YOU’VE GOT HEAT
The Vegas Card Counting Adventures of LV Pro

17-   A FRESH START - Sept., 2001

Once again I set out in the middle of the night to drive to Las Vegas for a six-day blackjack trip. Since my last trip resulted in a $1,000 loss due to our team taking a dive, I was left with a $2k bankroll. Financially this was where I started two years ago, and it’s been up and down ever since. My last investor, who had put up $5k to complement my own $3k investment, had changed jobs and moved to another city. Since he had also suffered some stock market losses, he was forced to withdraw from our partnership this past spring. Since then I had suffered three straight losing trips, mostly due to the misfortunes of the teams I had joined. In two of those three trips, my personal totals had been positive, that is, I had won money; but I had to bail out the losing team members. So I had returned from my trips with less money than I had started with, even though I had personally come out ahead.

This time there was no team. I was on my own, with my own money. So it was back to square one. With only $2k, I had to accept a bigger risk while maintaining a decent win rate. This meant employing a $10 unit with a $10 to $60 bet spread, playing only the best single- and double-deck games. According to Auston's Blackjack Risk Manager 2000, my win rate should be nearly two units―$18.50 per 100 hands, but with a huge lifetime risk of ruin of over 33%. Since the software computed that I’d have to play nearly 14,000 hands before my expectation was to double the bank, and that the number of hands required to overcome one standard deviation was over 25,000, I was going to need some short-term luck. At four hours of play per day, over six days, my expectation over twenty-four hours of blackjack was to win $444.

After driving to Vegas in just over three-and-a-half hours, averaging ninety-five m.p.h., I checked in to my mid-Strip hotel (six nights comped) and unpacked. I always leave a cash deposit for phone calls and room service rather than a credit card. I had heard of card counters being rousted out of their hotel room in the middle of the night and their Visa cards charged for what was supposed to be a comped stay. This way, all they could possibly squeeze out of me was the $50 cash deposit.

I played my first session at my hotel’s double-deck game. I got lousy 60% pen from all three dealers and lost $225 for an inauspicious start. After a night’s sleep, I played the same table, this time winning $365 in just over an hour. Now I'm up $140—so far, so good.

I ran into Fezzik and Midnight Cowboy at the Gambler’s Book Shop. The Cowboy bought me a beginner’s book on sports betting, which is his and Fezzik’s area of expertise. These guys have trouble getting their bets down, as a few sports books won’t even take their action. That’s how good they are. I learned that card counters aren’t the only ones who get barred from play. They were scheduled to leave Las Vegas yesterday, but because of the terrorist attacks they couldn’t get a flight home. Like many others, they were stranded in town.

Because of those recent tragedies, I almost had to cancel this trip. The gal who was supposed to cover for me at work had a brother who worked in the World Trade Center. She had not heard from him since the day of the attacks, and was emotionally wrung out. However, she spoke to me shortly before the trip and told me to go, since she needed to work to occupy her mind during this uncertain time. After I returned home I learned she still had not heard from him.

Still, I was glad I was able to go. I think it’s important for Americans to maintain their lives as before and not give the terrorists the satisfaction of knowing they made us change our ways.

Las Vegas was less crowded than I’d ever seen. In fact, it was deserted. I had my choice of tables to open for heads-up games. Minimums were lower all over the Strip. The locals’ casinos, like Terrible’s and the Stations properties were busy but the major Strip hotels were dead. The main Treasure Island double-deck pit had $5 minimum signs. This was the first time I’d ever seen it that low.

Rarely did any ploppies sit down to clutter up my game. I would have almost welcomed the company at that point, but playing alone is still the best scenario for a counter. You get more speed, which means more hands per hour to let your small 1% to 2% advantage manifest itself more quickly. However I prefer to have one, and only one, other player at my table to eat negative cards for me while I go to the bathroom or answer a fake cell phone call. As you know, if you have to use your phone, you must step away from the table. Some places won’t let you back into the game until the shuffle, which is usually fine with me. Once the decks are negative enough to justify a wong-out, they rarely revert back to a plus count before the shuffle.

After a nap, a shower and dinner, I tried the single-decker heads-up at Silverton but the dealer would deal only four rounds to me, then shuffle. I switched to playing two hands to see what would happen, but he dealt only three rounds. Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to budge on the penetration. After forty-five minutes of banging my head against this brick wall, I had lost $50, but my two suited blackjacks had won me a couple of free car wash coupons. The car wash is open twenty-four hours so I used one of the coupons and drove my newly washed car back up the Strip.

