Category: card counting

The Mind-Meld Mambo

You know that moment—that classic moment—in West Side Story when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love? They’re at a gymnasium for a neighborhood dance where tensions are running high because the Jets hate the Sharks and both groups are snarling at each other across the dance floor. The hatred is mutual, but for some reason, everyone is doing the mambo. I guess that was the tough guys’ dance of preference in 1961.

But then… then Tony and Maria simultaneously spot each other across the room, and everyone else blurs away, leaving these star-crossed lovers in their individual halos of light. The mambo music fades away and suddenly these two are performing a pas de deux to a music-box version of “Maria.”

The Jets versus the Sharks or "What happened to the mambo?"
The Jets versus the Sharks or “What happened to the mambo?”

The same kind of thing (except the pas de deux part) happens when fellow gamblers find each other in a non-gambling environment, like a wedding reception or birthday party.

“You mean, you… you play blackjack?” The other partygoers disappear into a mist of irrelevance as the two of you mind-meld over topics like card counting and eight-deck shoes. Your date listens politely, indulgently, like the mother of a five-year-old who’s happy that little Johnny has a new friend.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at a wedding reception out in the small country town of Yacolt, WA., I found myself sitting near Jessica and Tony Quain, an entirely charming couple from the east coast. She I’d previously met. He was a stranger. We were making small talk when the conversation turned to their recent vacation in Scandinavia. Evidently they’d had a swell time cavorting (a Scandinavian-sounding verb if ever there was one) until they reached Aarhus, Denmark.

Tony was relaxing outside the Royal Casino taking a break from a blackjack session when two men in black masks raced past him into the casino wielding semi-automatic weapons. (You can see actual footage of the robbery here.)

Wait a minute. What did he just say? “Casino?” “Blackjack?” Is that a mambo I hear in the distance?

He’d uttered the magic words.

Let the mind-meld begin!

Turns out that Tony has been a card-counter for a bunch of years, a skill he took with him during college to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he was able to profitably slog his way through those humongous eight-deck shoes.

We traded our stories of being thrown out of casinos: me from the El Dorado in Reno, him from the Trump Plaza and Claridge in AC. Oddly, they didn’t throw him out for being underage, which he was, but for his advantage playing. Evidently they don’t care much about corrupting the morals of youth and taking their money, but if Junior counts cards, they’ll toss his ass out onto the boardwalk. That was in 1991. I’m guessing there’s a statute of limitations (or institutional amnesia) because he’s returned since and played with impunity. That’s good news: Maybe I’ll return to the El Dorado.

No, wait a minute: That would mean going back to Reno.

Destination: WSOP

Tony to me: “So how does a blackjack player become a poker player?”

I’d told him I’d more or less forsaken 21 in favor of Hold’em, but the steps that led me there were kind of random.

Here goes.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuBlackjack can be a grind. You’re down, you’re up, you’re even. And if you’re counting cards your torturous inner monologue might be something like Ace plus king equals minus two… subtract that from negative 20… I’m down…. Deuce plus three equals plus two… add that to minus one… I’m up…

God help you if someone attempts even the most innocuous bit of conversation; simply processing an answer to “Nice day we’re having, don’t you think?” can give your brain a hernia. And the simple fact of life about card counting is that to really make money at it, you’ve got to have a fat bankroll—one that you’re ready to lose—at your disposal.

And then there’s the element of repetition. In blackjack, after a few hundred hands, you’ve seen it all, every combination of cards, every type of bad beat, every single way you can watch your bankroll swell and contract.

So, boredom was a factor. Then came the poker boom. Around 2003, everyone was talking about Hold’em, a phenomenon that coincided with the introduction of the hole cam, which enabled viewers to see the hole cards of players in major events. So, in effect, via televised editions of “The World Poker Tour,” you could have a front-row seat in a weekly series of poker seminars taught by the top players in the game.

That same year, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street hit the bookstores. The book has two main threads: the murder of Ted Binion, son of Benny Binion who is credited with devising the World Series of Poker; and color coverage of the 2000 WSOP. McManus’s writing style was smart, literary and approachable. He painted such a rich portrait of the game and its players that I was hooked. Also, the fact that he—a lowly writer, mind you—made it to the final table of the Main Event was enticing.

Eleven years later, after innumerable tournaments and cash games, I’m taking the next step: the WSOP. Just one of their smaller buy-in “Side Events,” but still…

As I post this, I’m five hours away from stepping on an Alaska Airline jet, destination Vegas.

A full report will appear here next time around.

Casino Buffet #2


Turns out that my new friend Tony Quain is a lot more than an accomplished card counter. He’s a true smarty pants, with a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. A fine writer, too, with a provocative blog on free-market economics.

