INTERVIEW WITH THE GRIFTER Ė Part 2
By LV Pro
LV Pro is a serious recreational player who started with basic strategy in 1996 and learned the Silver Fox count by the end of 1998. He has been counting since early 1999, starting with a $2K bankroll and slowly trying to build it to $10K. His first book, You've Got Heat, contains a collection of his trip reports and it will be published in the spring. He also wrote the article "Graduating From Red to Green" that recently appeared in the Winter2003/2004 edition of Blackjack Forum.
Editor's Note: One of blackjackís more controversial and irreverent practitioners, known primarily as The Grifter and more recently Zengrifter, has granted part two of an interview in the hopes of providing us with a glimpse into 'the education of a card-counter,í and to set the record straight on some of the controversy that has arisen about him in blackjack circles.
A self-professed inveterate card-counter since graduating high school in Las Vegas in 1971, he pioneered the statistically based speculative strategies that culminated in over $600 million in randomly awarded cellular telephone licenses by FCC lottery, and made a few million dollars for him in the process. In the late 90ís, his victories would sour amidst federal allegations of fraud and racketeering, involving the sale of more than $270 million in unregistered securities, leading to a RICO-conspiracy plea and conviction. Forbes magazine wrote two separate uncomplimentary articles about him, dubbing him "The Grifter" in the process, and he humorously adopted the handle.
This Blackjack Insider exclusive excerpt is limited to points of card counting practice, theory and application that have been deemed relevant to Blackjack Insider readers. The more extensive 'No-Holds-Barred' full version of our Interview with The Grifter includes his candid discussion of his legal, business, and blackjack controversies, and can be found at www.CardCounter.com. Itís on the Interviews page and is titled The Zengrifter Interview.
A few subscribers have taken issue with this interview because they claim The Grifter has "scammed blackjack players" and after his release from prison camp will "continue to scam card counters." In our first question, we let him answer these charges.
Youíve been accused of taking advantage of teammates whom youíve met online, arranging to meet them for a "shared bankroll" team venture, during which you allegedly take advantage of their naïve expectations. How did these rumors start?
The allegations first arose when my legal difficulties were made public. The accusers were blackjack message board denizens with whom Iíve never played. In fact Iíve never even met any of them in person. It was sort of an "Ah ha! No wonder he advocates joint-bankrolling Ė heís ripping off the newbies!" Their pseudo-revelations continue on to contend, "Heís a ruthless convicted fraudster so of course heís scamming!" Itís stereotypical "guilty until proven innocent" mentality.
The fact of the matter is that, with one notable exception, no teammates have ever alleged impropriety about my conduct. In fact several teammates have posted to my defense. The internet blackjack community gossip-mongers have for the most part been message board trouble-makers with whom Iíd clashed previously. As typical in life, those who squawk the loudest often are not coming from the purest of intentions. Itís been my sad observation that the extended blackjack internet community, BJ21, AdvantagePlayer, Yahoo CardCounterCafe and the rest, have somewhat degenerated into little fiefdoms rife with political agendas.
Youíve pioneered an unusual betting scheme called the "Grifterís Gambit." Can you describe this method?
Actually I didnít pioneer the method, I revived it. It was first revealed as "Consolidation Betting" in Malmuthís 1985 Blackjack Essays with little fanfare. Malmuth advocated it as a form of apparent flat-betting for good single deck games. In 1998, George C took a look at it after I requested he run a simulation. Initially he said it looked like a stupid idea. Then he simmed and refined it for quality two-deck games and discovered it to be a powerful ploy, unknown to pit staffs and surveillance people. Malmuth deserves the credit but George C refined it and respectfully dubbed it the "Grifterís Gambit," presumably because I rescued it from obscurity and had him run the sims.
How does it work? Can you give an example?
