Wednesday, January 02, 2008

This is the Best Blackjack Scam I've ever Heard!

Here's the article I wrote about it for Magazine. And don't forget to check out my new Cheaters Hall of Fame page!


In thirty years of hearing about blackjack advantage play, including card counting, hole-carding, ace-tracking, shuffle-tracking and just about everything else, I had thought I’d heard it all. But a debonair man named Randy and a foxy woman named Brandy blew my mind when I heard their story. The year was 2001 when they set about their new careers counting cards at blackjack. They basically employed the typical counter/big player strategy and alternated roles depending on conditions and which of them had less heat in the pits. They worked efficiently and made a decent if not spectacular living. But one late night in the summer of 2005 they were no longer your run-of-the-mill card-counting duo.

First to notice this was the staff at a major Las Vegas Strip casino. It was the grave shift and the pair sat at the table alone. The dealer offered Brandy the cut card and shuffled up. After the shuffle he held the six-deck pack on the layout, waiting for her to insert the cut card. Brandy hesitated as though searching for her lucky spot in the pack. But luck had nothing to do with it. Finally she inserted the card and the dealer loaded the pack into the shoe. The floorman was mildly surprised when they each placed four purple $500 chips in their betting circles. Randy, who sat at first base, got blackjack. Brandy received a hard 17 and stood. The dealer drew to a stiff but made 19. Randy won three grand, Brandy lost two; together they cleared a grand.

If the floorman was mildly surprised by their initial bet, he was totally shocked by their next. They each placed three red $5 chips in their betting circles, minimum $15 bets. They won their hands. Then on the third round they stayed at $15 bets. They continued betting $15 a hand until the dealer reached the cut card he’d placed into the pack before loading the cards into the shoe. The floorman had called over the pit boss and notified him about their strange betting pattern. It wasn’t every day you saw someone bet two grand at the top of a six-deck shoe and then settle into a pattern of minimum bets for the twenty-five remaining hands. They stood and watched as the dealer offered the cut card to Randy and then shuffled up. Randy deliberately inserted it into the pack, then the dealer loaded the six decks into the shoe. The first round, Brandy played two hands, each at $2,000. Randy, at first base, played just one, but his bet was also $2,000. The floorman and pit boss shot each other a curious glance, the pit boss with a furrowed brow. They watched Randy hit his hand and bust. But Brandy’s first hand was blackjack; her second pushed with the dealer’s. Together they won another grand. What would they bet next round?

They reverted to $15 bets. Brandy stayed at two hands, Randy one. They played out the entire shoe without varying the $15 bets. It was stupefying to watch them go right back up to $2,000 a hand the first round of the next shoe. The floorman and pit boss wondered if they were playing some crazy hunch that made them lucky each first round of a shoe. Again they watched the couple make money on the round. This time no blackjacks, but Randy did receive a winning hard twenty at first base, a $2,000 profit. After playing out the rest of that shoe at $15 a hand, they began the fourth shoe with the same $2,000 bets. They lost their hands and the floorman and pit boss exchanged a small smile and began to relax a bit.

Maybe they shouldn’t have. By dawn, after a total of ten shoes, the pair had beaten the blackjack table for $15,000, winning all that money on the first rounds of new shoes. When Brandy and Randy returned the next night, again after midnight to an empty table, they drew an audience. The floorman and pit boss from the night before were joined by two more pit bosses and the shift boss. To say they were all curious would be the understatement of the year. But their presence did not bother Brandy and Randy. They played as they had the previous night, making $2,000 bets off the top of the shoe, playing either one, two or three hands. Then after getting ahead $25,000 they stepped up their off-the-top bets to $3,000, but did not venture the maximum $5,000.

That changed a week later when they had beaten the casino for more than a hundred grand! They upped their first-round bets to the maximum $5,000. The bosses were all baffled. The casino manager had been informed and he quickly got surveillance involved. “What the hell are they doing!” he demanded of the surveillance director, who knew off the bat that it couldn’t be card counting as no viable advantage could possibly be obtained coming off the first round of a six-deck shoe. “How are they beating us every day by betting heavy on only the first round of blackjack?”

The surveillance director and his staff got to work. Their first assumption was that the couple were tracking aces and tens during the shuffle and then using the cut card to steer these cards to come out on the first round of the new shoe. With the knowledge of your first card being an ace, you had a whopping 52% advantage against the house. Knowing your first card was a ten gave you a 13% advantage. By playing multiple hands off the top, you could guarantee your target card’s arrival to one of your hands. If that card were an ace, you would gladly play two additional hands at a 1% disadvantage (assuming basic strategy) to garner the 52% edge on your first one.

But examination of surveillance video revealed that all the dealers on the game were shuffling thoroughly, leaving little chance for effective shuffle-tracking play. So the director dismissed shuffle-tracking and again began wondering what the “lucky” couple were doing. “Maybe they found some new kind of card counting system,” one of his operators suggested desperately. “But then why only make big bets off the top of the shoe?” the director countered. “The count can’t be true positive the first round of a new shoe?” The operator simply shrugged that he didn’t know.

