though I had tenure I could be let go because I was low man in the department and my job no longer existed. In short, I was excess baggage. Tenure can’t save you if there is no job for which to be saved. If the job didn’t exist; your tenure didn’t exist. My teaching career could be over.
There was one little wrinkle here that I needed to exploit. I could bump someone in the social studies department if I could get the social studies certification in one year – that was 30 credits for a master’s degree. There were at least four social studies teachers that I had seniority over.
When I have to do something then I do it and I did it too – I went to graduate school at night, during holidays, in the summer and got my degree. The guy I bumped out of the social studies department was Doctor Baron’s fair-haired boy (actually he had black hair) and as soon as I told the stunned Superintendent that "there’s no problem, I can now bump into social studies" he suddenly discovered that my English position miraculously reappeared after he caused me to spend a small fortune trying to save my neck – a neck that would not have needed saving had I been a little less obnoxious to Doctor Baron when I was a young man.
So you can see I was really, really down in the dumps sitting on that lovely beach at Cape May. I looked at the ocean, so blue, so peaceful and I looked at my life, so blue, so full of pieces and I whined.
The Beautiful A.P. has a can-do attitude and she "can-doed" me right there as I listed my miseries. "You have nowhere to go but up," she said. "I am telling you things are going to work out. You’ll see. You’ll pay off your debts; you’ll get the divorce; your kids will go to Chaminade, you’ll even be able to pay for them to go to college without them taking loans. And you’ll even become a famous writer."
Now, I had written two plays and many articles for local papers but I really thought I had no big future as a writer. I was 40 and had achieved very little.
"In what?" I said. "I don’t have any other ideas for plays or anything."
"I don’t know," she said. "I just have a feeling. I can tell you this, think of this scene right here on the beach, right here in Cape May, because from right here and right now you go all the way up."
I threw a couple of small stones into the ocean. "I hope you’re right, my beauty, I hope you’re right. I don’t know how I am going to do this."
"You’ll do it; you’ll see," she said.
The Beautiful A.P. and King Scobe Unleashed
In the midst of decay new life can sprout – think of winter into spring – and that is exactly what happened to me. I learned how to count cards and the Beautiful A.P. and King Scobe (my students used to call me King Scobe or Scobe and A.P. calls me Scobe – that’s my personal name for those who truly know me) headed for Atlantic City, this time not to watch but to finally play. That first week was great. We spent eight days there and we won each and every day. I say "we" but A.P. preferred to watch during this time so she could feel comfortable knowing she could actually count with a casino dealer dealing the cards.
That week was so special I actually conned myself into thinking that if we continued to do this well, we’d wind up owning a casino. I was a small-stakes player too, going from five dollars on my low hand to $50 on my highest hand – in shoe games your bet spread, low to high, has to be greater than in single- and double-deck games. I recall walking along the Boardwalk trying to figure out which casino I would buy. I would tell A.P. how we would run our own casino. She just smiled and shook her head. Such was my imagination; such was hubris; such were the seeds of destruction.
We won five thousand dollars that week, an amazing amount considering how much I was betting. The games we were playing were good, mostly four decks with deep penetration. Penetration, meaning how many cards are cut out of play, can determine whether a game is good or bad. The better the penetration, the better the game. The actual rules of the game are not usually as important as the depth of its penetration.
I was truly a strutting cock of the Boardwalk after that first visit and then we went back to Atlantic City a few weeks later and I was the cock that got squashed by a car while trying to cross the road. I had put aside five thousand dollars as a bankroll and during that first trip we doubled it. This second trip saw me lose every penny of that money – every penny of our win and every penny of my initial bankroll. My final destruction occurred at the Claridge in the high roller room when I had a bet of twenty-five hundred dollars on the table on various hands that I had split, resplit and doubled on. I was so convinced that my bad luck had to (had to!) change that I was betting way too much for my almost non-existent bankroll. Succinctly, I was a complete idiot, trying to recover all my money in just a few hands. I was on tilt; I wasn’t thinking straight – hell, I wasn’t thinking at all. I was the very "ploppy" player I have made fun of over the years.
At this moment of the "Frank Scoblete is the Titanic about to hit the iceberg," the count was sky high; my hands went from 18 to 20. The dealer was showing a six. He had to have a 10 in the hole because so many small cards had already been played and I was sure he would bust with his piddling 16 and I would come roaring back and recapture my original 5K stake. From there on, casino ownership had only been delayed by a small losing streak. Move over Steve Wynn and Donald Trump, the new boy, Frank Scoblete, card counter, was in town.
The dealer flipped over his hole card. Oh, yeah, a 10! He had 16, just as I thought. My heart was racing with joy; it was racing with excitement. Then something hit me; a small thought in the back of my mind that now came roaring to the front of my mind, I haven’t seen many fives during this shoe. I started to sweat. I started to really, really sweat and everything went in slow motion from this point – at least that is how my memory sees it. Slow motion: He pulls out a card from the shoe and slowly flips it over. Slow motion as the card flips: A five! Slow motion first on my forehead, then on my nose, then on the layout: A bead of sweat goes down my nose and drops onto the table. A five, oh, my God, a fucking five!
I was busted. I had lost every penny I had reserved to play blackjack and start my casino-playing career in order to get myself out of debt. On one flip of the cards I had lost twenty-five hundred dollars. In one trip, I had lost ten thousand dollars. My gambling stake was gone. My confidence was gone. The casino I was going to buy was gone. I was, at that moment, the ultimate loser.
On the way back to Long Island, the Beautiful A.P. and I stopped at the Captain’s house. As soon as he saw us, he smiled and said, "There they are with empty pockets."
I guess he could see it written on our foreheads [Frank Scoblete, King Scobe, Scobe has lost everything!] and he could see it in our depressed state. He then proceeded to give me a lesson I have never forgotten; a lesson on bankroll and betting within your bankroll. He discussed the underlying emotions of having an advantage at a game and how those emotions can do you in if you aren’t careful. Those emotions had certainly done me in because I wagered a monstrous amount of money against a mini-amount of bankroll on that trip. Emotions will often cancel out thinking; in advantage gambling emotion is often one of the worst elements in maintaining an edge over the house. The Captain would always tell me, "The struggle is not between you and the casino; it is between you and yourself."
He was right. I lost my bankroll not because I couldn’t beat the casinos at blackjack; I lost my bankroll because I couldn’t beat back my feelings.
I learned my lesson too. I never lost another bankroll. I built up a bankroll that would take the "end of days" to lose. I have used the Captain’s insights and advice all these years and they have stood me in good stead. Perhaps it is best to take your beating right off the bat. I once read somewhere that compulsive gamblers often start their gambling obsession with a great win or two the first times they play. This stimulates whatever regions in the brain that desire that pleasure again. I didn’t have to worry about that.
And to make everything wonderful, I also got his permission to write a book about him and his ideas – a book he wanted no money from or even publicity from. I just had to keep his name a secret. That book launched my career as a gambling writer. It was Beat the Craps Out of the Casinos: How to Play Craps and Win! Since then I have written or edited some 40 books, some of which are about the Captain’s methods of play; the particulars of which I shall write about in I Am A Dice Controller.
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