Counting cards for hours on end; watching the money roll in… One winner describes the high-stakes world of the professional gambler
I’m in a casino, in the middle of London, with Josh Axelrad. Axelrad knows a lot about gambling. When he was a professional gambler, playing in casinos across America from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, he lived a life that seemed more like a dream than reality – and he made hundreds of thousands of dollars. Later, when he was a compulsive gambler, his sanity was all but destroyed. His gambling became a full-blown addiction. “I did not know who I was. I did not know how I could damage myself in that way,” he says now.
We are in a large underground room, with no natural light and, of course, no clocks – casinos don’t want you to know what time it is. The floor is covered with blackjack tables – crescent-shaped stands, hip-high, covered with green baize. The dealer sits on one side. The gamblers stand on the other side. On some tables, they sit. They are betting in coloured chips, worth £5, £10, £50 or £100. Under normal circumstances, the dealer has a slight edge, perhaps as small as 1 per cent, which means that, if the game were to progress indefinitely, the dealer would end up with all the chips, and the gamblers would be left with nothing.
Blackjack is the world’s most popular casino game. It seems simple. Everybody, including the dealer, gets two cards, and everybody can ask the dealer for more cards. The object is to get the numbers on your cards to add up to 21, or as close to 21 as possible. If you go over 21, you’re bust. If the dealer’s hand is better than yours, he takes your bet; if your hand is better than his, he matches it.
As I said, under normal circumstances, the dealer has a slight edge. That’s because he plays his hand last. It takes hundreds of hours of practice to know when to twist and when to stick. It’s called basic strategy.
Axelrad is explaining this to me. He’s just under 6ft tall, slim, with short hair and a pleasant, intense manner. He strikes me as being very calm and highly intellectual. He grew up in Kansas, and then Los Angeles. His father is an artist. His mother is a psychologist. He studied philosophy at Columbia, an Ivy League university in New York. When he left university, he found himself not knowing what to do with his life. This state of not knowing verged on the pathological. That’s when he became hooked on the idea of becoming a professional gambler. For several years, gambling was good to him, as he tells us in his excellent, tersely written memoir, Repeat Until Rich. And then, for a while, around a year and a half, gambling was very, very bad to him. It nearly finished him off.
We stand at the bar. Axelrad orders a Tanqueray and tonic. There’s a hint of old-world formality about him, a sort of gentlemanly quality in keeping with my idea of the professional gambler. Maybe it’s about the gambler’s need to control his emotions and be polite at all times while he calculates the probabilities. He sips his drink. No, he says, he’s never had a drink problem. He’s never been addicted to drugs. Never even smoked. When it arrived, his terrible problem wasn’t even gambling per se. It was one game. It was poker. We’ll come to that later.
He really hates casinos. That’s what he keeps saying. Hates them. He thinks they are sick institutions. “Most people go into casinos recreationally, leave, and don’t spend much time there. A small percentage is prepared to go all the way and lose everything they have in the world. The thing is, they don’t know they’re prepared to do this. They go in recreationally at first, but then they become pathological. What the casinos are in the business of doing is cultivating those people. And destroying them. Just breaking them all the way.”
He’s 35. He takes me back 15 years, to the time when he was drifting around, not sure what he wanted to do with his life. He thought he might be an architect. He was taking evening classes in architectural drawing. But he wasn’t very good at drawing. He thought he might become a writer. But he didn’t know if he could write. He worked at the Swiss Bank Corporation, first as a receptionist, and then as a junior business analyst. But he didn’t like banking. One day he found himself at a party, where a guy called Gary was talking about a method of beating the casinos at blackjack. It was a system known as card-counting.