Walk a mile in his shoes

While researching poker strategy, this blog popped up: It explores gambling from the dealer’s point of view. It’s a highly entertaining and informative site. Check out the very observational post on empathy.

Ivey Update: The Baccarat Flapdoodle Continues

A few posts back, we talked about the suit lodged against poker pro Phil Ivey by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Their claim: Ivey and an associate bilked the casino out of nearly ten million dollars by exploiting the flawed patterns on the back of Gemaco playing cards.

The Borgata wants the money back because (they say) he cheated. Ivey says no way: his big wins were the result of “sheer skill.”

And so he’s firing back by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. If Ivey’s attorneys are as skilled in legal matters as Ivey is in poker, you’ve got to pity the Borgata: They don’t stand a chance.

From “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death”

“The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’d had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest.”

No, Doubleday never sent me a reviewer’s copy. But I’m not going to hold that against them. The book is an absolute hoot and Colson Whitehead deserves all the praise he’s been getting.




The Reno Shuffle, part two

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A happy idiot

One of the cleverest marketing tools employed by casinos is the “player’s card.” Boiled down to its basics: You spend a lot of time at the casino and in turn they toss you a bone in the form of a free or discounted meal or hotel room.

The casinos assume, of course, that the more time you spend on the casino floor, the more money you’ll lose. Everyone who’s a member of one of these “clubs” understands this, and understands that each of the so-called rewards extended to you is really just a ploy to lure you back so you’ll lose some more money. This doesn’t stop you from illogically feeling that you’re special or that you’re getting something that’s truly free.

My Eldorado card, in mothballs for 10 years
All that glitters…

Thus, I was idiotically pleased when I received an offer from the Eldorado in the summer of 2004 for a $19-per-night room. They liked me! They really liked me! Also the timing was perfect: Marital woes were taking a toll and I needed to get out of town in a big way. This would be a way for me to take some time for mental hygiene and to put my card-counting skills to the test.

So it was that on my first night in Reno, I found myself downstairs at the Eldorado casino sharing a blackjack table with five other players. Everyone was laughing, joking, having a swell time: They were winning. The star of the table was a serviceman on furlough from Iraq. “Affable” doesn’t begin to describe him. “Roaring drunk” is closer.

In spite of his inebriated state (or perhaps because of it), he was killing the house. An abysmal player, he was making one boneheaded decision after another (hitting his 12 versus the dealer’s up-card of 6, for example) but he simply could not lose. Everyone loved it. Cheering! High fives! Who didn’t like to see a member of our armed forces win? Hell, he deserved it, no matter that he was among the most clueless blackjack players on Planet Earth.

But I appreciated this guy in uniform for another, totally selfish reason: He was providing me with cover. All attention was on him and his growing pile of chips. Perfect!

Since the spotlight was on G.I. Joe, it seemed obvious that I’d be able to count cards and vary my bets however I wished without attracting attention. The casino be damned! I could do whatever I pleased. In Greek tragedy this kind of attitude is known as hubris; the hero displeases the gods which leads to his downfall. The gods in this case were the security cameras positioned in the ceiling above the gaming tables. And I displeased them because they caught my stupid blunder.

To understand this blunder, you’ll need a little background on card counting. (Pardon me while I get a bit technical for a couple of paragraphs.)

By FASTILY (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The scene of the crime

It’s good to be high

Card counting is based on a simple precept: When the deck contains a high proportion of aces and cards valued at 10, the odds shift away from the casino and towards you. So when the count is high, you raise your bet. The higher the count gets, the more you “spread” your bet.

Eldorado playing cardConversely, when the count is low—meaning that there are a lot of low-value cards still to be dealt—you lower your bet. There are a bunch of fine points and nuances that I’ll skip, but here’s something out of Card Counting 101: When there’s a “push”—a tie between the dealer and the player—you never ever alter your bet; you simply let it ride. Altering your bet in this situation signals that you know that the “count” has changed; it’s akin to wearing a dunce cap with the words “I AM A CARD COUNTER” emblazoned across the front.

I was about to put on the cap.


Exit stage left

In front of me were six red chips—thirty dollars. The table was littered with a bunch of face cards and aces, bringing the count into negative territory. I was holding two face cards and the dealer had two face cards: a push, so my chips remained in front of me. The G.I. had pulled down a blackjack and was busy giving his neighbors a high-five, making a big commotion, giving me the bright idea that I could pull back three of my chips, a move that I just knew would go unnoticed.

