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My friend the blackjack pro does not feel bad about going into Wynn or Las Vegas Sands, counting the cards at the 21 table and leaving the premises with a big wad of what was formerly professional blackjack casino money. “Steve Wynn is a multi-billionaire. Sheldon Adelson is a multi-billionaire. Why in god’s name would I feel bad? It’s not even a drop in the bucket for those guys. It’s barely a few molecules of a small drop in the bucket. I haven’t cheated. I haven’t stolen. All I’ve done is skillfully apply probability math to a financial investment. I’ve earned it. In a way, I am my own hedge fund.”
It was never easy but now it’s even tougher to win at blackjack what with counter-measures in place these days for years to help deter what the casinos call “advantage” players – but winning can still be accomplished under the right conditions, employing the right kind of tactics. That’s according to Steve (not his real name), my anonymous friend who’s been hitting the 21 tables and profiting, by himself and as a part of a few of the teams that still exist. I hadn’t talked to him in a long time and was surprised to hear, when we finally caught up this week, that he’s still attacking the blackjack games of Sin City.
professional blackjackIt surprised me because my sense of it was that the counter-measures had put an end to knowledgeable pros walking off with cash. Cumbersome to count six-deck tables are mostly in place – and the too easy to beat single-deck and double-deck games, if you can find them, are closely monitored. Winning too much leads to offers to stop playing and please leave. Steve says most of that is still true but that the enterprising professional blackjack player can develop methods to circumvent (legally) the discouraging issues. So, I asked him about it and here’s the conversation:
John Navin: Steve, last I heard, the counter measures taken by the major casinos had made it much tougher to win…but you still hit the tables and win. What’s going on?
Blackjack Pro: Well, the casinos have become much more cautious since the 2008 economic crisis. That affected business everywhere and the gaming industry was no exception. The top bet allowed at 21 used to be 25,000. Those days are over. Top bet these days is 400 or 500 a hand, more than that and the casino manager is called over and the action pretty much stops. Being the biggest bettor at the table didn’t used to attract quite the attention that it does now.
Navin: Are you playing more on the Strip or downtown?
Blackjack Pro: I go into 36 different casinos, some out on the Strip and some downtown. I like to mix it up and I never spend a lot of time in any one place. I’m playing 5 or 6 days a week.
Navin: What’s your approach?
Blackjack Pro: I never carry with me into the casino more than 5 or 6 thousand dollars. I never play more than 25 to 100 hands. The main thing is to have a system that works and, after that, to eliminate heat. You don’t want to get noticed. One thing that’s definitely different than pre-2008: they no longer take a lot of time evaluating your play. If they think you’re counting, you’re asked to leave — or to feel free to play other games — immediately. They don’t study your play for too long these days.
Navin: You told me the comps aren’t what they used to be.
Blackjack Pro: They’re much less likely to award them to you. Used to be they’d walk around and hand out comps like candy. That doesn’t happen much anymore.
Navin: Steve, are there specific places where conditions are generally better?
Blackjack Pro: I like downtown, generally. The majors on the Strip are super cautious. I still enjoy playing in Boyd Group rooms.
Navin: What else do you do to prevent heat, Steve?
Blackjack Pro: Well, I’m not using disguises, but I change up my appearance regularly. Sometimes I have a beard, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m wearing glasses, sometimes I’m not. I try to alter my appearance by wearing different types of outfits, sometimes a suit, sometimes t-shirt and jeans. Since I’m going to 36 different places and each has 3 shifts, it’s relatively easy to change it up.
Navin: When you enter a casino and find the tables, what kind of game are you looking for?
Blackjack Pro: The basic rule is, the more decks, the less they watch. Six deck games are said to discourage card counters, but they take a long time to shuffle and casinos do not like it when gamblers are just sitting there watching cards being shuffled. Where they tend to place the cut card is important. The deeper they place the cut card, the less time is spent shuffling. What I’m looking at when I go in.
Navin: Steve, you have an MBA. Are you applying at the tables what you learned in business school?
Blackjack Pro: (laughs) Oh yeah. I mean, this is how I make a living and I approach it as a business. It has ups and downs. I’ve been arrested and spent a night in jail. It’s funny, I’ve made more from suing a casino than I have from playing blackjack, but they may be unusual.
Navin: When you’re out playing, do you ever suspect others at the table are advantage players?
Blackjack Pro: Sure. I think there are probably about 100 strict counters in town, those who are in it for a living.
Navin: I’ve written in Forbes about the over/under 13 side bet that disappeared. Anything like that these days?
Blackjack Pro: I’ve seen something called Lucky Ladies — if you get 2 queen of hearts with a blackjack, it pays out. So, if you are able to, you keep a side count of queens. Problem is, if you win the side bet, they stop the game and you have to fill out a W-9 form. Very business-like these days.
After Steve mentioned being arrested and jailed, he gave me the name of the criminal defense attorney that helped him sue the casino for false imprisonment: Robert A. Loeb of Chicago who says that basically the major casinos are killing the game by offering fewer tables, more continuous shuffle machines, no double after splits and so on. Loeb says they may have a few tables of hand-dealt, old school 21, but these tables are heavily watched — and that you can probably find better games outside of Las Vegas.
My Forbes interview with Ed Thorp, the author of Beat the Dealer is right here.