Before there was poker: Card counting trip report

I was hoping to get the conclusion of the Hawaiian Gardens post up tonight, but I’m just too tired (and drunk) to write anything worthwhile. So it’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Besides, it took me forever to make that damn header graphic, isn’t that good enough?
So rather than do nothing, I thought I’d go back to the archives and find something worthwhile to post. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I did find a post detailing my first adventure with card counting. I came to poker after a brief stint as a card counter… although counting was a blast at first, it soon became the ultimate grind. You just wait for the deck to become profitable, and hope you hit your big bets. But the time inbetween profitable deck goes on and on…
Anyway, here’s the post, which I originally posted to a blackjack forum… the date I have for the trip is 4/11/03– less than a year ago! It seems a lot longer than that.

The Card Counter’s First Vegas Trip
Arrive at the Key Largo late night after a 7 hour drive (we sat in traffic for 1.5 hours waiting for them to clear the highway after an accident). I sit down at the one 6 deck table with 3 other players, a cool black cat betting green and 2 hammered foreign guys. The female dealer is jovial, chatting up all the players. I buy in for a hundred and start counting… sit through a low positive first shoe… The second shoe shows a +5, so I split to two hands betting $25, below optimum but I’m just warming up. My chips stack up and the first shoe ends… I check the penetration of the second shoe, which the dealer puts about 3 decks into the 6. I get up and color up– a black chip! 100 bucks in 2 shoes… not a bad start.
Wake up Saturday… quick French Toast breakfast, then off to the Mirage– had an old issue of Stanford Wong’s Blackjack News, giving the odds and EV for each casino. He suggested the Mirage, so I drove over there and checked out the tables. Nothing really caught my eye there, so I wandered down the strip to find another casino. The small casinos were crowded, and most had 8 deck. Somehow I ended up at a large casino playing Single Deck– the shoes were crowded and I wanted to get some one-on-one with the dealer, so I figured the 6:5 payout on Blackjack would put the dealer advantage at about the same level as the 6 deck game. WRONG!!! When I got back I checked on this, and of course the house actually has an advantage of 1.5%!!! Which means you need a true count of +3 just to get even! And at +3 there I was, betting green chips… you never thought bad math could be so costly, did you? Needless to say I got a real subscription to this forum and the most current issue of Blackjack News. So I am prepared for my next trip, and have learned that when in doubt, pull out a napkin and do some math, it’s worth the time. Anyway, a quick summary of events while getting killed on the 6:5 single deckers:
–No trouble keeping the count, except for a couple hands with the dealer one-on-one… dealer starts talking about creatine and semi-pro football (I am an ex-player), and I have to answer, so I back off and bet the min until he’s finished. Strangely, this dealer is the only one I won anything from…
–Got my first comp card at the large casino, that was fun.
Played a couple games with a guy betting 5 black at 3rd base on a table with a $5 min. This is the best cover possible.
–Some of the streaks are nearly unbearable. I lose literally every hand (I think it was 6) in a round, on a table with a moderate positive count the whole deck. That came to about 180 bucks in a span of a few minutes.
S (my significant other) and I walk home dejected, down $600 total (S lost $200! on slots, and I am down $400). We are both frustrated, but not really sad, and try to laugh it off. I am frustrated that the counting effort has been for naught, and wonder if its worth it. Although I’m down, there is a little fire still burning, and secretly I know that it’s not over yet. Even though I understand the standard deviation, something about the outcome of single-deck effort feels wrong in my gut (this intuition would later prove to be right).
Wake up at 10 on Sunday morning. I really want to play, but I’ve lost faith and wonder if it’s better to just sit out by the pool. I have to wait until S wakes up, so I have to do something. I burn some time by taking a shower and a shave. S is still asleep… I decide I have to play, and sit down at the 6 decker for day 3.
The table is empty and the old-Elvis looking dealer unpacks the new decks. He shuffles slowly, and I am getting a bit nervous. I have skipped breakfast, thinking I can eat with S when she wakes up. I’m the only player at either of the two tables– the double deck game hasn’t opened yet, otherwise I probably would have started there. Cards come out… start with a few lows, good… one on one is great… stuff moves so fast, no time to check out which way the chips are going unless its a big swing. More lows… we’re in green chip territory. I hold my own as the shoe goes back to zero, and the shoe dwindles away as elvis is replaced by an old asian lady. I check and am up a green after the first shoe. What a relief after getting destroyed the day before. Shuffle.
Dream first hand– +4 after 1, and the dealer even busts with a 6 7 9. More lows… running count is quickly up to +3 and I’m excited for a big hand. The green chips come out and I’m winning… not every hand but almost… I hit a 9 on a 12 and 2 7s on 14. Now THIS is fun. The shoe stays high and I win about 3/4 of the hands, hitting all the doubles and 1 split. It finally ends and I breathe a sigh of exhilaration. Unfortunately, I am betting conservatively after the slaughter the day before. I’ve accumulated 6 stacks of red and 3 greens, making it a +$150 shoe. Small time, but I’m happy…
