The Advantaged Player

“When people ask what I do, I usually say I’m into short term investments. Usually after I say that, no one wants to hear any more. It’s kind of a conversation killer. If people ask at a blackjack table, I usually say I’m in the porn industry. It explains why I have money, and why I have a mustache.”

We met at a Mexican restaurant near the Advantaged Player’s apartment. At 4pm on a Thursday, the brightly colored dining room was nearly empty aside from the faceless figures in the paintings that hung at random on the walls. I spotted the AP sitting alone at a table near the back wall, staring off deep in thought. It was just the right time of day to be way too late for lunch, but way too early for dinner. The AP was no stranger to sitting alone at a table at odd times of the day with only his mind to keep him company.

The Advantaged Player, whose name I have withheld at his request, is a slim white male with dark rimmed glasses and facial hair thin enough to place him firmly in his early to mid-twenties. He wears a tweed sport coat both for the look, and because the air conditioning in this taqueria is way too high for this Midwestern winter afternoon. We share some chips and he orders a substantial burrito, while and I stick to sipping a Pacifico, as I plan to have my evening meal at a more traditional hour.

Tradition is not something the AP is concerned with. While many people aspire to a corner office, a sensible place in the suburbs, or any other stereotypical version of the American dream, he has chosen a different path for himself.

While most of his peers are in the early stages of their careers, or bouncing between retail jobs while they belatedly get around to finding themselves, the Advantaged Player is earning his living as a professional card counter.

Blackjack is the oldest and most popular casino game in the world. The object of the game is very straightforward: you are playing against the dealer with the goal of ending up closest to 21 without going over, or “going bust”. Cards numbered two through nine are counted at face value, ten through king are worth ten, and the ace can be worth either 1 or 11, which the player decides. A player is initially dealt 2 cards, but has the opportunity to ask for additional cards to help them get closer to the goal number of 21.

Variations of what we now call Blackjack date back to as early as the 15th century. Bernadine of Sienne, an Italian priest, referenced a card game called One and Thirty in a sermon where he condemned gambling. Over the centuries, the card games like this spread across Europe, evolving into other versions, including the French iteration “Quinze” (Fifteen) and the Italian “Sette e Mezzo” (Seven and a Half). Eventually a French version, Vingt-et-un (Twenty One) became the standard. One of the reasons it is speculated that this version became so popular is because it was one of the few that required some skill, not just luck. The revolutionary distinction was in the player’s ability to “hit” (request an additional card), or “stay” (decline any additional cards). This gave a player the opportunity to strategize on what his next move might be. This feeling of control, real or perceived, is what drew players in, and still helps maintain blackjack’s place as the most popular casino game in the world.

The name blackjack was born out of an American modification of the game that appeared early in the 20th century that awarded a large payout to a player who was dealt an ace of spaces and a blackjack. Over the years the incentive faded out of popularity with most casinos, but the name stuck.

Due to the nature of the game, it is also the only casino game where a well-trained player can use a counting technique to shift the advantage away from the casino (“the house”) to himself, thus becoming an advantaged player, or more commonly, a card counter.

Between bites of his burrito, the AP reflects fondly on his first casino visit.

“A friend took me to a casino on my 21st birthday, and I started winning money right away. It was pretty cool. My friend knew some basic blackjack strategy, which I realize now was not very accurate, but it is what most people at a casino would call basic strategy. I went from $100 — $800, and I thought that was a huge deal. Then in the blink of an eye I lost it all and I was super pissed. I withdrew $200 from the ATM and lost it too. So in a day I lost $1000.”

This, he realized, was a problem. Initially, the AP was operating under the misconception that casinos are literally built upon: the idea that one can, and will, come out ahead. They believe they just need a few more hands, spins, or rolls, and then they’ll hit it big and walk away.

“I’m historically someone who wants to solve problems. So I decided that I was going to learn how to beat Blackjack.”

Thanks to films such as Rainman, most people think of card counters as savants capable of memorizing and predicting statistically unfathomable outcomes, or as outlaws, cheating their way through Las Vegas in pursuit of millions at the risk of prison or having their legs broken by backroom goons.

In the opening scene of the 2008 film 21, Ben Campbell, a standout MIT student and high rolling card counter, says, “First of all, what I was doing wasn’t illegal. There were certain institutions and people that frowned upon it, but it’s legal. And not everyone can do it. Just those with gifted minds. I have a gifted mind.”

One of the two things in that statement is true. It is totally legal. However, the gifted mind stuff, that’s all Hollywood. Counting cards is truly what the name implies. An advantaged player keeps a running count of cards as they are dealt. Instead of counting specific cards however, a player simply starts at zero when they approach the table, and then adds one to the “count” when a low card is dealt (2–6), adds zero when a middle card is dealt (7–9) and subtracts one when a high card is dealt (10-Ace). This allows a player to gain an understanding of how many high and low cards are remaining in the large sleeve, or shoe, of cards the dealer is pulling from. As the count gets higher, the player will increase their bets, as they know that there is a higher statistical likelihood of a high card coming out, giving them a better chance at a 20 or 21.