Ten minutes later, I was bored. Despite all the help I was getting from the U.S. armed forces, I was up a mere $34. Time to seek my fortune elsewhere. I scooped up my chips and turned to leave the table.

“Mr. Baldwin?”

It was a bland-faced guy in a beige suit, open collar.

Me: “Uh, yeah?”

Him: “We’d prefer it if you not play blackjack at our casino.”

I didn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “Excuse me?”

He said, “Feel free to enjoy any of our other games,” and made a gesture that in the movies says One day, son, all this will be yours.

Me: “What? Why?”

The word “nonplussed” was coined for this exact kind of situation.

Him: “We don’t like your style of play.” Now looking out across the casino, he spread his arms grandly, Moses parting the Red Sea. “But you are certainly free to enjoy any of our other fine games.”

Me: “Come on. Are you kidding? I’m only up thirty-four bucks.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We don’t appreciate your style of play.”

I wanted to say, What about that drunk soldier? What about HIS style of play? Do you see how much he’s got? Do something about him, why don’t you? But that would’ve been a betrayal. After all, I’d used him for cover and I’d blown it.

This brief episode was conducted so quietly, so politely that it attracted no attention whatsoever.

I wandered into the banks of slot machines. My mouth hung open. I was in shock (nonplussed, I tell you! nonplussed!) at this absurdity.

Let’s get this straight: They invited me to this hotel, more or less comp my room, and then—in effect—toss me out of their casino?

Then a worse thought occurred to me. As a professional courtesy, casinos were known to fax photos of card counters to other area casinos. And that would put me out of action for the remainder of my trip.

I had to find out.A king of clubs

Ten minutes later I’d crossed the Truckee River—where it’s reputed that the newly divorced would toss their wedding rings—and was playing blackjack at the Siena. I did not slouch or turn away from the security cameras. I wanted to know where I stood; I wanted them to get a good look at me. An hour later it was apparent that I had not made it onto the Most Wanted List. It was also apparent that card counting does not constitute the road to riches.

I skulked back to my hotel room $200 poorer.

So what did we learn today? Well, that card counting is not a foolproof recipe for success. And that military personnel may be useful in providing cover on the battlefield, but at the blackjack table? Not so much.




Jackpot summer, part three

Jackpot is the Mickey Rooney of Nevada gambling: pint-sized, but not lacking a certain pizzazz.

He's the Jackpot, Nevada, of movie stars.
The one and only Mickey Rooney!

Contrary to common knowledge, Rooney never proclaimed, “Let’s put on a show,” but those might’ve been the very words uttered by Idaho slot operator “Cactus Pete” Piersanti when he cofounded Jackpot in the mid-1950s. It was around that time that Idaho banned gambling, inspiring Pete to take his slot machines and plunk them a few yards beyond the Idaho border. So, unlike Las Vegas (and most cities, towns and villages on planet Earth), Jackpot was created for the sole purpose of gambling.

Ol’ Cactus Pete soon put up a hotel casino, cryptically named Cactus Petes (sic—there’s no apostrophe). Prior to reserving my room, I’d done a little research and learned that AAA had bestowed a four-diamond rating upon this establishment. The room rates were dirt-cheap and Jackpot boasted a preponderance of single-deck blackjack tables. Add to this the fact that Current Blackjack News told me that playing conditions were close to perfect, and this seemed like the perfect stopover for a guy desperate to forget that his marriage was cratering.

A field of ploppies

It’s Labor Day and I arrive at 6pm. The casino is nearly deserted, which is good news: Card counters prefer playing with as few other players as possible. In fact, one-on-one blackjack sessions are highly favored by “advantage players” (a euphemism for card counters).

Should I auction this on e-Bay?
Yes, Virginia. There is a Cactus Pete.

The few players in attendance, however, manage to find me. All of them are what we call “ploppies,” mediocre to poor players who screw with your rhythm, who bounce in and out of games, who make it difficult for this particular player to gain any traction. This isn’t any fun, so after losing a hundred dollars, I cross the street to one of the other two casinos in town, the Horseshu, which is run by the same company that owns Cactus Petes.

This place is small enough that it ought to be called the Shubox. It, too, is nearly empty, with just one other player trying his luck at blackjack, which like Petes is of the single-deck variety.

I sit down at a table—I’m the sole player—and things click right into place. Everything’s working: splits, double-downs, blackjacks. It’s easy to keep the running count of a single deck, so adjusting my bets is easy too: I flat bet when the count is low, raise it when the count’s high. Pretty soon I’m ahead over $200, when a floor supervisor appears behind the dealer.

“Hey,” he says by way of greeting.

Me: “Hello.”

Him: “Say, what’s your name?”