Ok, letís say Iím playing a quality two-deck game heads-up. In minus and neutral counts I bet three hands of one unit each. This eats cards fast in order to speed things along and get to the plus deck situations quicker. At true counts of plus one and plus two, I bet three units on one spot. I increase to five units on one spot when the TC gets to plus three and plus four. At plus five or more, I bet one spot of seven units. Playing one spot in plus counts helps preserve the rich deck(s) longer. Per one hundred rounds, the sim showed a gain of four units with an apparent spread of three to seven units - just barely more than a 1 Ė 2 spread.
For a good single deck game there can be a virtual flat-bet. In minus counts bet three spots of one unit, and in plus counts bet one spot of three or four units - this will yield a similar gain to a traditional 1-4 spread but with higher variance. However, because the minimum bet is 3 x 1 units, the comps are much better. One other thing: you must be playing alone at the table if itís single deck or with no more than one other at a double decker.
Have you tested this betting scheme? What were your findings? Did you encounter any heat or scrutiny while using it?
I have applied variations of the technique on and off in quality single and double-deck games with absolutely no heat. Irrespective of my great act, I think that the technique is pretty much off the counter-alert radar screen. I even allude to "my new system" while dealers and pit-critters grimace in disdain as I chronically "wreck the flow of cards" after a favorable streak, by Ďcompulsivelyí changing the number of hands being played.
Recently I utilized it for hours on-end and for several consecutive days at a prominent Strip resort, spreading from 3 x $50 to 1 x $350, while listening to pit-critter and dealer accounts of an ongoing Ďcounter-purge.í
Iíve played this gambit with a green spread for many hours at the single-deckers of a downtown Vegas casino Ė one of the sweatiest and most suspicious casinos in LV, known for rapid and aggressive barrings of even red chip counters. They loved my action. Theyíd instantly make my table $25 minimum when I requested it. All totaled, I put in over twenty-five hours there, spanning a few months. I over-played that joint. I was finally barred, but it wasnít because they had any reservations about my betting. Ultimately my cumulative win did me in.
I hesitate to include an estimate of just how many negative decks I might abandon in an hour; the sim assumed no exiting. I often appear to be "closing a big deal" and must run to the house phone or step back from the table frequently after an imaginary page or a cell phone chirp. I complain excessively about the attorneys and associates needing me to hold their hand through every detail!
You mentioned higher variance. What kind of bankroll do you need to play The Grifterís Gambit with an acceptable risk of ruin?
The double-deck sim showed a 22% risk-of-ruin with 500 units of bank. With 700 units it drops to 11%. At 1000 units itís 5%, and you can reduce it to 1% with a 1500 unit bankroll. For a typical twenty-hour trip there is a 17% chance of losing 250 units. Like I said, a higher risk-variance, but conversely better comps. George C.ís sim was run on Karel Janacekís marvelous Statistical Blackjack Analyzer.
Youíve often stated that precise index numbers are not important. Can you explain why you feel that way?
While other experts emphasize the top twenty or so index plays, I advocate the use of sixty-plus indices, and personally utilize ninety-plus with my Zen count. The endlessly debated point Iíve been making is that so-called precision index numbers are a "myth" and offer no significant added gain over extreme-rounded numbers! Whether one uses an index "granularity-scale" of 0-1-2-3-4-5-6 or 0-2-4-6 or even 0-3-6 it will make absolutely no difference in actual casino play spanning three million hands, which is ten years of full time play. Time is money and Ďextreme-roundedí index numbers can be deployed faster in real casino conditions. You gain much more in ease and resultant speed than you lose in lost precision. This has been pointed out previously by Snyder in his Hi-Lo Lite and True Edge Zen, in Ken Fuchsí Hi-Lo Express, in George Cís Extreme Rounded Zen, and by John Imming, who developed the Universal Blackjack Engine and simulated billions of hands to prove this very point.
It seems you have broken away from the card counter "orthodoxy" over this and the related use of intuition, right?
The hit-stand-double index for basic strategy departure is a wide-border-coin-toss zone, of perhaps two digits, plus or minus. Therefore I advocate the use of oneís intuition when the decision is close. If the simple flipping of a coin will not reduce our effectiveness for these ever-frequent wide-zone decisions, does it not stand to reason that we can learn to increasingly utilize the "meta-awareness" faculties of our brain, and "go with the force," so to speak, to potentially obtain a subjective improvement over raw statistical expectation?