The fact that the concept itself is simple does not take away from the challenge of that counting presents.

“The mental part isn’t really that hard. But when you are there for several hours you can start to get fatigued. Once you’re at my level, your only concern is fatigue and making sure you are playing perfectly. It is draining”

Although Blackjack is a very old game, card counting is relatively new concept. The first book published on the topic of advantaged play, Edward O. Thorpe’s foundational Beat The Dealer, was released in 1962. At that time, Blackjack was a single deck game. When the dealer reached the end of the deck, the deck would be reshuffled, and play would continue. With only one deck to keep track of, an advantaged player could know exactly how many high and low cards remained in the deck. This system worked incredibly well for most of the 1960’s, as casinos were slow to catch on to how some players seemed to be winning far more than the average player.

Once casinos caught on to this new type of player, they began implementing strategies to attempt to diminish any advantage a player might be able to gain, or to stop advantaged players before they even got started. This has ranged from the introduction of larger, multi-deck shoes, to cutting edge facial recognition software to stop known card counters before they have an opportunity to exercise any advantage.

Hundreds of casinos worldwide subscribe to a database from Griffin Investigations that lists over 7000 known card counters, not only by name, but by face, known disguises, estimated height and weight, suspected accomplices, and myriad other details that can help weed out these skilled players.

Since card counting is not illegal, casinos use a practice known as “backing off” to deter advantaged players. Once an advantaged player is spotted, they are often encouraged to move on to another game, or to even leave the casino. Being backed off is a badge of honor for the amateur card counter, as this means you have succeeded to the extent that you became a detriment to the casino. If a backed off player doesn’t move on, or continues to try to play blackjack, things can get much more serious.

“There are different levels of being backed off,” the AP said. “Typically it’s them saying you can’t play blackjack anymore. Then there’s being ‘trespassed’, which they make you actually sign a trespass agreement, and you are banned from the property. They can arrest you (if you return).”

There are many high and low tech ways to detect a known card counter, but how does one become identified as a card counter in the first place? There are several small tells that could give away an AP, but the biggest is their “spread”. A spread is a player’s betting deviation, simply the amount above the minimum bet which a player is willing to deviate. A typical player at a $10 minimum table might bet up as high as $40 or $50, but rarely if ever deviating more than four to five times their minimum bet. However, a card counter, when the advantage is greatly in their favor, may deviate as high as 40 times their original bet to maximize their returns.

“My largest spread was $25 — $1000. That’s the biggest giveaway when you start to show your spread.”

Once a spread like that is shown, being backed off is not an “if” question, but a “when”.

“I get heat every time I play. I’m a mid-twenties white guy (playing blackjack) with a lot of money, who is the stereotype of a card counter. They are already watching me from the moment I walk in the door.”

Security, however, are not the only ones skilled at spotting counters.

“Dealers aren’t supposed to make calls about if someone is a card counter. That is on security to make that call. Some dealers will try to hustle you for tips though. They will say things like ‘Oh I guess you’re counting cards, sure hope I don’t have to tell anybody about this.’”

The AP chooses a Sunday morning for us to visit one of his favorite local casinos. As one of the perks of being a “regular” at local establishments, he often receives vouchers in the mail for free play and meals. He offers to take me to lunch at the buffet before we venture out onto the gaming floor.

I enjoy visiting a casino every now and then, but all of my experiences have exclusively been on Fridays or Saturdays, late into the evening (or early in the morning), and usually after several drinks to tamp down that pesky, responsible part of the brain. Walking up to a casino in the daylight, completely sober, is a strange experience, similar to the feeling I would get attending an after school event in elementary school that would require us to visit in the evening. Walking up to the building in the dark always seemed so novel to me, a familiar place in an unfamiliar context. Without the glowing casino lights beckoning me in like a moth to a summertime porch light, the building seemed uncanny, more boring convention center than a place “tingling with anticipation” as the advertisements promise.

Once inside, however, the experience is exactly the same. The smell of vanilla air neutralizer that, despite its best effort, can’t quite hide the fact that smoking is still allowed inside this casino. I was surprised to find that the Sunday morning crowd was no different than any other time I had ever visited. Some are dressed as if they are either heading to, or returning from, a night club, perhaps yet to conclude their activities that began on Saturday evening. Others look as if they stood up out of bed and traveled directly to the casino, begrudgingly putting on shoes before walking out the door. The population was majority baby boomers, with a mix of middle aged and young adults, all clearly having no issue spending this late Sunday morning chasing some quick cash.

