In the minds of most recreational gamblers, the fabled advantage player is someone who has managed to reach the pinnacle of their craft.
And to be sure, perfecting skills like card counting and shuffle tracking to successfully gain an edge on the house requires hard work and dedication. Even so, nobody is perfect, and many top advantage players still fall prey to simple mistakes.
In my younger days, I was fortunate enough to earn a living playing blackjack and video poker as an advantage play specialist – so I’ve made plenty of those mistakes myself. And from years of speaking with peers within the same profession, I’ve found that these “leaks” in your game are almost universal. That’s not to say that everybody suffers from all of these leaks, simply that most of us have one or two to stay vigilant for.
Check out my list of the seven ways advantage play gamblers tend to shoot themselves in the foot below. From there, sit down and analyze your own game to see whether or not you’re making any of them, before taking measures to plug those leaks once and for all.
To help lend the list a sense of third-party support, I’ve found seven quotes from George Sawyer – one of the most skilled advantage players of his era. Sawyer played as part of the famed MIT Blackjack Team during the 1980s and 1990s, starting in Atlantic City and working his way to Las Vegas.
You can learn more about the MIT Blackjack Team by watching the hit movie “21” (2008), which starred Kevin Spacey as the mysterious math professor who brings Sawyer and his fellow students into the world of high-stakes card counting. Sawyer and his pals won millions of dollars during their heyday, but he never breathed a word of the story until the film was released.
In 2015, Sawyer wrote an article for the Huffington Post entitled “What Was It Like to Be Part of the MIT Blackjack Team,” in which he recounts the trials and tribulations associated with advantage play. Rather than gloss the profession over with tales of heroic wins and thrilling experiences, Sawyer takes time to school readers on the reality of advantage play.
With that in mind, each my seven common mistakes will be accompanied by a quote from Sawyer showing how those leaks affected his own advantage play.
Finally, while this page will largely focus on blackjack, the general concepts and ideas are designed to apply to video poker as well. Therefore, when you see a passage about basic strategy, game selection, or concealment, simply consider them to be applicable to both blackjack and video poker.
1 – Neglecting to Master the Fundamentals
It’s one thing to read Edward O. Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer” and get the itch to start counting cards – but actually putting that plan into action is easier said than done.
One thing that Thorp – one of the original inventors of card counting theory – has in common with Sawyer, and Richard Epstein as well, is a background in higher level mathematics. To put it more plainly, these guys are geniuses who know their numbers inside and out.
For them, learning the various counting systems employed by advantage play blackjack specialists came easy.
But for the rest of us, absorbing the math needed to make sense of Hi / Lo, + / -, Hi-Opt II, and the dozens of other counting methods out there takes hard work.
Take the standard Hi / Lo count, for example:
Using this system, you’ll need to add and subtract from the base count within seconds, every time a card is shown face up. From there, you’ll need to divide the current count by the number of decks remaining in the shoe to arrive at your True Count. And to do that accurately, you’ll need to have a good idea of how many cards have been dealt out to that point.
What that entails is a veritable sea of numbers swimming through your head, and unless you’ve locked up that MIT math scholarship, this can be a problem.
Until you’ve learned how to run through the numbers like you have your own internal calculator, taking a shot at counting cards is definitely a risk. Inexperienced counters can be spotted from a mile away by any experienced dealer or pit boss. These players are the ones looking upward or mumbling while they try desperately to keep track of their counts. They might furrow their brow, or even whisper the numbers aloud to themselves.
I’ll get into those leaks in more detail later on, but sufficed to say, coming to the casino without a firm grasp on the basics of card counting can doom any advantage player.
2 – Failing to Put in the Practice
If you’re really serious about becoming a successful advantage player, why not hold yourself to Sawyer’s standard?
I recommend trying to count six decks in under two minutes just like members of MIT Blackjack Team once had to. This test is humbling to say the least, but until you can reach the point where you pass it with ease, you’re probably not ready to bring your counting to the big leagues.
But just getting there isn’t enough, not by a longshot.
One of the most common leaks I notice from fellow advantage players is complacency. As their reasoning goes, they’ve toiled away as students long before, and having taken their craft to the next level, why should they bother studying any further?
The thing about advantage play, however, is this game isn’t like riding a bike. Sure, you’ll engrain the foundations into your brain early on, but without a steady diet of study and practice, those foundations can begin cracking in a hurry.
One way to keep your counting sharp and in focus is to run through tests like the one Sawyer described. He had to set up simulated games with physical decks and a dealer though, while you have the power of the internet at your disposal.
I’ve yet to encounter a blackjack card counting simulator as effective as this one, which challenges you to track an endless series of cards. You can increase the speed too, all the better to prepare for those dealers hustling to get the next hand out. At any point in the count, simply click the “PAUSE” button to stop the game and “REVEAL” to show the current count.
Unless you’re nailing 10/10 of your counts, you can’t sincerely claim your game to be sharp. And conversely, when you’re starting to struggle at the casino, take a step back and hit the trainer until you’re feeling confident in your count once again.
3 – Standing Out Like a Sore Thumb
The winningest advantage players in the world know how to do two incredibly difficult things look easy – gaining an edge on the house, and doing so without the house catching on.
When you’re a young college student – someone who is ostensibly living on Ramen noodles and student loans – you’ll tend to be stereotyped by dealers and pit bosses. They’ll see you as their average mark, the run of the mill customer who comes to the casino for the free drinks and cheap entertainment.
So when you suddenly start betting black $100 chips at will, expertly deploying well-timed wagers that capitalize on favorable situations, and generally taking the house to school – casino staff will certainly take notice.
You might be like me, however, well into your golden years. If that’s the case, the reverse phenomenon can be true.
