YOU’VE GOT HEAT
The Vegas Card Counting Adventures of LV Pro
It started as a lark.
In the late ’80s I had been taking driving vacations to Las Vegas. At that time craps was my passion, because it was the most exciting table game and had a low house edge. All gamblers know “there’s nothing like a hot craps table.” I had read several books on the subject and knew how to bet smart. Most of these books recommended betting the pass line, the come, and taking double odds, while incrementally increasing each winning bet, so as to be in a position to take full advantage of those rare hot rolls when a shooter holds the dice for an hour and makes pass after pass, while the table goes delirious with joy. This method gives the house its lowest possible advantage over you. Gamblers who bet this way are considered “tough players” by the house.
Having kept a casual record of wins and losses, it soon became
apparent that I had been losing money steadily. Even a low casino advantage
of six tenths of one percent can erode your bankroll quickly, especially if
you’re not adequately capitalized. The short-term variance can kill you.
To play a $5 minimum craps table with this method, you needed $315–$450
per session to be somewhat safe. If you stayed in Vegas for five or six days
and played several sessions per day, a mild losing streak could bust you out
fast. Mild losing streaks happen all the time. There’s nothing more depressing
than having three days left in Vegas without gambling money. As a result, I
quit playing craps and switched to blackjack, learning the perfect basic strategy
for each game. There are slight differences in the blackjack basic strategy
depending on the number of decks in play, whether the dealer hits or stands
on soft seventeen, and whether double after splitting is allowed. I taught myself
all the variations. I also learned what hands to surrender when this rule option
With basic strategy the house edge in blackjack varies from
almost even with a good-rules single-deck game, to 0.18% for a typical single-decker.
In double-deck games the house advantage is usually between 0.19% and 0.40%.
So I played one- and two-deck games only, rarely playing six-deck shoe games,
which have player disadvantages between 0.26% and 0.54%. The fewer decks the
better. Even an average double-deck game has a house edge 33% better for the
player than the best craps game in town. I figured I’d lose only forty
cents per $100 of betting action, rather than the sixty cents I’d lose
at the craps table on average. I could lower the starting disadvantage even
further by playing only the best blackjack games with good rules. Also the variance
in blackjack was lower. Variance is the wild roller coaster ride of session
results that often supersedes the house edge in the short run.
I figured with such a low initial player disadvantage, and
playing perfect basic strategy, I’d basically break even over time and
be able to generate comped hotel rooms and meals, for free Las Vegas vacations.
I like traveling, I like Las Vegas, I like gambling, and most of all, I like
getting things for free. Who doesn’t? I was going to gamble anyway, so
this way I figured I’d get the most bang for the buck. I don’t make
big money in my regular job, so the prospect of those free rooms, shows and
meals was extremely valuable to my vacation budget, especially since I took
several Vegas trips during the year.
From the $2,000 I’d saved up for my first Vegas bankroll,
I was still hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate. What you have to understand
is that if you play at a house edge of only 0.25%, losing, on average, a quarter
for every hundred dollars in action, it adds up fast. This “casino tax”
works on every bet you make, even though you may be betting the same chips over
and over. Also, you don’t lose just that quarter per every hundred dollars
bet. There is a mathematical concept called Standard Deviation, which describes
the probability of how often all possible results will occur. Short-term results
vary widely. That’s why you don’t necessarily lose only that quarter
per hundred dollars of action. In the short run you may lose more or less (or
you may even win), because of various other factors. One factor is that most
gamblers are not adequately capitalized, so when they experience an inevitable
downward swing, they go broke long before they can ride out the losing streak
and be able to ride the pendulum back to the winning side. On the other hand,
the casino, which has a huge bankroll, is able to survive any short-term losing
streak. It winds up with all your money even before you have a chance to recoup.
I absolutely hate losing. It makes me feel sick to my stomach.
I simply had to find a way to get the advantage and have the long-term math
working for me. Then I’d have the best of both worlds. I’d make
money gambling, and be comped to all sorts of free stuff at the same time. I
dreamed of a bankroll that grew slowly and steadily from trip to trip, enabling
me to increase my stakes safely, and garner bigger and better comps. From casino
room rates and free coffee-shop lunches, I’d progress to fully comped
suites, free gourmet dinners, and show tickets.