Consider for example, that while our conscious mind may not be aware of that extra four or five now remaining in the deck, not evident by our true count of plus one when we face sixteen vs. ten, modern science tells us that our brain did notice the hit-not-stand situation, despite a true count indication to the contrary.
To summarize, one should strive for at least sixty plus indices, but use a coarser granularity scale of two to four digits wide, individually tailored for your own Ďpattern-recognitioní ease. For example, if your index for 12 vs. 2 and 12 vs. 3 is plus four and plus two respectively, you can re-label both at plus three, so itís easier to remember and utilize. Further, strive to play faster. If forty extra indices can increase oneís relative expectation by 20%, and if we can increase our playing speed by, say 20%, and then add to that a 20% longer average playing session, then we have potentially increased our per-session expected value by perhaps 60%. And thatís not even counting the intuition potentiality!
Sixty or more index departures? Isnít that a lot of numbers to learn? Is it feasible for novices? How should a beginner go about it?
Todayís emphasis on the so-called ĎIllustrious-18' indexes has conditioned newer counters to not attempt learning more - but learning sixty or so is actually fast and easy.
Use flash-cards - just like when we learned our multiplication tables. Start by arranging the cards in sequence, then after awhile once that is mastered, randomize the cards. Most novices will be pleasantly surprised to find the additional forty-plus numbers mastered within a few hours of practice.
Which indices should comprise the "Grifter-Sixty?"
Twelve vs. 2-6; thirteen vs. 2-6; fourteen vs. 2-6 and 9-10; fifteen vs. 2 and 9-A; sixteen vs. 9-A; eight vs. 4-6; nine vs. 2-4 and 7; ten vs. 8-A; eleven vs. 8-A; ace-eight vs. 4-6; ace-nine vs. 4-6; eight-eight vs. 10-A; nine-nine vs. A; and tens vs. 4-6.
That should do it... oh and learn separate numbers for dealer six and ace, depending on whether the rules are hit or stand on soft-seventeen, assuming that one plays both rule-sets.
Youíve used some outrageous ploys to disguise your blackjack skills. What are some of them?
One I use frequently is flipping a coin at the table for decision making. Iíll use the coin repeatedly for the Ďwide-border-zoneí decisions when I feel the need to ham up my cover. If the flips are working it then becomes "the magic coin" and I may flip it for others at the table as well. With a noticeably large bet out, I can call the pit critter over and even have him flip the coin, or for occasional bet-sizing where thereís a close call Ė heads we let it ride, etc. If the results of the coin-tossing isnít working, I can announce that the coin is now, borrowing from Richard Mulliganís General Custer in Little Big Man, "a perfect reverse barometer" and do the opposite of what the coin says, thus confusing everybody, including myself it would appear.
Another ploy Iíve used on occasion is to bring a gift shop basic strategy card to the blackjack table and ponder it for various decisionsÖbrow furled in thought as I try to grasp the logic of say, splitting nines against a nine or doubling eleven vs. a dealerís ten. Iíll get excited when a key basic strategy play works, but then moments later become suspicious to the point of paranoia when I follow the chart and lose a hand. "Ah ha! I should have known better than to trust a system sold at the hotelís gift shop!" Then Iíll Ďpurposelyí go against the chart and if my Ďhunchí works Iíll assume an air of smug superiority with my own Ďinnate strategy.í
Iíve seen you use those before. What are some of the stunts youíve used in the past, long before I met you?