The AP moves through the buffet line with calculation, skipping the popular pizza, fried chicken, and peel-and-eat shrimp. Instead, he heads to the salad bar, loading up on greens and fruit. He plans to play all day, and needs to fuel up.

Before we can enter the bright and admittedly exciting looking gaming floor, we must pass through the obligatory security station. I feel a twinge of anxiety as he hands his ID to the security guard. I know that what I am about to observe is not illegal, but part of me feels as if we are about to pull off an “Ocean’s 2” low level heist.

“Act natural,” I tell myself, and I look to the AP to read his face. He shows no sign of worry, as nonchalant as if he were walking into a grocery store to pick up some eggs. I take his lead, putting on my egg shopping face, and move through the line, and before I know it, we are in. Now it’s time for him to punch the clock and get to work.

The AP advises me to hang back around the slot machines while he scouts out the situation.

“I don’t want you to follow me around like a puppy dog,” he says, explaining that he will buzz around, table to table, and watch the cards coming out. He will count the cards that are played until he sees a table that is beginning to shift into his favor.

I settle into an old Triple Diamond penny slot machine near the pit of table games, allowing me to observe without drawing attention to the AP. This machine promises a jackpot of 50,000 credits ($5,000), although a patron sitting next to me tells me she hates this one, and walks away toward the flashier, more expensive games toward the center of the large, brightly lit room.

“You have to avoid tunnel vision” the AP told me over lunch. “They watch for people who head straight for the blackjack tables.” He heads first to a roulette table, playing a $75 free play voucher he received in the mail. He plays red, but the ball falls to black. He turns away from the table, even keeled, moving to a nearby craps table. After watching a few rolls, he then begins to scout the blackjack tables. There is now an earnestness in his movement. He stands at a table, watching a few hands dealt, before quickly moving to the next table. Finally, I see him lock in on a $10 table near the middle of the pit.

He doesn’t sit, choosing instead to stand, allowing him to quickly move on if he feels his advantage slipping. At first, I find this strange, but as I look around, many people stand at the table, often rocking back and forth in an unconscious display of anxiety and excitement. The AP does stand out in one regard; he seems totally calm and comfortable, stone still, only his eyes moving, quickly darting across the table as he tracks the count with each revealed card. His table mates are a middle aged man in a nondescript polo tucked in to his beltless, light colored jeans, a look I would describe as “Dad” halloween costume, and a younger man with a backwards baseball cap. The younger man quickly leaves, and is replaced by an elderly man who drops down into a seat, hanging his cane on the edge of the table.

“We call the average player a ‘ploppy’. They just plop down and lose their money.”

As I observe, I am reflexively hitting the SPIN button on my slot machine. I am certainly not standing out, as I realize that my fellow slot ploppys seem to be hypnotized, some not even looking at the screen, but hitting the SPIN button again and again, hoping to hear the sweet sound of digital clinking coins, and picturing a better life. Suddenly, I am snapped out of my hypnosis, realizing I’d hit all triple BARs, getting a quick endorphin rush, and realizing I’m now $4 richer. I cash out and move to the other side of pit to try to get a better view of what is happening. I make eye contact with the AP, who nods me over.

I walk up to the table as the dealer is distributing out a fresh hand. The AP is dealt an Ace — 4. The Ace can be played as either a 1 or an 11, giving the player great flexibility. The dealer is also showing an ace, with his 2nd card face down.

The AP taps for a hit, and is dealt a 3, bringing his total to 18. Most players would stay, hoping the dealer ends up with a lower number, or bust.

He taps again, asking for a 4th card. A 5. Converting his ace now to a 1, he is looking at a 13, in a much worse situation than he was just one card ago.

Tapping for a 3rd time, he is dealt a 5th card. An 8. 21!

“Whoa! I gotta give you one of these!” shouts the dealer, extending a fist bump to the AP, who obliges, smiling sheepishly and looking down at the table.

“I’m starting to think you are counting cards!” exclaims the dealer, as he slides the AP an impressive stack of chips, and again extending another fist bump as he laughs. Everyone at the table laughs as well, including the card counter, and the next round is dealt.

After about 30 minutes, the AP meets me over by the “Beverage Station” to debrief about the session so far. He pulls out a large stack of chips from his pocket.

“I started with this”, holding up two black $100 chips, “Now I’ve got this”, holding out a palm overflowing with chips of every color, including half a dozen black chips. “I’m up $800, and it’s only been half an hour.” Then he turns to get back to work. After all, there is a lot of time left in the day, and a lot more money to be made.

Five years ago, the AP was living with his parents when he decided that he would learn how to beat blackjack. During his search, he came across a website called Blackjack Apprenticeship, a site started by notorious card counters Ben Crawford and Colin Jones.