When the casino sees a middle-aged or elderly person stroll up to the tables, they’re expecting a casual player, maybe a conventioneer or vacationer just there to have a little fun. Sure, older players tend to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to bigger bankrolls, but we’re supposed to be “suckers” for the most part.
That’s why the older crowd can be targeted when they play perfect basic strategy and seem to win more than they lose. These attributes put you in the casino’s crosshairs, and soon enough, you’ll feel that familiar tap on the shoulder alerting you to take your business and move on.
That’s where the team concept comes into play for advantage gamblers. Rather than let a skilled counter who happens to stand out in a crowd make the big bets, teams appoint a designated “Big Player.”
You can learn more about the Big Player concept by researching Al Francesco and Ken Uston, who came together to pioneer the first successful card counting team.
Under the guidance of Francesco, an army of talented counters would grind away at low stakes, appearing for all the world to be just another tourist hitting the town. But when the deck conditions became favorable, one brush of the nose or hand through the hair signaled Uston to fire away with big-time bets.
The goal of the Big Player system is to let a player who can stand the heat place the moneymaking wagers. This person should be flamboyant and well-heeled, making themselves seem like any other “whale” who takes huge risks chasing even bigger rewards.
But unbeknownst to the casino, the apparent whale is really a shark feeding on a steady diet of favorable counts.
4 – Sinking Ships Through Loose Lips
This one should be so easy, but you’d be surprised at how many advantage players out there can’t keep their dang mouths shut.
It must be something to do with misplaced pride, or simply wanting to let somebody in their secret lifestyle. Whatever the cause, I’ve watched dozens of proficient counters and strategists give up the goose simply by striking up a conversation.
Often, it’s a beautiful lady (or a handsome gentleman in the case of female counters) sitting at the table who starts the trouble. With a captive audience on hand, and a desire to impress, the advantage player will inevitably begin talking up their winning ways.
“Oh, just follow my lead honey, and you’ll walk away a winner every time.”
“Think twice before hitting here, there might just be a big card coming down the pipe…”
All it takes is one stray phrase like those above to put a dealer or pit boss on alert.
Under optimal conditions, a savvy advantage player shouldn’t be saying much at all, other than the general chit-chat required to blend in with the crowd. But for obvious reasons, when the possibility of romance is in the air, players can be prone to blurting out “tells” that they’d never reveal otherwise.
It doesn’t even have to be about the opposite sex either. Many advantage players are cursed with an insatiable ego, a byproduct of their ability to succeed where so many others fail. After all, beating the house at its own game is a Herculean task, so it’s easy to understand why an advantage player would want to toot their own horn, so to speak.
In any event, once you expose yourself as an advantage player, the jig is up for good. You’ll be added to the casino’s in-house blacklist, so whenever you return to play, you’ll be immediately targeted for surveillance. Start winning, and you’ll be escorted off of the property before you even make it through the first shoe.
It goes without saying then, keep your secret to yourself and never reveal your skills as an advantage player while you’re on the casino floor.
5 – Getting Careless When Holding Cash
The classic double-edged sword of casino gambling is that this is a cash business.
Of course, that can be of tremendous benefit when you’re trying to parlay your card counting skills into earning a living. No waiting for paychecks, no interest rates, and a steady supply of spending money on hand at all times.
But the curse of cash is how easy it can be to lose.
You might have your week’s bankroll stashed safely inside a lockable briefcase, but if that briefcase is left in a cab, you’re pretty much out of luck. Cash can also cause players to cave when it comes to temptation.
You’d be surprised how many advantage players I know who can turn a huge win into a devastating loss, all because they can’t resist games of chance like roulette, craps, slots or sports betting. These players would never be caught dead using their ATM card to fund a slots session, but when they’re flush with casino chips or cash, taking a shot at true gambling is made that much easier.
Large quantities of cash also make you a target for grifters, pickpockets, and thieves, of which every casino has several who call the place home.
Simply put, if you can gamble there, you’ll find some broker and busted soul lurking around looking for an easy mark. And with a few hundred $100 bills lining your pockets, you’ll quickly be put on these people’s radar if you’re not careful.
All things considered, advantage players should consider cash to be nothing more than a tool of the trade. You need cash to get chips, and the chips you win will be paid out in cash. Thus, you’ll always have to handle it when playing regularly.
With that in mind, take great pains to protect your bankroll. Set up a safe deposit box at each of your local casinos. Inquire about wire transfer plans that can move your winnings electronically from the cashier’s cage to your bank account. And lastly, but most importantly, stay vigilant when carrying cash until that money has made it safely to your bank.
6 – Forgetting the Importance of Sample Sizes
The very premise of advantage play is based on the laws of probability.
By crunching the numbers and identifying favorable counts, you’re putting more money behind bets that have a higher expected return over the long run.
The only thing is, that long run can take a long time to show its face. Unless you’re putting in hundreds upon hundreds of hands per day – day in and day out for years – you just can’t approach the sample size required to turn theoretical probabilities into reality.
Take it from Sawyer and try to increase your hands per hour rate whenever possible. And always remember that short-term swings, in either direction, will inevitably occur.
7 – Thinking the Old Days Are Still Possible
This one hurts my soul to write, so I’ll keep it short and sweet – the card counters’s era is coming to an end.
Between old counters like Ken Uston and Lawrence Revere publishing the secrets of team play decades ago – and casinos responding to those revelations with restrictive rule changes – the golden goose is dead.
Sawyer said it best, and as tough as it is to admit, I have to agree. Unless you’re fully prepared to suffer the rigors of modern advantage play, it’s probably time to consider counting to earn a living a thing of the past.
Advantage gambling is more difficult than in the past, but smart players can still find an edge. Use the 7 ways advantage gamblers shoot themselves in the foot to avoid many common mistakes.