Understand that I’m not really a gambler in the classic
sense. I’ll play casino games with low house advantages, and if I’m
unable to find an acceptable game, I won’t play at all. I’ve never
felt I just had to play simply for the action and adrenaline. At this point
in time, if I couldn’t find a craps game that offered low minimums and
double odds, or a blackjack game with fewest decks and good rules, I would simply
walk away, get my car back from the valet, and continue my search in the next
It was this desire to have the advantage that led me to card
counting—the next step in the evolutionary process. If you use a simple
count system, blackjack is the easiest of the four casino games that are customarily
considered to be beatable in the long run. Traditionally the others have been
video poker, sports betting, and poker. These are games in which skill and knowledge
can make the difference. However, advantage players have established legitimate
ways of beating many other games long term, such as controlled dice shooting
in craps. Other casino games are mathematically impossible to beat over time.
Since I already knew the basic strategy and loved the game, blackjack seemed
the ideal choice in which I could become a player skilled enough to have the
mathematical edge, win money consistently, and continue to enjoy free gambling
vacations. This became my goal.
I started out as a solo card counter but ran into some negative
short-term variance (that’s how we mathematically inclined know-it-alls
refer to “bad luck”). After losing half my starting bankroll, I
added in some additional funds and tried again, joining a few blackjack teams.
In this style of blackjack-team play, several counters, each with small bankrolls,
pool resources to form one large team bankroll. Each team member considers this
large joint bankroll as his alone, and all are now able to play higher stakes.
We would arrive in Vegas from all parts of the country and join up for a week’s
play. The only trouble would occur if most of the team members had bad losses
on the same day, losing a third or a half of the combined bankroll, which made
it difficult to make up the deficit in the short time remaining. Card counters
work with very small advantages while trying to grind out their wins of one
or two bets per hour. In the short-term for temporary blackjack teams, time
is the crucial factor.
I had been losing playing alone, and continued losing while
on the teams. Finally, with the $2,000 I had left, I started playing solo again
in September 2001. Since that time, I’ve had ten trips to Sin City, eight
of them winners. My immediate goal was to grow my tiny bankroll into $10k, at
which time I could safely increase my stakes and start playing those juicy,
uncrowded Strip $25 double-deck tables, plus the few dwindling $25 single-deck
games that remained playable.
By this time, the Internet had blossomed. Naturally I gravitated
towards the blackjack sites where I was able to communicate with other advantage
players. We would discuss strategies, how to camouflage our skills, and many
issues relating to the game and how best to beat it. There were message boards
where anyone could ask a question and have some of the best minds in the game
provide intelligent solutions. There were live chats during which we exchanged
valuable information. Online I discovered the existence of a world wide, card
Card counting is a lonely business. There are very few other
casino patrons we can relate to. They’ll usually wind up boring you by
describing their big slot win and how they used their “smarts” to
choose the “hot” machine, or some similar nonsense. Counters have
to play cat and mouse with most casino employees, so we can’t really be
truthful with them either. Even our families think card counting is a bunch
of bull and that “the house always wins,” and there’s no convincing
them otherwise. There are very few kindred souls who speak our language.
When I first got online, AOL asked me to type in a screen name.
I entered “Barfarkel,” which was a nonsense word that had popped
into my mind. No big story. I was at work one day listening to my co-worker
Sue admonishing her two kids, Burton and Sennett, over the phone. As usual she
was telling them that they must finish their homework before being allowed to
play Nintendo. When she got off the phone, I asked her, “So, how is little
Barfarkel getting along?” Cracking up, she replied, “His name is
Burton, not Barfarkel.” We had a good laugh over it. Anyway, the word
stuck with me, so when it came time to create my Internet handle, I thought
I might as well use a unique word that was sort of funny.
After posting as Barfarkel for several months on the blackjack
Internet sites, mostly on Stanford Wong’s BJ21.com, I got familiar with
the other denizens of the website, or to be more precise, their handles. We
would exchange emails and discuss blackjack in chat rooms and on the various
message boards. They came to know that “Barfarkel” was reliable
as well. Your handle, or screen name, became representative of your identity
and reputation. I would post long, detailed trip reports, omitting very little.
