Whenever you see card counting and other advantage play blackjack techniques depicted on the silver screen, disguises and costumes invariably come into play.
In the classic Tom Cruise flick “Rain Man” (1988), the autistic savant “Raymond” played by Dustin Hoffman famously ditches his plain white T-shirt for a fancy suit. And for good reason, as the extravagant duds help Ray to look the part of a businessman with a big bankroll as his winning bets continue to increase in size.
And in “21” (2008), which tells the tale of the legendary MIT Blackjack Team, Kevin Spacey’s professor character shows up at the table donning a jean jacket, cowboy hat, and even a fake beard. Disguises are prominent throughout “21,” with the whiz kid mathematicians exchanging their usual glasses and pen protectors for dress shirts and slicked back hair.
In an essay entitled “The Ultimate No-Brainer No-Cost Card Counting Camouflage” – which was published in 1993 by Card Player magazine – famed advantage play specialist and blackjack expert Arnold Snyder described the card counter’s perpetual gambit:
When you’re willing to walk onto the casino floor – home to some of the most heavy surveillance anywhere in America – and count cards to gain an edge over the house, concealing that fact is of paramount importance.
The legal divide concerning card counters is a long story, one deserving of its own full-page primer, but suffice to say, casinos strictly “frown upon” this technically legal activity. While card counters are indeed free to use their skills against the house, as advantage play is not a crime, casinos are just as free to ban big winners who are caught – or even suspected of – counting.
As a result of this ceaseless stalemate, the most proficient card counters out there – those rare players who can consistently beat blackjack by identifying profitable situations – are often “blacklisted” within the industry.
Fans of “21” will remember the insidious Griffin Investigations, a shady firm hired by casinos to identify, track, and ban known card counters. And while the filmmakers propped the company up in the stereotypical villain role, Griffin Investigations is actually a real company based in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The so-called “Griffin Book” is relied upon by hundreds of casinos, as it contains a carefully collated photo gallery covering thousands of winners who played their way onto the company’s radar. And while most of these players are outright cheaters who have been caught trying to rig the game, Bob Griffin – who serves as president of Griffin Investigations – once told Sports Illustrated that scores of big time card counters were plying their trade from coast to coast:
That same Sports Illustrated profile also highlighted the exploits of the late Ken Uston, an infamous character within advantage play circles.
Uston was a member of the very first “big player” card counting team ever put together, a product of high-roller legend Al Francesco. The team terrorized Atlantic City’s emerging gambling scene during the 1960s and 1970s, winning beating the blackjack games out of untold millions of dollars.
But the run ended in 1974, when casino operators banded together to block 22 suspected card counters – Uston included – from continuing to play blackjack anywhere in Atlantic City. The Tuesday Night Masscre, as Uston dubbed the debacle, sparked a legal battle to determine whether or not card counting should be considered a crime.
And even though Uston eventually emerged victorious – securing a landmark ruling which declares skillful play to be perfectly legal – the casinos soon took a different tack to combat the counters.
Here’s what Nevada Revised Statute 463.151, the relevant statute regulating advantage play in the Silver State, has to say about the matter:
For the folks who didn’t go to law school, the word “inimical” suggests an intention to obstruct or harm. Put plainly, casinos that suspect a player of using skills like card counting to win have a right – or a duty as the statute spells out – to ban them from the property.
Knowing this fact in 2018, modern card counters are increasingly looking back on the careers of “big players” like Uston, the MIT Team, and others to learn how to dodge the heat. Back in their era – with the casinos still smarting from seven-figure losses to a single counter – pit bosses had no problem whatsoever dragging a winner out the door and telling them to never return.
Accordingly, the best players were forced to don disguises in an attempt to stay in the game. These players earned their living as advantage play blackjack professionals, so it was only natural that a little subterfuge would come into play.
But for those of you considering card counting nowadays, one questions comes to mind – did those disguises really work?
Well, like so many others in the gambling world, the answer to that crucial query is a mixed bag. For many counters, the ability to mask their true identity led to decades of additional grinding. For others, however, a poorly conceived costume cost them their dignity, along with any hope of getting one over on the house going forward.
If there’s anybody out there who can help you determine whether disguises really work for card counters, it’s these four iconic figures.
Ken Uston Slumming it at the Circus Circus
Uston was born in New York City (1935) and died in Paris, France (1987), but between those metropolitan locales, the gambling man made his bones in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
His time on Francesco’s team was controversial to say the least, given Uston’s well-documented crusades in the court system, and his publication of “Million Dollar Blackjack” in 1982. By revealing exactly how card counting teams coordinated to crush the house, Uston served the strategies up on a silver platter.
Even so, one year before Uston’s untimely death, fellow blackjack pro and legendary gambling writer Arnold Snyder was happy to meet up at the Circus Circus for a small-stakes session spent swapping stories.
The only thing was, Uston never did get the advantage play bug out of his blood. Even with his face and name adorning a bestselling blackjack book, and the proverbial cat decidedly out of the bag, Uston couldn’t help himself from trying to beat the game.
Snyder watched in awe as Uston – normally a sharply dressed professional who hailed from the Ivy League – sidled up to a $2 table dressed from head to toe as a menial laborer.
Here’s how Snyder described the scene in an article posted to his Blackjack Forum in December of 1987, just three months after Uston passed away:
Never content to let his clothes do the talking, Uston backed up the workman’s disguise with a constant stream of complaining about his would-be job:
While Snyder watched on incredulously, Snyder used his disguise to blend in with the Circus Circus’ clientele of locals. And with no heat to speak of coming his way, Uston successfully counted his way through the deck while spreading wagers between $5 and $200.
It was a far cry from his glory days scooping millions off the table, but Snyder’s colorful story about Uston proves that card counting disguises can and do work. If a celebrity gambler like Uston – who literally wrote the book on big player card counting teams – can escape detection by dressing down and playing the part, you certainly can too.
Lessons Learned: Disguises have long been deployed by card counters, even the most well-known of their era. When you’re willing to commit to the act – as Uston clearly was when he taught himself about “sump pits” and added dirt underneath his usually manicured fingernails – adopting a different identity is an effective way of escaping the heat.
The MIT Blackjack Team Takes Subterfuge to the Next Level
What do you get when you combine a roomful of world-class math students, a professor with a knack for counting cards, and a mysterious benefactor willing to provide a bankroll?
Well, one of the most successful blackjack teams ever assembled, that’s what.
The MIT Blackjack Team inspired the movie “21,” which in turn was adopted from the book “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” (2003). Between the backing of Hollywood heavy hitters, and the New York Times’ bestsellers list, the MIT Team clearly excelled enough at their craft to warrant pop culture inclusion.
Aspiring card counters are well-served to watch the film and read the book, so no spoilers will be found here. Instead, let’s see what Mike Aponte – one of the original members of the MIT Team and a “captain” of sorts – has to say on his website about the role of disguises:
And he’s not talking about throwing on a pair of coveralls and using construction slang. No, Aponte and his teammates went the whole nine yards, especially after their high-rolling exploits began attracting interest from pit bosses and Griffin Investigations.
Just imagine the dedication involved in a costume routine like the one Aponte describes on his website:
As Aponte points out, the idea of fooling casinos with a perfectly put together costume can be quite appealing. But in practice, disguises are usually difficult to employ properly, especially given the “big fish in a little pond” dynamic that exists between top players and pit bosses.
Essentially, even when you have millions of dollars in your expense account, acquiring the type of disguise that lets you stroll right past a pit boss who just banned you last month isn’t in the cards. People are naturally trained to remember faces from important meetings, and pit bosses are paid specifically to do so, making escaping detection a chore even with the most professional of masks.
Lessons Learned: Disguises and costumes can be woefully inconsistent, which is fitting for a game like blackjack. Even when you play your angles perfectly and set yourself up for success like the MIT Team, all it takes is a random encounter with a familiar face to foil a card counter’s best laid plans.
Richard Munchkin Makes a Rookie Mistake
Like Uston (2002) and John Chang (2007) of the MIT Team, professional gambler Richard Munchkin was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2009.
Munchkin’s blackjack bona fides include competing in the World Series of Blackjack, hosting a Las Vegas radio show called “Gambling With an Edge,” and his book “Gambling Wizards” (2002). But aside from those mainstream media endeavors, Munchkin earned his living as an advantage play specialist for several decades.
In an interview with the Las Vegas Advisor, Munchkin recalled a series of costumes that he used while trying to stay one step ahead of the heat. Among those disguises was one that echoed Uston’s dam worker getup:
But as he wryly observes, Munchkin had trouble reconciling his downtrodden truck driver ruse with the significant betting action he brought to the table. Eventually, a sharp pit boss caught on and politely had Munchkin escorted from the premises.
Munchkin went on to reveal that his most effective costumes were those that matched up with the idea of a high-rolling gambler who could care less about losing big bucks. Whether he acted like a hedge fund manager, a corporate raider, or an early retiree looking to spend his windfall, Munchkin gravitated towards expensive clothes and a carefree attitude.
But in the end, Munchkin realized that dressing up as somebody else on a daily basis wasn’t for him. And to hear him tell the tale, most card counters eventually came to the same realization regarding their own disguises:
Lessons Learned: The better the disguise, the more difficult it will be to wear while actually counting cards. Wigs, fake mustaches, colored lenses – these accoutrements can be easily worn while having fun, but they’re tough to cope with while trying to maintain a running count and blend in with the crowd.
Dr. John Oakes Opts to Play the Drunken Fool
While he’s not the most well-known advantage player out there, Dr. John Oakes writes humorous riffs on his days as a card counter.
According to Oakes, the best costumes aren’t based on clothes and masks, but rather adopting a new effect at the table:
When your mind is swimming with positive and negative numbers, the cards are coming fast and furious, and the pit boss is staring daggers – a highly focused expression can be a dead giveaway. By playing the part of a drunk tourist – even going so far as the make the occasional misplay like splitting 4s – savvy counters can confuse eagle-eyed pit bosses.
Lessons Learned: If the goal is simply to conceal your card counting, and not your actual identity, the best disguise can often be playacting. Raise your voice, slur your words, sway in your seat – whatever it takes to make it seem as though you’re just another drunk blowing their bankroll. Taking these measures offers a much easier method than physical disguises do, and with so many genuine boozehounds in the vicinity, you’ll have every reason to melt into the backdrop.
Disguises can work for blackjack card counters, but the best ones aren’t always the first ones you think about. Learn from the blackjack masters listed above if you want to start using disguises at the table.