|Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014, 12:38:08 AM|
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Bringing down the house
'Advantage players' use guile and gumption to beat casinos at their own games
By Bob Shemeligian
E liot Jacobson uses an odd metaphor when talking about the typical gambler. He compares the average casino customer with the Hispaniola islanders who were not able to see Christopher Columbus' ships when they arrived at the New World in 1492.
"The point is the islanders were familiar only with small boats and canoes. They had never seen anything like those large ships," Jacobson explains. "It was the shaman who knew how to think differently and could look out to sea and point out the ships."
Jacobson, a Santa Barbara, Calif., management consultant as well as a skilled card counter, compares "advantage players"--casino customers who have a strong chance of winning--with the 15th century shaman medicine man who knew how to think outside the box.
Author of The Blackjack Zone: Lessons at Winning at BlackJack and Life, Jacobson has highly specialized casino skills. He excels at one game. But, Jacobson explains, there are other advantage players who are much more open-minded when it comes to beating the house.
"Advantage players look for opportunities in a casino," Jacobson says. "Every game has the potential for opportunity. It might be that a roulette wheel is defective. A good advantage player will exploit these opportunities."
Consider, for example, Stanford Wong, one of the best advantage players who ever sat down at a 21 table. Author of Professional Blackjack, considered the card-counting Bible, Wong currently is writing a book about--craps?
"It will be called Wong on Dice," said Wong, who holds a Ph.D. in finance from Stanford University, and who made a very good living playing 21 in Las Vegas casinos in the 1960s.
Strangely enough, often card counters who are "backed off" 21 tables for their expert play are invited to play other casino games--preferably craps. Such invitations might cease if Wong's book becomes popular.
But can you really beat craps, a game with a built-in house advantage?
"Oh, yes," Wong says. "Remember, craps is the only game in which the player has a role in the outcome. He throws the dice. And if you can throw the dice so a seven doesn't come up one out of every six times--let's say you can cause a seven to come up every 6.5 times--then you have an enormous edge."
Wong says he's been experimenting with craps for more than a year, and he's determined it is possible to "grip the dice properly and throw them properly to cause less-than-random outcomes."
For Wong, beating craps is a challenge, which makes the game preferable to 21.
"I found blackjack to be a huge challenge when I was young," Wong said. "But today I've mastered the challenge and I no longer need the money." He added that he also doesn't have the desire or stamina to put in long hours on casino graveyard shifts when the tables are empty.
Not in the cards
Another advantage player who no longer plays 21 is Jack Murphy, a longtime Las Vegan who normally can be found afternoons in the Mirage poker room. A generation ago, Murphy was one of Southern Nevada's most prolific and successful card counters.
"It's not like it was in the late '70s and early '80s, when there were a lot of single- and double-decks, and there were favorable rules," Murphy said. "Today, if they spread a single deck, they deal only four hands and shuffle, and they've changed the rules so that a blackjack pays only six to five [instead of three to two]. That one rule change shifts the advantage 1 1/2 percent in the house's favor."
But 25 years ago, when 21 rules greatly favored the advantage player, Murphy was a fixture at Strip blackjack tables. He normally played six hands, varying his bets from $100 to $500, and he routinely won thousands of dollars during a session.
Not that there weren't problems. Murphy has been "backed off" several 21 games over the years. Sometimes, security guards escorted him out of the casino. Once, in 1985, a casino official spotted him while he was walking through the pit of the Reno Hilton. After beefy security guards escorted him to the back room ("They kind of scooped me up and gently towed me along"), he was interrogated for several minutes. Like a prisoner of war, Murphy refused to give any information. Finally, as Murphy tried to leave, the guards grabbed him and--just like a scene from a campy film--forcibly threw him out the back door.
And sometimes he was cheated.
"Back in '77 or '78 at the Sahara I caught this one dealer cheating me," Murphy remembers. "I was playing six hands, $500 a hand, and the dealer had a face card up. In those days, the dealer used to peek under his face card to make sure it wasn't an ace. On the last hand, I scratched for a card and the dealer hit me with a face card and busted my hand, but I heard a click as he pulled the card, and the dealer fumbled a little bit, and I realized it was a dead, stone-cold second. I just knew the dealer had a six in the hole, and he was saving the top card--a five--for himself. I had to make sure, so I reached out and put a death lock on the dealer's wrist and turned it over to reveal [the corner of the] top card in the deck, which was a five. Then, I turned over his hole card to reveal the six."