Two classic stunts come to mind. One is my "Blind Card Counter" ploy that received honorable mention in Snyderís Blackjack Wisdom on page 77. I wear dark glasses and wield a stylish blind manís cane a la Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Iím led to the table by a female posing as my sister or girlfriend who asks the dealer if he will verbally tell me my cards and the upcard on each hand. Meanwhile Iím fumbling for cash, sunglassed face turned upwards like Stevie Wonder. When the dealer calls over her superior, the pit-critter arrives just in time to see the big wad of cash being laid on the table by a blind manís shaky hands. My confederate kisses my cheek and tells me sheíll be nearby and return soon. Iíll lay in an act with some bonehead plays for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, using some non-count related progressions and a quick, well-timed removal of the dark glasses to wipe my brow Ė eyes rolled way back so as to appear clearly dysfunctional. After asking for a security escort to the menís room, I return to the table and start blasting away without cover, other than a blind manís fumbling, of course.
Another cute ruse I used it a few times in the 80ís is posing as a wheelchair-ridden muscular-dystrophy victim during the week of the Jerry Lewis telethon. Iíd roll up to the table, eyes level with the felt. Iíd use spasmodic movements and twisted posture as I announced in a strained voice that "I was the 1964 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy poster boy". Of course the primary reason for the act was to have my eyes level with the felt to be able to see the dealerís hole card, flashing with each round.
How about the time you played with a Groucho Marx disguise?
Actually it was one of that cheap gimmick ĎGroucho glassesí with the big nose and plastic moustache. I had been barred at the Imperial Palace just two days before. On a fluke, I was with some out-of-town buddies, one of whom had just purchased the Groucho glasses at a magic kiosk. First I ran the play down to them, strictly for laughs, next door at the old Holiday casino where Harrahís now stands. Although my three friends didnít count, I had them sit at different tables on the same shift that I had been barred from, while I made the rounds with a cigar, back hunched over and loping like Groucho from table to table, wonging the two-deckers while cracking Marx-witticisms. "A blackjack. I once got dealt a blackjack in my pajamas. How the cards got in my pajamas, Iíll never know." When a pit-critter asked if I had a playerís card, Iíd quip, "Iíd never belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member."
At one point, one of my buddies let it slip to the pit that I was a "world famous astrologer," who only played blackjack "when the planets were in proper alignment." The best part is that I played for over an hour, wonging aggressively on the same shift that had barred me only forty-eight hours before, and the pit-critters loved it. As we departed, I proclaimed that I would return again "when the planets re-aligned."
What are some of the ploys you use to induce the dealers to give you better penetration?
Inducing better penetration is a subtle art and should be attempted only if youíre really confident that you can get away with it without alienating the dealer or having him rat you out to the pit. Such techniques are useless in those casinos that use a discard rack notch to standardize the cut, but many blackjack games still leave room for dealer-discretionary penetration. One trick I use is borrowed from Ian Anderson. In double deck games I tell the dealer that "today is my brotherís twenty-ninth birthday, so please place the shuffle card twenty-nine cards from the bottom." In shoe games, my "brother" is forty-six, so I ask that the card be placed forty-six cards from the bottom, "for luck." I place a toke bet out as I insert the cut card and demonstrate the penetration I desire, and proclaim, "Letís make some money." If the dealer balks, I add conspiratorially, "Just get as close as you can."
Often times all it takes is to ask in an innocent, unabashed way. Occasionally a dealer is only too happy to place the cut card deeper. "Mums the word," I quip with a wink.
What are some of the other techniques you use to deflect heat, both before and after detecting scrutiny?
First of all, I remain relaxed and give no indication that Iím aware of any scrutiny. When the pit is watching and the Eye may be in play is neither the time to leave nor start suspiciously flat betting. Typically such scrutiny only lasts ten minutes or so, during which time I may revert to a modest negative-positive alternating pseudo-progression scheme for camo. One thing Iíll do is to throw a few low-cost Ďboneheadí plays out. Standing on ace-six is always good for a laugh as is "doubling for less" on sixteen vs. a seven, since youíd never take more than one hit anyway. I may split tens against a stiff in minus counts or insure a good hand in a neutral or even minus count. Standing on ace-seven vs. a nine, ten or ace, or standing on twelve vs. a two or three (or sixteen vs. a ten in a minus count) is also helpful low cost cover, a la Ian Anderson. Or even standing on a pair of nines against a stiff. Most importantly, I rarely reduce my bet after the shuffle. I may occasionally place a minimum bet in a rich count. Not too much, mind you. Just enough to allay suspicion. Celliniís new book, The Card Counterís Guide to Casino Surveillance, is a must read, by the way.