This is not the trickiest question in the universe, but uh-oh. My sense of paranoia, incubated during 12 years of Catholic school then finely tuned by two decades in the world of show business, kicks in. Big time.

My name. He wants to know my name. What answer do I provide? Is this a prelude to  being shown the door?

Suavely I reply, “Huh?”

This had happened to me once before, at the Palace Casino in La Center, Washington, before my card-counting days. I’d been on a tear, a ridiculous run of good luck during which I’d been progressive betting—that is, raising my bet when I won a hand, cutting back when I lost—and I could do nothing wrong. It was a full table and the other players were gasping and cheering at my invulnerability: catching a five when I hit 16; getting blackjacks after I split aces; drawing perfect 21s on my double-downs. It was a thing of beauty and I was up over $600—a fair amount when betting in units of five dollars—when, while the shoe was being shuffled, a woman appeared at my elbow: the supervisor.

“Wow. You’re doing pretty well. What’s your name?”

Crap, I thought. Why does she want my name? A pick-up line? Idle curiosity? Don’t think so. This cannot be good.

I went through a list of aliases in my brain. Claude? Mel? Diane? No wait, that’s a girl’s name.

She continued to look at me expectantly. I imagined her train of thought: This is not a trick question. Does this bozo have amnesia or is he simply retarded?

“Your name…”

Oh, what the hell. I blurted out the truth, threw her a bone.


It hung there a split second. But she wanted more. She prompted me.


Now the other players were looking at me. What is wrong with this man?

I gave up. “Baldwin,” I said. “Baldwin-Baldwin. Baldwin”

In times of stress, I have a tendency to overcompensate.

The supervisor gave me a sweet, gentle look that said Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Back to the Horseshu, where the supervisor is patiently awaiting me to deliver this precious piece of information.

(A side note: In the casino world, this is the mildest form of “heat,” so mild that it might not even qualify as heat. Simply a way of the casino saying, “We are aware of your existence. So just watch yourself.”)

A few seconds tick by. My thoughts go back to the La Center incident, the futility of pleading deafness or memory loss. I’d learned my lesson, so I reply.


“What’s that?”

I give him a look that says Who’s playing stupid now? I’m sticking with my response, going all-in, adding a degree of emphasis.


In times of stress, I have a tendency to overcompensate. Did I mention that?

From the November 2013 issue of Current Blackjack News
Say it ain’t so: No more blackjack at the Horseshu.

The Dalles blues

The next morning I’m on my way. It’s the final leg of this journey, an 11-hour drive to Portland if I stopped to stretch my legs and get a quick bite. And I knew the perfect place.

Pendleton, Oregon, is known for three things: plaid shirts, a rodeo and the Wildhorse Casino. The rodeo is a week away. I don’t need any plaid shirts. So, oh well, I guess I’ll have to stop at the casino.

First impression: It’s an institutional joint, like the dining room at a low-security prison. Cold, kind of stark.

I sit down and play for ninety minutes. No single-deck games here, but the six-deck shoes are kind to me and I do OK.

Darkness is nearing as I hop back onto I-84. In about four hours I’ll be back in Portland. Although I’ve emerged from the casino $75 richer, the ninety minutes there has proved costly. Just east of The Dalles, there’s a roadblock and a reader board telling me I must exit. There’s a forest fire ahead and it’s jumping the interstate, rendering travel perilous.

So here I am pulling into downtown The Dalles (the “The” has been Krazy Glued to “Dalles” for reasons unknown) at nine-thirty on a smoky Tuesday night, utterly famished. The clerk at the Best Western tells me that the best restaurant in town is Baldwin’s Saloon. Hey, that’s got to be a positive omen, right? I arrive there at 10pm on the dot, just in time to see a waiter flip over the sign on the door: Closed.

Nothing is open. The streets are rolled up.  I have a dinner of Coke and chips piping fresh from the Best Western’s vending machines.

There’s a literary term known as “pathetic fallacy” in which writers ascribe human emotions to elements of nature. I’ve travelled 2900 miles and now I’m stuck here in The Dalles, an hour and a half from home, a raging fire impeding my journey. Thwarted in my travels, stranded in the middle of nowhere, it’s difficult to see it not as a fire, but as a symbol of what lay ahead in the months to come.


Jackpot summer, part two

This is the deal.

You’re in Philadelphia.

You’re down-and-out because you’ve just dropped your daughter at a college among strangers in a strange city that’s 3,000 miles from home. There were some teary moments as you said farewell.

She grows smaller in your rearview mirror and it’s time to head back home to Portland, Oregon, in your black RAV-4.

