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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Must be '21' to entertain this idea

26 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- "Beat the Dealer" did it nearly a half century ago. So have other books and TV shows since. And now this week's release of "21" — a movie about a team of MIT students who used their blackjack card-counting strategies to win millions — might once again draw countless wannabes to Las Vegas who are convinced they've got what it takes to bring down the house.

Today card counting — or even suspected card counting — can earn you a hasty exit from the blackjack tables. Some blackjack experts, though, think that casinos, rather than tossing counters, should be rolling out the red carpet.

"Nevada casinos have probably lost money by turning away card counters," said Ed Thorp, whose 1962 book "Beat the Dealer" single-handedly created a cottage industry of blackjack players who make a living counting cards. "I'd make a sales tool out of it. I'd show that people can come to the casino and win."

The casino bosses listening to Thorp in a packed ballroom during a conference last month nodded in unison. But they aren't likely to take his advice anytime soon — even though they know it to be true.

Thorp's card-counting secrets so upset Las Vegas casinos that they changed blackjack rules weeks after the book's publication to improve the house edge. Just as quickly, the casinos restored the old rules when blackjack customers stopped playing.

In the years since, Nevada casinos have reaped the rewards of the book, which inspired hordes of players to test their skill and luck at the blackjack tables. What the casinos have lost to skilled players they have made back tenfold from those who unsuccessfully tried to emulate them. Without Thorp's brains, patience or bankroll, those players have lost much more than they won.

"People will buy a book, read it halfway through and think they can beat the game — and they lose," said Anthony Curtis, a blackjack aficionado and publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter.

Give a little, take a lot

That's precisely why casinos are expecting a boost from "21" after it opens Friday. The Sony Pictures film, based on "Bringing Down the House," the 2002 book that chronicled the MIT team's exploits in the 1990s, stars Kevin Spacey as a Thorp-like ringleader to the students.

Just as Thorp's book inspired generations of numbers geeks and others to take on the casinos, executives are hoping the movie will inspire people otherwise unmotivated to study blackjack books and strategy charts.

For many years casinos have been winning on two fronts. They routinely ban card counters — whose bigger bets when their advantage increases can give them away — from their blackjack tables, with the days of beefy security bosses beating up players in back rooms having yielded to a tap on the shoulder or a whisper in the player's ear.

And they have reduced the number of basic blackjack games with a low house edge, favoring variations that appeal to novices by offering lower betting limits and seeming advantages such as a single deck and more liberal rules. But these games more than make up for the player advantages, usually by reducing the traditional payout for blackjacks.

With 78 fewer blackjack tables in operation in 2007 than in 2000, casinos on the Strip won 39 percent more from players at blackjack than they did seven years ago. Statewide, casinos won 21 percent more from players at blackjack last year than in 2000 despite 546 fewer tables.

Although blackjack is earning more for the casinos' bottom line, its importance is declining on the Strip, where slot machines and even baccarat are growing at a faster rate.

Unlike many other casino games, blackjack operates on a thin margin of a couple of percentage points in the casino's favor. A player who knows what's called basic strategy but doesn't count cards can cut the house edge to less than half a percentage point. Card counting can give a player enough of an advantage to overcome that remaining house edge.

"I think casinos would like to see blackjack go away if they could," said Al Rogers, publisher of Current Blackjack News in Las Vegas.

Rogers says classic-rules blackjack games may go the way of mechanical slot machines in a few years, replaced by games such as Three Card Poker, a popular branded game that keeps a higher percentage of player wagers than blackjack.

Some casinos have upped the ante by paying 6-to-5 for blackjack instead of the original and more preferable 3-to-2. Some casinos effectively discourage advantage players with machines that continuously shuffle cards not in play and dealer methods, such as dealing only half of the decks in play.

Four Queens Director of Casino Operations Glenn Casale has a different approach.

The downtown casino asks card counters to choose another game to play at the property. But Casale has a respect for counters that isn't shared by some of his colleagues in the business. And he chooses to offer only games that pay the more favorable 3-to-2 for blackjack — with their bigger wins and losses in the short term — as a trade-off to attracting more players and making more money over the long haul.

"Card counting is very difficult. It's a job and a skill. I have a great deal of respect for these guys," said Casale, who grew up with members of a card counting team led by Tommy Hyland.

Very few pose real risk

Although card counting is not illegal, casinos are averse to any tactic that improves players' chances. So when casino bosses think a player's card counting is allowing him to get the better of them, they simply tell him that his business is no longer wanted at their blackjack tables.

Experts say there may be only a few hundred people who are exceptionally good counters and advantage players. Of those, perhaps a few dozen are members of well-financed teams that can ride out losses and have mastered the social skills and disguises needed to blend in under pressure.

"There are very few people who pose a risk to the casino," said Jeff Voyles, a casino management and surveillance instructor at UNLV and a former casino executive with MGM Grand.

"Most (counters) are good at one or two things, like skill and money management. Most of the card counters I caught at MGM weren't good at removing their emotions from the game, and they blew their cover."

Not as easy as it looks

Still, many casinos have tightened their games to thwart counters, even slowing them down by repetitive shuffling of cards. At last month's World Game Protection Conference, consultant and former Aladdin casino manager Bill Zender showed pit bosses how the property increased revenue by abandoning shuffling techniques that discourage card counters.

Curtis endorsed this approach, saying, "Time and motion studies indicate that casinos shouldn't worry about the better players as much as they should speed up the game and get more hands on the table."

But that advice is counterintuitive on the Strip, where corporate giants demand year-over-year gains and have fired managers for short-term losses at the tables.

The Four Queens, which offers single-deck games with 3-to-2 payout for blackjacks, and the same payout on all its blackjack games, doesn't sweat the action like some of the bigger properties do, Casale said.

"What we win today we may lose tomorrow but at the end of the year, the hold percentage will be consistent," he said.

Watching college kids take a casino for millions will be like watching Tiger Woods clean up on the golf course, he said, because it looks easy.

"Everyone thinks they can play like Tiger Woods."