AN INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN BLACKWOOD
Kevin Blackwood has won over a million dollars playing blackjack. He is the author of the new book, Play Blackjack Like the Pros, and he recently competed in the World Series of Blackjack. He has also written The Counter, a novel based on his life of playing high stakes blackjack.
Note: Kevinís new book, Play Blackjack Like the Proís is available in our online store at a 10% discount. Click here to order.
BJI: How long have you been playing blackjack?
I got introduced to the game back in 1981 when I read about the incredible exploits of Ken Uston in a Sports Illustrated magazine. Halfway through the article a light came on in my head as I realized this was something I might be able to do. I immediately scoured the local libraryís shelves for books on card counting.
BJI: How many hours have you played over the course of your career?
Iím not sure how many hours, but Iíve probably played at least 500,000 hands.
One reason that it is hard to estimate the actual number is that the best card counters spend a lot of their time looking for good games or wonging in and out of shoes. So a typical day might involve 12 to 14 hours in the field, but only 6 to 8 hours of actual play. To be successful you have to be very picky about where and when you place your bets.
BJI: What card counting system do you use and how long did it take to master?
I started off with the Uston APC, then switched to the Hi-Opt II. Both of these were multi-level systems that also side-counted aces. But at that time there were some tremendous single deck games and I wanted to squeeze out every possible ounce of edge.
And it paid off. I estimate that moving up to an advanced count added at least an additional $100,000 to my bottom line over the years. However, the count system is only as good as the person mastering it and most new players are better off learning one of the powerful new streamlined counts, such as your Speed Count system.
BJI: Where did you do most of your playing?
When I first started, Nevada was the only serious option. I usually took a trip every month to a regular rotation of Las Vegas, Laughlin, Reno, Tahoe, and Wendover. I made a few trips abroad, but the most profitable games were typically found in the silver state.
After the Indian Gaming Act passed in 1987, gambling exploded across the heartland of America. These new riverboats and reservations provided a feeding frenzy for well-financed card counters who were willing to travel. During the 1990s, I found one great game after another up and down the Mississippi River region.
BJI: What betting level and spread did you use?
I employed a hard hitting Rambo approach to bet spreads. This translated into 1 to 20 for shoe games, 1 to 8 for double deck, and 1 to 4 for single deck.
There were times when conditions were exceptionally good that I shaved those numbers down, but generally I didnít use a lot of camouflage with my bets. My philosophy was always simpleóblackjack is a very tough game to beat, so I usually spread as much as possible in order to win.
BJI: What was your worse losing streak and how much money did you lose?
Great question! I think for the true pros, it is the losing sessions that are forever etched into your mind. I had three particularly painful blows to my bankroll (which was typically $100,000). The worst was when I lost $50,000 over one gut-wrenching weekend.
That setback was tough to handle, but it was another losing trip that still stands out in my mind. I had just reached the magic six figure mark in winnings for the first year in my blackjack career. I contemplated quitting and going home early, but since the table conditions were good, I decided to finish out the trip. Unfortunately I dropped $32,000 over the last two days and ended the year on a very sour note.
Yet it is moments like that that define your career. How well you can handle those negative swings often determines how successful you will be.
Now Iím not going to lie. Losing that much right before Christmas did affect me. But I was able to shake it off and move on. Many card counters understandably become jaded after such financial baths.
BJI: What was your best winning streak and how much did you win?
I had one year where I won every month, but thatís highly unusual. In the long run, it really doesnít matter whether you win or lose on any particular trip, but it sure made the game a lot more fun that year.
BJI: What level of risk of ruin were you comfortable with when you played?
While I recommend aggression for bet spreads, Iíve always advocated caution for bet sizing in relation to bankroll. Overbetting has caused the demise of many card counters.
My first bankroll parameters came from Million Dollar Blackjack. Uston suggested a 5% Risk of Ruin, which seemed like an acceptable risk. Once I became more experienced, I never bet more than one-half Kelly (based on the actual advantage of a given hand) and always capped my max bet at $1,000, even when my bankroll went higher. This style of betting was more conservative than some other players, but it dramatically reduced the wild swings and fluctuations.
BJI: Were you ever backed-off or barred from playing blackjack and if so how many times?
The downside of my MO was that I frequently got kicked out of casinos. I would guess that I have been shown the door over 200 times in my career.
Now there is a fine line between trying to get a strong edge and stupidity. There were times when I probably should have backed off a little in order to gain more longevity. However, Iíve always felt the biggest reason many card counters struggle to win is that they are far too paranoid about heat.
In my mind, it is far better to be a winning player who might get thrown out, than to be a marginal player who the casinos love. So I think it is important to get over that fear of being barred and play as strong a good as reasonably possible.
But if you live in an area where there arenít many different casinos to play, then it is wisest to pull in the reins and play more conservatively.
BJI: How do you manage to stay under the casino radar when you play?
Since I used very little bet camouflage, I relied heavily on two other techniques. The first was a hit and run style, where I rarely played very long at any one club. This approach works well in places where there are several casinos in close proximity (such as Las Vegas or Atlantic City).