Finally, Murphy released the dealer's hand, and the dealer hit his 16 with the five, made 21, and took all Murphy's bets from the layout. But a crowd of onlookers had witnessed the entire episode, and thereafter the dealer was relegated to the baccarat room.
In those days, Murphy explained, when "the boys" had interests in the resorts, there were "mechanics" in most every gaming pit waiting to be summoned to a table where a high-roller or card counter was winning.
"Imagine how many times I was cheated and I didn't catch the dealer," said Murphy, who prefers to spend his time these days playing poker.
Today, the major resorts no longer have direct ties to organized crime, and many are holdings of publicly traded corporations. They no longer use mechanics to cheat advantage players. But floor supervisors at many resorts still are very serious about trying to stop advantage play, which they believe can skim as much as 3 percent of a casino's winnings.
One who understands this is Las Vegas attorney Bob Nersesian, who represents several advantage players who charge that their civil rights have been violated in casinos in recent years.
"The casino is at war with everybody--every single player," Nersesian says. "Every day, the casino wins the war against the average casino patron. They do this by winning from the patron. But when it comes to their war against advantage players, I would suggest the casino uses tactics not approved by the Geneva Convention."
Among advantage players who are Nersesian's clients:
Steve Bernier, who in 1999 at the grand opening of the Resort at Summerlin noticed a bank of $1 slot machines mistakenly set for payouts for $100 machines. Bernier won $27,000 playing those machines, but left most of the money on his playing card. Two days later, when he returned to the casino, he was denied his winnings, taken to a back room, handcuffed and detained against his will. Bernier is suing the Nevada Gaming Control Board, since the owner of the hotel subsequently went bankrupt, and the property was sold. Bernier claims state agents interrogated him at the hotel, threatened to charge him with several felonies and partially strip-searched him.
James Grosjean, author of Beyond Counting, a manual describing legal ways to beat three-card poker, craps, baccarat and even the big six wheel, recently won a $400,000 verdict against the Imperial Palace in a wrongful imprisonment suit. Suits are pending against Caesars Palace and two Gaming Control Board agents. In the actions, Grosjean contends he was detained at Caesars Palace in April 2000 and at the Imperial Palace nearly a year later. Grosjean contends he was collared at Caesars and then held in custody at the Clark County Detention Center after a session at the 21 tables in which Grosjean won because of a sloppy dealer who was exposing the hole card. At the Imperial Palace, Grosjean was spotted simply walking through the casino and subsequently detained by security guards who, Grosjean contends, interrogated him and threatened "to smack his head against the wall."
Ray Cagno, a personal fitness trainer who was convicted of disorderly conduct after he was led away in handcuffs from the El Cortez's gaming tables by security guards (as he yelled out to casino patrons to call police to help him). Cagno, who subsequently sued the casino and the casino and three Metro Police officers, is appealing his conviction.
A sporting chance
While Nersesian believes Nevada's casinos are slowly beginning to recognize the civil rights of advantage players--following court-ordered judgments against them or settlements paid to those illegally detained--it is still much more dangerous for an advantage player to count cards in Nevada than in other states, such as New Jersey, where the rights of players are recognized by the courts.
No wonder many skilled 21 players have turned in their counting charts and decided to turn their attention to other lucrative casino action--such as the sports book.
One of them is a 40ish Las Vegas man named Rich, a former medical claims analyst, who regularly counted cards at Las Vegas casinos during the '80s and '90s. A frugal man, Rich started playing in local casinos as a visitor. He drove a van from his home in Chandler, Ariz., and he often slept in his vehicle in a casino parking lot. Security guards never bothered him when he was sleeping in his van. "I was pretty quiet. I don't think they ever knew anyone was in there."
He also tried not to arouse attention when he played against double decks and shoes in Strip casinos. But sometimes he was noticed.
"Once, in the mid-'80s I was playing at the Barbary Coast. It was mid-afternoon and I was betting only $5 to $20, but after a while this pit boss comes over, and in his best James Cagney imitation he looks at me real tough, and he pushes my chips out of the little circle and says, 'No more.' I just slinked away as quietly and as quickly as I could."
Rich moved to Las Vegas in 1997, and in recent years has focused more on the sports book and less on the 21 tables. His specialty is college and pro football. "I've always followed sports, and during the last few years I've paid a lot more attention to it. I spend a lot of time listening to the professionals on the AM radio programs and attending the weekly football handicapping tournaments, like the Stardust Invitational. You can pick up a lot of information that way."