Sometimes Iíll order "Malibu rocks" which looks like a potent drink but contains only a small amount of liquor. I pound down a two or three of those, slur my speech and sometimes even fall off my chair. I also use my ĎNew Ageí leanings to accentuate the perception that Iím a superstitious fool. Besides flipping the Ďmagic coin,í Iíll rearrange the table clutter, moving glasses and ashtrays, straightening out the chairs, etc. to properly harness the ĎFeng Shuií energy flow. Sometimes this includes meticulously aligning the chipsí side stripes, because "if the chips are in order, the cards will appear in order." "Itís Feng Shui," Iíll announce confidently. I may utilize my "Buddhist good luck mantra," chanting "Nam MyoHo Renge Kyo" as I briskly stroke the felt with my palms. If the magic coin and Feng Shui appear to fail me, I might ask the pit critter to withdraw the drop box paddle and turn it 180 degrees counter-clockwise and reinsert. "This will fine tune the tableís morphogenic field," Iíll explain with a straight face.
Frequently you go partners with other players at your table. How do you get them to agree to let you share their split or double down? How do you know when that ploy is advantageous for you?
Going partners on double-downs and splits is a significant EV-booster. The key to this move is to cultivate a 'table alliance' with ploppies at the table who will allow you to put up all or part of the additional double down or pair-split. For example, whenever I see a fellow player chunk out his last stack in frustration I immediately alert him that "If you get a good double down hand I'm putting up the other half!" "Partners on a double down," is what I proclaim as I place the other half of the money out, reassuring the player that Iím going to "share the risk." Whenever I see someone place a large 'last shot' bet out I immediately announce that I'm "locked and loaded" with the other part of the money and I demonstrate this by segregating the amount out. If I see a player hesitate on a double or place a sizeable bet and then announce "double for less," I'm there for the balance. The key is to observe other players for these situational opportunities.
If the amount is somewhat larger than my regular top bet, thatís ok, the edge on half-doubles is very high. Even doubling below the index is advantageous, so I go for it. Pair-splitting is another story. I haven't analyzed it entirely, but I would go split partners on nines against 2-7, tens against 2-9, etcÖ perhaps most 'aggressive splits' but certainly no 'defensive splits' (i.e., eights vs. a ten). If a macho or boozed up redneck or black male ploppy gets tens against 2-9, I challenge, "If you got the balls to split those, I'll put up half the dough!"
How do you handle it if they turn you down?
Usually Iíll say, in mock-concern, something like, "Ok, but I must warn you that itís very unlucky to turn me down on a partnership offer". If we win a partner-double I reinforce for the next time with a high-five, "Yeah! Pleasure doing business with you." Or if we lose, I reinforce with "see itís good to share the risk... but you owe me another chance, good buddy!"
Inebriated females are the easiest to cultivate on this ploy, but watch out - the cute ones, no matter how drunk, will want you to in turn go partners on eight-eight vs. ace, a tricky situation. If the dealer intervenes to pre-empt the move, I act oblivious and reassuringly instruct the partner to "here take my chips."
One time I went partners with a $500 matching bet and we lost. In the next instant the player turned to me casually and asked, "Ok, now how much do I owe you?" I was tempted to tell him $250...but instead I kindly told him "another one."
What are some of the big differences in playing blackjack today as opposed to the casinos of yesteryear when you were starting out?
The main difference is that in the 1970ís there was only Vegas, Reno and Tahoe and the games were few but great. That is of course assuming that you werenít being cold-decked or dealt seconds, and that possibility was much greater then, as Thorp, Humble and others frequently pointed out.
