World's Greatest Job
by Kevin Blackwood
For the last two decades, I've lived what many would consider the American dream, earning big bucks while working only part-time. My profession? Card counter. My office? Blackjack tables all over the world. Incredible perks accompanied my vocation -- ringside boxing tickets for the big fights, offers to play golf with celebrities, front row seats to sold-out shows, and gourmet dinners at the finest restaurants. Though I enjoyed these epicurean experiences, the comps were strictly a side benefit. I chose this unusual line of work for only one reason -- to make money. Easy money. And I succeeded, becoming one of the top blackjack players in the country.
How did I win in a game where everyone is expected to lose? Or more importantly, is it possible for a reader like you to follow in my footsteps and routinely withdraw money from casinos? Contrary to what some people believe, you don't need to be a mathematical genius or play on some highly capitalized team to become the predator instead of the prey in blackjack. I'll show how my career refutes these two common misconceptions and how discipline, drive, and persistence were the ticket to my success. These qualities ultimately separate the few who actually make a living at blackjack from those who frequent the glitzy temples of chance only to help pay the light bill.
The typical Hollywood myth portrays professional blackjack players as walking databanks -- "Rain Man" clones with incredible photographic memories. The truth is that anyone with an average aptitude can learn to count cards and become a winning player. I do possess an exceptional memory, but my main strength was a dogged tenaciousness. I read everything by gifted players who came before me: brilliant men like Uston and Wong. I absorbed their advice and refined it, extracting every last ounce of theoretical edge card counters can gain over the house. Then, before ever setting foot in a casino, I disciplined myself to play like a machine, honing my skills with over a hundred practice hours at home, drilling relentlessly until all decisions and calculations became as natural as breathing. For example, I practiced talking while rapidly counting down decks, pushing myself until I could eventually fly through fifty-two cards in 12-14 seconds.
Confident of my skills, I attacked any blackjack game up to six decks that offered good rules and great penetration, but I quickly realized that playing against one deck was the easiest way to beat the game. (Counting six decks is not more difficult than counting one, but the edge rarely rises as high and the win rate is usually lower in multiple decks.) However, some experts recommended playing only shoe games because pit bosses watched single deck so closely. A contrarian by nature, I refused to follow the herd and vowed early on to play only the very best games, and one and two deck offered the largest advantage for straight card counting. So while most counters flocked like lemmings to the shoes, I sought out hand-held games whenever possible. I still played some six-deck tables but disciplined myself to lay cash on the felt only for the strongest games, which meant that many days, I spent more time walking, in search of ideal conditions, than playing.
Another important quality a professional blackjack player needs is drive. To stay under the radar of casino surveillance, I constantly moved around. While most pros habitually returned to Las Vegas, I visited small towns far off the beaten path and braved icy roads to play Lake Tahoe when one casino there set up a potentially lucrative "over/under 13" side bet.
In the last decade, I took advantage of the gambling explosion across America's heartland and played numerous riverboats and Indian reservations. Mississippi combined high limits with the world's best single-deck blackjack. A casino in Minnesota made me an offer I couldn't refuse, and I spent a week playing a sensational double-deck game with special rules. Once, I drove all night from Chicago to take advantage of a 2 to 1 promotion on blackjacks, 800 miles away in Vicksburg.
Finding the hottest clubs took hard work and extra effort. In my pursuit of profitable games, I traveled all over the world to places like the Dominican Republic where I played private tables in small, dirty, and dangerous casinos. Needless to say, navigating other cultures is challenging and often unpredictable. I flew to the Orient when they instituted rare bonuses for five-card hands, only to get my winnings paid with counterfeit money by one casino. I made only one gambling trip to Europe, but it was profitable as I pounded several clubs in Belgium offering an advantageous early-surrender rule.
It wasn't in search of extra frequent flyer miles that I journeyed to these distant destinations. Like other counters, I still made periodic pilgrimages to the gambling Mecca known as Sin City. To beat blackjack on a consistent basis required hard work and a willingness to boldly go where few had gone before, in search of the very best games. Card counters need a great deal of perseverance and persistence to overcome the many obstacles facing them.
Many view blackjack as the ideal lifestyle since it combines high profits with the ultimate in flexible hours. These people gravitate to card counting because they want the kind of job where in the morning, when everyone else rolls out of bed, they just roll over. However, trading in your paycheck for casino chips is anything but easy and is not for the faint of heart.
My blackjack career started out rather humbly. On my first trip I tentatively pushed my maximum bet of ten dollars onto the felt, knowing my entire bankroll was contained in the thin confines of my wallet. I was fortunate enough to win often those first few years, and my capital steadily grew until I amassed a six-figure bankroll. This enabled me to bet up to one thousand a hand in positive situations, which bumped up against the limits at most clubs. A good card counter will win between a quarter to one-third of his max bet per hour. So with a top bet of $1000, I earned about 300 bucks an hour. However, if your bankroll only allowed a max bet of $25, then your expected return drops to $7 per hour -- which isn't going to cause anyone to ditch their business career and pension plan.
High travel expenses can also water down the potential return, so many aspiring card counters invariably overbet their bankrolls to jack up the hourly rate. This is one of the main reasons casinos don't sweat the action of most would-be card counters. The big clubs have almost an unlimited amount of money to work with and many card counters are undercapitalized. That fact, combined with players making mistakes, sends many home broke and crying for mama.
It's easy to daydream about how you're going to win enough on your next trip to buy that new Porsche. But it's a whole different world when you've sat through ten draining hours of the worst cards imaginable. It takes a person with steel nerves and a tough veneer to remain unaffected by the kaleidoscope of emotions bombarding potential pros at the tables.