Each weekend, after listening to various experts, such as Jimmy Vaccaro, Ted Sevransky and "Big Al" McMordie, Rich would place several bets on college and pro games. He followed each game intently, and if his team was way ahead at halftime, he might make a halftime wager on the other side to try to "middle" the game. Often, he won both bets. In addition to making weekly sports bets, Rich would routinely play several casino football contest cards. On each card was a different scenario of winners. Should he have a perfect card by Sunday or Monday evening, he would then bet the other side in order to guarantee a win.
"It's a discipline and it involves a certain mindset," Rich explains. "You have to be prepared for the unexpected. You always have to be aware of the mathematics involved. You have to be able to get to a sports book quickly and lay off on a certain game in order to guarantee a win. This is why I live here, to have the opportunity to do that."
Not all Rich's picks are restricted to football. After listening to a golf expert explain that pro golfer Vijay Singh was in top form, Rich bet on Singh at 10-to-1 to win last year's PGA event. Singh won in a three-way playoff against Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco.
Still, football is Rich's favorite. It's the game he knows the best and the one he loves the most. "To beat football, you normally bet $11 to win $10, and so you have to win 52.38 percent of the time," Rich says. "I honestly believe a person who knows what he's doing and does the research can overcome those odds."
But others, such as well-known handicapper Lem Banker, say it's not as easy as it sounds. "It's much tougher [to beat the sports book] than it was in years past. You have a better shot at becoming a movie star. The lines are much tougher than they were in years past. They've changed odds on teasers [against the players], and it's almost impossible to find a middle because everybody has the same number."
When a line or "spread" on a game differs significantly in area sports books, some advantage players try to "middle" the game by betting each side at different books and hoping the score falls between the two spreads. Sports book supervisors say the practice is much more common in college basketball than in football, where the lines--especially those on total scores--sometimes differ considerably.
Still, football does present some opportunities. Micah Roberts, director of the race and sports book for Station Casinos, said this year nearly one out of five NFL games was decided by three points.
"So, if you can lay 2.5 points and take [at least] 3 [at a different sports book], you could have a pretty good probability of collecting on both bets," Roberts said.
An extremely profitable middle opportunity occurred during the 2001 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams. Alan, a former poker dealer who makes his living playing poker online, noticed a few days before the game that the money line on the heavily favored Rams was minus 500 at the Stardust, and the money line on the Patriots was plus 600 at the Riviera.
To bet the Rams to win, the bettor must lay $500 to win $100 from the casino. Those who bet the Patriots to win wager $100 to win $600 from the casino. But an advantage player who bets both sides nets a 10 percent profit--no matter who wins.
"I said, 'Wow, that's an overlay!'" Alan remembers. "I called a friend [another advantage player name Adam] and we searched around for more lines. We eventually found the Rams at minus 450 and the Patriots at plus 675 at different casinos. Then we got our hands on as much money as we could and we started betting the games."
Alan and Adam loaded up on both teams, but tilted their action toward the Patriots--the heavy underdog. That way, if the Rams triumphed, they would win a little, and if the Patriots prevailed, they would win a lot. The Patriots won, and the two made more money in that game than most residents earn in a year.
"We couldn't lose," Alan says. "The only risk we faced was getting robbed because we were handling an enormous amount of money."
Such opportunities are rare, according to veteran advantage players. "That Super Bowl line was very unusual," Banker says. "You never find anything like that today, with the advances in technology and the Internet, the speed of communication, it just doesn't happen anymore."
Sports books play defense
The sports books are constantly on guard against advantage players. They don't allow the use of cell phones or pagers anywhere near the books, and they often scrutinize large bets, especially those that follow movements in the line. In other words, if a bettor puts a lot of money on a team that's drawing a lot of interest and wagers from the betting public, he obviously knows something--perhaps that the line is inaccurate and the team he's betting is a real bargain. This type of action worries sports book supervisors.
"If we noticed there's a pattern developing, we don't necessarily back [the bettor] off. We might ask them to limit their action to one visit per day, and generally they're cool. They understand," says Roberts of Station Casinos.
"Some places take all the action, and some book the faces. It's a term that's been around. In other words, it depends who's making the bet," says Harrah's race and sports book director Howard Greenbaum.
Greenbaum laughs when asked whether he can recognize an advantage player. "You mean the ones we call wise guys," he replies.
Some sports bettors question why a sports book manager should ever be concerned with a particular wager, since every game draws action from both sides, and the outcome should not concern the sports book. But Greenbaum said that's not the way it works.