At 11 p.m. there was very little traffic for a Friday night. Something else was different too. Suddenly I realized all the hotel lights were turned off, except for the Jumbotron screens, which were showing American flags and patriotic messages. Then I remembered. This was the “Day of Remembrance” for the victims of the September 11th attacks. Still it was eerie to see the Strip without lights.

During another session at my hotel, I was in for $225 but rallied to get my losses back plus a small $210 win. Now up $460 for the trip, I checked out the six-deck shoes at one of the Strip hotels to see if I could track the cutoffs. This was the same place The Grifter had taken me for this purpose several months ago. I walked around observing the shuffle procedure for a while and discovered that maybe only one out of three dealers did the proper house procedure. I finally got my courage up and sat at a $5 table, counting through two shoes before I caught a minus nine count at the shuffle. I visually followed the 1.5 deck cutoff during the shuffle procedure. The minus nine cutoffs got married to another 1.5 decks worth of discards whose average count was plus three, resulting in a three deck block with a minus six running count. Since the rich three decks were on the top, I cut a thin half-deck from the back, and then counted through it as it was dealt. Once that first half-deck was depleted, I added the plus six to my running count and, dividing now by three decks to get my true count, I essentially played a “three deck shoe with 100% penetration.”

I was totally elated when the tens and aces started spilling out of the shoe right on cue. However, I bet big into the shoe for far too long and wound up getting “stiffed” way too often. I lost $260 at this session, but learned something valuable. Cut off tracking is a powerful tool, but it has to be very precise and done exactly right or you can really get killed.

Next morning, after a ninety-minute break-even session at Treasure Island (actually I won $25), I spent the day at my best friend Stu’s house. Later I took a nap, showered and headed for the Rat Pack dinner. It was a smaller than usual gathering as some of the would-be attendees couldn’t get flights into Las Vegas. The attendees included Fezzik, Midnight Cowboy, Parker, Packrat, Old School, Becksam, Northwest, Bad Cutter and Splittin’ 10’s (aka Divebomber).

Fezzik queried us about where he could rent a safe deposit box indefinitely with twenty-four hour access. Bad Cutter, who lives in Vegas, told him some likely prospects. Fezzik added that he’d considered getting several bowling lockers around town, since he would have easy access to his funds any hour of the day or night, with no security worries. After all, who would break into a bowling locker? Northwest told of his encounters with Stumpy, the head surveillance guy for the Stations casinos. Parker had good current info on the San Diego area Indian casinos. Bad Cutter told of his losing streak in the last day and a half where he dropped over $4k. And Splittin’ 10’s gave disguise tips and told of his encounter with FBI agents who had recently discovered his sizeable blackjack bankroll at the airport. As Parker noted, the smaller gathering was relaxed and informal, almost like a family dinner. Everyone said it was a wonderful affair and we’re going to do it again really soon.

From here, Packrat and I started hitting and running. We started at Palace Station, where I was in for a few hundred before switching tables to win it all back plus $150. Packrat won $130. He uses the same small red spread that I do. Then we went to the Riviera lounge to see the Lon Bronson band with his Tower of Power style horn section. Before their set, we played one of the Riv’s few remaining double-deck tables. I won another $200, then after the lounge act we played another session. This time I won another $100. Packrat was scoring small but consistent wins too. Our sessions were like fifteen or twenty minutes as we locked up small wins and kept moving. Next was Treasure Island, where we played until the end of swing shift. I won $340 here to push my trip total up to $1,015. After a comped late night snack in the coffee shop, we called it a night.

Next morning I woke up late and after getting myself together, I headed for Terrible’s. They recently discontinued the late surrender option on their double-deckers, but the 75% pen I got more than made up for it. For a card counter, deep penetration is always more important than good rules, although we’d like to have both, if possible. I played for an hour with two others, winning $285 and a breakfast comp. I wasn’t expecting much from the coffee shop, but they surprised me. The steak was good, the fruit was fresh, the eggs were cooked just right, plus their own brand of steak sauce was excellent. This is one coffee shop I’d visit again.

I was now up $1,300 for the trip. I spent the day with Packrat at the sandy beach at Mandalay Bay. The wave pool was awesome. It’s a huge pool—more like a small lake—that generates a two-foot swell about once a minute. Everyone scrambles to get into position then swims like mad to catch the wave. The ride is short but satisfying enough. It definitely gives the feel of bodysurfing, then deposits the riders, like so many beached whales, onto a concave landing platform with a plastic-composite bottom.

