I have two distinct lives. One in the trenches of low-budget film and television, the other in professional gambling. Because of the feast-or-famine nature of show business I need a reliable income... gambling. So here you will read about both worlds. Enjoy!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Blackjack Ball 2012

Every year there is a party for some of the greatest minds in Blackjack.  Attending are great writers, and theoreticians like Stanford Wong, Arnold Snyder, and James Grosjean.  Also in attendance are some of the great players of all time, like Al Francesco, members of the MIT and Hyland teams, and James Grosjean.  But the Blackjack Ball 2012 was an epic gathering.  Cocktails began at 5:00 and my wife and I were fairly early.
James McDermott
I was thrilled to see this man in attendance.  Who is James McDermott?  In the 1950s this man, along with Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, and Herbert Maisel first calculated basic strategy for blackjack.  There were no computers.  All they had were adding machines.  They published their findings in a little book called Playing Blackjack to Win in 1957.  For the game of Blackjack this was the Big Bang.  Before this no one had figured out exactly when it is correct to take another card, or double down.  (Or if they had no one had published it.)

That little book inspired this man:

Ed Thorp
Ed Thorp wrote the first book on counting cards, Beat the Dealer.  It was the first book to prove that blackjack could be beat by keeping track of the cards.  The book changed blackjack forever, and without exaggeration was responsible for the earnings of tens of millions of dollars by the people in this room.  It was no wonder that he received a standing ovation when presented with a plaque which read:

With deep appreciation, we salute you for the immeasurable contributions you have made to the craft of Professional Blackjack

Max Rubin presents Ed Thorp with a plaque. 
Ed Thorp was the first person inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame, and every year at the Ball a new member is inducted.  This year it was Ian Anderson, author of Turning the Tables on Las Vegas and later Burning the Tables in Las Vegas.  Most books for card counters teach you how to count the cards, and what the proper strategy decisions are. Anderson was really the first author to discuss how to get away with counting cards; how to actually take the money out of the casinos, and this was a really important contribution.

A quick note about the Blackjack Hall of Fame.  It is not without controversy.  Often people question, why is this person in and that person not?  The people who founded the Hall of Fame wanted it to not just be for blackjack authors, but for players.  Guys (and girls) who have gone out and consistently taken money out of casinos, as well as people like Thorp and McDermott who have contributed through publishing.  Because of the secretive nature of what we do it is hard for people to know why someone belongs in there if they don't know that person, or have heard the tales of their exploits. For example, last year the inductee was Zeljko Ranogajec, a person you probably have never heard of.  But trust me on this, if anyone belongs in a blackjack hall of fame it is Zeljko.  There is probably someone out there sucking millions out of casinos that none of us have ever heard of.  Someone who really belongs in the Hall of Fame but will never be there because they keep their activity secret. It is not a perfect system, and it is evolving, but it is the best we have at this time.

After dinner was a calcutta auction, and then the famed competition for the Grosjean Cup.

The competition starts with a test of 21 questions.  Here are some of the questions from the quiz.

3. If you get this one wrong, you’re disqualified. Casino Player Magazine awarded this casino the title of “Best Blackjack in America” in 2011. As the sponsor of the Blackjack Ball and home of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, this casino can offer their loose rules and high stakes games because everyone who attends the Blackjack Ball agrees not to play blackjack there. Name that casino.

The answer - Barona.  I have to say that I think this is actually a brilliant move on Barona's part. They give the members of the Hall of Fame a comp for life with the understanding that those people will NOT play blackjack there.  All the people who attend the Ball are also supposed to agree not to play at Barona, and some of them are not so scrupulous about this, but still I I think Barona saves many thousands of dollars with this.

7. True or False? For the basic strategy player, the blackjack switch games at the Bellagio, which are dealt out of a continuous six deck shuffler, have a lower house edge than the Bellagio’s best double deck games.

Answer - It’s hard to believe, but the double deck games at the Bellagio that stand on soft 17 have a .19% edge off the top and their blackjack switch games, even with a continuous six deck shuffler are only .18%, so the answer to seven is True.

20. According to Stanford Wong’s December issue of Current Blackjack News, where would you find the most blackjack tables in December of 2011?
          A. In the Greater Seattle Area 
          B. In Florida’s land based casinos 
C.  In Reno
          D. At the Mohegan Sun

Answer - As of December, 2011, there were 132 blackjack games in the greater Seattle area, 173 blackjack games in Florida and 173 blackjack games at the Mohegan Sun and Reno, even when you take out Sparks and Verdi, tops the list at 189. The answer is C. Reno.
Four people scored a 13 on the test, Anthony Curtis, Big Tony, Wahoo and Mr Yuk.  We needed a fifth and there were 6 or 7 players who scored 12 so they had a sudden death playoff.  They came to the front of the room and had to "name a casino in California that deals the game of blackjack."  If you named a casino that had already been named, or if you blanked, you were eliminated.  One by one they checked about 30 casinos off the list before they started getting eliminated.  Poker player Blair Rodman got sort of a bad call from the ref when he named Trump 29 and was eliminated because the real name is Spotlight 29. Eventually WRX grabbed the 5th spot at the final table.

