It All Adds Up When You Want To Beat The Casinos
I've just joined a small casino in Paris. There are posh, deep carpets, everything is ornate. The staff are smart, helpful and vigilant. The clientele is exclusively Pacific Asian, mainly women. I'm here to win money playing blackjack by card counting. This is not an illegal activity, and the law forbids casinos from outlawing this style of play. But clearly the casinos don't like it and they are allowed to ban you from playing without giving any reason or explanation, so you must be inconspicuous and in control.
I first decided to try card counting when, after my father died, I realised that after 14 years as a broker, the job was just too stressful. After leaving my job, I studied blackjack and the mathematics behind beating the casinos by card counting.
Card counting is not based on remembering all the cards that have been played - that would be far too difficult. What you do is count the number of high cards that have been played less the number of low ones that have been played. When this count is high, the casino is two to three per cent less likely to win than the player. So when the count is high, you bet high; when the count is low or negative, you stop playing and just count until it is high again. I decided to give it a go.
It's a very long strategy. The first two and a half months I played, I was in loss almost continually. You need a lot of faith to keep going, particularly as there's nobody around to reassure you that you're counting accurately. I set the limit to €1,000.
After two months, I was down over €800, and I was beginning to feel I had failed. Then the maths started working for me, as I knew it eventually would.
At the casino, I wait for about four shuffles, or 20 minutes, pretending to watch the poker while close enough to count the blackjack game. Then the count on the blackjack table starts to grow and I become focused, ready for battle. I experience a huge surge of adrenaline. I place €300 cash on the table, receive my betting counters in return, and start to play.
At the start of a playing session like this I am so wound up and intent on keeping a count of the cards that I am unable to talk and have to use hand signals to ask for or refuse extra cards. Two or three of my €50 bets win, and I hide about €100 in my pocket hoping nobody is looking. I am trying to disguise the extent of my winnings. Then the count is huge and I am betting two boxes of €100 and occasionally €125, not my usual €25. After ten minutes I am €400 up, the shuffle ends and I wander off to stare at the roulette.
Half of me wants to bet on the roulette to show the casino staff that I am a general gambler, but gambling against the odds (three to five per cent loss per bet against the player in roulette) goes against the grain so much I can't bear to do it. Across the room I hear the familiar quiet clunk as the blackjack dealer loads the shoe with the newly shuffled four decks of cards. I stroll the four or five paces back to the table.
This is pretty conspicuous. I have just won and the pit boss may well be asking "why is he just watching when he must feel he's on a winning streak?" I arrive as the first set of cards is dealt to the other players. Luckily the card count goes positive almost straight away, so it might seem that I have just accidentally missed the first round. I turn another €200 of profit, making €600 in 20 minutes. It's a very lucky run - that evening over four hours I make a record €1,400.
The next day I lose half of this to other casinos. The ups and downs are large but on average I am making about €30 per hour. Card counting now accounts for my main source of income. I can win and lose large sums. But I won't lose confidence - I know the maths works.