“What do you do for a living?” It’s a simple and direct question for most, but it’s one that I often have trouble responding to accurately. I rarely tell people that I’m a professional gambler or an advantage player. It’s easier to say that I travel for work and move the subject elsewhere. It’s a difficult subject to broach—most don’t understand what such a career entails, while others hold a wildly inaccurate perception about what it is that I do or how I do it. One assumption is that I’m a degenerate living dollar to dollar or that even if I’m making a living, gambling is immoral. Those types are rarely worth educating. Some are intrigued and think I live a life of adventure and luxury—and while it’s sometimes the former, it’s rarely the latter. If I’m on the road, I’m likely in a Red Roof Inn off the highway. I’ve likely left the door ajar to usher out the smell of stale smoke, and I’m probably concerned about how the yellow stain on the worn checkered armchair came to be. Rarely will you find me in a comped casino suite. I prefer anonymity to luxury.
The short answer about my occupation is that I find ways to extract money from casinos. Each casino is a goldmine—finding a way to mine it and keep the gold is the challenge. The most prevalent method is by playing blackjack and counting cards. Other times I employ more advanced tactics, or I take advantage of opportunities presented by a casino through free play or gifts called comps. If you analyze a casino thoroughly, you’ll always find a method of extraction. Keep your eyes open and you’ll find your advantage.
I recently returned from a trip to the mid-west. The further west you travel, the more open the road seems to be, and if you continue on long enough, things become a lawless desert. I love it. The cramped cities are replaced by wide-open backgrounds and mountain roads (Travel Tip 1: always take the scenic route. Your target will still be there, and the journey is just as fulfilling as the destination). This trip took me 4,000 miles, spanning across 15 states in 14 days.
My first destination was Missouri. There are a good number of casinos in the area, and I knew a couple of advantage players who were in town. I met up with one, whom we’ll call John (names and locations may be altered in my articles—as you recall, we value anonymity). He’s a great card-counter and family-man based out of the mid-west. We both started counting cards at roughly the same time and were able to progress to full-time play due to the positive variance we encountered early on. We talked, shared information, and I decided to stick around town for a few days.
The first thing I’ll do in a new location, as a precursor to developing a strategy, is to scout out the area and see what each casino has to offer. There are publications that give information about blackjack conditions throughout the country, but often things change frequently or are misrepresented, so seeing with your own eyes is the only way to really see what you have to work with.
Once I find out what games are offered, I’ll develop a strategy. Often that means deciding whether or not I want to play rated, what games I want to play, and whether I need to jump my action around town or hammer a certain casino. I make those decisions based on what conditions I observe—I want to see how busy the casino is and what size bets the locals are making. Often how busy a casino is and how heavy patrons are betting dictates how hard I can hit them with action. When counting cards, you don’t want to stick out, and you don’t want to be the biggest bettor if everyone else is a low-roller—especially if you’re playing unrated. Blending in is often the best strategy.
During this trip, I found different advantages at each casino. I noticed that one of the casinos was offering a comped buffet once you accumulated a certain number of points through their player’s club system. I found a low house edge video poker game, Jacks or Better, that paid out at a pay scale of 9/6 (that is full-house and flush payouts, the most desirable pay scale for this game which has an expected return of 99.46% for a simple strategy). I knew I needed 2000 points to get the buffet, so from there I tackled the math to see whether or not it was worth it.
First, I need to find out how many points I get for playing a $5 hand of video poker. If, for example, each $5 hand accrues 10 points, I need to play 200 hands to accumulate 2000 points, which at $5 per hand, runs $1000 through the machine (you don’t put $1000 into the machine—you’re winning and losing from your original buy-in, but $1000 is “run through” the machine with 200 hands at $5 a hand). My expected loss for 200 hands, using the .54% house edge, is $1000*.0054 = $5.40. If you pay out of pocket, the cost of the buffet is $25.00—so instead of paying $25.00, we pay $5.40 through the mathematical expectation of our video poker game and save ourselves $20.00 on a good dinner. That doesn’t count the other perks from that casino or player’s card. Those perks make that type of play and the variance that comes with it worth it in the long run.
