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Blackjack Espionage

19 June 1999

"I am not what I am" - Iago, Othello

Left alone, professional card-counters can grind out significant profits in the long-term. Unfortunately, the casinos fear and take measures to prevent card-counting. If, anywhere in the world, you are suspected of card-counting, your play will be analyzed by invisible surveillance operatives (the eye-in-the-sky). If their suspicions are confirmed, you will be:

  1. Politely welcomed to play any game except blackjack.
  2. Given a verbal warning.
  3. Given a written warning and formally barred, being given notice that a return to the casino will result in your arrest for trespass.
  4. Subjected to any of an array of countermeasures, such as increasing the number of cards cut out of play or restricting your bet size.

How much of a problem this is depends greatly on the individual. For the full-time player who is always travelling, there is always the next casino. A barring from one is not of great significance, though he must be careful not to get himself on a blacklist.

For the casual player, who may be tied down to a full-time job and patronizes only a few local casinos, the problem is more serious.

Most modern blackjack literature overemphasizes the problem of barring. Great importance is based on the establishment of an "act." This requires the card-counter to assume a persona that would not normally be associated with the obsessive and intelligent characteristics of the card-counter. This, of course, will not fool anybody who is familiar with card-counting and is analyzing the counter's play. The act is designed to prevent this from ever happening. In general, this will only happen if the pit boss becomes suspicious of an individual's play, and requests confirmation that this is the case. A pit boss is naturally going to pay more attention to a middle-aged professorial type than a loudmouthed tourist, or a rich playboy, for example. Acts are fun. They allow you to play different characters and revel in your own deception, and they can be successful in throwing the pit off your trail.

If you adopt an "act," you must not be half-hearted about it. You must be 100% committed to the character you have created. Often high-stakes players become enamoured with the possibilities inherent in disguises; some even employ special effects whizzes to kit them out! In truth, most of a successful act can be accomplished by adopting subtleties of movement, mannerism and speech. You must become the character you are playing. It is not enough to put on an accent. That is not convincing. Good actors, both in the casinos and on the stage, do not act from the neck upwards. Create your own character's history, friends, occupation etc. You should never be asked a question you do not have an answer for. Moreover, if you are not wrapped up in the lifestyle of your character, your body language will give you away in many small, unconscious signals. Other people pick up on these signals without realizing it and they will become suspicious without knowing why. Pay attention to details such as the way you walk; these little details can give you away.

Another method of avoiding detection involves making cover plays, i.e., a play not in accordance with the recommended actions of a card-counting system. This may mean making incorrect drawing/standing/splitting/doubling decisions, not raising your bet when the count goes up and not lowering when it goes down, or betting high off the top of the shoe. Be careful with deviations from your system.

The reasons for being careful with your deviations is simple: your edge is small, do not jeopardize it further. You will make incorrect plays from time to time in any case. You cannot make playing errors when you have large bets out, because the cost is too high--your profit depends on these large bets. This is precisely when the pit will be watching you closely.

My opinion concerning the necessity of cover is simple: while the card-counter plays blackjack against the dealer, he plays poker against the pit--that is, his play is geared towards the intelligence of the pit. Against incompetent or disinterested casino personnel, the counter plays tight, i.e., in accordance with the precise recommendations of his system. Against personnel skilled in the art of game protection he plays tight and loose, i.e., he mixes up his play between correct and seemingly random play. He is always keeping the pit guessing but plays close enough to the dictates of the system to win consistently.

Note that the poker analogy extends to the importance of body language. Game protection personnel are instructed to look for giveaway mannerisms which mark out the professional card-counter, much as expert poker players can deduce the strength of their opponent's hand from subtleties of movement and behavior. Counters, even ones who put on a fairly good "act," have certain unconscious habits: they handle chips in a precise and skilled manner, they are often over-friendly, they stare at the pit boss. The lessons are clear: handle your chips in a clumsy and awkward manner. Do not interact with casino staff unless you can do it in a natural manner. By all means monitor the pit bosses behavior, but do it with your peripheral vision.

In general, once the pit has identified you as a potential threat, they will look through the surveillance tapes for any record of your play they can find. These tapes are kept for a finite period; they may be erased after a week. Your play will be thoroughly analyzed to determine if you are counting. According to the former card-counter catcher Max Rubin, who worked at the Mirage casino in Las Vegas, it typically required a hundred hands to determine if a player was or was not counting. Obviously, this would be higher or lower depending on the correlation between the counter's play and perfect mathematical application of the card-counting system. It is evident that a player who travels from club to club, plays only forty minutes at a time in each, and does not return for a week to the same shift has a very good chance of falling through the system. Bryce Carlson, author of Blackjack for Blood and one of the great Lawrence Revere's most successful pupils, advises not returning to the same casino for a period of three months!

John May
John May is one of the most feared gamblers in the world. He has developed "advantage play" techniques for many games that are considered unbeatable.

Books by John May:

> More Books By John May

John May
John May is one of the most feared gamblers in the world. He has developed "advantage play" techniques for many games that are considered unbeatable.

Books by John May:

> More Books By John May