A professional blackjack player never wins all the time and I expected to come out ahead about two-thirds of the time over a short trip. Yet the losing sessions become etched in your memory far longer than the winning days. I vividly remember when some friends canceled a neighborhood BBQ, so I changed my plans, stayed an extra day at an Indian reservation, and dropped eighteen thousand dollars. Or the Vegas trip when I'd accumulated a moderate win only to lose twelve grand in the last ten minutes right before I left for my plane. Most of it came in the last disastrous hand of the shoe -- when I split four times and doubled down twice -- only to see the inevitable dealer 21.
I never tried to reinvent the wheel and only refined techniques developed by earlier players. The basic premise of card counting revolves around whether a surplus of high cards or low cards have been removed from play. Unlike other casino games such as roulette or craps, which have no memory, the past does affect the future in blackjack. I chose a more difficult counting system, forgoing the simple high-low used by many, reasoning that over the long run a stronger count would yield a much greater return. I used Hi-Opt II and side-counted aces on my feet. It was tricky, but the extra gain really has added up over the half-million hands of blackjack I've played in my career.
A "typical day at the office" for me consisted of a morning run and breakfast before attacking the tables. It often took long stints of up to fourteen hours in the field to get in eight hours of actual play. On most trips I took up to forty thousand of my bankroll with me in cash (the rest of the money would be left home or parked in the stock market since everyone knows stocks never go down). Then I would stuff about twenty thousand of the forty into my fanny pack for each daily session and leave the rest in a safety deposit box. I expected to win about two thousand dollars a day; but with fluctuation, I usually won or lost five to ten thousand each day, with the occasional roller coaster ride over twenty grand.
Whenever I made my first play of the day in a casino with shoe games, I'd first circle the pit, find a fresh shuffle and stand behind the table backcounting until I got a favorable situation. Then I'd try to nonchalantly jump in with a large bet. Most pit bosses will give the benefit of the doubt to a new face playing big money. As I stated earlier, far more would-be card counters lose than win, and casinos are reticent to bar a high roller unless certain he's a skilled professional who will beat them over the long run. For this reason, I could often get away with jumping my bets up and down according to the count for a while. In Vegas, I generally played short sessions and moved quickly from casino to casino before they could determine whether I was too good for their game. But in states outside of Nevada, players seldom have that luxury since the isolation of most clubs makes longer sessions almost mandatory.
Admittedly, the heat and scrutiny from casino personnel burns more intensely when you're forced to play in the same club all day long, but I was never easily intimidated. (Once, I drove a motorcycle, in graduation cap and gown, through the halls of my high school -- just to win a small bet.) My high-stakes play got me barred from places all over the world, and I was kicked out over two hundred times. And I don't wear that distinction as a badge of honor. It was never any fun to get 86'd and to see another lucrative game disappear.
But, the bottom line for me always remained the same -- I played to make money, not friends. I viewed barring simply as a vocational hazard. If you're a strong winning player, then you're a threat, and casinos typically will boot anyone who challenges the first commandment of gambling -- the house is always supposed to win. I've seen many counters so paranoid about getting kicked out that they failed to bet big in critical positive situations. This timidity gave them longevity but at too high a cost, since they rarely gained much of an advantage over the house. Other players, barred once or twice, thought their career was over and simply gave up too soon. A relentless personality is almost mandatory to succeed in this business.
The other misconception I mentioned earlier dealt with whether you could win serious money on your own in blackjack. I seldom played on teams during my career, preferring instead the lone-wolf approach to attacking the tables. Many profitable blackjack teams with huge war chests have raked in a steady stream of chips. But for individual players, I've made more money than almost any other card counter flying solo -- because I won over one million dollars in single and double-deck blackjack games alone.
However, I still occasionally joined up with other counters. For a while I played with the infamous Czech team and also tried a few ventures with some of Ken Uston's old cronies. These groups had huge bankrolls, and once in Atlantic City I won about twenty grand in one shoe only to lose it all back along with another twenty grand within the same hour. A small crowd had formed behind my table watching the incredible swing and after the complete collapse, a young chap stepped forward. I still have a clear memory of him slowly shaking his head and saying, "Man, you just lost more money than I make in a year."
Sharp people like Tom Hyland have done very well organizing groups of eager players and launching them on casinos. While more money can be made, potentially, by joining a well-oiled team, there are several negatives. Often, too many fingers in the pie create problems, such as the time I played six days on one team and won fifty grand. My take? A measly $2,100, because a couple of below-par players diluted everyone's share. Skimming and incompetence also plagued numerous teams, and many bankrolls were gutted by someone's cocaine habit or greed. There is just something about gambling for large sums of cash that can bring out the worst in people.
Therefore, I feel a focused player can do fine on his own and is better off playing individually than joining up with other counters. Although many of the highly profitable hand-held games have disappeared in the last few years, I've shared my experiences in single and double deck in this article because the principles for success in blackjack (or in any other business endeavor) remain the same -- you have to be willing to go the extra mile and work extremely hard to find the best opportunities. For as long as the game of blackjack has been dealt, there have been legal ways to turn the odds and beat the house. And even though conditions are deteriorating, I believe the creative and disciplined players will continue to find the game's weaknesses and exploit them.
Very few jobs in the world offer the potential of clearing ten grand by working only one long weekend a month, but it's extremely difficult to actually become a winning card counter. I taught myself from a book, but for every successful blackjack player, countless other casualties litter the roadside with empty wallets. To many, my vocation seemed glamorous and "James Bond-like," but in reality it's a damn hard way to make easy money.