“LV Bear” is the pseudonym of a professional casino patron, advantage player, and outspoken casino critic who regularly visits casinos throughout Nevada and elsewhere. He is a frequent contributor to www.bj21.com and other informed gambling and casino-related websites. In this interview LVB shares his history, his experiences, and his wisdom about the games, the people, the casinos, and what life is really like when extracting money from casinos. LV Bear can be reached through his website, www.TheBearGrowls.com, a unique weblog where he voices his sharp criticism of the casino industry and its many violations of business ethics, players’ rights, and its corrupting and negative impact on society in general.
LVB: I began playing blackjack in the mid ’90s after reading Ed Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer“. Previously, I had just played as a ploppy a few times in my life. I had no real interest in blackjack or any other casino games. After reading Dr. Thorp’s book, I became interested in the concept of advantage play.
I had been self-employed for most of my life, and I had a flexible schedule. I began to read more books and practiced at low stakes in several Laughlin casinos. Laughlin was the closest casino location to where I was residing at the time.
In the late ’90s, there were some changes in the business I was in, and I decided to leave that business. My wife, who is almost a decade younger than me, was in the final year of a lengthy course of study in college. It would have been difficult to change the location of our residence. And, unfortunately, the city we lived in offered few opportunities for me in anything that I was interested in doing. But my wife and I decided that I would play blackjack for about six months and see how it went, while she completed her studies. We decided to defer the decision about where we would live until her schooling was completed.
So I became a full-time player in 1999, and for the next year I was on the road a lot, playing blackjack throughout Nevada. In June of 2000, when my wife’s schooling was completed, we decided to move to Las Vegas. I had grown up in Las Vegas in the 1960’s, but moved away in 1972. My parents lived in Las Vegas, and employment opportunities for my wife were plentiful in Las Vegas, so off we went. We’ve lived in Las Vegas and I have been an advantage player ever since.
Over the years, as my stakes have increased, I’m playing fewer and fewer hours. I’m now also involved in other gainful activities. The deterioration of the games and the hassles of frequent travel have taken their toll. But in 2006, I still managed to play almost five hundred hours in casinos throughout the country. I am on a pace in 2007 for about 350 hours of actual casino play. Years ago, I played a thousand or more hours a year.
KS: What did you do before you became an advantage player?
LVB: For ten years before becoming a full-time player, I was in a high-profile business that only has a few hundred people in the entire world in the position I was in. Therefore, I don’t want to answer that question because I’m afraid it might help identify me. Before that, I was in the attorney-service business. My company handled court filings, process serving, and other duties for law firms. I was in that business for many years, and sold a successful company to go into the other, totally unrelated venture that I won’t disclose.
KS: How does advantage play affect your marriage?
LVB: I’m fortunate that my wife is totally supportive of my play. She is a part-time advantage player herself. Her profession allows her a reasonably flexible schedule, so she accompanies me on some of my out-of-town trips.
KS: What about issues like retirement and health insurance? What sort of lifestyle do you enjoy?
LVB: We live a pleasant upper-middle-class life. My wife and I are in the process of having a new home constructed. We are debt-free, except for our mortgage.
My wife has an excellent health insurance and retirement plan through her employer. I max out my IRA contribution every year, and have other investments. When I retire from active casino play, I will invest my bankroll in other things as well, perhaps including the financing of other players.
KS: Tell us about your bankroll, spread, and the games you play.
LVB: My current bankroll is in the low six figures, built up over the years from the small $15,000 bankroll I started with. I am an aggressive blackjack player, using a large bet spread but playing short sessions. I also play other games which I won’t discuss, and I’m always on the lookout for other profitable opportunities. If you are alert and observant, you will find that there are a lot of other ways in addition to blackjack to extract money from casinos.
I’m afraid I can’t go in to the other current ways I exploit casino weaknesses to legally extract their money, but SuperFun 21 makes a case in point. Several years ago, most card counters believed that SF21 was a very poor game and most experts wouldn’t think of playing it. I specialized in it, for a time, and my win rate at SF21 was exceptional. The point being that conditions are not always as they appear to be. There were specific unique opportunities to be found at this game.
KS: What count system and range of indices do you use?
LVB: I use the standard Hi-Lo count, with indices ranging from -4 to +6. I once tried Hi-Opt I, but wasn’t comfortable with it and quickly returned to Hi-Lo.
