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The Good, the Bad and the Studly

Of all the sports available in this world, blackjack is certainly one of the strangest. In all of sportdoms other pursuits, be it baseball, football, pro golf or tennis, the best in the world not only get to bring home the bacon, their pictures are plastered on everything from sneakers to cereal boxes. Yet in blackjack, the best of the best are forced to act like spies not yet in from the cold, hiding their identities and their intentions behind sundry facades, the penetration of which would mean their swift ejection from the game. Like the cold warriors of yesterday, once identified, a card counters days are numbered.

 

 

THE GOOD
While there are many derivations of style and form when it comes to player personae, in my opinion, there are really only three species of accomplished blackjack player. The first type I’ll refer to as “The Good Card Counter.” This is the guy who has read all the books and knows every strategy deviation, uses perfect Kelly criterion wagering, flawlessly performs true count conversions to the quarter deck, and keeps a side count of aces on his toes. In fact, this species of player is so good at what he does that he telegraphs his ability a mile away. In other words, he’s proud of being able to play the Uston APC to within 99% tolerance, and he apparently wants everyone else in the joint to know about it as well.

The next time you wander into a casino, casually ghost the low limit tables and look for the guy or gal who is varying his or her bet from $3 to $50, or who quickly draws to a 16 versus a ten with a nickel bet, only to stand pat with a quarter on the very next hand. Another dead giveaway that you’ve encountered the good card counter is to observe a player whose eyes constantly shift from the cards in play to the discard rack and back again, or one who keeps shifting his feet under his chair, but only when an ace makes an appearance. Good card counters can be so obvious that many times the pitboss will throw them a curve, just to liven up an otherwise uneventful shift.

“What’s the count,” the pitboss will ask from out of the wings, after which the player will mutter under his breath, “Plus six.”

I’ve even encountered situations where I was backcounting a table from the table adjacent while another counter hovered over the very same table like a vulture. When the count began to climb and I sauntered over to take a better look, the other counter seeing my approach would either:
a) practically check me into the boards in his zeal to protect the seat.
b) or would mistake my interest in the table for heat and would run, not walk to the nearest casino exit.

A number of professional counters/hucksters have made a pretty penny playing on this theme. They hawk their wares while bragging, “I’m so good, the casinos won’t let me play any more.”

All I can say about this sort of pitch is this, “If you master the same system that got the author barred, what do you suppose is going to happen to you once you use it in the casino?”

In short, there is no quicker way to wear out ones welcome than to be a good card counter who watches every card intently, never talks or smiles, never asks to get comped, looks suspiciously toward the pit boss, or scurries from one table to another like a cockroach around the woodwork. This type of player might prove technically proficient, but will soon find a dwindling number of casinos willing to take his or her action.

 

THE BAD
Seemingly the antithesis of the the good counter, this genre of player is generally characterized by a lack of poise, grace and manners. The warthog of card counters, more often than not the bad card counter can be spotted by looking for any individual sporting attire that looks too motley for the average bag lady, is loud and obnoxious, and who not only misplays their hands on occasion, but loudly insists that the other people at the table play their hand the same way. This subspecies of player exhibits a tendency to parlays their bet, then bang on the table to cause the dealer to bust or to force the dealer to “Paint my ace!” This is the type of player who whether winning or losing, antagonize the other players at the table to the point that many times by the end of the shoe they wind up with the table all to themselves. In fact, the only attention this type of player does not draw seems to be from the pitboss, who is really much too busy talking to the blonde at the far side of the pit to bother coming over to deal with this bore, even when the dealer belts out “checks in play.” In fact, should the pitboss glance their way, this type of player will generally snear openly at the offending manager before shouting, “What are you looking at?” or “Where’s my comp?”

However, it should be kept in mind that “Bad Counters,” while being obnoxious, tend to be quite successful at getting the cash off the table and into their pockets, even though they are treated like lepers by both casino patrons and employees alike. Their churlish behavior seems to act as a kind of pitboss repellant, where the more obnoxious they become, the more latitude the pitboss will accord them. This does not mean that you need to make a complete ass of yourself to successfully employ card counting in the average casino. But you could do well to take a few pointers from these bulls in the china shop:
1) The best defense is a good offense.
2) If you’re playing with large denomination chips and the pitboss looks your way, demand a comp for the best restaurant in the place.
3) Avoid transmitting the telltale giveaway signs that pitbosses the world over are taught to associate with card counters.