We also swam in the Lazy River, which is a circular channel pool in which the current sweeps you around the circuit. Many folks had rented inner tubes, which is the way to go here. We took a few laps around, ducking under the waterfall as we traversed. For my money, Mandalay Bay has the best pool area in Las Vegas, better than Mirage, Bellagio, Flamingo, Tropicana or any others you could name. 

On the way out I checked out the new double-deckers that Mandalay Bay had installed. All four tables were $25 minimum on this late afternoon. One table had two players who looked like they were doing all right, so I decided to chance it and join them, even though my small bankroll couldn’t really support $25 minimum tables. Probably the fact that they offer late surrender helped me decide to play. To play right with green chips means you have to be willing to risk at least forty quarter units ($1,000) in a session. I played very conservatively for forty-five minutes, winning $300. I think my top bet was $100. You can’t play double-deck games with a 1 to 4 spread and expect to win long term. It’s too small. According to the conventional wisdom, a 1 to 6 or 1 to 8 spread is the ideal compromise between optimizing the win rate and keeping the variance to a minimum. It’s the perfect balance of risk vs. reward. 

Dinner at Trilussa, the Italian restaurant at Casino Royale, was delicious. This restaurant space has since been converted into an Outback Steakhouse, but whichever name it goes by, there’s always a great window view of the Mirage fountains and volcano. I had the scampi appetizer and a steak and salmon main course while reading the What’s On magazine, searching in vain for my kind of lounge act. I had been trying to see Sam Butera for months, but he wasn’t playing at present. Sam is the last active member of the old Louis Prima outfit. I was also interested in seeing the new Frank & Friends—Our Way, which is a Rat Pack tribute at the Tropicana lounge. I found out it would be dark for two weeks but that it would be playing again during my next trip. 

I hooked up with Packrat again and we walked to Treasure Island where each of us table-hopped until he won $200 and I won $150. At this point he was up $500 for the day and I was up $850 for the day and $1,850 for the trip.

Then we walked through Mirage. There were several $25 double-deck tables. After a brief conference, we decided to play, even though our red bankrolls couldn’t really support a true 1 to 6 or 1 to 8 green spread unless we got hot right off the bat. As a result, both of us bet scared. I think my highest bet was only $75 in a choppy, back and forth game. Packrat won another $200 and quit early, happy with his small win. I lost $200, my first losing session in the last ten. Realizing my mistake, I vowed to play within my bankroll limits from then on. I guess I was out of the habit of betting green, and was reluctant to risk my hard-won $1.8k at these higher stakes. As a result, I had shortchanged myself by betting scared money, which is a sure way to lose.

The next morning I started with another losing session (-$350) at my hotel’s two-deck game. I had a bagel and lox breakfast at Treasure Island, and then joined Packrat at the Mandalay Bay wave pool again. Now up only $1,300 for the trip, I spent the day bodysurfing and soaking up rays. Packrat told me that last night after we parted, he tried to talk the grave supervisor at the Mandalay double-deck pit into letting him play $25 stakes at a $100 minimum table. He had asked because all four tables were empty, but the pit-stiff refused. Apparently the pit staff there is not as enlightened as those at the former Wynn resorts, who will usually let you play lower than the posted minimum in order to get the table action started. I told the Packrat he could have had a whole new career as a shill.

I had a brief visit from Jack H, a former teammate. We played a double-deck table together at my hotel with Jack anchoring the table at third base. He won $170 and I lost $200 for my third loss in a row. Now I was a bit worried. Was my positive run over? Is it all downhill from here? I briefly considered, and then rejected the notion to drive home a day early, preserving the $1,100 win. That “run out the clock” mentality is always distasteful to me. Though I had at first resolved to play conservatively from here on out to sit on my winnings, I changed my mind and decided to play it out, take my chances, and let the chips fall where they may. After all, the more hours I play, the more money I should make.

Checking out the tables at Terrible’s, I saw that they were all full. That was indicative of the same thing I noticed during the entire trip. The locals’ casinos were packed though not as much as usual. Only the major Strip resorts were ghost towns. I still couldn’t get my mind around how lucky I was to have these uncrowded conditions, despite being only able to play a red spread. Had I started with $8 to $10k bankroll, I would have been playing a $25 unit with a true green spread and would have won $5k easily.

