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!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Blackjack Ball 2014

In 1997 Max Rubin decided to throw a party for all his professional gambler friends. All the blackjack teams, big and small, would be in Las Vegas for New Years Eve, so after new years it would be time to kick back, count the money, and have a party. Rather than a boring party where people stand around with drinks in their hand, he decided to have a competition. Gamblers are competitive by nature, and love to play games. He designed the game in two parts. First a written test to narrow the field. Second, a skills portion. Both sections had some things that were silly, (How many chips can you shuffle?) and some that were serious. (See some sample questions below.) The party was a huge success, and has been held every year since. Here is my recap of the 2014 Blackjack Ball.

The party starts at 5pm with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. This allows a couple hours before dinner to talk to all the people I rarely get to see. I was sorry to hear Ed Thorp had a prior commitment this year so he did not make it. Dinner starts at about 7, and during dinner ballots are passed out for voting for the Blackjack Hall of Fame. Attorney Bob Nersesian was voted in this year, and I think this is well deserved. Bob has certainly affected the lives of professional gamblers all across the United States. The way casinos have changed the way they treat us is directly attributable to Bob. We still have a long way to go, but Bob will be leading the charge.

After dinner is a Calcutta auction. This allows everyone in the room to gamble on the competition. These auctions are common at backgammon tournaments, and golf tournaments. The idea is that every player is auctioned off to the highest bidder. The money goes in a pool, and the money is paid out not to the winner of the competition, but to the person who purchased the winner. (Actually there is prize money for the top 4 finishers.) Each person is allowed to buy up to 50% of themselves from the purchaser. Some people are sold individually, for example Anthony Curtis went for the biggest price of about $1,300. Or they might sell 3 people in a group. The MIT team consisted of John Chang, Andy Bloch, and Mike Aponte, and they went for $700. Just like the casinos, if you play too well you get backed off. If you win three times you get the tap. A few years ago James Grosjean won for the third time, so now the trophy is known as the Grosjean Cup, and he can no longer compete. Last year a second person got his third win, and he can longer compete either. Second place now receives the Munchkin Award. The prize pool ended up with

4th $ 1,296
3rd $ 1,943
2nd $ 3,239
1st  $ 6,478

Time for the test. There are 21 questions, but I'm only going to include a few here.

2. A world class card counter is playing on a 6 deck game, DAS, LS, H17. He has a BR of $100K
and is betting Half Kelly, rounded to a $250 unit per half percent advantage. The running count is +12, and there are 4 decks remaining. The dealer has an ace up, and the Pro has a 9&8. The dealer ends up
turning over a 4 and hits it with a 2, and then a 10. How much money should a professional card counter lose on that hand?

a. Nothing
b. $250
c. $500
d. $750

ANSWER: The pro had a true of 3 and bet $500. He then took insurance, which cost $250.  Although Basic Strategy says to Surrender 17 VS. ACE in a H17 game, the correct Index play is to stand at a TC of +2. So the pro pushed with the 17 and the correct answer to number 2 is B. $250.

3. You’re playing a 6/5 single deck game, stand on 17, no double after splitting. You are dealt a pair of 4’s versus a Dealer’s 6 up. According to Peter Griffin’s Theory of Blackjack, what is the correct play?

ANSWER: Double.

Here is an example of one of the sillier questions.

6. There is only one state in the US where a gay couple can now get legally married, legally smoke a non-prescription joint in public and legally play blackjack in a licensed casino. (and do all three in the same day, if they do it right). Name that state.

ANSWER: A lot of you probably thought it was Colorado, but gays can’t be legally wed in the home of the Broncos. The only state that will allow gays to marry, get high and play blackjack in a casino is Washington. Go Seahawks!

12. This is from James Grosjean, so you’d better put your thinking cap on. In EV, a pro and a half earns a unit and a half in a day and a half. In units, what is the pro's daily EV?

ANSWER: 2/3 of a unit.

21. You are going to play a special version of Three Card Monte with Monte Hall. If you pick the Ace of Hearts from a random deck, you will win $5200. After you and a competitor each pick a card, Monte looks at the remaining 50 cards and shows you 49 that are NOT the winning Ace. Next Monte announces that you will flip a coin to determine who gets to re-pick first from among the three cards remaining on the table. Compared to losing the coin flip, how much is winning the coin flip worth, to the nearest dollar?

ANSWER: $4900

The top five scores now move on to the final table. David Y scored 17 which I believe is the highest anyone has every scored on the test. There were then two people who scored 12, Andy Bloch, and Darryl Purpose, and two people with 11, one of the "Washington Solos" known only as the mysterious "Smoke" and  attorney Thea Sankiewicz. (Bob Nersesian's wife! What a great night for them.) After a break of 5 minutes for people to make side bets we all move to the blackjack table in the other room for the skills part of the competition.

First up was counting cards. Not like a card counter, but literally how many cards are in this deck. (Each deck had from 3 to 7 cards removed.) What does this skill have to do with anything? Nothing of course, I told you some of these things were silly. Smoke was actually the slowest because for some reason he was not only counting the number of cards, he was also counting the Hi Lo. I guess he misunderstood the rules. Smoke was slowest, but Thea got the answer wrong, and she was eliminated, just out of the money.

Next was memorizing cards. Max spread a deck on the table for 60 seconds, and the task was to memorize as many cards as possible in order. The way this game was played was after Max picked up the deck action started to the left of the button and each person in turn named what card came next. Max told me later that Andy, realizing he was in position 4 just memorized card 4, 8, 12 etc. But when it came to him on card 8 he forgot! Maybe it was the pressure, but Andy was eliminated. Call MIT and get your money back. (The next day I was having lunch with Darryl and he was still able to rattle off the first 15 cards.)

The players now drew cards to decide who got to place the button. David Y won the draw, and correctly placed the button with Darryl. This would give David the button on the third and final game of this round. Darryl now had to choose between 3 games. Designing a hand, reading the discard rack, or cutting and steering. He chose designing a hand. Max spread some cards on the table for 30 seconds. You had to decide if the dealer was now going to pick up the cards, burn one, and deal without shuffling, and you must play basic strategy, would you win the most money if you played, one, two, or three hands. Give it a try. The cards are:

2 Q 9 Q 4 8 7 5 J 4 10 10 10

Each player had $1,000 in chips, and wrote down a secret bet. Then they wrote their answer in secret. If your answer was 2, you are correct. David outfoxed himself and saw that if he played 3 hands, and took exactly one hit the dealer would bust, but oops, hitting 15 vs. 4 is not basic strategy. Smoke and Darryl got this one right. Smoke was now the button and got to choose the next event. He chose cutting and steering. Three different single decks were offered. One had an ace on the bottom, the other 2 had a 5. Smoke chose the ace. The rules were, you must cut at least 10 cards, you can play from one to three spots, and you can play at most 3 rounds. Once the card comes out you are not allowed to play another round.Smoke cut about 13, and at the end of the 2nd round about 12 cards had come out, but not the ace. He bet $1,000 on the first spot, and $500 on the second. He got the ace on spot one, and made a blackjack. When Max saw he had hit the ace he dealt his hole card face up giving him two 8s or 16, but Smoke still had his $500 hand which happened to be a total of 9. He decided to double down. When people pointed out that he had exposed his card Max decided that for every player he would expose the hole card on the third round. The smart players in the room all noticed that they could get the hole card whether Max turned it face up or not. I did mention there was a lot of alcohol being consumed right?

Smoke now had an insurmountable lead over David, so David's only hope was to overtake Darryl, and even then Darryl would be playing after him. David chose to just cut the 5 out of play and try to get his edge knowing he would see Max's hole card on the third round. He went all in, and lost. David was out in third.

The final round was Count and Play. Each player was given one deck out of a double deck game. They had to count down the deck, then slap the table, and announce the count. If correct they would then play a hand from the remaining cards of the double deck, and may or may not have to use an index play based on the count they had just done. I should point out that 30 years ago Darryl was known as the fastest counter in the world. so fast that he won several large bets, and Ken Uston wrote about him in his books. BUT, Darryl also hasn't counted cards in over 20 years. Still, I guess some things never leave you and Darryl smoked "Smoke" and beat him by over 10 seconds. Anthony Curtis was counting over Darryl's shoulder and later said to me, "Jesus, I couldn't keep up with him." Darryl announced his count as +3 which was correct. Now all he has to do is play a hand from the remaining deck, and he wins. As I mentioned it is a double deck with Barona rules. Darryl gets 15 vs. 9. Aha! Remember Max said, "You may or may not have to use an index number." What is the number to stand for 15 vs. 9? The index is plus 4, but the TC is only plus 3. Darryl hit his 15, and caught 4. But then Max flipped his hole card and revealed an ace! What happened??? Yes, the number to stand with 15 vs. 9 is +4, but the number for surrender is +3. Barona has surrender on their double decks! So Darryl lost because he didn't know the rules at a casino he isn't allowed to play at. Oh the humanity! But he took it like a champ, and if I do say so myself, he did get the better trophy.

Congratulations to Smoke. It was a great night, and many people commented that they liked the new streamlined format. It was also nice to see a lot of new younger players at the Ball. Rumor has it that Don Johnson (yes that Don Johnson)  took them all out to a club after the party and taught them to party like a rock star. The bill? $12,000, but then what's that to a guy who bets $100,000 per hand?

Tune in to Gambling With an Edge on February 6th where our guests will be Max Rubin, and the mysterious "Smoke" who will be talking about the Blackjack Ball.


Fred Hazelton said...

Wow, what a night indeed. So many brilliant minds full of useless skills being tested to the Max, pun intended. I swear, half of these guys could count cards blindfolded - they would find a way.

Anonymous said...

"half of these guys could count cards blindfolded"

Half of these guys wouldn't count cards UNLESS they were blindfolded! LOL