Monday, November 21, 2005

Serious black(jack)

A few years ago Ben Mezrich wrote a book called Bringing Down the House which was, surprisingly, not about Queen Latifah. He detailed the exploits of a team of MIT students who flew to Las Vegas on the weekends and used a system of card counting and small betting that allowed them to signal each other and place larger bets once they knew the remaining cards in a six-deck shoe were disproportionately high (10, J, Q, K, A). It doesn't sound like a big deal, and statistically increases their odds by a few percentage points, but it adds up in the long run. As it so happens with all rags-to-riches, rise-and-fall stories, their plan succeeded until they got greedy, and the casinos figured out what they were doing.

His new book, Busting Vegas, is more of the same. A new batch of MIT students are winning without counting cards. Instead they use 3 techniques designed to capitalize on the exact placement of a particular high card. (For 2 such techniques, they pick a dealer with small hands, clandestinely look at the bottom card after the shuffle, and cut the deck so they know exactly where that card will end up in play.)

Mathematically, the advantage to the player using one of these methods shoots up significantly, by at least 30 percent. And with increased reward comes increased risk: the casinos could not figure out what these students were doing, but they still initiated a shakedown or worse whenever possible.

The book doesn't explore it enough, but the truth is that the casinos do their own kind of math. As the author describes the actions of these young players playing under archetypal aliases (the drunken dentist at a conference, the Eurotrash pop star, the Russian arms dealer), it's apparent that their sudden and consistent success breaks all known patterns of blackjack winning, and therefore merits the wrong kind of attention. Also, these MIT students displayed an incomprehensible arrogance in believing that they could not be caught despite numerous incidents to the contrary. I left the book feeling neither compassion for the players nor antipathy for the casinos.


Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

Ben was on one of the local radio stations a little while back, talking about the new book. I'd never heard of those books, but he sounded pretty cool. Made me want to read Bringing Down the House.

Neel Mehta said...

APL: Bringing Down the House is actually pretty good. In both books, the author draws himself into the story intermittently, making his research process more personal. It works both times, but Busting Vegas doesn't really break any new literary ground. (It's as if the story was there and that the author felt obligated to write it.)

jk said...

I’ve always been sceptical about gambling. At University friends did a lot in the casinos in the city and lost a load of cash to some dodgy people and places. But eventually a friend said “Play online casino”, and I agreed to give it a go (after about four hours and debating the risks). So I signed up and played my first game of online casino blackjack, I lost but it was fun! Kept playing and was lucky enough to break even until I got the hang of it!
Has anybody got any tips or any success stories?