But there’s a sad realization: Once you’ve traversed those 3,000 miles, you’re going to have to face domestic chaos. There’s a marital meltdown awaiting you and you’re going to have to deal with it as soon as you pull into your driveway. So with a heavy heart (and a cliché to express it) you suck it up, point your SUV west, pull out onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and –

Whoa! Wait a minute. What’s the big hurry, mister? Here’s an idea: Don’t rush home. Head for Jackpot, Nevada!

The magical world of bladders

Traveling west from Pennsylvania to the west coast, you can divide the landscape roughly into thirds: rolling hills, then a pancake flatness that extends from Ohio to Nebraska, and finally a breathtaking dose of western grandeur.

Part two—the pancake flatness—is the hard part. To get relief from the tedium, you’d love to pull off the road, but to where? That silo in the distance? Perhaps a quick side-trip to the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart?1 And let’s not forget about downtown Altoona.

Thankfully there’s an antidote in Council Bluffs, Iowa; this is where the Harrah’s empire (now the Caesars empire) planted a riverboat casino.

Ever been to a riverboat casino? Notice please that I said not on but to. Being on a riverboat casino conjures up images floating down the Mighty Mississip, consorting with rogues and rascals, and taking an occasional break to smoke a cigar on the deck while the bartender prepares your Mint Julep.

All aboard!
Actual riverboats that actually move through the water.

Being to a riverboat casino is a different story. It’s a gambling concept that, in my experience, manages to integrate the worst parts of boating: tacky carpeting, the oppressive claustrophobia of a below-deck, and being stuck in dry dock. One good thing: There’s not much danger of losing your balance and falling overboard because, as the Byrd’s sang, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Why? Because many of these casinos are riverboats in name only.

In a state like Iowa, for example, regulations formerly mandated that casinos be constructed over water. The state’s initial impulse—to protect citizens from the evils of gambling by segregating casinos and making them more onerous to build—was a noble one. In actuality, it seems to have spurred casino owners into new levels of creativity. Look at the Riverside Casino in Riverside, Iowa: It’s land-based, but to satisfy local regulations it was built atop 29 bladders filled with water.

Talk about a  recipe for success: Fill the bladders with water… and they will come.

He: “Honey I’m off to the Riverside.”

She: “Now don’t you go throwing away all your hard-earned money at that bladder-boat!”

Back to Council Bluffs and Harrah’s. It’s a riverboat casino but I cannot say if bladders were or were not involved. I can say it was claustrophobic. The word “shoebox” comes to mind. That might have been because I was exhausted: I began the day at a Comfort Inn in Toledo, Ohio, and had been on the road for 12 pancake-flat hours.

I was too tired even to count cards, which was a big part of this Blackjack Autumn-inspired excursion. However, in the odd way that gambling can defy your expectations, this bleary-eyed boy in the space of 90 minutes won $150 at blackjack, then another $157 at a lucky video poker machine. It was money that unfortunately would not stay in my pocket for very long.

Ghost-gamblers in the sun


Friday night in Omaha, which borders Council Bluffs.

Saturday night in Rawlins, Wyoming, which like most of Wyoming borders nothing.

And then Labor Day 2003: Onward to Jackpot!

The direct route to Jackpot entailed taking I-80 west to Salt Lake City, then merging onto I-84, which would take me to Twin Falls, Idaho. From there it was just a chip’s throw to Jackpot.

Given my mode of willful avoidance, this was not the route I intended to take.

Instead I was going to stay on I-80, which would lead me around the Great (and spooky) Salt Lake and right into West Wendover, NV, or just plain Wendover, as everybody calls it, because hell, in this place who needs the adjective “west”? It’s redundant because you’re in the middle of the desert and there are animal skulls by the side of the highway and tumbleweeds blowing across the highway and the ghost of Joseph Smith windsurfing across the Great Salt Lake. It’s flat flat flat, not a creature is stirring not even a vulture, until there, in the distance, is Wendover.

Shiny. Impressive. From a distance Wendover looks like Oz, but without the flying monkeys.

Up closer, it’s a bit more prosaic. In Blackjack Autumn, Barry Meadow writes that towns like Wendover and Jackpot exist “solely because people like to gamble.” And how!

The one and only Wendover Will!
The Eiffel Tower of Wendover. (Photo credit: “Wendover Will” by Pitamakan is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

Wendover consists largely of hotels and casinos, so although the town is hosting thousands of guests, its streets are nearly empty, a ghost town teeming with tourists huddled inside windowless, clock-less rooms—ghost-gamblers invisible in the Wendover sun.

I join them.