Case in point: Several years back I can recollect a certain graduate of my course who while playing on a table adjacent to mine was shuffled upon when he went from $5 to $25, while I pushed as much as $300 into play at the next table over without any hassles whatsoever. When I got him outside, I told him, “With your beard, horn-rimmed glasses and serious demeanor, the pit has you pegged for a card counter before you even sit down. Hell, if you look up the term card counter in the dictionary, you’ll find your picture.”

This comment caused him to look me in the eye before saying, “I don’t care what you say, I’m not losing the beard.”

I replied, “That’s not exactly what I had in mind.”

The next day, I told him to wear his grungiest pair of jeans and his most ragged, moth-eaten tee shirt. To this ensemble, I added a pack of Marlboros which we rolled up in the sleeve of his tee shirt. Then I produced the large economy sized bottle of Vitalis which I had purchased from Walgreens. One hour later, our reborn card counter, sporting spiked hair, and a practiced snear, whom my other grads soon christened Harley, stalked back into the self same pit of the same casino that had labelled him persona non grata and laid down literally any bet he desired without any heat whatsoever. Now I’m not saying that he didn’t attract any attention. But I will say that while casino management and other players shunned, stared, and on at least one occasion took flight from this throwback to the sixties, at least they never again took him to be a card counter.

 

BAD TO THE BONE
On the other hand, if you find yourself at the same table with a “Bad Counter,” your best bet is to relocate to another table altogether. The bad player can be very unnerving to play with at the same table, their loud mouth can cause even the stoniest counter to lose the count, and most importantly, a loud card counter can get you picked off at the very same table that they seem able to play with impunity.

Case in point: Several years ago, I had on my team a member who had turned the “Bad Counter” syndrome into an art form. His M.O. was so obnoxious that I wondered why he didn’t get thrown out of the casinos just from his behavior alone. The pit however couldn’t seem to get enough. Doing a lap of the pit one fine evening, I spied our man Mouth, who was busy dismembering a table. Seeing two open spots, I ambled on over and proceded directly to $50 bets. Every time the dealer busted, Mouth would yell “BOOM,” practically knocking me out of my chair. By the end of the shoe, we each had well over a grand worth of winnings, by which point the pitboss wandered over to check out the action, although he neither had the dealer move the cut card nor asked either of us to leave.

Later that night after eating on the Mouth’s comp, which he had requested via the simple command to the pitboss of “Feed me,” I went next door to try my luck while the Mouth stalked directly back to the same table we’d beaten the poo out of earlier.

“After waiting for my marker to arrive,” the Mouth told me the next morning over breakfast, “the pitboss saunters over and asks, ‘Where’s your buddy?’ I told him, ‘He said something about kidnapping the Folies Bergere.’ The pitboss smiles at me and leaning over conspiratorially says, ‘I wouldn’t hang around with him if I were you. We’ve got our eye on that one.'”

Now bearing in mind that we both won virtually identical amounts and were both unknown to the casino personnel, the pitboss’ advise to Mouth made me wonder if his antics while acting as a kind of Teflon to his own persona, in some way bounced bad blood across to any other capable players in the vicinity. Keeping this suspicion to myself, I decided to test my theory the very next day at a nearby gaming hall known to be tough on counters.

I’d only just come off a table down about a deuce after getting caught in one of those win one, lose two scenarios where the cards seem to have eyes, giving the dealer the perfect draw to beat both my hands, or busting me out, only to have the dealer bust after the fact. I had only just walked away from the table in search of easier prey when I spotted Mouth signaling me over to another table.

I would have been hard pressed to have missed him, since he was standing in the middle of the aisle with his hands on his hips (which at the time was our “come-and-get- it” signal). Mouth’s come hither, which had all the subtlety of a car crash, was made all the more obvious by the fact that he was the only player at the table at the time. As I approached the game, the dealer looked from Mouth to me and then back again, but thankfully made no more of the situation than that as I bought in for a deuce.

At least Mouth had been right on the money about the table, as I won bet after bet, parlaying my bets from two hands of twenty five dollars to fifty, to seventy five. The pitboss was so engrossed in schmoozing with the big chested blonde at the far end of the pit that he paid little heed to the dealer’s cry of “black in action,” as I placed my first pair of hundred dollar bets.