The first competition was card counting.  Each of the 5 players at the final table was given a single deck with 5 cards removed.  Because people use different counts the question was, "How many black cards are missing from your deck?"  I don't remember if he had the slowest time or if he made a mistake in the count, but WRX was the first eliminated.

As you can see, some of the rounds are serious blackjack skills, like ace sequencing, and some are just silly, like arm wrestling.  The biggest upset of the night came when Mr Yuk defeated Anthony Curtis in the arm wrestling competition.  Anthony has competed in this event many times and this is the first time he has ever lost the arm wrestling competition.
Place your bets.  How many cards in the discard rack?
I called it 42.  James Grosjean was standing next to me and said he wasn't very good at card estimation but he'd call it 45.  Correct answer - 44.
For the memorizing cards section a deck was spread for 30 seconds giving the players time to memorize as long a string as possible.  They then took turns naming what card would come next as Max dealt.  When you named the wrong card you were out.  Mr Yuk won again and seemed to be on  a roll.  Wahoo was the 2nd man eliminated from the final table.  Then came shuffling chips.
Mr. Yuk - epic Fail!
Mr. Yuk apparently no experience with this essential blackjack skill, whereas Big Tony got his name from the size of his hands.
Even with this win Big Tony was low man at the chip count.
Then there were 2.  Anthony Curtis, seasoned veteran, and Mr. Yuk a young newcomer, his first time at the Blackjack Ball.  The final test - a 5 hand blackjack tournament.  They each start with $1000, and Anthony Curtis has the button.  This is a big disadvantage. Blackjack tournaments are the opposite of poker tournaments.  The button acts first.  That means that on the crucial last hand Anthony Curtis will have to bet first, and act first.  Will Mr Yuk be intimidated by the fact that for years Anthony Curtis was considered the best blackjack tournament player in the world?  Or is Anthony intimidated by the fact that Mr. Yuk is the first guy to ever put his arm down?

At this point Joe Pane says to me he'll take Anthony Curtis and lay me $15 to $10.  I quietly say to Yuk, you play many tournaments?  He says, a lot.  I tell Joe we have a bet.

Hand 1.  Anthony bets $100 and Yuk bets the same.  They both win.
Hand 2.  Yuk bets $100 and Anthony realizes he need to take the lead.  He bets $300.  Yuk gets 18, Anthony gets 11, and the dealer has a 7 up.  Anthony chooses to just hit which seems to clearly be the right play when the bankrolls are only $1100 and he has 300 bet.  Anthony makes 20, and the dealer makes 18 pushing Yuk.  Anthony is now up by $300
Hands 3&4.  I don't remember exactly what happens but between the 2 hands Anthony has some very bad luck, gets swung and going into hand 5 Yuk has $1,350 and Anthony has $900.
My bet is looking really good at this point, but then Max announces that the final hand is a secret bet!  Oh no. This means that if Mr. Yuk is not an experienced tournament player he could very easily blow this.
Hand 5.  Mr Yuk gets dealt 20, and Anthony is dealt hard 6.  Anthony is drawing dead.  Anthony doubles down - his secret bet was 450.  Turns out Mr. Yuk bet $500 which is an excellent bet.  This bet means that if Anthony were to bet his 900 and get to 1800, if Yuk also wins his 1350 goes to 1850 beating him.  If Anthony had bet 900 and Yuk sees he has a blackjack (taking him to 2,250) then Yuk can double down with whatever 2 cards he has and if he wins he gets to 2350.  Yuk only loses if he gets swung - Anthony wins while Yuk loses.  I think that only happens about 8% of the time.  

Congratulations to Mr. Yuk, a victory for the new generation of blackjack players.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Laurie C.

