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WINNERS & LOSERS

Lesson 3

Next day, when they returned to the first casino where they had played, where Thorp had upset the dealer, they found they were banned.  The casino would be happy another typical user friendly touch to pick up their tab for dinner.  Thorp called the pit boss and asked him what it was all about.  He explained, in a very courteous way, that they were puzzled at his winning the day before at a rate which was large for his bet size, and had decided some sort of system was involved.  (Thorp had merely recouped a $ 100 loss and made a small profit, but small profits to the players are not what casinos are in business for.) Word travels fast in the green felt jungle. 

He was then informed he was banned from playing at the hotel they were staying at, and this went for his two friends as well and any other friends he might have.  However, revisiting another casino where they had played and won the night before, he was warmly welcomed as the high roller who had been down but somehow wriggled off the hook.  They were invited to dine, courtesy of the house, and did themselves well baked oysters on the half shell, twice, plus all the trimmings.  Long hours of blackjack give you a he-man’s appetite.

Approaching the end of their long weekend, Thorp and his friends drove out to Lake Tahoe where, just inside the Nevadan border with northern California, sits an incongruous complex of tower block casino-hotels, like a Lego model on the ski slopes.  The place they chose was jammed wall-to-wall and he was barely able to find a seat at a blackjack table.  but as soon as he plonked down a couple of thousand dollars worth of chips the scene changed.  A pit boss almost drooping in anticipation rushed over to invite him to dinner and the show.  Thorp asked if his two companions could be included.  No problem, step  this way, Gen’lmen.  The champagne and filet mignon were to cost then $ 11,000.

As I described at the start of this story, after dinner the trio broke the bank (emptied the dealer’s tray) not once, but twice.  Feeling the after-effects of it all.  Thorp prudently cashed in.  But the temptation to pick up what looked like money for nothing was far too strong for one of his New York friends to resist, and while Thorp was away from the table, he plunged.  As they say on Wall Street, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
On their last day they returned to one of the casinos where Thorp had started out by betting in one dollar units.  This time he bought $ 1,000 dollars in chips and winning.  He was now so proficient he could play up seven hands at a time faster than the best dealer could deal the cards.

  Whenever he varied the number of hands, the dealer shuffled up at once.  Finally he happened to scratch his nose, and the dealer shuffled.   Incredulous, he asked her whether she would shuffle each time he scratched his nose: she said she would.  A few more scratches convinced him she meant what she said.  when he asked for larger denomination chips, as all he had were twenties, the owner of the casino himself stepped forward to refuse. This man then sent for a new deck of cards and ordered them spread out face down, and then face up.  The dealer explained they thought that Thorp had unusually acute vision and could distinguish tiny blemishes on the backs of the cards which enabled him to tell in advance what was going to be dealt.  Thorp scoffed but owner brought in four new decks in five minutes.

In spite of the new cards he continued to play as before, so in heavy whispers they changed their theory.  The dealer claimed he could count every card as it was played, so that he knew exactly which cards had not been played at each and every instant.  Thorp challenged her by rashly claiming that no one in the world could watch thirty-eight cards dealt quickly off a pack and then tell him how many of each type remained.  She claimed her pit boss could do just that.  Thorp offered five dollars for a demonstration.  No reply.  He raised the offer to $ 50.  Still no takers.  Finally one of the New Yorkers threw down $ 500 for the pit boss to put his money where his mouth was.  Sheepish silence.
Thorp had proved his system.  In thirty man-hours of medium and large-scale play they had built  $ 10,000 into $ 21,000 (despite the hemorrhage of $ 11,000 gambled back in Thorp’s absence).

  At no point did they have to go into their original capital further than $ 1,300.  ‘Our experiment was a success, and my system performed in practice just as theory predicted,’ Thorp concluded.  He added: ‘They day of the lamb had come.’
Or so it seemed.  The casinos were not convinced.  Another guy with a system, a goddam professor, they thought.  If he’s so smart, why ain’t he rich?  The casinos wee skeptical, insofar as they noticed Thorp’s book at all.  Indeed you can walk into any casino lobby in Nevada today and find arrayed on the shelves of the drug store a score of books and brochures telling you how to win, how to make a fortune at gambling.  Virtually all of them are worthless.  But this time it was different.  As the weeks went by the book was read by hundreds and thousands of people, blackjack experts and novices alike.  They all had the same thought El Dorado! Could anything in this whole world be sweeter than to walk into a gambling hall and be sure of winning?  That’s how it seemed to all those bedazzled people as they pored over Thorp’s tables and dealt out the cards to themselves on the dining room table.  Go for it! 

The casinos began to have second thoughts.  These guys knew something.  They were winning.  Actually, casinos don’t think in those neutral terms.  What they think, to this day, is that counters are stealing from them.  That is not too strong a word.  Casinos don’t mind winners per se ,they welcome winners because it’s essential for gambling to have winners provided only that the winners keep on coming back.  But winners who are guaranteed winners with an edge in their favour are something else.  That spells ruin.  As a spokesman for the Las Vegas Resort Hotel Association was to put it.  ‘In the last 15 years there hasn’t been one place that landed without at least one person in possession of a system.  This guy (Thorp) is the first in Las Vegas history to have a  system that works.’

So the casinos changed the rules.  There were several ways in which the game of blackjack could be adjusted to cut out some of the more favorable options for counters.  A fraction of a per cent here and there it all adds up.  Forbidding the splitting of aces and restricting doubling down, which was the Association’s initial promulgation, served to reduce the basic poker strategies player’s advantage by roughly one per cent.  It was an electrifying decision, the first time in history, according to Thorp, that the rules of a major casino gambling game had been significantly altered because people were winning at it.