Today the solo red to green player can find a significantly greater number of playable games, and better comps, from Nevada to New Jersey and many states in between. In Las Vegas alone, itís still entirely feasible to find good handheld games for $5, $10 and $25 minimums and play them without interference for months without leaving town as long as you keep your spreads polite and keep your sessions short. Factoring in comps, the EV is still quite acceptable for a well-practiced counter.
The biggest difference I can see is the trade off between less advantageous multi-deck games coupled with reduced penetration in all games, and the vast proliferation of the number of casinos, thus giving small and medium stakes counters a huge increase in the number of blackjack tables, while conversely suffering a distinct erosion in the quality of those many new games.
Currently poker is all the rage, but I have to agree with the legendary Tommy Hyland that even today, blackjack, rather than poker, offers a greater opportunity for the novice-to-intermediate low-to-moderate stakes counter.
You often use aliases in casinos. Whatís your advice for smaller red and low green chip counters who want to use aliases and still get ratings and room comps without having to risk carrying phony IDís?
Simple, actually. Have friends and relatives obtain the playerís cards and give them to you. Then book the comp reservation, or Ďanticipated compí in the player-card name, and add your real name as a second occupant. Then check in using your real name and ID, and leave a cash deposit in lieu of a credit card. After check-in, see the host or pit boss using your player-card moniker, and make sure your comp is properly credited. By the way, when you check in, donít forget to specify, "two beds," if you get my drift.
Besides Revere, who are some of the more famous blackjack players or celebrities youíve known and/or played with?
During a 1987 stay at Harrahís Reno, my companion introduced me to Harry Anderson after our comped dinner show. Harrahís had barred me that very day but still showed enough class to not rescind the comp, Dom Perignon and all. Backstage after the show, over cocktails, I explained the basics of card counting to Harry. Of course he was a quick study and immediately wanted to experiment with this new found knowledge. Two hours later we convened across the street at Fast Eddieís, a 1950ís retro casino. Harry was dressed in his Ď50s retroí attire while I signaled the plays and bets from first base. Meanwhile onlookers and casino workers gawked and copped autographs, providing perfect cover. And no, the needle through the arm is not an illusion.
One in particular who I am proud of is "Daryl P," who is mentioned in some of Ustonís writings, and is the subject of a Munchkin interview in the Fall 2003 issue of Blackjack Forum. He was a raw novice when we met in a Las Vegas boiler-room circa 1976. Daryl went on to play extensively with Kenny and later became a world class musician and a founder of the mythical "Team Hammer" of Esquire magazine article fame from several years ago. Daryl once remarked, "Wow, The Grifter was the first to really show me about the game!" Way to go, Daryl. If youíre out there, drop me a line!
Another is actor Wilford Brimley of Cocoon and Quaker Oats fame. Wilford is a novice counter who likes to play early morning sessions at the Horseshoe while in Vegas. Iíve enjoyed his company at the single deckers several times. Wilford fancies himself a Hi-Lo player though he appears to frequently lose the count. He also snatches his bigger bets back upon the shuffle, despite my nagging admonishments to the contrary. His play generates much attention and Binionís benevolently tolerates his action undoubtedly due to his celebrity.
Many times youíve told me about your ĎNew Ageí philosophy. Are there any ways in which these beliefs have helped you at the blackjack tables?
I once went through a phase where I only played blackjack at pre-determined times throughout the day that had been calculated by a nationally ranked astrologer, but my results were inconclusive.
Seriously though, my beliefs notwithstanding, I occasionally use it as cover but never does it impair the accuracy of my counting or bet sizing. Nonetheless, I do embrace the quantum paradigm of Ďuniversal mindí by recognizing that all manifestation is consciousness. I prefer to call it Higher Consciousness or Quantum Reality and my leanings toward a more Eastern philosophical awareness stem from over 300 LSD trips, and from studies Iíve undertaken for nearly 30 years, including Zen, Taoism and the teachings of Sri Adi Da, Alan Watts, J. Krishnamurti and Poonja Ji among others.
Iíve also considered using an expert with a dousing rod to walk the aisles of the BJ pit to help select my table. A potentially great cover ploy Ė and it just might work. J
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