"When a customer wins, he's winning from the casino," Greenbaum explains. "When a bet is made in the race and sports book, the person is betting against the house. It's much different in racing, which is parimutuel wagering, meaning the casino simply takes a certain amount off the top."
Putting on poker faces
Today, a growing number of advantage players choose not to bet against the house. Their favorite game is poker, which has exploded in popularity in recent years following coverage of the World Series of Poker and other major tournaments by ESPN and other cable networks. Among them is Murphy, the former card counter.
"I play poker five or six days a week at the Mirage," Murphy says. "It's relaxing. I like it. You don't get any heat because you're not playing against the house."
Murphy grinds out a comfortable living playing low stakes Omaha. Still, he figures he contributes as much as $400 each week to the house "rake," which is the amount the house takes from each pot, for the privilege of playing in the casino card room.
"Well, they do give us a $15 [buffet] comp each week," Murphy says with a smile.
Another advantage player who prefers poker to casino games is Gary, a 32-year-old New Jersey native who spends most of his days playing $15-$30 Texas hold 'em at the Bellagio poker room.
"I love the game. It's a way of life for me," says Gary, who wins at least $60,000 each year. "Some people like to wake up and read the paper. I like to wake up, play poker and have a cup of coffee at the table."
Another who loves the game is Alan, the advantage player who middled the 2001 Super Bowl. And even though he lives in Las Vegas, Alan prefers not to play in casinos. He's one of hundreds of thousands who play online poker.
"It's the way to play today," Alan says. "You can play in your living room. You don't have to get in your car and fight the traffic. And you don't have to tip the dealer or cocktail waitress."
Still, playing poker online has its drawbacks. Strangely, because the players are generally not as selective about their hands as those in casino card rooms, the unexpected often happens.
"You're up against a lot of people you can't see who are playing bad cards, and you're always playing twice as many hands each hour, so there are huge swings," Alan says.
Gary says the games are easier to beat today, because poker is so popular, but many good players still go broke.
"It's mainly because of a lack of discipline and poor money management," Gary says. "A lot of players have all the vices: gambling, women, drugs and lending money to friends. If it were just for poker, they'd do all right."
It's not just an adventure, it's a job
Indeed, veteran advantage players say discipline and money management are crucially important for anyone who tries to consistently leave the casino with more money then when he entered--no matter what game he plays. Veteran poker player "Oklahoma Johnny" Hale estimates that lack of discipline, bad judgment and money mismanagement are more threatening to all types of advantage players than the most alert pit boss.
"Less than 1 percent ever wins anything. The other 99 percent are just having a dream," Hale says. "It really doesn't matter if you have the advantage in any game. You have to learn to quit a winner. You have to be disciplined and be able to quit winner. Money management is the key."
Hale, who finished second to Stu Unger in the 1980 World Series of Poker ("He outlucked me"), believes the true advantage player has the best chance to win at poker.
"It's very tough to win in the pit," Hale says. "The casinos got smarter. They have all their surveillance and computers and they also have a good feel for the business. They know there are some players who have win in them and others who walk around like there's always a cloud above that's gonna rain on them. If a casino figures a player is a winner, they'll change dealers and do what they can, and finally they'll just kick his ass out. You see, they don't need his business, and so they'll just find some reason not to let him play."
Even if an advantage player does manage to make a good living playing against the casinos or against other players in a poker room, there are other problems to deal with--such as taxes, health insurance and how to reply when asked, "What do you do for a living?"
"When I played 21, I was playing a part--usually that of a businessman," Murphy says. "Generally, I would let them use their imagination. I wore nice clothes, and I threw a ton of money around. Remember, when people think you're wealthy, you don't have to explain anything to anybody."
Murphy had health insurance through the military. He's a wounded Korean War veteran. But most other advantage players have little or no health insurance.
"I suppose I'm taking a little bit of a gamble," Alan says. "I don't even have catastrophic health insurance. It's not really a good deal. But I am into a healthy lifestyle. I don't smoke. I eat right and I work out."
There are also other problems to advantage play that are more difficult to sort out.
"Just playing every day is horrible," says Bonnie Rattner, who supplements her income playing poker. "The highlight of my day is bringing out my Excel spreadsheet and making my entry for the day, but that little thrill lasts only a few seconds, and what it took to make that entry...oh...the bullshit, and the people and the inane conversations, the arguing, the name-calling. You know what I'm talking about. You have to be a very special person to deal with that every day."