The trouble was the new ruling did not work as intended.  Overnight, it turned off all the other blackjack players, the mass of ordinary gamblers and junketeers, the so-called ‘recreational’ players who like to play the game for fun.  The change aroused nothing but resentment.  There were protest and recriminations.  Turnover slumped.  After three weeks, the casinos threw in the towel and reverted to the old rules.  ‘Casino employees, whose income depends in large part on the number of tips they receive, began screaming that the new blackjack rules were a bane to the industry,’ explained an acute report in the National Observer.  ‘First one casino, then another, quietly scuttled the new rules.  They admitted they’d rather have all the business back.  Even if it meant putting up with the system players.

This decision by the casinos to stick to the original game, in the greater interest of overcall profit, despite the threat from the new breed of counters, had, and still has, far-reaching implications.  It ushered in the cat-and-mouse game between dealers and counters which characterizes every blackjack deal, wherever the game is played, all over the world.  As a casual night-out-on-the-town sort of player you might never notice what is going on.  But this cat-and-mouse game is for real.  It has caused litigation and blood.

Consider, for a moment, the case as the casinos might put it:  Here we are, a billion dollar industry, the entertainment heartland of the Old West, now transformed into a modern enterprise, responsible to our shareholders, paying big taxes, conforming to extremely strict codes of conduct, employing many thousands of people, giving our customers, Mr and Mrs Middle America, a square deal and a good time.  We are a part of the entertainment industry.  We offer the public, in the chance to gamble and have fun, superb facilities, glittering floor shows, fine hotels, service around the clock, all at low, low prices in a word, Value.  Many online poker players win a fortune, many others go home winners, and the chances are fair and the same for everyone.  You can bet a million bucks or nickels and dimes, it’s up to you.  It’s our pleasure to give anyone who walks into a casino the excitement of gambling, regardless of age or class or color or anything else.  As the road signs say on the way out from Las Vegas, ‘Bet you had fun!’
There’s just one little thing we need in our industry.  We’ve got to have an edge, to pay for everything above and make a profit.  Like any other business in the country, you might say.

Yes, Sir! Right, Ma’am! And there’s more to it than that.  Casinos are not a public place like a federal bureau of employment or a railway terminus.  Casinos are open to the public subject to certain rules, which is very different thing.  We have the right, under law, to refuse admission to anyone whom we consider is not acting in the true interests of our establishment and our business practice.  That is the law of the State of Nevada, which in its wisdom has set up an elaborate regulatory agency to control gambling.  We know our business and we are in the best position to judge what is in our interest and what is not in our interest.  You know what counters are doing? Bleeding us to death.


I shall return to this conflict of interest, which has preoccupied the courts in Nevada and new Jersey at such length.  For Professor Thorp was not the end of the affair, he was merely the beginning.  A stream of experts, would-be millionaires, followed in his wake.  Thorp’s calculations were refined, as the variety of rules in the different casinos was compared and analyzed, and systems were devised and marketed; and blackjack began to produce its own folk heroes and its own folklore.  The game became, at one level, a kind of minor discipline of mathematics.  It was and continues to be discussed by academic experts as a branch of game poker theory.  At another level it remains the greatest challenge in gambling to all the professional counters up and down the state of Nevada and in Atlantic City, as well as in London and other gambling resorts.  These people are trying to earn their living by using their wits to outsmart the casinos.  And the corollary is that blackjack for the casino managements is a continual source of friction, at one and the same time a great money-earner and a great headache.

Why didn’t the present author, you may at this point inquire, set about becoming a counter too?  After all, wouldn’t I have made a helluva lot more money than trying to write about it here?  Maybe so, maybe not.  Of course I read Thorp’s book and one or two others, and I could no doubt have sweated through the hours of memory and practice.  But being a successful counter is not just a matter of learning the tables.  It is a life-time’s occupation.  As I wrote in a guide to casino games a while back (The Gambler’s Pocket Book 1980) to make a living at blackjack probably takes as much time and effort as working fulltime in any other profession.  It seemed to me that one could spend the time and mental effort required more productively in a regular job, as a doctor or dentist, butcher or baker, with a rather more satisfying role in society than dodging the casino authorities.  So, no, I am not a blackjack millionaire myself. I have met one or two guys who are millionaires, or getting on that way, thanks to their skill and application at blackjack, though.  They do not have an easy life.  Only a tiny proportion of counters every succeed in making it.  Not because they cannot count a deck of cards or six decks of cards absolutely accurately, but for psychological reasons.

  The heat is always on.  It has been estimated that one out of every 20,000 players is a counter and of these only about one out of twenty is a winner.  There is no way of knowing exactly but the ratio is certainly extreme.  Counters may crack up because they cannot stand a long losing sequence, which in the nature of things may last for several weeks, and burn up their capital.  They may crack under the continual hassle from pit bosses and the psychological pressures of evading surveillance and retaliation.  They simply may not possess the character to keep their game together.
The doyen of card counters is Ken Uston.  When he turns up at one of the academic get-togethers on the strategy of blackjack, everyone wants to listen.  He is indeed a star of the game but a star who has found it increasingly difficult to exercise his talent.  Banned, warned off, cheated, mugged, number one in the casinos’ little black book of undesirable players, plaintiff in the courts.  Uston has become a legend in the business.  He has made a lot of money at blackjack and also from his books on the game which depict him in manifold disguises, dodging the management out to detect him and his ‘teams’ and sling him out.

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