At midnight I drove back to Treasure Island. I bought in for $200 and played a ninety-minute session, mostly heads-up, then one other player joined. This was my best session of the trip. No matter what hand I was dealt, I’d hit it and prevail, or the dealer would bust. I started with bets of $10, $15 and $20 while the pit ignored me. Once I started winning, my neutral bets went up to $25 and $30. The floorman then asked for my player’s card again, which I cheerfully handed over. This event caused me a bit of concern, but then I realized he was just upgrading my rating. I colored out with my first $1,000 chip of the trip, plus a few extra greenies. I had won $875 net, with my highest bet at $80. I took out the $75 for expenses, and called it an $800 win which brought my trip total back to its highest point at plus $1,900.

Later, Packrat and I caught the Bellagio pit as they were changing from swing to grave personnel. The swing manager told us to carry our request to play $10 minimum at a $25 double-deck table to the incoming grave boss. The grave boss said, “Okay,” then added, “You’re not counting cards, are you?” which took me aback. I finally said something about being hardly able to “count” my hand up to twenty-one, but I was impressed. They’re a sharp lot of oscars at Bellagio.

So at 3 a.m. Packrat and I had a $10 Bellagio pitch game to ourselves. We seesawed back and forth but this game seemed much tougher than the Treasure Island double-decker. As we hit and busted stiff after stiff, my memory drifted back to when the Bellagio first opened in late 1998 and I had consistently good success playing here. But then, in my last six or eight times in this pit, I had a much harder time winning. Anyway, I rallied back from almost $300 down to lose only $100 while Packrat lost $250. He was still up around $1,400 for the trip though, while I was still sitting on a $1,800 lead.

My last morning in LV, I played the double-decker at my hotel. I had been avoiding day shift because of a certain pit boss who in the past, had gone through the discards on me and once instructed the dealer to hide cards. Today he was nowhere to be seen, so I was able to play without concern. I broke even after ninety minutes. Later on swing, I played another sixty-minute session and won $300. Turning to Treasure Island, I played with the same dealer as last night when I had won the $800. This time it was tougher. I finally concluded what was to be my last blackjack session of the trip with a $50 win after being in for $250 and finally winning it back.

I could kick myself for getting sleepy and turning in on my last night in Las Vegas. After all, it was only 2 a.m. and I was sure I would never see blackjack conditions like this again. However, I was yawning and unable to keep my eyes open. I was up $2,150 for the trip but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I had let Las Vegas off too easy. I had played nearly twenty-four hours in just over five days, but felt like kicking myself for not having gone all out, playing eight hours a day. Also I could have tempted the fates and played perhaps one-third of my sessions at those good Strip $25 double-deck tables, using a $150 max bet. But hey, anyone can second-guess himself on Monday morning after the results are in. I decided to banish the triplets “coulda, shoulda and woulda” from my thoughts and be satisfied with the trip results. After all, I had more than doubled my small bankroll in only 2,400 hands, not the 14,000-hand average the software predicted

According to the Blackjack Risk Manager 2000 software, the chance of this result or better was only 10.8%. My result was 1.235 standard deviations to the right (the good side). The odds of hitting this trip goal were only 22%, while my adjusted expected value was to make $18.50 per hour for an average trip win of $444 in twenty-four hours of play. So I had over-bet my bankroll and had gotten very lucky. With only a $2k bankroll, and following the generally accepted wisdom of having 100 top bets in a blackjack bankroll, my max bet should have been only $20, not $60.

But aside from over-betting my puny bankroll, I was making too many other mistakes. Playing $25 tables before I was financially and emotionally able to do so was not the smartest move. Although it was only an idle, momentary thought, to even briefly consider cutting the trip short a day early was not indicative of the way a real advantage player should think. Another mistake was allowing my top bet to climb to $80 in that last Treasure Island session. Plus I also have to stop fixating so closely on short-term results, and start thinking more in the long-term. 

Despite all that, it was a good win and I’ll take it. I might have won more by being more aggressive and taking better advantage of the unusual conditions, but things could have gone wrong just as easily. If I could double my bankroll every time out, I’d quit my job and play blackjack full time. So, for now I’ll be quite satisfied with the win. We’ll see what happens next time.

Starting Bankroll

$2,000

Ending Bankroll

$4,150

Net Win/Loss

+$2,150



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