KS: Do you have a style of play that defines you? Are there certain conditions that you prefer when you play?
LVB: I play quickly and quietly, preferring to play alone or with as few other players as possible. If I have to, I can chat with the dealer, critters, cocktail waitresses, or ploppies and still be confident of my count, and still be able to maintain appropriate game speed, which of course is as many hands per hour as possible.
KS: What do you dislike the most about being an advantage player?
LVB: Casino harassment and stupidity. You can’t always predict when harassment it will rear its ugly head. I have been rudely treated countless times, been threatened and even assaulted by casino security guards, had cashiers refuse to cash my chips, been thrown out of comped hotel rooms, etc. Casinos often are nasty and vindictive towards people who use their brains while playing casino games. Though I have been doing this for a long time, some of the pettiness and spitefulness of casino people still surprises me. That’s partly why I started my blog www.TheBearGrowls.com to help expose casino wrongdoing.
KS: Describe your experiences with backoffs and barrings. Is there one such experience that is especially memorable?
LVB: I accept backoffs and barrings as part of the game. I’m always polite when backed off, which has happened well over a hundred times. Sometimes casinos shoot themselves in the foot by making a routine, low-key occurrence into an embarrassing spectacle for themselves. Backoffs are merely a business decision by the casino. There is no legitimate reason for them to get security guards involved. It is rare that an advantage player will become unruly when backed off or barred. We generally just want to get out of there safely. The guards have no need to be involved. It’s just an intimidation tactic by the casino, and a shameful one for them. I’m happy when it backfires and upsets ploppies.
Once, at Green Valley, a ploppy stupidly became involved in a routine backoff. The shift manager got angry and called counters “scumbags”. He so antagonized the apparently well-meaning ploppy that the ploppy left as well, vowing to never return. Amazing stupidity on the part of that shift manager – it was hilarious.
I wrote a Guide to Minimizing Risk of Personal Injury during Casino Backoffs and Barrings. It’s terrible that there has to even be discussion of these things. Law enforcement should have long ago stopped such crimes by casino employees.
KS: How have you managed to survive this long as an advantage player?
LVB: Persistence, a variety of skills and games, and good casino comportment, which includes being unfailingly pleasant and polite to everyone, even the drunken ploppies. Not feeding too often at the same trough is important as well. Detailed playing records, including shifts played, are a must to avoid over-exposure.
KS: What do you think about the quality of the games that are available? Give us your historical perspective.
LVB: The games overall have deteriorated, without a doubt. Most of the double decks have a full deck cut off now. Many of the shoes have gone to H17. Surrender is disappearing. There is no more playable single deck in Las Vegas, and not much playable double deck left either. Many playable Reno, Tunica, and Biloxi games have disappeared. Casinos seem nastier and more paranoid than ever. More games are “no mid-entry”, a stupid, paranoid move by incompetent casino management and an annoyance to patrons, skilled and ploppy alike.
On the other hand, the increased number of casinos nationwide has diluted the available talent to staff the casinos. It’s generally to the skilled player’s advantage to have ignorant dealers and pit personnel, but sometimes it can go too far, like when a dealer deals so slowly that the number of hands per hour is intolerably reduced.
KS: What do you think about the future of blackjack and other beatable casino games?
LVB: I think blackjack will continue to exist in some form. But since large corporations control most of the casinos now, the games will continue to get worse. Without an outcry from the public about the terrible games being offered, the casinos are not going to improve them. Why should they? The sad reality is that 99% of casino patrons don’t care about the quality of the games. They don’t even understand the games, or the math involved. The casinos have done a good job of marketing their games as “entertainment” to the ignorant and gullible masses. If the public cared about the quality of games, 6-5 “blackjack” couldn’t exist. Keno couldn’t exist. Roulette couldn’t exist. Slot machines couldn’t exist. State lotteries couldn’t exist. But they all do, and millions of people play them every day. I estimate that less than one percent of blackjack players even bother to learn simple basic strategy. Obviously, they just don’t care.
Stanford Wong has commented on how he has pointed out more advantageous payouts to people sitting at an inferior video poker machine right next to the better one. He has reported that they have actually become angry at him for trying to do them a favor, and they didn’t move to the better machine, despite the information.