Other posters would respond to my reports, offering advice or asking questions
to which I’d reply in the message-board thread.
One day an idea occurred to me. Since I knew which online handles
were knowledgeable and reliable, I’d try to arrange to meet some of them
on my future trips to Las Vegas. And while I was at it, why try to meet all
of them individually? It might be more time efficient to arrange a secret party,
perhaps in a secluded restaurant, so that I could meet them all at once.
Before my next Vegas trip, I emailed all the posters I had
confidence in. If they had demonstrated their blackjack knowledge and integrity
on the websites, they received an inquiry asking if they were going to be in
town on that particular date, and if they would like to join other counters
at a clandestine luncheon. I arranged a reservation at a restaurant that was
not affiliated with any casino. The reservation was under a fake name that only
the invited would know. Security had to be my paramount concern. Card counters
have to be secretive and guard their identities. Like a Mafia chieftain, it’s
to a counter’s advantage to remain nondescript and anonymous. Casinos
do not like card counters, to put it mildly. They will go to great lengths to
identify us. Even though what we do is perfectly legal and legitimate, the casinos
reserve the right to stop anyone they don’t like from playing. And they
surely don’t like us. If a casino spy, who had been masquerading online
as a knowledgeable counter, were able to slip in to one of these affairs to
get names and take photographs, it would be disastrous. It was my responsibility
to make sure that only real players got invitations and that the casino spies
that infest the blackjack websites were excluded.
So the Rat Pack was born. I called it that simply to differentiate
these affairs from other parties at which card counters might gather, plus I
liked the whimsical notoriety of the name. From April 1999 through 2001, I arranged
sixteen or so of these “counter parties.” Stanford Wong attended
three of them. Don Schlesinger appeared at one. Anthony Curtis, Max Rubin, Bill
Zender, and several other authors and blackjack notables also put in appearances.
The rules for attending were simple: no cameras or recording devices allowed,
no divulging the existence of the affair, and every attendee chips in an equal
amount to cover the check. These lunches and dinners were invariably held in
the private banquet room of an off-Strip restaurant, not affiliated with any
casino. After a while, the restaurant even began comping my meals for bringing
them the business.
They were extremely successful parties. I guess we got lucky
that no casino spies ever got in to one of them and that no partygoer ever got
hassled or booted out of a casino as a result of having attended a Rat Pack
dinner. I’d post a report after each party, usually on Wong’s BJ21.com
Green Chip message board listing the “handles” of the attendees.
Soon I was getting numerous emails asking when the next one was, and to please
remember to invite this or that person.
After sixteen or so Rat Pack affairs, I stopped doing them.
The idea had simply run its course and it was time to move on. However, I became
known in the blackjack community as a sort of “social chairman”
and was somewhat famous for being the Head Rat, as well as for the renown I
earned for posting my many detailed trip reports.
Those trip reports brought me to the attention of Henry Tamburin,
the author of Blackjack: Take the Money and Run and other gambling books. Henry
was just starting a blackjack page on Casino.com. Through a referral by my buddy
“Bootlegger,” I landed a spot on the writing staff of Henry’s
new Blackjack Insider Newsletter (now www.BJInsider.com). Henry gave me a new
nom-de-plume—“LV Pro,” which is the handle I’ve been
using as author of the reports that have appeared in the newsletter, although
I still kept “Barfarkel” as my regular online handle. So, for the
last three years I’ve been having my trip reports posted on the newsletter
and actually getting paid for these articles-almost like a real writer.
As a result, this book is a compilation of all of my trip reports in chronological order, detailing my evolution as an advantage player. The first nine reports were posted freely on various blackjack websites before I started writing for Henry, and the remaining seventeen have been posted in the newsletter. It’s the story of how an average guy took up card counting just to try to get free Vegas vacations and win money consistently at the same time, and it recounts the experiences, the adventures, and the friends I made along the way. I hope you enjoy the narratives. I also hope you learn a thing or two. I know I did
Note: For those of you who are just starting out, or are unfamiliar with advantage blackjack, it might be a good idea to first read the Glossary on page 225, before reading Chapter 1. This will help you better understand the card counter’s lingo used throughout the text.
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