A bunch of clowns sit down during the shuffle and I take a peek at the double deck game, where one girl is sitting. I decide if the shoe is negative to jump over to the other table, which technically should be a better game anyway, since the penetration is at a horrible 2 decks at this table, and at 1 deck in the double. Another player sits down, and the count is slightly negative so I decide to color up and move over… up 150, two blacks and two greens…
I play the Double Deck for a while, with small ups and downs. I double a 10 vs. 10 and get it with 2 greens on the table, but the rest is back and forth. S shows up and smiles, I show her the chips and her smile gets bigger. At this point I’m starving, but I want to get one more big bet in before we hit the breakfast tables and head for home. Finally the true hits +4, and I get two green out (still underbetting, how stupid!). I get 19 against a 7, and am happy to go home with a big win… but of course the dealer flips a 4, my heart sinks and out comes the face, time to go home. Ah well… I cash out at +$500 for a 2 hour session, taking comfort that the 6 hour drive back will be a lot easier to stomach. So I’m +$200 overall for the trip, but with S’s slaugher on the slots we are even, not including expenses. At least I’m in a lot better place than I was the day before.
On the drive home I reflect on what I learned– the things I did right and wrong, and what areas of my game I needed to improve.
1. Counting was fine, even in face down games. Need to hold on to the count a little tighter, I lost it a couple times when one-on-one with a dealer or conversing with a PC.
2. Need to improve on deck estimation. I didn’t have that much confidence estimating half decks between 3 and 4.5 decks.
3. Need to brush up on the Catch 22 strategy indices. Found myself trying to buy time waiting for the old memory neurons to fire away.
1. Money management was my biggest weakness (besides not figuring out that a 6:5 bj payout destroys you!). Unless you have some systematic way of dividing your bankroll, the wins and losses become emotional. Since I returned, I have read BJ Attack, and Schlesinger’s idea of a “session bankroll” works nicely. With a better understanding of risk-of-ruin and where you are at in terms of session BR, I think the losses are easier to stomach.
2. Record keeping is hard, but necessary. It feels like a waste of time to document your play if you are playing solo, since you could be playing while you are documenting, but the cost is much lower than the benefit. Instead of trying to keep it all in my head, I think I’ll find some way to record stats after each 1 hour session. This should help illustrate trends, if any exist, such as what times of the day you are more likely to make errors, etc.
Well, it has been a week since the trip. I’ve read Blackjack Attack, and Schlesinger’s presentation of the theoretical side of BJ is excellent. He mixes in his personality, and stays away from true theory, resulting in a fluid presentation of strategy and money management. I have learned so much from his book that I am ashamed of the way I played on my trip. So much wasted time! Such horrible money management! Ah well, I guess I learned the hard way (and still came out with a small win, so I guess I shouldn’t be complaining!). On the flip side, I find myself more engrossed with the game, and the theoretical side of the game. I finally get to use some of those math classes I took in college, and the blackjack game I am developing in Java is fun (most of the time).
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from Schlesinger’s book is that unless you have a good sized bankroll, you should view the game as only practice. With the current state of the game rules being so bad, you really need to be able to bet in units of $25 to make it profitable. Even then your expectation is pretty small– a play all 6 deck with 4.5/6 pen gives you a score of only $23 an hour with h17, DAS, 1-12 spread. And that’s with a $10K bankroll! Wonging gives us $35 an hour here with the same rules. So being aware of your SCORE is important– and for solo play, unless you find a good game, you have to be satisfied with between $20 and $40 an hour.
As Schlesinger and others have suggested, you have to “play like a machine.” Your skills should be sharp enough that you don’t have to think about playing. Deck estimation should be precise, indices should be on the tip of your mind, and true counts should be calculated even when your significant other is talking to you.
Along the same lines, manage your money like a machine. Be aware of where you are with your bankroll at all times, and document each session.
Know which games are worth playing. Before the trip, scout out the good games and restrict yourself to those games. Don’t waste your time wandering around on the strip debating whether you should play that 6 deck with bad pen because every other table is crowded. Guess at crowd conditions and have alternatives, other tables in the same general vicinity. CBJN is indispensable for this.
All in all, I guess it was a good trip. I had fun, learned a ton (well, the trip inspired me to learn a ton at least), and came out +$200. Thanks to everyone out there for sharing their knowledge, after poring through these posts, I feel much better armed for my next Vegas trip.

After reaching double digit card counting experiences, the game began to become boring, and would only be exciting when the big money was on the table. Even then, you knew your chances were only 55%, so losses were not surprising or extremely painful. Card counting is the ultimate grind, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. If you have a HUGE bankroll, you can do pretty well, but if you’ve got that much cash, you might as well invest in something worthwhile instead.
What drew me to poker was the competition, the psychological aspect, and the endless variety of the game. Why grind away at tiny edges on the blackjack table when you can get a far greater edge by playing tight, aggressive poker?
A big thanks to my best friend D, who showed his hole cards and let me know that he was reading. We miss ya over here on the west side.
Poker Link: Caro Drops Knowledge

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply