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, April 14, 2013

Shuffle Tracking & Ace Sequencing

Card counters spend a lot of time learning to count. They memorize basic strategy, then slowly learn to cancel the pluses and minuses. Next they learn to estimate the number of cards in the discard rack, and adjust their running count to a true count. They memorize index plays so they know when it is correct to double 9 vs. 7, or A6 vs. 2. They then venture out to casinos where they have to put this all together. The dealers are faster than they practiced at home on the kitchen table. Cocktail waitresses are pestering them for drink orders, tourists are blowing smoke in their faces, pit bosses are asking them questions, and slot machines are dinging, and gonging, and clanging. Finally they get to the point where they can do it. They can count, and adjust for true counts, and make index plays. They get home from their weekend in Vegas, and... it's over. They spent dozens if not hundreds of hours practicing, and now what? How do they fill that time at home that used to be devoted to practice?

Some people veer down a cul-de-sac of "stronger counts" and even worse - "side counts." I have already written about my feelings for stronger counts here - Advice to new card counters, but going after a side count of 7s or some other side count is nothing more than mental masturbation. There is nothing wrong with mental masturbation; I do the occasional Sudoku or computer solitaire, especially when I'm trying to avoid writing. But don't fool yourself into thinking that this is the road to where the money is hidden. When Atlantic City opened in the late 70s it birthed a new generation of card counters. There was one set that everyone ran into called "the multiparameter jerkoffs." They would stand behind a table looking like they had a serious physical disability. The left foot pointed one direction, the right pointed 210 degrees away, the left hand tapping their stomach as if scratching fleas, while the right hand fidgeted on the back of their neck. They would bend your ear telling you how they were the greatest card counters in the world because they were using the Hi Opt2, counting aces on the left foot, 7s on the right foot, deuces on the left hand and 8s on the right. Then when the count was right they would spring onto the table with their max bet... of $50. I did describe Peter Griffin, author of The Theory of Blackjack, playing in this manner here, but that was 30+ years ago when single decks games were still readily available. I do not know any full-time professional advantage player that makes his living in this manner. None. Zero. That doesn't mean one doesn't exist, it just means I don't know them. (And I believe I know more professional APs than most people writing on the internet.) Remember, masturbation will make you go blind, so stop this once you need glasses.

The techniques that get asked about the most are shuffle tracking, and ace sequencing. Let's start with shuffle tracking. In the 70s Las Vegas casinos started introducing more shoe games. Many of the people working in the casinos believed that no one could count a shoe. Teams quickly realized that there was much more money to be made at the shoe games because they could play with far less heat. The shuffles were as simple as you could possibly imagine. They put the discards on top and did a one pass R&R. (Riffle and Restack) Many people started realizing that these shuffles were not hard to keep track of. I joined a team that was entirely devoted to shuffle tracking. People were starting to get heat playing shoe games, but if you bet big off the top the casinos they left you alone. Ken Uston decided that it was impossible to be accurate using this technique. You might be playing a losing game, and not even know it. He threw players off the team for attempting it. The players on our team all supported Ken's view in public. Don't even try it. You will lose all your money. We were hoping to prevent competition. Not everyone fell for our story, and slowly but surely more people were doing it, and the casinos started changing their shuffles. Remember my axiom:

Nothing lasts forever.

In 1994 Arnold Snyder wrote The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker's Cookbook, and then in 1996 George C wrote, Shuffle Tracking for Beginners, but the end was already in site. All the casinos were switching to two-pass shuffles, and the casinos that were extra paranoid would bar ploppies that won, and claim they must be shuffle tracking.

The bottom line is I do not think shuffle tracking is worth learning for 2 reasons. One - shuffles worth playing are very few and far between. The current shuffle in Las Vegas (and most of the rest of the US) is a 2 pass step ladder followed by an R&R. If those terms confuse you they are fully explained in Arnold's book. This shuffle is garbage for a tracker. Yes, it is possible to get a small clump at the bottom of the discard rack, or the last couple rounds before the cut card came out, but to go after this shuffle is a recipe for disaster. I would not play any 2-pass shuffle as a tracker. There are much better opportunities out there than this.