If there was one piece of advice I would give to aspiring card counters, it would be to move around a lot. The longer you sit at any one table, the greater chance surveillance will detect your skills.
The other aspect that helped me gain longevity was my demeanor. Unlike the stereotypical card counter, I always tried to have a good time at the table and interact with everyone around me. Talking is one of the cheapest and best forms of camouflage.
BJI: Have you ever played on a blackjack team and if so what was your experience?
I mostly operated as the Lone Ranger throughout my career, but I did play on a few different teams. However, those experiences were mostly negative, as many of these teams were either run poorly or had too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
But I did have the pleasure of hooking up for a while with the legendary Czech blackjack team. They were some of the most intriguing players I have ever met and we are still good friends.
BJI: What made you decide to write your latest book, Play Blackjack Like the Pros?
Actually I had no plans to write a how-to book on blackjack. I felt there were many good texts already out there and I didnít think there was much more I could add to the many giants who came before me (such as Thorp, Wong, and Schlesinger).
But when HarperCollins contacted me about writing a book for them, I researched the subject and decided that it could be a worthwhile project. I noticed that many of the best books had become outdated in their information and I felt there was a need for a fresh, current text on blackjack.
BJI: What do you cover in your new book and what benefits would a BJI subscriber derive from your book?
I think Play Blackjack Like the Pros will be one of the most comprehensive books on blackjack, since it covers tournaments, Internet, and promotions. There is also a great chapter on money management that should help players better understand that complex concept.
And I believe the practical emphasis of the text will make the book very reader friendly, as I avoided the more technical aspects of card counting. Instead I sprinkled in a number of real-life stories and colorful anecdotes to help illustrate the principles.
BJI: When did you start playing in blackjack tournaments?
Tournaments are a whole new world for me. In the past I always avoided them and preferred staying in the shadows.
BJI: Your first major tournament was the televised World Series of Blackjack? Who did you face in your match and can you describe the key plays that led to your winning the round?
I got one of the toughest draws in the first round, as I had to face off against both the talkative "Hollywood" Dave Stann and the tough Joe Pane. Although there is a different strategy required for tournament play than for normal blackjack, I decided to rely on the one thing that I knew wellómy card counting expertiseóto help close the gap.
Over the long run I definitely would be an underdog against top tournament pros like Ken Smith or Stanford Wong, but in my first round match, card counting made a big difference as I was the only player at the table who bet according to the count.
For example, Joe Pane complained on TV about what lousy cards he was getting, but mine were just as bad. I ended up winning only 7 hands out of the 25 rounds, but since I had increased my bets during some earlier high counts, I was in much better position going into the crucial stretch run than Joe.
BJI: What would you say is the major difference being playing in tournaments vs. just playing blackjack?
There are a number of differences. Although I would have an edge over a normal blackjack player in a tournament, I would be facing long odds if matched up against someone as experienced as Anthony Curtis.
While studying for the World Series of Blackjack, I was amazed at how complex and difficult proper tournament strategy is. My opinion of the top tournament pros went up immensely after this event. They are very skillful and have incredible minds to keep track of so many different variables.
BJI: What was your overall impression from playing in the World Series of Blackjack?
I have played high-stakes blackjack for over two decades and had the good fortune to travel all over America as well as to several foreign countries. There have been some tremendous experiences and many big wins that will forever be embedded into my memory.
Yet the most exciting moment of my entire career came at the World Series of Blackjack. The tournament format is naturally exciting and much more like a sporting event than normal gambling. I think GSNís World Series of Blackjack has the potential to become the next big thing on TV.
BJI: What would you say are some of the keys to becoming a successful blackjack player?
Most people assume that math and memory are all there is to becoming a winning card counter. Now both of those ingredients are important, but I think the real critical qualities are more psychological in nature. Without proper discipline and good control over your emotions, it is nearly impossible to be a success in any aspect of gambling.
BJI: What are you planning to do in the near future?
I anticipate playing in some more tournaments, mainly because they are such fun events. And I am hoping to develop some seminars about the secrets of gambling and am looking into the possibility of organizing blackjack tournaments on cruise ships and bringing some expert speakers on board to share their knowledge.
I also am doing a lot of writing. A while ago, I started work on my third book, which is tentatively titled The Legends of Blackjack. And I have had some recent articles published in Casino Player Magazine and in Midwest Gaming and Travel.
BJI: Can BJI subscribers contact you with questions about blackjack and if so how?
Yes, Iíd be glad to try and answer any questions. The best place to reach me is Ken Smithís websitewww.BlackjackInfo.com. Ken is going to set up a sub-forum there ('Blackjack - Ask Kevin Blackwood') where readers can ask me questions about card counting or about my new book.
The airing of Kevinís semi-final round play in the World Series of Blackjack will occur on Friday, April 15th on GSN, The Network for Games. The show will be repeated several times over the weekend. Check your local TV listings for times.
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