Wendover’s blackjack tables are a player’s dream, single-deck games with rules that shave the house edge to almost zero. And there’s not just one or two of these primo tables: They’re everywhere. For a card counter to lose under these conditions would be close to impossible. But that doesn’t stop me. Apparently I’ve entered the Bizarro Blackjack Universe, because I do lose. Quickly. In fact, I say farewell to most of my ill-gotten gains from the riverboat in the space of an hour.

It’s no longer Wendover to me. It’s Bendover.

Clichés abound in gambling, and it’s time to comfort myself with an oldie but goodie. To wit: I’m still up fifty bucks! And hey, that’s better than losing!

Time to hit the road. Jackpot is just 125 miles away and I’ll be there well before dark.


  1. In addition to the RV Hall of Fame, Elkhart is also famous as the breeding ground of Evil George Taylor. It is here where he learned to gamble at his father’s knee, and where he later drove both parents into financial ruin during a particularly brutal session of penny ante poker.

Jackpot summer, part one

Life-changing events come in two flavors:

#1. The Unexpected. You know, it’s the inside fastball that whacks you in the cheekbone before you can duck.

#2. The Anticipated. You’re not happy, but you’ve got a seat in the dugout and you can study the dangerous southpaw as he makes his long, slow walk from the bullpen in deep right field.

If you’re lucky, the seismic shifts in your life fall into category number two, like mine did in the summer of 2003, on August 29 to be exact.

Next stop, Eden!

I knew well in advance that I was going to drive my black RAV-4 three thousand miles across the country to the University of Pennsylvania with my 18-year-old daughter. This is the part I knew I was going to like.

I’d prevailed upon AAA to issue me a TripTik (remember TripTiks?) that would guide us mile by mile. So yes, we would be spending one night at the Amber Inn in Eden, Idaho. Yes, we’d have stopovers Cheyenne, Des Moines and Strongsville, Ohio, alternating nights between places rated two diamonds (welcome to the Bates Motel) and three diamonds (a nice step up from Motel 6) by the esteemed travelers of AAA. And yes, it would take us precisely five days to reach the City of Brotherly Love.

I knew I was going move Julia into a dorm room, then leave her among strangers in a strange city, and I knew that saying goodbye was not going to be easy. But I did not know that it was going to affect me quite the way it did: emotionally, sure, but also physically.

Thirty miles outside of Philly, sad and shaken, the image of her growing smaller in my rear-view mirror still fresh in my mind, I pulled into a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Deep breaths, a few sips of water. I needed to pull myself together because I was going to retrace the five-day route that had brought us here. But not only would I have to do it alone; as a special bonus, at the end of those five days of driving, I was going to have to grapple with the sad state of my marriage. It was on the verge of implosion.

Lucky for me I had a knapsack full of printed material guaranteed to distract me:

• A Rand-McNally road atlas of North America;

• AAA travel guides for every state I would be driving through;

• A recent copy of Current Blackjack News, which listed every blackjack-playing casino in the US;

• And a copy of Blackjack Autumn, which held the blueprint for at least several days worth of distractions.

I pulled back onto the road and pointed the car west towards Jackpot, NV.

Jackpot, Nevada -- a chip toss away from Twin Falls, Idaho.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Jackpot.

The Limits of Obsession

No matter how obsessed you are, there are limits. You can’t stand in a stream waving a fly rod or park yourself at a poker table seven days a week. Well maybe you can, but I can’t. That’s why God created books: So you can experience vicariously what may be too expensive or time-consuming to experience on the river or in the casino.

While there are a profusion of high-quality narrative books aimed at certain hobbyists—travelers, for instance, and sports fans—most gambling books fall into the instructional category.

Travel fanatics get Kerouac’s On The Road and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

Sports fans get Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four and Laura Hillenbrand’s stirring Seabiscuit.

Blackjack players get Blackjack for Blood, Blackbelt in Blackjack, and Blackjack Attack. I’m guessing that these titles offer valuable advice for BJ players. I’m also guessing that they lack the literary heft of A River Runs Through It or The Innocents Abroad.

As a source for literary endeavors, blackjack is the Mohave Desert. You’d have to go way back to 2003 to find a book that made any kind of splash. That would be Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich, a “nonfiction” account of the escapades of a team of card-counting M.I.T. students. The book is an enjoyable read, although Mezrich took some well-publicized hits in the press for—shall we say—embellishing the aforementioned escapades. The Kevin Spacey movie 21 was based on Bringing Down The House and took the already fictionalized nonfiction story one more giant step into the realm of fantasy.