Axelrad joined the conversation. “I thought card-counting was something you did in poker games,” he says now. “Like, a guy in the Wild West has a perfect photographic memory. That’s what I thought a card-counter was, a guy who walks into a saloon and takes everybody’s money around the poker table.” But Gary wasn’t talking about poker. He was talking about blackjack. Gary was at college in New York. Before that, he’d been at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a highly prestigious college for maths and science prodigies. Geek central. And Gary had been part of the famous MIT blackjack team, a group of students who worked out a way of milking casinos for millions of dollars. People have written books about the MIT blackjack team. There has even been a movie, 21, starring Kevin Spacey as the team’s middle-aged manager. The method the team used is called card-counting.
If you’re playing blackjack and you count the cards, you can dramatically increase your chances of winning. You can give yourself a huge edge over the house. In the late Sixties, a brilliant mathematician called Ed Thorp worked out that low cards – two, three, four, five and six – slightly favour the dealer. High cards, on the other hand – the tens, pictures and aces – give the player an edge. (Sevens, eights and nines are neutral.) High cards favour the player for several reasons. One is that the dealer must ask for another card if his cards add up to less than 16. So a high card will bust him. Another reason is that the player is allowed to split his cards and double his bets – “doubling down”. If he thought he was more likely to draw high cards, the player would be advised to raise his bets, and, over time, he’d make a killing.
But, surely, you would think, the deck always has the same number of cards. So the house always retains its slight edge. Not quite, Gary told Axelrad, at that fateful party in 1997: “A deck isn’t constant. It changes.” If you count the cards as they arrive on the table, giving each low card a value of one, and each high card a value of minus one, the running tally gives you an account of the ratio of low cards to high cards that have already been played. Therefore, it also gives you a running tally of the ratio of low cards to high cards that are yet to be played. When the count is low, the deck favours the dealer. But when the count is high – bang! That’s the time to raise your bets. That’s when you will make your killing.
I walk with Axelrad to a blackjack table. Four Chinese guys are playing. Bets are placed. One guy is betting £100 a hand. The cards are dealt. They come out fast. People stick or twist. The dealer sweeps the chips off the table. There are winners and losers. The guy who bets £100 wins £200. He racks up another stack of chips. It’s all over in a few seconds. How can you count cards when they appear and disappear so fast? “You practise,” says Axelrad. Back in 1997, he practised for hundreds of hours. He had found his mission in life. He worked on it. He was desperate to become a professional gambler. It seemed, for all the world, to be the solution to his problems.
“It was a fantasy,” he says. “Being an architect had been a fantasy. And blackjack was another fantasy. I’d created this idea in my head. I had daydreams about it. I had this daydream of living on the road, going from casino to casino, calling up my girlfriend from a payphone outside a gas station in Reno and telling her about the small amount of money I’d won from whatever casino. It was just a fantasy. And a chance to get a little bit involved in this world that seemed to be a very glamorous underworld, and a very special thing that few people had access to.”
Axelrad’s parents had split up when he was 12. Sometimes he’d accompanied his father to Las Vegas. His father liked to gamble, but in a sensible way. “My dad played poker,” he says. “Specifically on New Year’s Eve. He’d be stone-cold sober. He’d play a very tight game. I guess people were drinking and partying. He’d make a little bit of money.” Axelrad hung around, too young to enter the casino. Later, at the age of 21, when he was legally allowed to gamble, he gave it a try. “I played the slots. Here’s this thing that sounded so cool when I was growing up. I mean, I knew gambling was a losing proposition and essentially foolish, but I still thought it must be kind of great somehow, or why else do these places exist? And I found a slot machine and spent a couple of hours putting money in and saw there was nothing good to be had.”
That was before card-counting. Gary put together a team. “They were extremely smart people. Traders, financiers, lawyers. What we shared was a sense of disillusionment with real life.” By the Nineties, card-counters worked in teams. They had to. Casinos had cottoned on to the fact that, if you counted cards, you had an edge. They would watch a player, looking specifically at the amount he was betting. If the amount dramatically increased, the casino knew that the deck was “hot” – full of player-favourable high cards. So they’d ask the player to leave. Not always nicely. This is known as “heat”, or, as Axelrad puts it, “interference from casino personnel”.