We’re here to talk about blackjack, though—so let’s get back to it. One fun fact about Missouri is that it’s similar to Atlantic City—you can’t be barred from a casino for counting cards. While card counting isn’t illegal anywhere in the U.S, most other states allow casinos to pick their patrons. A casino is a private property, and they’re able to bar whomever they want; some casinos seem to thoroughly enjoy barring card-counters. We’ll come back to that. I found another casino, casino A, with a good game of blackjack. I was told that it was a bit intolerant of card counters, but I was on the road and didn’t intend to return anytime soon. I played for a few hours without any discernible cover, and I did well. The pit-boss scowled in my direction as I colored up. I figured they’d had enough for one day.
The hour was getting late, and I was ready to pack up. I hopped into my rental car, a green Chevrolet Spark. To say it’s a compact car isn’t telling the whole story—I’m amazed it’s supported by 4 wheels. I headed to a nearby Wal-Mart, curled up into the cramped back seat and dozed off to the sound of carts being wheeled through the parking lot by a poor soul working grave-shift. Did I mention that the life of a professional gambler is seldom luxurious? (Travel Tip 2: You can often spend the night at a Cracker Barrel or Walmart. Wal-Mart has overhead-lights and cameras. In addition, if you have a Planet or LA Fitness membership, you can work out and shower there while on the road, saving hundreds on hotel costs. If you can pull this off for an extended time, consider yourself a road warrior.)
I was greeted early the next morning by the blazing sun and decided it was time to move along. After another day of scouting and taking advantage of another opportunity I’d found, I met back up with John and another traveling advantage player whom we’ll call Luke. Luke was a southern man with a heavy accent who had recently retired from advantage play and was on the road collecting the last of his comps. We met up at Casino B, had a few drinks on the house, and then decided we would have some fun. (Note, I generally advise against being seen with other advantage players inside a casino, but I was not playing rated and wasn’t planning on returning anytime soon.) We split up and descended onto the casino floor like a hit-squad. John branched off to hammer the main floor while Luke and I tackled the high-limit room. We went to two different tables and started to play. The count rose and fell like the tide, and we jumped our bets accordingly. The casino pit seemed flustered, running from my table back to his when each dealer shouted “checks play” to signify a large bet being placed. They couldn’t keep up. I could only imagine the confusion with John playing nearby. We played this way for about an hour until another pit boss arrived. I saw them convene at the computer, looking over a video of Luke’s play alongside his information. I crept away to the bathroom and sent him a message about the pit activity—he cut his play short and retired to his comped hotel room and offered me a spare bed. I played on for a bit before retiring as well. Thanks to our teamwork, he avoided countermeasures, and I was able to forego Wal-Mart for a night.
The following day I went back to Casino A to see if I could press my luck a bit more and follow up with my positive variance from the first visit. As soon as I sat down at a table to play, the phone in the pit rang, and the pit-boss answered and looked discretely in my direction. This has happened before the majority of my back-offs and is one huge indication that the pit is concerned about your presence or knows who you are (though it can also mean a number of other things—so don’t always run at first glance—use your eyes and ears).
“Do you know his name?” he nearly spat into the receiver. I smiled—they didn’t. The pit-boss hung up the phone and walked over to the dealer and whispered in her ear. The next round, the dealer only dealt a dozen cards out of a 6-deck shoe before proceeding to shuffle.
“Why are we shuffling so soon?” I asked in as innocent a voice as I could muster.
“I just do what they tell me,” she said, staring blankly at me.
I knew my time was up, and the casino would soon send a flyer of my face to all of the casinos in the area—complete with a description of my play, my vehicle, and every bit of information they could muster or fabricate. I tipped my hat and left with my chips, avoiding the cashier where the best cameras could be found.
It was time to hit the road again.