2003-02-17 - 6:58 p.m.
Update August 31, 2011: OK, for years, I resisted putting any details of our blackjack team adventures on the internet. In particular, I had no desire to "call out" or embarrass any of the many casino employees, known and unknown, who might be identified or accused if it became widely known that their casinos had given generous comps and/or generous play to members of a card-counting team. However, the team has been closed down for awhile, and I think sufficient time has passed to allow the story to be told without causing any potential harm to anyone's job. Yes, your humble Peachfront was an original player on one of the great teams, and you can read all about our humble beginnings by clicking right here.
Update May 10, 2011:
With the demise of online poker, and the current crop of gamblers looking for new places to invest their money, I thought it worthwhile to update this page. Blackjack was always the better bet, but it doesn't get much press. But I'll offer you my argument here, and don't bother to argue back, because I know I'm right, tee hee.
First rule of Positive Expectation/Advantage Play "Gambling:" It always makes sense to go for the "fat" value first and worry about picking up "thin" value when the low-hanging fruit is gone. The casino has more money for you to win than a broken-down 1/2 or 2/5 NL poker player has for you to win. It isn't even close. The time investment to learn proper blackjack play is a fraction of the time it takes to learn to play poker -- and you stand to make a LOT more money. With blackjack, the biggest problem is being able to get your whole bankroll in action. Eventually, your action gets too "big" and you can't get a big enough bet down to make efficient use of your bankroll. I don't think that has ever happened, in the history of poker, to a poker player playing cash games. The big sums of money you hear about come from tournaments or from being sponsored and other gimmicks, not from your hourly win rate.
The reality is, most poker players never move up. Most of them actually move down. I've met people who played 20/40 or 30/60 LHE for years, games that have an expected value for top players of $40 to $50. That's it. That's as high as you're ever going to go, unless you're Phil Ivey, which you ain't. And these games are nearly extinct, with the pros being forced to move down into games where they can't possibly earn as much, especially after expenses.
Whereas perfectly ordinary folks like Peachfront were making hundreds of dollars an hour at blackjack. You won't play blackjack forever, but you won't chase $30 an hour in self-employment income in the poker room forever either, not if you ever want to own a home.
Therefore, it just makes sense, if you have not played any gambling game before to make a profit, that you start with blackjack. That said, the conditions for winning at blackjack are considerably tougher than they were when I was playing. Some tips:
Peachfront's Note--I just added the note up top, but I have not edited the original information down below, even though it's dated. It is sort of a historical record for me, as to how things used to be, and it's good enough to get a serious person started down the right path. So, without further, yikyak, here's my blackjack FAQ.
Here's an abridged version of an article I wrote sometime in 2001, when I was winding down my card-counting career. In my view, blackjack is an extremely limited subject, and I'm over with answering fifty zillion questions about it. So read my essay with my best wishes that you will go on to extract a fortune from the casinos, but don't expect me to answer any questions. Thank you for your understanding.
Card-Counting: If I Can Do It the Way I Hate Noise and Crowds, You Can TooIn the interests of honesty and full disclosure, I feel I should tell you where I am coming from. I am not a recreational gambler nor do I personally believe that gambling is a worthwhile hobby. I have never even purchased a lottery ticket. I respect that most people have more liberal views toward gambling than I do, and that's cool, but I think you need to be aware that I visit the casinos for one reason only -- to separate them from their dollars. Some people have complained, "Where's the fun?" when I have explained my method of play. For me, the fun is in the winning and in the rare chance for the little guy to beat a large corporation. No one is saying you have to play Peachfront's way. But I'm sharing some advice for those of you who would like to try.
This page is a VERY condensed overview of what is involved in playing to win. I just want to give you enough information so you can decide for yourself whether you want to learn more.
Starting at zero...
My story is very simple. Eight years ago, in 1993, I was completely broke (like most writers) when a friend approached me with his idea to make money from the casinos that had just opened up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At first, I thought he was totally crazy. I assumed the games were fixed, like the horse races. However, as I investigated further, I learned that if you have a little knowledge of calculating the odds, you can find games that can be beaten.