The closest thing in the genre of recent blackjack nonfiction that approaches the literary is Barry Meadow’s Blackjack Autumn: A True Tale of Life, Death, and Splitting Tens in Winnemucca. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history and part instruction, the book is based on a simple premise: Over the course of the autumn of 1998, the author was going to play blackjack in every casino in the state of Nevada. He ended up putting about 4,000 miles on his odometer as he traveled to nearly 200 casinos.

Back in 2003, just the idea had me drooling. That’s what obsession can do to a guy.

The first time I read the book, I was struck by Meadow’s sardonic humor (he writes that the Reno Philharmonic is “an odd juxtaposition of two proper nouns”) and his skills of observation (“Partial truth is about the best you can expect in Nevada”). In re-reading it, which I’m doing now, I realize just how much I learned from this book, how it informed the way I play the game and how it influenced me to begin counting cards.

But ten years ago, the book provided me a bit of hope, inspiration for a way that I might both mend myself and prepare myself for the traumas that lay ahead. As Meadow writes, “One thing about the casino world—real life never gets to intrude upon it.”

So here’s the deal: It was about 2400 miles from Philly to Jackpot, and there were a few casinos along the way.





Adventures in card counting, part two

Why Reno?

The Biggest Little City... says who?
Abandon hope, all ye who enter… unless you count cards.

It’s one of the most perplexing existential questions of our time.

Let’s paraphrase it: why go to Reno?

Let’s personalize it: why did I go to Reno no less than four times in a five-year period?

When I first visited the city in 2001, it was in the middle of a civic downturn: grungy streets, boarded-up casinos in the center of downtown, free-range hookers working the casino floors, a general feeling of metropolitan malaise.

Reno is clearly not Las Vegas, where artifice is elevated to the level of art. In Las Vegas you’ve got your fake Venice, your fake Paris and your fake New York. You’ve got a fake sphinx and a fake pyramid. The Strip offers some piece of monumental fakery to dazzle you on every square city block. Vegas is (METAPHOR ALERT!) a piece of environmental theatre, a site-specific stage play complete with dazzling costumes and gaudy backdrops.

Which brings us to Reno: Fakery with less enthusiasm. Fakery on Quaaludes. The non-union, low-budget, road-show version of the extravaganza known as Las Vegas.

But somehow I enjoyed myself enough to return three more times, twice in the company of Evil George Taylor.

I know. Four trips to Reno seems a bit insane. So, again: why Reno?

It’s all about the table

The answer can be found in an unassailable truth about blackjack. To wit, all blackjack games are not created equal. It’s one of the first things you learn about the game.

For comparison, look at Texas Hold’em: the same rules apply, generally speaking, whether you’re playing at Foxwoods in Connecticut or at Chinook Winds in Oregon. But in blackjack the rules can vary not only from casino to casino, but from table to table within a casino.

There are lots of little tweaks that can raise or lower your chances of winning, but one of the most significant is the number of decks in play. The fewer the decks, the better your chances of winning. You’d be wise to stay clear of Atlantic City, for example, because, well… first of all because it’s Atlantic City. It’s a scary little place, a film-noirish slum without the film-noirish charm. My advice: stay near the boardwalk and pack a weapon if you wander away from the cluster of casinos on Pacific Avenue.

Safety concerns aside, a good reason to avoid AC is that they deal blackjack from a shoe containing eight decks, a version of the game that gives an enormous advantage to the house.

Six-deck shoes are marginally better. They seem to be the industry norm and are just about inescapable. But Reno… ahhh, Reno. That’s where you’ll find an abundance of two-deck and one-deck blackjack tables, tables that can offer you the best chances of winning, tables that can shave down the house advantage to almost zero.

The location of these tables, while not exactly a state secret, takes a bit of investigating to uncover. After I fell under blackjack’s spell in the spring of 2000, I scoured the web in search of playing strategies and came across Stanford Wong’s That’s where I found Current Blackjack News, a monthly publication, which (as far as I can tell) is the most comprehensive source of playing conditions in the US and Canada.

The bible of blackjack
Everything you wanted to know about blackjack tables but were afraid to ask

Hey, what are the table conditions at the Isle of Capri Casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana?

I’m glad you asked. According to a recent issue of CBJN, they’ve got a two-decker with very liberal rules that shave the house advantage down to a miniscule .19%.

I’m packing my bags right now.

Getting knocked out

So, “discovering” Current Blackjack News was just what a semi-obsessed player needed. So were the rock-bottom package deals to Reno from Southwest Airlines. I mean, $149 for three days/two nights at the Atlantis? I’d be losing money if I didn’t go.

I flew into Reno armed with a version of the strategy called progressive betting. It’s simple: Raise your bet every time you win. Return to your initial bet size each time you lose.

