Note: The following column is not meant to represent the actual opinions, actions, or experiences of the author. It is not based on a true story, just like 21.
It's my first session on the blackjack tables for this four-day trip. I've been here for two hours, nickeling and diming my way to being up a hundred bucks, but now everything is about to pay off. The shoe is hot, white hot, like a +9 or +10 count with maybe a deck and a half left to play. I stay cool and up my bet from the $5 table minimum to $50. That's not chump change, friend! Of course, this immediately catches the attention of a nearby pit boss, which isn't supposed to happen and is not a good thing.
I swallow hard when the dealer spins me an 8 but then smile when she follows up with another 8 and shows a 6. Welcome to splitsville, baby. Time to make money.
I smile again and nonchalantly put another $50 on the table. The dealer slides me a 3 to make 11. Double down! Another $50. Out comes a 9 to make 20. Against that 6 she's showing, it's a sure thing.
At that instant my free Jack and Ginger arrives. I tip the cocktail waitress five bucks for karma and turn back to see the dealer has put another 8 on top of my second 8. It's crazy eights! Oh well, here we go. Another $50 to split and she deals me a 2 to make 10 on the first.
OK, I think to myself. Not a problem. I reach into my wallet and remove a crisp new $100. Ben says double it, sweetcheeks. She hits me with a queen to make 20. Easy.
And before I can take a sip of my drink, she puts ANOTHER 3 on the last 8. Now the rest of the table makes no bones about cheering me on. Even the pit boss whistles. I put the remaining $50 on the table and she gives me a 7 for 18. Not bad. Even if it loses I've still got a 20 and a 20 against her 6. Three hundred bucks on the table. Stakes and confidence are high.
Then in the space of three seconds, she flips her down card which is a 6, giving her 12. Then a deuce. Then a deuce. Then a five.
For a split second, I think it adds up to 19. Then all the air rushes out of the Monte Carlo hotel.
The dealer winces and gives me an "I'm sorry, sugar" as she takes all my money. The pit boss chuckles and walks away.
And I never recover.
Any idiot can count cards.
In fact, I can relate to you the how and give you a good practice regimen at the same time. Take a deck of cards and shuffle them thoroughly. Now, with your count starting at zero, flip them face up one by one. If you see a 10 or a face card, subtract one, if you see a 2 through 6, add one, and for any other card do nothing. If you get to the end of the deck and the count resets back to zero, you win. So drink.
Take a shot or chug a beer, because this is going to emulate the second challenge of card counting, free booze. Once you get to your fourth or fifth drink, you've successfully replicated the Las Vegas environment. If you can't get to your fourth or fifth drink, then go see a show instead - I hear one of the letter ones are nice - "O" or "V" or "W" - which from what I understand is a musical about George Bush.
Now, if you've made it to this point, you'll need a little help from a friend. Repeat the exercise while your buddy relays the story of their last family reunion. Have him or her go into thorough, painful detail, and make sure he or she asks you a lot of questions pertaining to the facts and dripping emotions they're relaying to you. You need to be able to answer them correctly and with enthusiasm.
That's because the third and most important facet of card counting cards is to seem like you're not counting cards at all. In fact, if you look like you're not even paying attention, all the better. If you're flipping through your deck and your lips are moving "-2...-1...-2...-1...0..." then stick to the buffet. You can get anything you want there. Crab legs for breakfast. It's unreal.
After some basic counting practice, you might be thinking helpful thoughts like "Hmm... here's an idea, instead of thinking the word 'negative' and wasting valuable time, why not use 'minus' or some placeholder like 'nil'?"
From my own painful experience, do not equate this kind of advanced strategy with advanced card counting. If you're counting in your head, you will inevitably lose the count at real speed. With a good dealer, the average hand stays on the table for two seconds. You need to be able to visualize. For example, if someone is dealt a Jack and a four, your eyes should skip over this and your brain should register nothing, as these two cards cancel each other out.
Anyway, once you can count, the object is to place a lot of money on the table when the count is high positive and there are fewer cards remaining in the shoe. This is also tricky, because a hot shoe comes along maybe every 9 or 10 times. This means you're going to lose a lot. That's going to make you want to play the minimum all the time and only raise when the deck is hot. There's only one problem with this process - that's exactly how a dealer and/or pit boss spots a card counter.
The moment you go from $5 to $50 (or if you're actually talking about making money, $100 to $2000), you'll get some attention. And make no mistake, they do pay attention and, unlike you, they're trained and very good at pretending they're not paying attention. Plus, even if you catch them off guard, there are plenty of cameras and plenty of nerds with nothing better to do than bust some wannabe millionaire playing petty stakes at a crappy table. The object is not about stopping the loss of large amounts of money, it's about making sure that no one gets to cheat. Even though it's not technically cheating, and even though the odds are stacked against you if you don't. This is why it's a casino and not a county fair with those floating duck games where everyone pays two bucks to win a 50-cent prize.
This is real money. Even if it is in pretty chip form.
And then, even if you're able to sight count, even if you can do it with distractions and a number of drinks in you, even if you manage your betting so as not to attract any attention, you have one more issue to deal with.
A 51% advantage for you means the casino still has 49% against you. And that simply means that sometimes, even when the deck is hot and the time is right and the whole shebang comes together (that's right, "shebang"), you're still liable to lose an awful lot of money in a very short period of time.
So I'm thinking $300. That hurts like hell, but it isn't a problem, right? I can get it back, and what's more, it's only a part of my stake.
Wrong. It's a huge problem. The moment the dealer took my chips, everything changed. I couldn't concentrate, I never got the count back, I started drinking more, I took stupid chances based on nothing more than a "good feeling" (which you get plenty of when you're drunk), and what's worse, I started to second guess every move I made. I'd put $50 up, but keep my hand on the stack and take $20 back, then think twice and put it back up. You'd think all this handling would get the pit boss's attention, and it did, for just a second, until he realized I was flaming out. So he just let me be.
At the end of the trip, I lost a bunch of money, a bunch of sleep, and had a miserable time. And as I got up from the table for a final time at 4:00 in the morning with about an hour before I needed to be at the airport, I passed by all the slot jockeys, those unlucky bastards who had probably also been here all night, staring at the dials, popping the play button, no rhyme or reason, no strategy, not really even paying attention.
And I asked myself, what's worse - throwing it all on chance with terrible odds or throwing it all on chance assuming you know something you don't?
"Next time," I thought to myself, "I'm sticking to craps."
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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4.2.08 @ 6:14p
This column may not be meant to represent actual experiences of the author, but I have a hunch that it does!