As a crude example, consider a free dice or blackjack tournament that offers cash prizes to the winners. If you have spent no money to enter, you cannot lose anything but your time. My better half was only working part-time back then, and I could schedule my writing to suit myself, so we started out by exploring the tournament option. Hey! In a few weeks' time, the better half had won a $10K prize -- incredible encouragement, as you can imagine.
It is easy to see that spending zero dollars to have a chance at winning any amount of dollars is an "advantage play," in that we have an advantage over the casino. The casino pays out prize money and dispenses free drinks (and sometimes other goodies), and we don't have to pay for anything. If you are even a little bit more sophisticated in your knowledge of math, you quickly ascertain that you can calculate whether or not a given opportunity is worth your time. For example, in the tournament where R. won $10,000, there were 44 people who showed up to play for a prize pool of $20,000 -- an exceptionally excellent opportunity because each entry had a value of over $450. On the other hand, say 20,000 folks had shown up to play in the tournament; then each entry would have only had a value of $1. Hardly worth the bother of fighting the crowds.
As time passed, the Mississippi casinos became established and no longer had to offer so many "bribes" to get a conservative public to accept them. Free tournaments became less common, and we needed to look for new ways to cash in. One of the best is to simply keep an eagle eye out for new games or promotions where the player can get an advantage. My favorite promotion is called "2 to 1 blackjack." You blackjack players know that when you receive blackjack in an honest (rather than a gimmick) game, you are paid 1.5 times your bet. In a "2 to 1" promotion, you are paid twice your bet. This small difference makes all the difference. If you know how to play perfect "Basic Strategy," you have an advantage over the casino and will inevitably end up winning money if you are allowed to sit there long enough. My first "2 to 1" effort occurred in 1995. I started with $1,200 and was only allowed to bet a maximum bet of 3 hands of $25. I lost about $1,000 before it turned around. I ended up winning $13,000 before I was unceremoniously banned from the blackjack games at that casino. Not too bad, eh?
So what is this "Basic Strategy," you ask? It is not your brother-in-law's ideas about how to play. It is not the so-called "Basic Strategy" on some card sold in the casino gift shops to make you lose. It is NEVER your intuition or your gut feelings. It is the scientifically proven way to play each hand, based on computer analysis. To find the best Basic Strategy for the games in your area, please check this page: Basic Strategy Calculator. I know this player personally, and while he is not a greedy or pushy player who tries to soak the casinos for everything they've got (unlike some of us, heh heh heh), he is a great guy who knows the math and will give you the real scoop on how to play.
Others of you are a little alarmed about the statement that I was banned from playing blackjack at that casino. What's the story there? Does this mean that I was guilty of a crime? Is intelligent blackjack play illegal?
Please rest assured that, as of this writing, there is not and cannot be a law in the United States against playing intelligently, as long as you are using nothing except your own brain. (It is illegal to use a concealed computer to assist you in your play.) However, in most states, the casinos can get huffy and prevent a skilled player from continuing to play. In 1995, when I was banned from play at this Louisiana casino, there was no state law or case law allowing Louisiana casinos to refuse play to skilled players, so I sued the casino for lost income. Alas, I lost, and it is well-established now that casinos in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Nevada can refuse good players, but litigating is always worthwhile if you can do it inexpensively because it makes the casinos more cautious about "backing off" skilled players. Card-counting attorneys can have a lot of fun with this! Actually, my Louisiana attorney is pretty much banned from all the local casinos, but he got his revenge by passing his card around to the employees of the casino near his office where he did most of his play. An injured employee hired his services, and she ended up being awarded $600,000 in damages for her injury. Since he was only $4000 ahead of the casino that banned him, they would have been better off to let well enough alone!