Ben and Colin were the main characters in the 2011 documentary Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians, which told the story of a group of born again Christians who formed a card counting team and won millions of dollars from casinos.

The collection of pastors, deacons, and Sunday school teachers that made up “Church Team” has since disbanded, but Ben and Colin serve as trainers, sharing their knowledge with aspiring card counters.

After studying up on the process, the AP traveled to Las Vegas to learn in person from Ben and Colin.

“They offer in person bootcamps, which basically evaluate your play. The first time I went they poked some holes in my game, said I still had some things to work on. I lost a lot more at the beginning. During training, I was not a perfect player, and it is really difficult.”

But over time, the AP’s skills grew, and he was able to see positive results.

“I started with $800, and the highest my bankroll got to was $97,000, all in 9 or 10 months.”

The AP does not appear to be a rich guy. He drives a simple car, shops at Goodwill, and lives in a small apartment in a transitional part of the city. Nothing about him says “high roller”. So naturally I had to ask, “What did you do with the money?”

“I used it as a jumping off point.”

Risk tolerance is a phrase that comes up often in our conversations. Many of the questions I would ask, about hours per week, about minimum starting bankrolls, would be met with “It all depends on your risk tolerance.”

The AP has a high risk tolerance. After 10 months, he cashed out his bankroll of nearly $100,000 to start his own business. He opened a small web design firm, brought on a few employees, and started producing great work.

But owning a business can be a little harder to “solve” than a blackjack game, and even if you think you know exactly how things will break, they can suddenly go the other way. The ebbs and flows of entrepreneurship wore on the AP, and ultimately he decided that it was time to make a change.

The AP is a very talented, and fairly successful musician. While still in college, he signed a record deal, produced a solo album, and began touring. However, this was short lived, as the label folded shortly after signing him. In the following years, he decided to pursue music independently.

“It became evident that music was the thing I wanted to pursue. The only way to make it in the music industry is with money. And the problem is that no one is investing in music, and no one wants to give money to anything. Then I’m between a rock and a hard place. I’ve got the material to be successful, but the problem is the finances. I’m not trying to work my ass off for 10 years to do music (full time), I’m trying to work my ass off for 10 months to do music.”

As far as investments go, there are not many financial planners who would advise playing blackjack as a sound investment. He explained that getting rich from card counting is an unrealistic expectation. “The way I think about it is like a trade, just like any other trade. It’s something that takes a lot of time to learn, you have to be good at it in order to succeed, and it takes hard work. For me it’s always been a means to an end. Because it’s not a lifestyle that I like. It sucks, it’s not fun. You see a lot of fucked up shit. If you do it for too long, you will go crazy. It’s so stressful, and there is so much hell in casinos. You just have to swallow the pill, dive in, and do it, and get in the hours. It’s all about getting in the hours.”

Getting in the hours is not as simple as just going to your nearby casino and working from 9–5. The more a card counter plays, and the more they get backed off, the more difficult it can be to get in those hours. The only way to get in significant hours of play is to travel, bouncing from city to city, “burning down” as many casinos as you can along the way.

“You could be there for a few hours, or you could be there for a week. You play until you’re done.”

Early this year, when the AP decided to transition away from his business to blackjack as a means to fund his musical aspirations, he came up with unique way combine his desire to play music and his need to get in significant hours at casinos. Later this month he will be heading out on an 8 state tour, both of musical venues and casinos.

“I’m going to be playing shows on the weekend, and burning down casinos during the week.”

Back at the Mexican restaurant, he told me that he had always been a person who wanted to solve problems. It appeared that the way to solve the inherent problem of high level card counting (the need to constantly travel to new casinos) and the problem of pursuing music as a career without a label (no money) was taking both on the road.

I attended the AP’s last local show before heading out on tour. He played at a small dive bar in a fringe neighborhood south of the city. It was well attended compared to other shows I had seen there. The AP wore a weathered cardigan over an Eagle Scout button up that I assume is a treasured Goodwill find. Nothing about his appearance indicates his day job, but it does indicate who I think he really is — an artist.

I take a seat in the second row, just out of the reach of the stage lights. He performs solo, a microphone and an acoustic guitar with some miles on it. His guitar strap is made of bandanas tied together, with a solitary bird feather at the end, which flutters slowly behind the head of the guitar as he sways during the first song.

His music is hauntingly beautiful, with lyrics that speak of love, fear, and longing. One song particularly stays with me.

With every step I take, I know I’m closer to freedom.

With every breath I take, I whisper a prayer for freedom.

It is clear watching him perform that this is what he loves to do. Spending all those hours working at the blackjack table, fighting to stay focused in the preternatural world of the casino floor while sandwiched between geriatrics and problem gamblers. It is a gateway to the life he really wants, a life of freedom.