When It Comes To Blackjack, I’m No Team Player
One of things that bugs me about playing blackjack is blackjack players. Not all of them of course, just some of them. Here's a scenario. You sit down at the table after "wonging" it for a while. All the signs are good. Under my own personal homeland security standards, the winning conditions have been elevated to orange. The true count is around +2. Lots of Aces left in the shoe and the dealer's float has been progressively disappearing due to the hot table conditions. It's like coming off the bench in a big game and you can't stop humming Credence Clearwater tunes (put me in coach, I'm ready to play). You slap down some wedge and ask the dealer for quarters.
At that point the temperature drops 20 degrees. You feel like you're having one of those moments when you ask a woman how long before her baby is due and she informs you she's not pregnant. What am I, the anti-karma table devil? The stinky kid in the classroom? A black cat walking under a ladder? Please people, give me a break. I'm wearing my lucky underwear. I'm on your side.
Then you start to play. You make your first hit/stand decision. Stand on a 14 against a 6, an orthodox move from basic strategy 101. My decision is met with sighs of relief from around the table. The old Chinese lady on spot 6 rolls her eyes back in her head and gives me that look. You know the look. You did Ok this time young man but if you make the wrong move down the track I'll cut you good, look.
After a few rounds of reasonably good conditions and gradual gaining of acceptance by my peers I get my first real test. The dealer has a 3 up and I get a hard total 12. My peers at the table all have stiffs and are planning on standing and hoping the dealer busts out. No one announces the plan but there's an assumption, an unwritten blackjack table code, that states: thou players shall work together to rid the evil casino of all its winning hands and through divine prayer and guidance thou shall overcome by busting out the dealer. I didn't get that memo.
I hit my 13 as basic strategy dictates in this situation, draw a 10 and bust out. I can live with that. It's within my belief system and consistent with my basic strategy principles. But can I live with my peers as a look of horror falls across the table. The old Chinese lady has begun to sharpen her blade (with her tongue). "Why you hit?" she yells, "You take dealer card".
Sure enough, the rest is predictable. The other players stand, the dealer flips over his hole card to reveal a 10 and then he proceeds to thrust a stake with an 8 right through my heart. To my peers at the table the thunder roars and the lightning strikes. It has been confirmed. I am the blackjack devil, the son of Satan. Brother of Judas and evil accomplice to Lucifer's casino. Hell has no fury like a blackjack player's scorn.
If only this was "Wayne's World" and I could have changed the ending to one where the dealer busted and streamers fell from the ceiling. The players lift me into the air on my back and crowd surf me above the blackjack pit. The "Let's Make a Deal" girls pour champagne and throw rose petals all over my body. Statistically that was supposed to happen. Instead, I have the wrath of my "team mates" to deal with an old lady who wants to grab the dealer's cards, roll them up like a newspaper and poke my eyes out. I guess I'm just not a team player.
If you have played blackjack for any significant length of time you can probably relate to my story (or not). The brotherhood that exists amongst blackjack players is part of the game. It's us against them for the majority of players.
Good players understand blackjack is not a team sport. It's more like golf. Tiger Woods doesn't care what other players do on the course. To win the game you study the course and environment. You practice a lot. You continue to learn and you stay focused on the prize. Tiger is always looking for the edge. But there is a major difference between golf and blackjack. In golf there is only one winner. In blackjack all the players can win or lose in any given round of play.
The concept of blackjack team play is in essence a science. To pull it off successfully is an art. To make a living doing it takes discipline. Unlike my earlier story, real team play involves hard core math and emotionless decision making.
The purpose of this ditty is to give some insight into my own personal experience as a blackjack team member a few years ago. I don't claim to be an expert in this field but I do have a respect for blackjack team play and would like to emphasize that it is a very real threat to casinos. I'm not a particularly smart guy but even I was able to make money being part of a team that ground out a steady win percentage over a 5 month period.
My purpose is not to brag about my exploits (we weren't that good). I'm not one to go fishing and come back saying I caught a 30 pounder when it was really a 10 pounder. I just think it is important to understand that after years of reading books and working in surveillance, the best education on this subject I ever got was by doing it.
My story starts in the jungles of South America. I was Surveillance Director for a high end boutique casino that catered mainly to Brazilian high rollers. Our casino had a low volume head count but a high volume soft count. Our market was dictated by junket operator and their jet- setting schedules so our play and work schedules were inconsistent. We enjoyed the culture of taking a daily siesta but it was all hands on deck when the Brazilians came to town.
My boss, the VP of Gaming, the Security Director and myself had a great relationship. We worked hard and played hard. It wasn't long before we realized we shared a passion for blackjack, a game that wasn't that common in South America as our main games were Baccarat and Roulette. In fact, on most days we opened the gaming floor without it.