Anyways, "2 to 1" promotions are rare but lots of good fun. One memorable night in 1999, a small group of us got together at a small Mississippi casino full of embittered employees. The situation was that the casino had just been bought out by a large corporation, and people had been fired and/or lost their retirement. Incredibly, considering that we were allowed to bet several hundred dollars a hand, there was no one in the surveillance room! Therefore, when our "team" showed up and began to play, no action was taken for almost 14 hours -- during which we won a total of over $40,000! Rare, but sweet...the sort of promotion that makes it all seem worthwhile.
The best way to win...
Tournaments, give-aways, and promotions are all wonderful things, but the way that I made most of my money playing blackjack is the old, tried and true method first described by Ed Thorp, although probably independently discovered by several other players in the 1950s. Yes, I'm talking about counting cards. So we've all seen "Rainman" (a card counter must be an idiot savant with a perfect memory) and "Chevy Chase's Las Vegas Vacation" (card counting is illegal and doesn't work) but the truth is not to be found in the movies. After all, if the Mirage is letting you film a movie in their joint, they are NOT going to show you how to beat their butt, right? Card counting is easy and doesn't require a great memory. It does require practice and a determination to ignore all "hunches" which are often just self-doubts programmed into you by the casinos. Have faith in the math, and you will triumph. That's why the casinos DON'T ban the Amazing Kreskin and DO ban the lowly Peachfront!
How powerful is card counting? With tournament play, I could start with zero dollars and progress to making $5-25 bets. With card counting, I could progress from making $5 bets to making $3,000 bets. That's powerful! And, along the way, I was given many free vacations to resorts that other people pay lots of money to visit. Heck, some of the suites I stayed in couldn't be purchased at any price, as they were reserved for high rollers only. Card counting paid off my house and all of my credit card bills. Some folks are even professional card counters and make a good living at it. I am not telling you this to brag. I tell you this to inspire you to practice, practice, practice. Because if you spend a lot of time in casinos, it definitely is worth it...
There are lots of programs that will teach you how to count cards. I used a shareware program from Glenco. Other people I know have used a program called "Blackjack for Windows." In the olden days, people inveigled friends and relatives to deal cards to them while they practiced, but I strongly recommend using a computer. By the way, my favorite card counting system is Hi/Lo.
What about taxes?
If you are a citizen of the United States, you MUST pay taxes on gambling winnings. I am well aware that this is not the case in other countries. If you are upset about this fact, please contact your representatives. I do NOT recommend cheating on your taxes because then you are more concerned with hiding or laundering your cash than with spending your cash. I've met folks who have worked as professional gamblers for close to two decades and who have nothing put away because they can't put anything in the bank. Cheating doesn't pay. Go ahead and pay your taxes each year, and be free to pay off your house, credit cards, or car. It's well worth the peace of mind.
If one casino blacklists me...
You are not blacklisted all over the world just because one casino pit boss, one time, told you not to play. You will probably even be able to go back and play at that casino at another time, much less at other casinos. Casino employees are regular human beings, just like anyone else. They have better things on their mind than remembering what you look like. What's the worst that can happen? They'll come and kick you out again. Big deal. If you're afraid to walk into a casino, you've already kicked yourself out. You cannot be arrested for counting cards, and any police officer who tells you otherwise is opening himself and his police department to a lawsuit. Nevada casinos routinely settle these cases of false threats and intimidation for $10,000 to $15,000 so take it as a bonus if you are ever threatened in this way!
Most casinos, to avoid getting into a situation that could expose them to a lawsuit, will just tell you that you can't play blackjack but that you are welcome to play other games or to enjoy the facility such as shopping in the stores, eating in the restaurants, and staying in the hotel. A few will tell you that you will be arrested if you step foot on the property again, but I have never known anyone to actually be arrested for returning. The head of security or the casino shift manager just comes back and tells you that you could be arrested NEXT time if you insist on coming back. I am not a lawyer, and I cannot offer any legal advice. I can only offer my experience, with no guarantee that it will be the same as your experience, so take it for what it's worth. If you really tick them off, and they have your picture up in the surveillance room, you might as well cool it until they forget about you anyway, because they aren't going to let you get a decent-sized bet down. There are hundreds of casinos in the United States. Unless you are truly a dedicated gambler, you will get sick of playing long before you run out of places where you can play.