Heat begat team play. One player counts. When the deck gets hot, he gives a signal to another player – the “Big Player”, or BP. The BP arrives at the table. He is playing the part of a rich guy who makes big bets as a matter of course. He makes big bets. He wins. He keeps winning. Afterwards, the counter and the BP split the take. Sometimes, there are four or five counters, each waiting for the deck to turn hot. The BP cruises round or stands at the bar, waiting for the signal. Then – bam!
Axelrad’s team started to hit the casinos. A blackjack counting team has an interesting quirk: it needs experienced counters, but it also needs fresh blood. That’s because of the heat. “The senior players are hot. The junior players are clean,” says Axelrad. The more experience you amass, the more likely the casinos are to ask you to leave. “It doesn’t seem fair,” says Axelrad. “They make money off the idea that it’s beatable.”
The team started to beat the casinos. They’d fly to Las Vegas, and stay in crummy hotels. There would be a bankroll, tens of thousands of dollars. One guy would be in charge of the bankroll. They would sit at the blackjack tables, betting low, playing basic strategy for hours on end. Sometimes winning. Mostly losing a little.
Then someone would come across a hot deck, or rather, a “shoe”, which is several decks shuffled together, the casino’s effort to foil the card counters. Casinos thought it would intellectually be impossible to count the cards if there were multiple decks; that was their initial hope. But, actually, it was not hard at all. There was a phase of paranoia.
But what they came to realise was that their blackjack revenues were going up. The idea in the public mind that this game was beatable wasn’t a bad thing at all. On the contrary: it transformed the game of blackjack and made it the most important game in the casino.
Imagine the adventures they had, these young misfits, roaming the country with their bankroll. Staying in crummy hotels. Sometimes getting “comps”: complimentary rooms in grand casinos, such as the Bellagio or the Venetian in Las Vegas. Sometimes working in “toilets”: casinos that smelt of sweat and grime. Sitting up all night under artificial lights. Concealing huge wads of dollars. Slipping huge wads of dollars to each other in the men’s room. Counting cards for hours on end, stone-cold sober. Finding a hot shoe. Signalling for the Big Player. Watching the money roll in. Splitting it afterwards. Driving to another town in a rental car. Getting stopped by the cops. Having to explain the presence of a quarter of a million dollars in cash. Getting home. Putting your share of the cash in a safe-deposit box. Sleeping for days.
The money. Axelrad made $350,000 (perhaps £175,000 at the time). He doesn’t know how many hours of blackjack this represents. But he made one or two trips a month, typically long weekends in Vegas, over a period of five years. So that’s a little over 100 trips, at a rate of a little over $3,000 a trip. Which is not bad. $70,000 a year for playing cards every other weekend. Mathematically, the more you play, the higher your chances of coming out ahead. But there is volatility. Sometimes you win a lot. Sometimes you lose a lot. On one trip, the group started out with $660,000 and ended with $1 million. On another trip, they lost 40 per cent of their original bankroll. Once, he sat at a table and lost $23,000. But if you averaged it out, the return was good. If you were to invest in a card-counting trip, you would make around 5 per cent on top of your original stake. In a few days. That’s a good return.
But it wasn’t just about money. Axelrad says: “We certainly want to support ourselves, and it’s only fun because you win, yes. But it’s fun because you win in a certain way. The heat was a huge part of what made it thrilling. But the possibility of loss, and those periodic experiences of winning shockingly more than you should have – they were also critical. And I think that mentality stayed with me when I got into poker.”
What was this mentality? It was about taking risks and winning. It was about squaring up to people who want to exploit you, and exploiting them right back. It was about standing outside a gas station in Reno and phoning your girlfriend. Axelrad’s girlfriend, Elke, liked the fact that he was a gambler. “She found it all kinds of sexy,” he says. For a while. Then the relationship ended.
