By counting the cards during blackjack games, it’s possible to beat the dealer, or so believes this writer. After practice, he makes the attempt
WHEN YOU wake up half-naked the morning after in the pool of a plush Bahamas hotel, you know you have probably had a fun night out. And so I had, but along the way I’d lost more than a couple of hundred dollars to a string of casinos. Orientating myself towards Nassau airport, I vowed revenge.
Years later and a pub conversation turns to gambling. “If you’re playing anything other than poker in a casino, you have to be a mug,” says a friend. I say that I believe you can gain an edge against the house at blackjack by counting cards. “Sure, maybe in theory, but welcome to the real world,” comes the caustic reply.
And so it begins. A collection of books such as Blackjack for Blood, Blackjack Attack, Knock-Out Blackjack, and Blackjack Secrets starts to pile up on my bookshelves. As I read, I become convinced that a winning edge is possible.
Fifty years ago, a team of mathematicians spent three years working out the best way to play any given hand and the ensuing probabilities of winning. The results, published in an American statistical journal in 1956, form the spine of what is now called “basic strategy”.
There are variations in basic strategy to deal with the fact that there are slight differences in the rules of blackjack from region to region and casino to casino. If you play perfect basic strategy in a London casino, your expected win will typically be about minus 0.7 per cent. So for every £1,000 you wager at the blackjack table, in the long run you’ll lose about £7.
If you learn one of the card-counting systems that have developed since the Sixties and play perfectly you will, in the long run, win between £10 and £20 for every £1,000 you bet.
The swings of wins and losses can be extreme along the way. No one would visit a casino if this wasn’t the case. If every time a roulette player placed a £1,000 bet he received £973 in return — his long-term winning expectation — even this peculiar breed of gambler would quickly stop. The card-counter must commit to taking decisions which may amount to a tenth of a percentage point advantage with all the seriousness of the Nietzschean who believes the event will recur over and over for eternity. His proposed edge is so tiny that without ruthless self-evaluation and tracking of wins and losses he is doomed. (Aged 10 on a choir tour, some friends and I fleeced other choristers of a reasonable amount of cash over the course of a long night of cards. Word later got out and we had to return our winnings. My cash-deprived fellow “angels” lied about how much they’d lost. This was a salutary, and yet financially rewarding, early lesson in gambling psychology.)
“How’s the counting going?” asks my friend Matt when we meet up. “Oh, you know, still at the reading stage,” I reply, aware how lame this sounds.
Matt pulls out a deck of cards. Removing one, he gives me the rest of the deck to count through. Going through the pack, I should be able to establish whether the removed card was high, low or neutral. “We’re not leaving until you can do it consistently in under a minute,” he insists.
Hours later, back at my place, Matt remains merciless. I am forced to run through the pack again and again. “You’ve got a choice with this whole blackjack thing, Ben,” he says at about 4am. “You can either look like a complete bloody idiot or you can look like an idiot. Right now, you look like a complete bloody idiot.”
The next day, I set to work on appearing like a straightforward idiot, getting up an hour early most mornings to practise counting cards. It’s hard to describe quite how dull this is.
Meanwhile, Stuart Wheeler, the founder of the spread-betting firm IG Index, agrees to lunch. Wheeler, 69, set up IG Index in 1974. At first accepting punts only on the price of gold, he practically single-handedly developed the market for financial index-betting. In 1965 he went to Las Vegas to try the nascent art of counting cards, armed with Beat the Dealer by Edward Thorp, a University of California mathematics professor. It was the first published system of how to count cards and the reaction of the gaming industry to the book when it was published in 1962 was one of horror. They discovered, however, that the vast majority who bought the book couldn’t master the counting system — and they were soon rubbing their hands at the influx of sacrificial lambs.
Though softly-spoken and unassuming in manner, Wheeler is no lamb. He took $1,500 with him to Vegas and converted it to $5,100. “I was interested in gambling before,” he says, “but this was about proving to my friends that I could do it, that I could beat the game.”
Wheeler’s unflappable easygoingness doubtless helps his poker game — last year he was ranked 33 in the World Series. He slipped down the rankings this year but still won £15,000 in the Vegas tournament. He took money from Lord Lucan at the poker table just two days before Lucan disappeared and is a keen backgammon and bridge player — “small stakes, a thousand or so up or down in a night”.
Although he scarcely plays blackjack any more, when Wheeler and I part he agrees that we should meet at a casino for some play.
Worried that I would be paralysed by nerves on my first session at the tables, I decide on a recce. I’d joined a casino a few nights earlier and went to visit.