Still at a loss, the director suggested to the casino manager that they invoke what he thought was an anti-advantage-play measure against the couple. The next night they came into the casino, the manager instructed his dealers to cut off three of the six decks, reducing the penetration level to 50%. This did not bother Brandy and Randy in the least. They smiled as they cut the cards and continued beating the hell out of the casino, up another $100,000 in three days. Irate, the manager ordered the dealers to deal only one deck, cutting off five decks of cards. Randy grinned at the manager as the dealer followed the instruction and burned five decks. Both he and Brandy continued betting $5,000 per hand on the first round, then $15 on the three or four rounds remaining before the new shuffle. They continued winning. The manager’s next move was to up the minimum bet at the table to $100. Then $500. With a maximum bet only ten times the minimum, their feathers would surely be ruffled.

Not so. They still kept winning on the first rounds. Finally, and perhaps the biggest anti-advantage-play measure ever taken by a casino short of tossing players, the casino ordered the dealers to perform the comical task of shuffling after every hand! Imagine shuffling a six-deck shoe after every hand! This was insane! But Brandy and Randy seemed to love it, and they continued winning like crazy. After two weeks they had beaten the casino for half a million dollars, after three close to a million. Finally the distraught surveillance director reported to the casino manager that he couldn’t figure out what they were doing to beat the game. Then at an emergency management meeting it was decided to hire an outside consultant who was considered an expert in all forms of blackjack advantage play as well as cheating.

The expert examined hours of video footage of the couple’s play. The first unusual thing he noticed after the shuffle was that Brandy and Randy both had the habit of hesitating several seconds before placing the cut card into the pack the dealer held on the layout. With his nose squarely to the monitor, he also observed that they seemed to be placing the cut card into the pack in front of cards whose edges appeared slightly darker than other cards. He added that observation to the evidence that they received an inordinate amount of first-card aces and tens on first rounds off the top of the shoe. Then when he examined the video for the umpteenth time, he noticed that the longer the dealer held the pack before the cards were cut, the more dark edges of cards appeared. What was astounding about this was that upon close physical inspection of those same cards in his hands, there were no dark ridges or anything else unusual when compared to any other played decks in the casino. But on the video these dark edges remained absolutely visible.

It was the expert’s turn to be baffled. But then he compared the videos of the cards used on Brandy and Randy’s table to videos of cards used on other tables. Dark edges were found on some of the cards used on other tables, but not on all of them. Next he studied the video of cards used on Brandy and Randy’s table that were pulled after just two shoes. He noted that some of the cards had dark edges but they were not quite as dark. Then he had those same cards reinserted into the game, and upon examining the video of them two shoes later, the dark edges had become darker. The same experiment panned out on other tables as well. The expert finally concluded that the cards were defective and the couple had picked up on the discoloration, allowing them to repeatedly place the cut card in front of the card before a darkened ace or ten, which would then fall into one of their hands after the dealer burned a single card to start the new shoe. It was simply ingenius.

But, lo and behold, the expert was not completely right. Upon an inspection of the card company’s printing facility, no defective cards or equipment were found. Management of the company was very concerned about the incident tarnishing its reputation and wanted to get to the bottom of this as well. The expert returned to the surveillance footage and his mind hovered over the couple’s hesitation each time they inserted the cut card. Why did they do this? Every single time! Finally, he thought he had the answer. The dark edges did not appear until several seconds after the dealer offered the pack from his extended arm. It was as if the couple knew this, like they were actually waiting for the dark edges to appear. But the expert already knew that the discoloration was not visible at the table. So then how were they locating the aces and tens? They couldn’t see the dark color along the edges, but obviously they saw something.

It took a second expert to finally solve the puzzle. Called in by the first, he chuckled in appreciation as he watched the video and realized what the couple had accomplished. “These two let your casino do all their work for them,” he said to the dumbfounded surveillance staff and casino manager. “Starting with the dealer.” He explained how by hesitating to insert the cut card, the couple induced the dealers into relaxing their grips on the six-deck pack. When that grip naturally did relax, the cards separated, and what appeared as black lines on the two-dimensional surveillance imagery were actually bent cards whose slight corner bends created the space between those cards and the other cards not bent.

“But if the cards were not defective and the players never touched them, how did they get bent?” the confused casino manager asked. The second expert chuckled again and said, “You bent the cards for them. Every time the dealers have a ten or an ace showing, they have to check for blackjack, right?” They all nodded. “And how do they do that?” the expert asked derisively. “They slide the cards into the hole-card reader,” the surveillance director answered. The expert shrugged, “Well, that’s it! That’s how the cards are being marked, or I should say bent.” When they looked at him funnily, he told an operator to zoom in on the table Brandy and Randy were playing on.

They all watched intently as the dealer slid his ace and hole card into the reader, then flipped over the blackjack. “Did you notice how hard the dealer slid those cards in?” the expert asked. They all nodded dumbly, then the expert explained that the dealers were sliding the cards into the reader with more force than they normally did. Why? “Because the batteries are low, gentlemen. The dealers have to slide the cards in harder to activate the light telling them they have blackjack. That’s how they’re bending the cards, inadvertently, of course. The result is that the tens and aces are bent on one corner while non-tens-and-aces are bent on the laterally opposite corner. I suggest that you properly maintain your card readers and change their batteries before they start dying.” He pointed at the couple on the monitor. “If not, that charming couple will take you to the cleaners!”

They already had, to the tune of $2 million! And the amazing thing about it was that each time the casino took what they considered a deterring measure against them, it only added to their edge. By shuffling an entire six-deck shoe after every hand, they allowed Brandy and Randy to steer tens and aces into their hands every round.

Talk about shooting yourself in the face!