When I started the job I quickly realized there was a lack of knowledge (even in surveillance) on the topic of card counting and advantage play. I set about to change that. Armed with my Stanford Wong Professional Blackjack Analyzer software, I inputted the house rules and conditions in to the computer and ran a simulation of a million or so rounds. This gave me our house basic strategy and I distributed the color charts to surveillance and gaming people. I then implemented a training program for the surveillance guys using an Irishman as my Spanish translator. Funny that. I can't speak Spanish (I wish I could) but I can count in Spanish. Within a short period of time my team understood prime indicators of counting and was able to make a reasonable assessment on a player's skill level.
The emphasis placed on training revived an interest amongst the organization. It was like the hula hoop craze (sorry, I mean the Hanna Montana craze). Like the Count from Sesame Street, my team loved to count...ha, ha, ha, ha.
Not long after 9/11 something extraordinary happened. The country I was living and working in went bankrupt. The countries funds had dried up. Years of corrupt politicians, an out of control debt to the World Bank, the weakening of the peso and the indirect effect 9/11 had on the economy crashed the banking infrastructure and sent the country into chaos. As a result our casino revenues decreased 70% overnight. Unemployment in the town increased to 57%. The banks closed. The government closed. The borders almost closed. No money in. No money out. The best way to picture it is imagine going to your bank where your money is deposited and seeing a closed sign on the door. You would look for the hours of business sign. Imagine if you found that sign and it read "out of business". That's a life changing event. There was a lot of uncertainty in the country and no money. Our casino came to a stand-still.
One quiet night at the work, my boss, I think to ease the situation, suggested we go down to a neighboring casino about 50 miles down the road and unleash our skills and new found enthusiasm for blackjack. Joined by the VP of Gaming and the Security Director we hit the road for a fun night out. Now this is where I could pull out one of those 30 pounder stories, but I won't. The casino was not exactly The Mirage. The betting limits were $5-$100. As most card counters will know, these limits aren't going to get you an invite to the Playboy mansion. The casino theme was what I would describe as a few gallons of orange paint and a good deal on Christmas tree lights. But the burgers were to die for. We sat down. The rest is history. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. For once in my career I knew what it felt like to be on the other side. I understood what it felt like to be the mouse and not the cat. We may have won maybe $500 between us but on this night we were the Lion Kings.
And so it began. The A-Team was born (that's what we called ourselves after that). We continued to study the finer points of basic count systems and brushed up on the indices. We put in 4 hours a night about 4 nights a week. Now I know what you're thinking. What about the day job? Hey, the MIT group found a way to make it to class and graduate while they were running around in Vegas. For us, we did it the other way around. We found a way to go to class while we we're running a casino.
We were having a lot of fun but it was a grind. Between the 4 of us our best night may have been a combined win of $2,500. But our worst loss was never more than $1,500. It's an old cliché but you win some, you lose some. Thankfully by design we won more than we lost over the 5 month period.
My everlasting impression of our experience in team play was that I liken it to surfing. You float out there in the casino just waiting to see the swell come over the horizon. When you see it coming you call your mates over and ride that wave until it fizzles out on the shore. Then you spend 10 times the amount of time riding the wave getting back out to get ready for the next wave. Top surfers know to win the competition they must position themselves to identify a good wave and then go for it.
During my time with the A-Team I learned more about blackjack in 5 months then I did in the previous 15 years I had worked in surveillance. Probably the biggest lesson learned was how in this case, casino supervisors knew very little about advantage play. Probably what was more enlightening was even when management worked us out they didn't know how to manage the situation. At any given time we were all prepared for the "on your bike" speech but we never got it. It was almost like they were trying to win the money back off us.
They tried everything from changing dealers, changing cards, changing rules, changing deck composition, changing cut card penetration, changing managers. Each time they did this we just went back to our software and ran new simulations under the new conditions to determine the perfect strategy moving forward. In hindsight, I look back at the experience as being on a blackjack scholarship sponsored by that casino. I got a great education in both blackjack and casino management.
We never got the "on your bike" speech but one night we collectively decided to hang up our basic strategy cards for good. The time had come to move on. The Brazilians started coming back to our casino so we had a business to run again. We also started to get bored with it. It was a grind and the adrenaline started to wear off when we realized the low limits restricted our win potential. But the main reason we quit was the casino owner started to threaten the dealers who lost to us. We were pretty upset when we found out about their management practices and felt the best thing to do was "get on our bike". We liked the thrill of winning but probably even better, we enjoyed the friendliness of the staff and the fun we used to have. We shook the casino manager's hand on the way out the door and never returned.
What is the A-Team doing now? My ex-boss is the main man for one of the largest casinos in the world. The Security Director is now the Marketing Director for the same casino (that by the way has recovered from the economic challenges of 2002 and is kicking Brazilian butt). The VP of Table Games is currently running a casino in Central America, has bought a gas station in Brazil and plans to retire there in the near future. The Surveillance guy doesn't play blackjack much anymore. I'll roll a few googlies over from time to time but all in all I got it out of system my in South America. It's too much of a grind for me. I've got better things to do then cop the wrath of old Chinese ladies.