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!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Blackjack Life book review

I am always eager to read new gambling books, especially books about blackjack, so I was happy to see the new release The Blackjack Life by Nathaniel Tilton. The book chronicles the blackjack life of Nathaniel who is the epitome of the modern card counter.  These are the players that got hooked on blackjack from reading Ben Mezrich's book, Bringing Down the House , or seeing 21, the movie taken from Mezrich's book.   Nathaniel gets hooked on Mezrich's tale of the MIT blackjack team, and the follow-up book, Busting Vegas . He decided to pony up $500 for a blackjack class led by Semyon Dukach. Semyon is the Ken Uston of the last decade, meaning that he aspires to be the world's most famous blackjack player. At the class  Nathaniel meets D,A. his future partner. The class sinks the hook deeper, and  Nathaniel and D.A. begin their training. They meet frequently to slog their way through learning basic strategy, then to count, how to adjust for the true count, bet sizing, and on and on all with a serious commitment to excellence.

I have met two kinds of card counters over my career.  I will call them Alan and Peter. When I first moved to Vegas I met Alan, a counter from Australia, who also happened to play backgammon.  At the time Alan had a medium sized blackjack team, and I, and two of my backgammon friends were playing on our own for nickles. After about a week of daily backgammon parties in a suite at the DI where we ate lots of comped room service Alan offered to bankroll the 3 of us to play blackjack for higher stakes.  But first we had to pass a test. A few days later we met for the test, and the only one who did not pass it was Alan. Alan's feeling was - as long as you bet more money with an advantage, that was all that was important. Years later friends would joke that when a Quantas jet would land from Australia people would line up outside the plane yelling, "1 and 1 is 2," and Alan would step out and yell, "You're hired!"

Peter was the opposite of Alan.  At this time Peter also had a medium sized team, and both teams would often get together to party. At one of these parties Peter was having a heated argument with one of his players, Malcolm.  Peter had been watching Malcolm play at Caesars.  They were betting a $250 unit, and Malcolm had bet $425 with a running count of 6 with 2 1/4 decks left, and Peter was arguing that he should have bet $400. Their bankroll was over $100,000, and they were arguing over a $25 difference in a wager!

I would say that  Nathaniel, and D.A. definitely would fall into the "Peter" school of thought. There is nothing wrong with this, it is just a difference in personality type.  The really important thing is that you know which of these types you are. Do not team up with the opposite type.  You will drive each other nuts. An example of this would be when Peter teamed up with Ken Uston in Atlantic City.  You can read more about Alan and Peter in Gambling Wizards.

Nathaniel and D.A. appear to be a perfect fit.  They put in long hours, and a lot of effort, and became really good card counters. They used a combined set of techniques, wonging, big player call in, gorilla BP, and started winning money.  Anyone who has counted in a serious way will recognize many of the pitfalls and mistakes they run into:

  • team mates that are not as competent
  • team mates that are obnoxious and may have stolen from them
  • They get barred when  Nathaniel sees what he is sure is heat, but doesn't pull the play because he doesn't want to seem paranoid, and doesn't want his partner to think he is a wimp.
  • Dating a pit boss and having that awkward situation of lying about what you do. (Or dating a dealer who calls you Bob when your name is Richard, and keeps asking you about that import business you told a boss you own. Really honey, it was years before I met you.)
They persevere, and are successful, but eventually it all take a toll. They find that making money counting cards is an incredible grind, and eventually decide to give it up.  And just like Michael Corleone, "Just when I thought I was out..."  It is really hard to stay away. Trust me. My first retirement from blackjack was in 1983.

This is a really good book for someone learning to count cards.  It doesn't teach you how to count, but it will teach you exactly what to expect from the counting life.


Anonymous said...

Dead on review.

You hit it on the nose.

The boof is a fun read even for a pro


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing an excellent review. I will read the book based on your comments. I play only low limit games and employ an Ace-5 count system to make play more interesting. My attempts to master more complex strategy lead me to the conclusion professional play would suck all the fun out of the game. I expect to enjoy the read and be thankful I didn't walk down that path.

Anonymous said...

Richard- Do you lean towards the Peter or Alan school of thought?


Richard Munchkin said...

I am definitely in the Alan camp. I do think it is important to be able to keep the count, and know the index numbers, my attitude is when in doubt round up. I would much rather have team mates worried about how to get in more hours than fretting over fractions of bets or the ROR.