The second reason I would not pursue tracking is that is too easy to fool yourself into thinking you have an edge when you don't. (This is the same trap many poker players fall into.) Say that you follow your clump, and are expecting a drop of -5 over one deck. You put out your big bets and at the end of the deck the count is plus 2. (This has happened to everyone who has shuffle tracked.) What happened? Did the dealer grab differently than I thought? Were there lots of extra little cards in the unknown sections that got shuffled into my clump? Did I cut in the wrong place? Did you take insurance while playing that section? Just how big was the disadvantage you were playing? If you are counting cards it is very easy for someone to watch you and objectively tell you whether you were playing with an edge. This is much harder with shuffle tracking.

I know what you're saying, "Wait a minute. Isn't this the same BS you were feeding to other players back in the day?" Yes, but this time I mean it. The big difference is the shuffles. If you find a one pass shuffle then by all means give it a shot. Arnold's books are always worth a read. Just don't waste your time on those 2-pass garbage shuffles. Once you do some scouting, and realize how rare one pass shuffles are I think you will agree that this is not worth your time.

What about ace sequencing? In the late 90s Al Francesco came out of retirement. (If you don't know he is check out - podcast, interview, and The Big Player.) He formed a team specializing in ace sequencing, and I was fortunate enough to be recruited for that team. The idea is to remember "key cards" that go on top of the ace in the discard rack, and after the shuffle when you see those key cards come out together you make a large bet hoping to catch the ace. A good sequencer can memorize a dozen or more sequences per shoe. The problem for the avid student is that no good book on how to do this exists. There is one book called Blackjack Ace Prediction, by David McDowell. When the book came out Arnold Snyder reviewed it, and after reading the review, and talking to other sequencers who had nothing good to say about it, I just didn't bother.  We had a good run with this team, but by 2000 the good games were gone. Since that time I have found 4 games that were worth sequencing, and one of those was not in the US.

Sequencing is a valuable skill to have. Unlike shuffle tracking, you can tell absolutely whether or not you have an edge, and the edge you do get is much higher than that of a shuffle tracker. The problems are: it is time consuming to learn, there are no good books on the subject, and once learned you may never get an opportunity to use this skill. If you are one of those players obsessed with questions like, "What is my edge? What is my risk of ruin? How big a bankroll do I need?" Forget it. You aren't going to find those answers in print. If you do decide to take this on there is a book on memory that I liked. Check out Moonwalking With Einstein.

Does that sound like it is worth your time? Only you can answer that. But here is what I don't understand. The message boards are filled with threads about stronger counts, side counts, shuffle tracking, and ace sequencing. Why aren't they asking about Spanish 21 or Blackjack Switch?  Those games are everywhere. If I was devoted to counting cards that is the road I would investigate.



Very good article as usual! Keep them coming, Richard! There isn’t any other BJ Home-of-Famer speaking wisdom to the regular APs right now.

I agree there must be better and easier ways to get the money than to track the today’s shuffles in Vegas and most everywhere in US.

In my modest, weekend warrior-ish personal opinion it is still much better to learn to do whatever possible with the today’s 2-pass crap shuffles than pure card counting. It is still more profitable than CC reducing N0 some, and what is more important, it gives much more longevity due to the nature of the play.

In my modest BJ career I did it (what you mentioned re. crap 2-pass shuffles) for around 200 hours at the tables and much more fun than the wonging I was heavily applying. I was getting the better 2, 3, or 4 decks of the 6 or 8 deck shoes with the relevant count and was doing it in every shoe - shoe after shoe.

And the more important thing for me was, that in this constant pursuit to a bigger edge, and spending some hours at the tables tracking the crap shuffles of today, I discovered some easier and more lucrative moves, which, I believe, wouldn’t have discovered without moving from pure CC and into the ST.

Richard Munchkin said...

For the person trying to get ahold of me through the comment section, you didn't leave an email address. My email is very easy to find in the about me section of the blog.

Lawrence Shen said...

Hi Marilion,

This is Lawrence. I think Richard said that shuffle tracking is very hard and of little benefit in modern shuffling machines, but from your post, it seems you have some good results from this advantage play. Could you please tell me a little more and give some references to improve my game? Thanks!