And it was about heat – that you’re doing something, and somebody is trying to stop you. It was about getting away with something – more than just money. Axelrad says, “It seemed to be so glamorous to be actually feared by a casino. Even though it was professionally costly, I wanted it. I was attracted to the idea of becoming, you know, a known dude. It was like getting made in the Mafia.” Twice, he was “back-roomed”. Taken into a dingy place at the back of the casino. Surrounded by heavies. Questioned. Intimidated. But mostly it was a case of a man in a suit asking you to leave. In which case, says Axelrad, you left. You just stood up, with your arms by your sides, and walked away.
“I kind of enjoy it,” he says of the heat. “But also, you’re kind of always expecting it. The paranoia. The minute I walk in the door, I think, all right, this is going to end badly. And so when they finally come, it’s almost a relief. It’s like your destiny.”
But you can’t live this kind of life for ever. You get burnt out. Axelrad wanted to have a less crazy life. He wanted to settle down. He decided to become a writer. He had an idea: why not write a book about being a gambler? He sold a proposal for the book. His advance was $300,000. And then he hit a brick wall. He got writer’s block. He found himself with lots of time on his hands and no excitement. So he began to play online poker. Sometimes he played it in bed. Sometimes he won. But mostly, he lost. He was becoming pathological and self-destructive. It was simultaneously plunging him into despair and making him hugely excited. Axelrad says: “David Foster Wallace has a quote: he describes addiction as something that presents itself as the solution to the problems it causes.”
Axelrad lost more and more money. Tens of thousands of dollars. “I was out of control, and I knew I was out of control, because I did not have the illusion that I was secretly good at this game. Intellectually, I knew I ought to be losing. So it was foolish to persist.” But he persisted. “And the more out of control I got, the more profound the feelings of exhilaration were. They were in some ways tortuous. But it was very compelling for me. Not to over-glamorise it. Obviously it was disgusting. And just pathetic.”
This was not like losing $23,000 at the blackjack table. This was something else. “When I lost that $23,000, I felt very sad. I wished I hadn’t done it. But I didn’t hate myself. I knew that the decisions underlying that investment were rational.” Losing at poker was different. He did hate himself. “I felt I could not, almost, look at myself in the mirror.”
Looking back, he sees the strange irony of his situation. “I sold a book about being a good gambler. And I became the inverse.”
He was desperate to stop playing poker. He attended meetings at Gamblers Anonymous. Sometimes people at the meetings failed to see that there was a difference between card-counting and pathological gambling. Sometimes, he would go to a meeting and then go home and play poker. He started winning, a little, for a while. He began to understand how online poker worked. Good players take money off bad players. They use software to model the behaviour of their rivals. The software identifies suckers. Going to meetings at GA was making his pathological gambling slow down. But it wasn’t stopping him.
In June 2006, he played three times and won $2,200. In July, he played twice, losing $2,400. In August, he played three times and lost $1,300. In a period lasting a year, he had lost $51,000.
So what stopped him? On September 30, 2006, the law changed. Online gambling was now illegal in America. And something else happened. Axelrad started to write. He began to see that his story was more complex, and richer, than he thought. He was a good gambler. Then he was a bad gambler. He called his editor and his agent. “There’s a twist,” he told them.
In the casino, Axelrad sits at the bar. “I’m in a much more stable place than I’ve been,” he says. He’s back with Elke. He’s still writing. He’s not gambling. At the tables, the Chinese guys are still playing blackjack. One guy is betting a lot. Hundreds on each hand. Axelrad orders another Tanqueray and tonic. He hates casinos. “This business is a disgusting business,” he says. “I think the business of breaking people and cultivating addiction and destroying people is sick.”
He sips his drink. We watch the Chinese guys as they place their bets. Axelrad doesn’t think they are counting cards. The dealer deals, knowing he has a slight edge.