March 09, 2004

Bringing Down the House

After finishing the Mars trilogy, I was hungry for something quick and fun, so I devoured "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich. It's a story that follows a former MIT student who was recruited by some acquiantances into a blackjack card-counting ring. The book describes their techniques and adventures at various casinos, their rise and fall, etc.

Basically, the system works like this. They have a team of several "spotters" who sit at various tables in a casino making minimum bets. The spotters are counting with a very simple system (+1 for 2-6, -1 for 10+). When the shoe (usually six decks combined) gets down pretty low and has a big positive value (meaning there are lots of 10, J, Q, K, A left), it means the odds favor the player, so the spotter makes some sort of body language signal. That's when the roving player comes to the table, gets some sort of verbal cue as to the count, and begins betting big accordingly.

The spotters lose money thanks to the natural house advantage, but it is more than made up for by the statistically predictable long-term gains of the big bets. The big player leaves once the shoe is exhausted and then moves on to another table or at least waits for a signal from another spotter. How much they earn is limited only by how much they can afford to bet (you have to have a bankroll and bet a small fraction of that each time to guard against a run of bad luck), so they are backed by bigger investors expecting a certain percentage return. The players keep the rest and live the high life, at least until computer recognition software, inter-casino databases and irritated pit bosses catch up to them.

I am surprised something that seems rather crude like this techinque was working as of the late 90's when events took place, but then again, there are lots of very crowded casinos. It is an interesting read, good if you can find it in the library. It's a bit overpriced as a trade paperback.

Posted by Observer at March 9, 2004 07:01 AM
Comments

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It's a great scam. I'm kinda surprised they were ever caught, due to the volume of business a casino does on a busy night.

I just got Stanford Wong's book "Professional Blackjack" which goes into painful detail on card counting, but the basic system is that, -1 for every 2-6, +1 for 10+.

The key to using it by yourself is being able to do a running count in your head while holding conversations with your friends, and when the count is high, just leave your winnings out there like you're just going double-or-nothing, so your increased bet looks lazy and stupid instead of calculated.

Posted by: Humbaba on March 9, 2004 08:47 AM

Meh, card counters are still easy to spot because shifty eyes are more suspicious than looking around without really caring. But it would help if you could play at a table with just your friends so you can actively be interested in the cards.

The fun comes in with multiple decks. Keep your count of +12 and then divide by the 6 decks.

I've never been a big fan of Blackjack, though. It's too mechanical.

Posted by: Polerand on March 9, 2004 10:44 AM

You have to divide by the number of decks remaining to get an accurate count, and it doesn't come up that often. That's why to be productive, you need several spotters. Many casinos now have rules that you can't join a blackjack game in the middle of a shoe, and shuffling devices let them shuffle the decks quickly and reliably before the shoe gets too low.

Posted by: Observer on March 9, 2004 11:17 AM

I've never seen a casino that made someone wait for the end of a shoe to join, at least in Vegas.

Posted by: Humbaba on March 9, 2004 12:45 PM

At the end of "House", the author said that the "end of the shoe" rule was something being instituted at the Foxwoods Casino as well as several others in response to their losing too much money on blackjack. Seems to me it would be better to just have two sets of six decks. Stick one in the shuffler, play with the other until you get through, say, the first two decks, then swap 'em. For this kind of money, that doesn't seem like an expensive or difficult proposition.

Posted by: Observer on March 9, 2004 12:50 PM

Ah. I don't know about Foxwoods, since it's in Vermont or some such and I've only seen it on TV on World Poker Tour (love having TiVO record that for me).

I've heard that in Atlantic City, they're not allowed to kick card counters out, so they slow play waaaay down, shuffle every few hands, and annoy the crap out of card counters.

In Vegas, if they think you're counting, they boot ya. They don't care if you join mid-shoe, virtually every time I've played I joined mid-shoe.

Most casinos do have shuffle machines running on their 6 deck shoes while the other 6 deck shoe is being used.

Posted by: Humbaba on March 9, 2004 05:48 PM

Yes, I know how you do it with multiple decks, which is what I was saying -- it's a real pain, because you can never get a very high count.

Foxwoods is an Indian casino, no?

Posted by: Polerand on March 10, 2004 11:08 AM

Foxwoods is in Connecticut and is an Indian Casino.

Posted by: Nitelite on June 26, 2004 03:14 AM