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Gaming Guru

Jeff Haney
 

Card Counters and the Surreality of the Professional Blackjack Players' Ball

31 October 2005

Casino bosses liken blackjack card counters to bloodsuckers, or evil creatures dying to plunder and pillage their table games.

Usually, it's just a figure of speech.

But not Saturday night, when some of the world's best blackjack players dressed as vampires, ghosts and pirates to attend the inaugural Halloween Blackjack Ball at a non-casino hotel off the Strip.

The invitation-only affair gave blackjack experts a chance to trade tips, compete in contests of esoteric gambling skills and let their hair down.

Or dye it blue. Or silver and black, like Cruella de Vil.

Because working professional blackjack players protect their anonymity nearly to the point of paranoia, some of the costumes were more elaborate than others.

That led to scenes, surreal even for Halloween weekend in Vegas, such as Spider-Man and a masked ghoul calmly discussing the finer points of playing blackjack at a professional level -- which casinos have weak dealers, who has the most clueless pit bosses, or where you get paid a bonus for being dealt a 21 made up of a 6, 7 and 8.

Blackjack card counters track the cards that have been dealt and adjust the size of their bets accordingly, placing big wagers when the remaining cards are most favorable to them. Counting is legal, but casinos can prohibit counters from playing. That's called "getting backed off."

A card counter working alone can eke out a modest profit.

A well-financed team of counters, though, can wreak havoc in a casino, as detailed in the 2002 best seller "Bringing Down the House," which chronicled the exploits of a group of MIT students who won millions of dollars.

Several players from the celebrated "MIT team" were there Saturday, including John Chang, who won bragging rights by "counting down" two decks of cards in 33 seconds -- the best time of the night.

Counting down a deck entails removing a couple of cards, mentally recording all the others, then proving your accuracy by identifying which cards were removed.

"Two decks in 33 seconds -- that's pretty impressive," master of ceremonies Max Rubin said.

Robert Blechman, a blackjack tournament specialist from Los Angeles, challenged Chang, but finished in 37 seconds -- with a slightly inaccurate count.

"That's why they give away whiskey at casinos," Rubin, an author and former Las Vegas gaming executive, cracked.

Dave Irvine, a member of the MIT team who considers Chang his mentor, also came up short in the countdown contest.

Formerly known only as "Mr. J," Irvine decided to go public with his real name because he has been permanently backed off at every major casino. Resorting to disguises didn't work so well, he said.

"Even if it's Hollywood-quality, you can tell something's wrong, something's off, with a disguise," said Irvine, now a successful business owner and online at blackjackinstitute.com. "We looked into fat suits, we looked into dressing as women, but it was never quite right."

Hosted by Viktor Nacht, the owner of RGE Publishing of Las Vegas, the ball was sponsored by the Ultimate Blackjack Tour, a tournament that was taped in Las Vegas and is scheduled to air next year on a major TV network.

"It's going to be a big deal," Rubin said.

Rubin, now affiliated with the Barona Valley Ranch casino near San Diego, said that property is much more tolerant of card counters than Las Vegas casinos.

A skilled blackjack player who sizes his bets from a minimum of $25 to a maximum of a couple of hundred dollars could go "a long time" before he was even noticed at Barona, Rubin said.

Such players are quickly shown the exit in Las Vegas. But backing off small-time counters is a costly mistake if it alienates other customers, Rubin said.

"Vegas casinos run off too many players like that," Rubin said. "You're costing me, what, less than $100 an hour? That's OK, when there are so many others making us hundreds of dollars an hour."

Of course, with the crew at the blackjack ball, casino bosses had good reason to be wary.

One professional gambler confirmed Saturday that some plundering and pillaging in the Strip's blackjack pits was indeed on the agenda for later that night.