My initial thought as I sign in is that I won’t be able to keep a straight face. Standing behind a full table, I begin to keep a tally of the cards. I don’t have a penny at stake and yet my heart is racing and my legs are visibly shaking. A seat becomes available so I sit down and buy in for £60; at least if I am seated I can hide the trembling. After a few hands — typically one plays about 80 or so an hour — I calm down. But what is happening around me is remarkable. I am surrounded by pure idiocy. No one is playing in a way that even approaches basic strategy and about one decision in four takes my breath away with its lunacy.
“The more you play, and the better you get, the more you will be dumbstruck by people’s stupidity at the tables,” a computer science lecturer from California, who went by the name of the Mayor, had e-mailed me.
But to see somebody pontificate over an obvious choice and make the wrong decision nearly makes me feel dizzy. On top of this, cards are dealt far faster than I had reckoned on. Most importantly, I haven’t fully accounted for the different way that I need to scan the cards on the table and to remember which I’ve counted and which I haven’t. I have failed to keep accurate track of how the cards are running.
I make a loss and, with a tension headache, catch a night bus home. I take a shower and two paracetamol before sitting down with my cards to try to address what had gone wrong.
How other gamblers at the table play their hands has no impact on your own, although most players refuse to accept this. Still, I was intrigued as to what drives somebody to sit at a blackjack table without a winning edge and to commit financial suicide. I get in touch with Frederick Barthelme, a writer who, with one of his brothers, blew $250,000 playing blackjack. The pair, who both hold university posts in Mississippi, gambled away an inheritance in under two years.
The brothers learnt how to count cards. “The problem is that card counting turns ‘play’ into really hard work. The only way to win at card counting is to be extremely disciplined and very circumspect about your bets, so I grew tired of the counting very quickly. It sort of destroyed the game, drained it of all threat and risk and pleasure,” Frederick says.
“It’s stunning to bet $500 on a hand,” he explains. “Betting $2,000 in these circumstances is sheer madness, and positively thrilling. And playing three hands at $2,000 apiece when you’re up $7,000 for the night is absolute rapture — you are swept away by the intense threat of your almost certain death at the table.”
Hoping that I still have my wits about me, I go again to the casino to see if my counting is any better. As I sit down at the table, where I recognise a number of faces from the earlier night, I buy in for the annual per capita gross domestic product of Burma. I’m not sure how well I’m tracking the count — I have stretches of keeping it correctly before my concentration slips — but luck is on my side. When I leave, I am up by more than 70 per cent, with the per capita GDP of Tajikistan in my back pocket.
I do not, however, feel thrilled by the win, knowing that I have at best managed to garner the smallest advantage against the house.
Many people are under the impression that counting cards is illegal. It isn’t. The casinos however like to give the impression that it is cheating. Nonetheless, a casino is a private club and if they want to kick you out simply because you’re winning, they can.
In the course of my gaming, I visit a couple of casinos that let me see a little of their surveillance operations. Every movement you make is relayed to banks of TV monitors and every sound picked up by microphones. Cameras zoom in close enough to count the chips stacked up in front of you and staff scrutinise how you are playing and how you are spreading your bets.
My impression, however, is that it is not hard to fly beneath the radar. There simply are not the resources to examine who is counting and who isn’t and so long as you don’t arouse suspicion you are unlikely to have your play carefully scrutinised.
As for the ethics of counting cards, I ask Weekend Review columnist A.C.Grayling, a reader in philosophy at London University and author of Moral Values, how he sees things. I am vindicated. “It’s outrageous that someone running a blackjack game should think that a punter counting the cards is cheating,” Grayling says. “It is simply the punter using his nous and challenging the negative odds he faces. And if you’re running a gambling joint, that’s what you have to accept as being pitted against you, given that you otherwise hold all the cards.”
I meet Stuart again in a West London casino. I find the count easier to keep than my last casino jaunt. Additionally, whenever I lose track of it, I simply take my lead from Stuart. If he has twice or three times his usual stake in the box in front of him, I match this.
When we start playing, I make an idiotic play which I know is wrong. Over dinner, Stuart rightly rounds on the foolishness of what I had done, explaining precisely how much I had hurt my percentage expectation for the hand. I am reminded of the kind of stern but concerned reprimand I used to get for mistakes in Latin.
After dinner, we return to the tables for another couple of hours. Wine has dulled my concentration, and I rely more on copying Stuart than before. At one point when the deck has gone wonderfully high, I wager 12 times my minimum bet — £120 — on a hand. I feel a twinge of the thrill that Frederick had talked of. On the whole however, I find that the game provides me with more of a gnawing worry than true excitement.
When we cash in after an evening in which I had gambled on hands totalling several thousand pounds, I am down a tenner. I hadn’t got one over on the casinos but I had tamed them.
Will I continue with my new-found interest? Probably, if future impediments are not too great.
So of you’re ever at a blackjack table next to a chap who suggests hitting an ace and a seven against the dealer’s ten, take his advice. He’s not going on a hunch.