My friend and attorney on casino-related matters, Bob Nersesian, has had many successful lawsuits against casinos for abuse of patrons. Enough to fill a book, “Beat the Players“, and plenty more. Don Schlesinger has commented about how he has tried to get publicity in the mainstream media about the poor quality of games and conditions for years, but the media says there is no interest in the subject. I’ve tried to publicize casino rip-offs and mistreatment of patrons. But most of the public just doesn’t care.
KS: What can ploppies do to improve their situation?
LVB: Well, it would be nice if they cared! I’d like to see an organization for ploppies similar to Consumer’s Union that would impartially evaluate and rate the games in terms the average casino patron can understand. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect it to happen, though. They go to casinos expecting to lose, and the overwhelming majority of them do.
KS: What’s your impression of the AP “community?”
LVB: I’ve had the good fortune to meet many proficient players. They tend to be honest, intelligent, educated, and successful. I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best, and sometimes joining forces to attack certain situations. Without the advantage-player friends I’ve made, mostly through www.BJ21.com Green Chip (message forum), I would probably not still be extracting money from the casinos, and certainly would not be playing at the level I am today.
KS: Do you meet interesting non-advantage players at the tables?
LVB: I’m sorry to say that I have met few interesting non-APs in casinos. The ones that stand out in my mind are just stupid, drunken ploppies, not worth mentioning here. Read practically any ploppy story – I’ve probably seen it many times over. I try to avoid other players, so perhaps I’ve missed opportunities along the way.
KS: Do you see any way the proficient players can work towards improving conditions?
LVB: I don’t think we have the power to change much in a positive way. We have to realize that the casinos don’t want our patronage. Sure, they want to foster the illusion that the average patron has a reasonable chance to win, so that the ploppies will continue to flock to the games. But they don’t want anyone to actually win over time.
Look at the casino ads with the happy, smiling faces. “Mrs. Housewife won $20,000 at the quarter progressive slot machine at The Greed Casino last week.” I have yet to see an ad, “Mr. Counter won $20,000 at blackjack” – I guess the ad would also have to say, “Then we hassled him, threw him out of his comped room in the middle of the night, and told him to never return. And we sent his photo and personal information to other casinos.”
Still, we need to continue to work on curbing the abuse of skilled players by casino employees. Violence against skilled players, threats, kidnapping (“backrooming”) and the illegal dissemination of photographs and personal information must be stopped. Bob Nersesian has been the pioneer in this area, and is a tireless advocate of player’s rights. Watching Bob and his law partner Thea Sankiewicz force the universally-despised, despicable Griffin agency into bankruptcy was wonderful. Other attorneys are now getting involved as well.
KS: What do you see as requirements to become a successful advantage player?
LVB: For a single person who has amassed a sufficient bankroll, it is a good opportunity, and there is really no downside. At least, no more downside than starting any other business. When starting out, the bankroll requirements are lower than most types of businesses. But it isn’t as easy as it was eight or nine years ago, because of the consolidation of casino ownership and deterioration of games.
For a married person, I think that full acceptance by the spouse is a must. Without it, advantage play is difficult. I suppose acceptance by a spouse is probably necessary for any successful endeavor, but I’ve heard that such acceptance is harder to come by than other more normal pursuits.
A thick skin is required, and the ability to not take personally the rudeness and hostility often received from casino personnel. At first, advantage play is interesting and fun, especially if contrasted to a job or business that you don’t like. But eventually, the craft becomes somewhat routine and monotonous teetering on boredom. You have to learn to look for things to laugh at in casinos to relieve the boredom. But there is more personal flexibility than at just about any other similarly profitable venture.
KS: How much longer do you think you will continue as a player?
LVB: I’m looking forward to other opportunities. From my experience, advantage play is more rewarding as a part-time additional income source. I’m glad to now be a less than full-time player, not out there every day. The boredom, the constant hassles of travel, and the lack of feeling of accomplishing anything useful weighs heavy when playing full-time. But certainly for a few years, it can be an interesting business. But the drudgery and dislike of the casino environment really sets in after a few years.
KS: Have you played much outside the U.S.?
LVB: As an advantage player, I’ve played only in the U.S. and Canada. Years ago, as a ploppy, I played blackjack in the Bahamas and once in the Dominican Republic.
KS: Thank you for your time and willingness to share your experiences.
LVB: Thanks for the opportunity. My dislike of casinos and their nearly total lack of ethics have increased over the years. I hope that by passing along some of my experiences, I can help others avoid pitfalls, and help them take more money from the greedy casinos.