Deciding to give Mouth a taste of his own medicine, I loudly told the dealer “Don’t waste them,” as he placed an ace before one hundred dollar wager and a ten in front of the other, only to come back and lay a ten on the ace and an ace on the ten. “Boom!” I blurted at the double BJ, which caused Mouth, who by this time had managed to work his nickel cover bets up to the quarter level, to jump about two feet into the air. When even this failed to attract the attention of the pitboss, I pushed another pair of hundred dollar bets into the betting area, doubled down on one, won all three, then lost both of the next bets by which time the count and my nerves had eroded to the point where I figured it was high time to take my seven hundred dollar win and ride off into the sunset.

Kicking the dealer a nickel chip, I grabbed my stacks of green and skidaddled around behind the craps table, where I did a quick reconnoiter of the joint. Mouth, who had apparently decided to stay put for a few hands so as not to blow our cover, was still at it, as was the pit boss, whose eyes practically fell out of his head as the blonde leaned over to get something our of her purse. Seeing that the coast was clear, I spun around, threw the chips at the cashier and less than a minute later was in a cab heading back to our hotel, not bothering to so much as acknowledge on the way out the door either of the other two players who were an integral part of our team.

About a half hour later, I heard the door of the suite next door close, so I knew that the rest of my team had made it home. No sooner had I let myself into the room when John, who was for the trip Mouth’s roomie, asked me, “Can you believe it?”

Not knowing what he was referring to as “it,” I replied, “Believe what? The only thing I saw after cashing out was the inside of a cab.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” Lenny, the fourth member of the team reiterated, while Mouth beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom. “About a minute after you left, the pitboss happened to walk past the very table that you had just creamed. Seeing the hole where seven hundred dollars worth of green chips used to be he barked at the dealer, “What the @#&* happened here?” At which point the dealer points directly at Mouth and trying to cover his ass blurts, “Well, this guy came over to the table and then this other guy showed up…”

Mouth, instead of recognizing that the best defense is a good offense, not to mention the fact that he had done nothing even remotely illegal, panicked and snatching up his chips, started tearing up the carpet in his haste to depart. The pitboss, sensing that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, leapt over the velveteen rope connecting the tables and took up the chase. Running flat out, Mouth sprinted into Slot City where he turned once, twice, three times around a bank of machines. Turning the fourth corner, he met the pitboss coming the other way and BAM! knocked the pitboss flat on his butt. Scampering outside, Mouth spotted Lenny and John who were crossing Las Vegas Boulevard as nonchalantly as two fleeing felons could toward the Mirage. Catching up with them in the crowd taking in the pair of white tigers under glass which is one of the Steve Wynn’s trademarks, not only would neither Lenny nor John acknowledge Mouth, they purposely avoided him for the next ten minutes, refusing even to share a cab back to the hotel.

The preceding anecdote goes a long way toward proving my theory that the bad card counter while being practically bulletproof, tends to throw ricochets in all directions. To avoid being caught by strays, my advice is that you take your business elsewhere should you encounter this species of player.

 

THE STUDLY
This last phylum of player is nothing if not colorful. Bordering on the stereotypical, the studly player wears expensive if garish attire, sports enough gold chains to moor a battleship, and comes equipped with the obligatory gum chewing blonde. The peacock of players, this form of card counter is on average so ineffective that most casinos tolerate their eccentricities without giving them a second thought. In the first place, this type of player being more concerned with form than function, looks to dazzle the crowd with lavish bets and tips. They also tend to talk nonstop, being pathological about remaining the center of attention. Their female companions while naturally being knockouts, also tend to whine incessantly which precludes the possibility of maintaining any semblance of an accurate count.

While I suppose that you could turn the persona of the studly player to your advantage by bringing along a bleached blonde who could maintain a sidecount of aces on the double deck game or, what a disguise, teach her how to count, freeing you up to banter away, while she discreetly signaled you when it was time to send in the cavalry, I’ve never personally given the ploy a try. I’ve always preferred blending in with the herd to sticking out like a sore thumb. But as they say, it’s different strokes for different folks.

 

THE CONCLUSION
While it is clear that you can turn the tactics of the good, the bad and the studly to your advantage, those of you who consider yourselves competent card counters have to decide right from the get go whether you want to play for ego gratification or if you’re in it for the money. Because once you cross the line, there really is no going back.

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