Our guest this week is Laurie C. long-time member of the MIT Blackjack team, and wife of Johnny C. who ran the MIT team.  We talk about counting cards, the movie 21, and the advantages of being a
Chinese woman in the casinos.
Click to listen - Alt click to download

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Daniel Negreanu

Our guest this week is Daniel Negreanu aka "Kid Poker" although he has now been playing so long he may have to change his moniker to "Middle-Aged-Man Poker."  Daniel is the author of  Power Hold'em Strategy which outlines his "small ball" tournament strategy.  He says this is the strategy that most of the tournament pros have adapted. We talk poker on TV, poker on the internet, poker tournaments, and whether he had the right side of the great poker-kickboxing match of 2011.
Click to listen - Alt click to download

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Don Johnson

Our guest this week is Don Johnson.  At his day job Don works at Computer Assisted Wagering for one of the largest horse bettors in the world.  As a sideline he won $15 million playing blackjack in Atlantic City with the help of a 20% rebate on his losses.  Bob and I also discuss the importance of scouting both games and promotions.
Click to listen - Alt click to download

Friday, January 6, 2012

Gambling With an Edge - guest Mike Shakleford

Our guest this week is Mike Shakleford aka "The Wizard of Odds." We talk about proposition bets for the upcoming Super Bowl, and The Oscars. Learn why you should bet the under and the dog. Mike will be taking over for me on the show starting in February so we also talk some about the new direction the show will take.
Click to listen - Alt click to download

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Repeat Until Rich by Josh Axelrad

I recently finished Repeat Until Rich by Josh Axelrad. I should start by saying that I am a big fan of this type of book. I devoured Ken Uston's books before playing on big teams myself; not for the “how to” but for the stories of what it is like to be a professional player. I thoroughly enjoyed Blackjack Autumn by Barry Meadow, and thought Kevin Blackwood's, Play Blackjack Like the Pros was reasonable even though I disagree with many of his conclusions. I'm sorry to say I couldn't make it through more than a couple pages of Stuart Perry's Las Vegas Blackjack Diary. It read like my old tax records, and really shows the difference between writing and record keeping.

Josh does a good job of capturing the excitement, fear, and insanity that go with high-stakes blackjack. Unlike Ken Uston, he does not think he is the world's greatest blackjack player, and actually admits to being a bad one. He struggles with simple things like keeping the count, and has a really hard time with things like adjusting for true count, and sizing bets. One of the team leaders says, “anyone who can calculate an 18% tip in a restaurant can count cards.” The team, called Mossad in the book, quickly hands him thousands of dollars, and throws him into the shark tank with very little instruction. To non-players this will seem insane, but it is very much my experience with big teams. They may argue for hours over what the proper bet is with a running 17, 3 ½ decks to go, and a $450 unit, but then throw 2 or 3 ten-packs at a guy in the car, and as they're getting out start yelling rapid fire, “Oh, this signal means 'come into game,' this is 'end of play,' this means 'bet more...'” all the while the poor newbie is pleading, “Wait, wait, where do I go? How much do I bet? How do I know when to quit?”

Josh starts as a spotter, and it seems within weeks he has major heat all over Vegas. Pros will want to scream at the book, “Dude! Cut off your freaking dreadlocks!” You're the only white guy in the casino with dreadlocks and you can't figure out why you are getting barred the minute you walk in the door.
But Mossad had a policy that no one would be dropped from the team for getting heated up. They may throw you in the fryer, but they wouldn't abandon you when you got extra crispy. I find this loyalty admirable.

Josh now goes from a spotter with heat all over Vegas, to BP. Say what?! While everyone in town knew the guy with dreadlocks, they didn't have his name. Maybe he cut his hair, or hid it somehow, but he was reborn as a BP and was clean... for a while. Now to me this is the most interesting part of the book. Every professional has to deal with issues like, carrying cash, CTRs (cash transaction reports), ID, and heat. Mossad's approach was this: No fake ID ever. CTRs, file them with your real name. Heat – ignore it. Go right into the furnace and keep firing until they threw you out. This approach was unique in my experience. Mossad encouraged all players to invest and had a very large bankroll. This allowed them to bet up to 2 or 3 hands of $10,000. They won millions (I remember one New Years week where the rumor was they won 2 million) but it fried BPs, and eventually burned out the “big player call in” completely in many venues. To this day if a player in Las Vegas, with no players card enters a blackjack game in progress and bets the table maximum he will probably be barred before the shoe is over.

The book flies along with crazy blackjack stories, and Josh doing even crazier things. He goes into his bank in New York and deposits $18,000 in cash. Two weeks later he withdraws it in cash to take back to Vegas. It sounds like he did these kinds of transactions dozens of times. Dude, didn't anyone tell you they have bank branches in Vegas, and safe deposit boxes there too? They have the usual run in with cops in Louisiana, and by some miracle the cops don't confiscate their $120,000 in cash, although they do get taken out of the car at gunpoint.

Then the book takes a hard left turn. Josh gets out of blackjack and becomes a degenerate poker player. What had started as a breezy, fun read now becomes bleak and depressing as he blows all his money, and wallows in his addiction. He should have made this a second book which we all could skip.