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Top-10 historical player advantage plays

23 September 2013

There's a reason casinos are housed in huge, opulent buildings. There's also a reason those same casinos offer high rollers free rooms in posh suites with comped dinners at the best restaurants in town.

Fact is, it's hard to beat the house. Even a low-edge game like blackjack will take its toll on a gambler's bankroll over time. Unless, of course, the player turns that house advantage on its head and has an edge on the house.

Casinos don't like it when players have an edge. They do everything they can to eliminate that possibility. But sometimes they make mistakes. And when they do, smart gamblers looking for an edge will pounce and take the casino for every cent they can.

So long as they aren't breaking any laws or rules, I say go for it. If you make a mistake and hit 20 in blackjack, the casino isn't giving you a refund. So if the casino makes a mistake and runs a game with a player edge, I think the player should take advantage of it as long as it's offered.

In honor of those that found a way to beat the casino legally (as far as we can tell), here are 10 great player advantage plays.

10. Andy Bloch and MIT friends beat Hickok Poker at Foxwoods
I wasn't old enough to go to Foxwoods Resort Casino & MGM Grant at Foxwoods back when the Connecticut casino offered Hickok Poker, but I wish I had been. Well, I wish I’d been old enough was, and that I knew Andy Bloch's strategy.

Hickok Poker was a six-card poker game played against the house, similar to Caribbean Stud or Let Iit Ride. Bloch ran a computer simulation for the game and determined that an optimal strategy would lead to a 6 percent player advantage.

Bloch said a newspaper article erroneously reported that he and some of his friends from MIT beat the game for $1 million; he says said they were off by a factor of 10. With a $50 maximum bet, that’s a rate of just $3 a hand, but $30 an hour isn't a bad win rate when you're talking about a casino game. I can't say I know too many people that are up six figures in casino gambling.

9. Amarillo Slim beats a horse in a 100-meter race
Amarillo Slim left a controversial legacy, but he was a legendary gambler and hustler. If you were dumb enough to make a bet with Slim, you probably knew you were going to lose; what made a bet with him interesting, though, was that he'd find an interesting way to beat you.

Perhaps no story illustrates that better than Slim's race against a horse. Surely some mark believed Slim didn't have a chance in a 100-meter race against a race horse. And who would, really? Not even Usain Bolt could beat a horse in on a 100-meter straight course.

What the man who made the bet didn't count on, however, was that Slim got to name the course. And trying to get a horse to turn around takes time, so Slim won the race when he set the course as a 50-meter out-and-back race.

Surely the loser was sore at the result, but you have to hand it to Slim; the man knew how to win a bet. To hear some more great Amarillo Slim stories, give this NPR interview a listen.

8. Joseph Jagger beats a biased roulette wheel
The concept of a biased roulette wheel sounds intriguing. If the ball is more likely to land in certain pockets, and you know where those pockets are, you could make a killing.

Unfortunately, from everything that I've read, that possibility is much more myth than reality these days. But that wasn't always the case.

In the 1870s in Monte Carlo, however, it was a reality. Jagger hired people to record the outcomes of roulette spins on several wheels at the Beaux-Arts Casino and noticed that several numbers had a clear bias. He won more than 2 million francs, and when the casino took countermeasures to make sure he couldn't win, he left. Now that's a smart advantage play.

7. Massachusetts lottery's Cash Win Fall game
Two years ago, news broke about a lottery game in Massachusetts that wasimpossible to lose, so long as you knew when to play and had enough money to buy up large quantities of tickets.

The game, called Cash Win Fall, had a target for its big jackpot of $2 million. When the jackpot got close to or exceeded $2 million, payouts for smaller wins would increase in size by a factor of 5-10. As a result, it became a positive expectation game.

People came from all over the country during the roll down period to play. According to the Globe, syndicates bought $40 million in tickets and made $48 million in profits. The whole thing came to a screeching halt, however, as a result of the publicity and irregularities in sales where the syndicates were buying their tickets.

6. Noticing unshuffled cards
Try writing down what cards come out at a blackjack table and see how long the dealer and pit boss will let you do it. Because blackjack is a game that can be beat by counting cards, you likely won't even get through one hand. But at a baccarat table, they give you a card to track the cards.

The reason of course, is that baccarat is not a countable game. Unless, of course, you know exactly what cards are going to come out next.

And that's exactly what happened to a group of baccarat players at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City last year. When the casino put out a series of decks of cards that were supposed to be delivered pre-shuffled, but weren't, players picked up on the fact that the cards were coming out in a predictable pattern and bet accordingly. For two and a half hours, the gamblers took it to the casino, winning a total of $1.5 million.

Some of the players are still in a legal battle for their money, as the casino says the players cheated them. And the worst part is, they've been baited and switched several times at this point; they were told they weren't getting their money, then that they were, and now they are being sued.

I'm all for the Golden Nugget trying to get some compensation from Gemaco for sending decks of cards that weren't pre-shuffled. But to blame players for picking up on a pattern and betting accordingly seems completely out of bounds.

5. Tin Cup 7-iron bet
As noted in number nineNo. 9 on this list, I love a good hustle. And this bet from Tin Cup is a great one.

Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner) bets that he can hit a 7-iron farther than David Simms (Don Johnson), and drills the ball about 220 yards. Simms then finds a unique way to hit it farther.

4. Don Johnson breaks Atlantic City in blackjack
Here's an old phrase that parents and prison guards can relate to: "If you give them an inch, they'll take a mile." Apparently the phrase should also be used for smart blackjack players.

Blackjack is such a low edge game that the player can turn the game to his advantage by changing a few simple rules. And Atlantic City casinos, quickly losing market share to Pennsylvania and hurting even more from the recent economic downturn, were courting high rollers like Johnson.

So Johnson used that situation to his advantage, getting the casinos to spread a blackjack game with favorable rules and discounts on his losses. He also negotiated with three casinos to get them to fight over his business, getting the best possible deal to win more than $15 million from Atlantic City.

3. Beating Revel's "You Can't Lose" promotion
The results of this play remain to be seen, but from my perspective, it's hard to see how these players don't get paid.

Revel Casino Hotel's July promotion dubbed "You Can't Lose" offered players refunds on cumulative losses between $100 and $100,000. So a few players figured out if they played Ultimate X video poker with some players playing all the hands with low multipliers and others playing when the multipliers were high, some players would have big losses while others would post big wins.

Then, the players with the losses would (in theory) claim the refunds, play through their free play, and the group would finish with a healthy profit.

Unfortunately for the players, Revel has reneged on the promised refunds, and the players are awaiting action from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

2. Phil Ivey beats Crockfords in baccarat
Knowing what cards are coming gives the player a big advantage. And Phil Ivey was able to convince the Crockfords Club to turn certain cards in such a way that he could tell if the first card in a hand would be a high value card, because the decks were non-symmetrical.

Crockfords has thus far refused to pay up the £8 million they owe Ivey, so he's taking them to court. I, for one, hope he wins. If you're stupid enough to let a player sort the cards, you deserve to lose.

1. MIT blackjack team
Perhaps no advantage play is more famous than that of the MIT blackjack team. The group took advantage of math by counting cards but also utilized sophisticated tactics to deceive casinos and throw them off their trail. The group won millions and continued to operate for years. They have been immortalized in both book and film, and almost every wannabe card counter got turned on to the idea after hearing about their experience.
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.