Does a woman have an advantage over a man in counting cards?
There is a silly myth in the card counting community that a woman has an advantage over a man in playing blackjack. The rumor started when Lawrence Revere, author of "Playing Blackjack as a Business," stated that he could make any woman a millionaire if he taught her to play blackjack. To the best of my knowledge, he didn't make any woman a millionaire. Women can certainly make money playing blackjack -- Peachfront herself is of the feminine persuasion -- but they are unlikely to be able to earn as much money as a man. (So what else is new?) The reason is simple: While men and women play low stakes blackjack in equal numbers, very, very few women play high stakes blackjack. Once you are identified as a counter, a woman has a more difficult time returning to the same casino or the same area. You just don't blend in as well because there are so few women playing for decent stakes. My blackjack mentor, a man, might be able to return to a casino and play under 5 different names, in the period of time that I would be able to return and play under only 2 different names. Obviously, if you can't play as many good games, you can't make as much money. However, this discrimination wasn't a problem at low stakes (maximum bet about $25) or medium stakes (maximum bet $300 or so) so once you do start hitting the glass ceiling, well, at least it's a luxury problem.
There is another theory that young white males are the most likely to be card counters. The reality I've observed is that middle-aged to older white males are most likely to be card counters. But, on the other hand, there are so many middle-aged to older white males playing blackjack that you do not stick out as unusual just because you bet a lot of money. Learn to say, "I have a chain of dry cleaners" or "I have a nursing home" with a straight face when asked what you do for a living. You know, typical "millionaire next door" stuff. Never say you're in software because every socially retarded professional gambler who never held a job in his life says that he's in software development. Just a thought. Remember, even though you are in the casino to make money, you want them to believe you're there to donate. They will tolerate you a lot longer if they think you're a loser.
What about online gambling?
Please don't do this to yourself. It is against federal law to place a wager across state or national telephone lines if you live in the United States. Period. If you gamble online, you will not be prosecuted but, since you are committing a crime, you will not be protected by the court system if you are cheated.
UPDATE 2002: I've just been informed that one of the most intelligent professional gamblers I've ever met lost $300,000 when an offshore betting parlor disappeared with his money. He has no legal recourse. Please, folks, we are too intelligent and we work too hard to give our money to criminals, OK? Don't gamble online. And if you must gamble online, for God's sake, not with $300,000...! My friend's excuse was priceless: "No one else would let me make $50,000 bets."
UPDATE 2006: As most of you know, times have changed considerably since I wrote the original FAQ. In recent months, the World Court has ruled against the United States and in favor of the nation of Antigua, stating that the United States is breaking world trade law when it tries to interfere with American citizens who want to gamble online. If something happens, don't blame Peachfront, but the reality is that you probably have a perfect right to gamble online if you like and if you pay your taxes on your winnings, the government probably won't and can't say boo. The largest sites, such as partypoker.com, are owned by corporations traded publically on the London Exchange. Most of my misgivings against online gambling seem to be proved untrue, although if you do have a dispute, you still wouldn't have the right to have a hearing in a U.S. court. It's up to you to chose the best site with the best reputation. One thing hasn't changed -- I won't put casino advertising on my site. This is a diary, folks, not a hang-out for exchanging coupons and spam. Have fun, and good luck.
UPDATE April. 19, 2006: My blackjack mentor wins a major award from a Vegas casino where he was illegally detained. Click here to read a summary about it, now that the time for the casino to appeal has run out, and we know that he has indeed been awarded and actually received the money. This is huge, considering how many big jury awards you hear about it, where it turns out the actual victim never gets any of the money because of endless appeals and blockages.
Update Feb. 23, 2007: I should have updated awhile back. As of October, if you're an American, you don't need to be gambling online. You may thank the sinister Senator Frist, who in the dead of night slipped some anti-gambling language onto a port security bill that effectively blocked Americans from legally funding their online gambling accounts.
All Rights Reserved, Copyright © 2002-2012 by Elaine Radford