This is a strategy that makes for blackjack sessions that are alternately thrilling and harrowing. In one long afternoon session at the Eldorado (SPOILER ALERT! This casino becomes a villain in a future post) I simply couldn’t lose and ended up about $700, a fair amount when you’re betting in increments of five dollars.

But these types of sessions were few and far between. The fun evaporates when the odds correct themselves and your precious chips are being sucked into the fiery maw of Mount Doom. I wasn’t really winning, but I really wasn’t losing. At first I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the casino, but soon the pattern of winning, then giving it back, winning then giving it back became monotonous. It was time to step up my game. Amazon had a book that told me just what I had to do. It was a slim volume with big print, “Knock-Out Blackjack: The Easiest Card-Counting System Ever Devised.”

“Easiest.” I liked the sound of that.

Unfortunately, after I mastered the “K-O System” I also discovered how easy it was to get kicked out of a casino.



Adventures in card counting, part one

In the heart of downtown Las Vegas
Golden Nugget, spring 2000
Photo by H2Oman via Flickr

Welcome to downtown Las Vegas, spring of 2000.

In a happy accident, you’re staying in the Sinatra Suite at the Golden Nugget. It seems they’ve screwed up your reservation and they want to make amends. Since Mr. Sinatra is out of town (actually, he’s way out of town: he’s dead) this is your first taste of Vegas: a suite large enough to house your own personal Rat Pack, if you had such a thing.

You’re in town to see Cirque du Soleil’s O and, at the suggestion of your “friend” Evil George Taylor (EGT), to try your hand at blackjack. It’s your first time. You, my friend, are a blackjack virgin. Your heart is all aflutter as you head downstairs to the casino.

Hey! Where are the blackjack tables?

You’ll need to find your way through the ringing, flashing maze of slot and video poker machines, side-stepping the occasional walker or oxygen tank. You’re a bit disoriented, but then your patience is rewarded, because ahead of you there’s a clearing.

There it is! A green oasis! Blackjack Island!

You look for a five-dollar table. You step on over to it. Go ahead, take a seat. You hand over a hundred bucks in denominations of twenty to the dealer and watch him count it out. “Floor!” he shouts. “Changing one hundred!” He counts out your chips, slides them over to you with a “Good luck!” then stuffs your cash into the money slot. Ready to play? Let’s do it!

Before you get your first two cards, I need to tell you two things.

#1. Blackjack is an easy game to play well. Insanely easy. But…

#2.You’re going to lose.

Your path to success at the BJ table starts here. Kind of.
A blackjack basic strategy chart, as found on
Click to enlarge.

Even if you have followed EGT’s advice and memorized the columns and rows of numbers on the basic strategy chart, you are going to lose. It’s a simple fact.

Why? Because the house is a heartless son of a bitch. The house has a relentless edge, even when you use all those numbers you’ve memorized. True, the edge is only .4% which is better than all of the other games on the casino floor. But even this small edge is an iron-clad guarantee that – even if luck is a lady tonight and tomorrow night and the night after that – eventually you are going to lose.

Here’s something else: In blackjack, unlike in poker, there are no stone-cold nuts. There is not one hand that is a guaranteed winner. In poker, a royal flush will take the pot every time. In blackjack? The name of the game is Blackjack, so blackjack (a ten and an ace) is an automatic winner, right? I mean, that’s a reasonable assumption, isn’t it? Nope. If the dealer also has blackjack – and this happens with some regularity – it’s a “push,” a tie.

Not the worst thing

So that first night downstairs at the Golden Nugget, you lose. Not much. Maybe forty bucks. And that’s not a bad thing, because they say that the worst thing that can happen to a player is to win his first time out. But there’s got to be a way to win this game, right?

There is. It’s called card counting. Card counting works.

When I (notice how I seamlessly transitioned from second person to first?) tell non-gamblers that I count cards they are unduly impressed, as if this is a genius-level activity.

It is not.

Or that it requires mathematical skills beyond simple adding and subtracting.

It does not.

But getting there – from a novice blindly following the advice of Evil George Taylor to a skilled card counter – takes many hours and thousands of hands at the blackjack table. It also takes, God help me, four trips to Reno.

Factoid of the week

From The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King by Michael Craig:

“I sheepishly turned over my winning king-king. Morosely stacking my chips, I broke protocol and asked the cowboy, ‘How did you put me on kings?’

“‘When the suicide king came on the turn, I thought I saw your Adam’s apple move a little.’

“It wasn’t until years later that I learned the king of hearts was known as the suicide king. If you look at him, he holds his broadsword behind his head (or, perhaps, pointed at it).”

Is the sword behind his head or pointed right at it?
All hail the Suicide King!