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The Almighty Buck

MIT vs. Las Vegas 509

Posted by timothy
from the avoid-that-little-room-with-deniro dept.
spellcheckur writes "Techno-mag-turned-fashion-rag Wired Magazine has an article about MIT kids counting cards in Las Vegas. I wish I could have made seven figures while I was still in college. Maybe I should get a how-to book." Also, any chance is a good chance to mention The Eudaemonic Pie.
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MIT vs. Las Vegas

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  • by tomhudson (43916) <barbara.hudson@ ... a - h u dson.com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:24AM (#4070300) Journal
    Well, at least they're showing that they have some math skills (better than squeegee kids)

  • by ziriyab (549710) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:26AM (#4070323)
    I know the names and pictures have been changed to protect the guilty, but wired should've at least tried to get some real geeks in those pictures :)

    • yeah - they said in the article even that they used Asian kids because they drew less attention than white kids throwing around money.
      the whole point was to not draw attention to their winnings.
      then in the pic they have a bunch of frat boys.

      bastards.
      • You know why they picked kids of that particular ethnicity? Because a large percentage of the high-rollers in Vegas are Asian organized crime figures. This isn't flamebait, ask any dealer or pit boss. Their sons come over with money a thousand times more contaminated than any deBeers funds, and lose heavily. They then return home, gather more funds, and lose more in Vegas the next time.
  • by shoptroll (544006) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:29AM (#4070344)
    Man... i swear we have nothing better to do... University people have been counting cards in casinos for years... I don't think this is anything totally profound... I know for a fact its been done for at least 40 years by geeks... Read Geeks 2.0: A History of the Internet for a good story about some people almost getting busted while trying to see if the doppler effect could be used to predict the landing of a roulette ball in play...
  • This guy makes this card-counting ring sound like an action movie (something like Rounders, sorta). I think that Vegas in general is a place full of crooks, Casinos and players alike.

    This was almost as bad as a Travel channel special on Vegas. It's an advertisement to the public trying to tempt them to go there.

    If we tell them that THEY too can afford to lose money, they will come!
    • book recommendation (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      "Can you win?" by Mike Orkin (Freeman Press- Scientific American) 'splains the odds of casino and sports betting games. Great writer, it's a book on statistics that is often hilarious.

      Teaches you how to have hours of fun on the craps and blackjack tables without losing more the $20.

      This issue of Wired, by the way, is just great. Expounds on water politics in western Asia and other stuff not discussed anywhere else. Well worth the yearly subscription of $10 to $12.
    • by ergo98 (9391) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:02PM (#4070565) Homepage Journal
      There was an article [kuro5hin.org] on Kuro5hin about a year ago dealing specifically with blackjack card counting, and it really is a fantastic read. It discusses the types of people that you find at the average casino, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture.

      The travel channel special is just the beginning though: There have been documentaries discussing the fact that the mega media companies, many of whom own one or more huge casinos in Las Vegas, imbue movies with pleasant impressions of casinos regularly: Seldom do you see a casino image that is row upon row of sad, lonely elderly people mechanically pulling the lever for hours on end, wearing diapers not because of incontinence but rather just to avoid having to leave their lucky slot machine (because a win is always just one pull away, right?). Instead it's playboys and girls: Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston types winning big.
  • Glazed over facts (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Superfreaker (581067) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:30AM (#4070354) Homepage Journal
    The article states the current key issues in a passing sentence- that the chances of being able to do this are basically nil now. Not that they are watching, but that casinos use a 6 deck shoe that is shuffled 2/3 of the way through (before the real advantage begins). Having frequented Atlantic City, the process of counting cards in the privacy of home is one thing, doing it with bells, flashing lights, scantily clad cocktail waitresses, and the most important distraction, the other players, is quite another. The article was a fun read. Made me envious.
    • And, to make things more complicated, some of the casinos in Las Vegas are now using shuffling machines. It's not clear how these machines work, but I'm sure the casinos are paying attention to the math research that shows that some shuffling techniques do not actually maximize randomness.
      • Re:Glazed over facts (Score:4, Informative)

        by _ph1ux_ (216706) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:47PM (#4070843)
        the best shuffling machine out right now uses the following method (for simplicity sake - Ill explain with one deck):

        there are 52 cards in a deck.
        the machine picks a number at random, say 42.
        it grabs card 42 and puts it in a slot
        it then slects a number at random (now out of 51)
        it takes that card and puts it in the slot.

        you tell the machine how many decks its holding - it then selects the random number from the total range its holding....

        apparently this is the "most random card shuffler available"
    • I don't know what Atlantic City you went to, but the scantily clad cocktail waitresses I saw were not something to be distracted by. The prostitutes on the other hand...
    • by Howzer (580315) <grabshot AT hotmail DOT com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:18PM (#4070679) Homepage Journal
      The facts are that even an 8-deck, machine shuffled, heavily cut monster will, just by pure random chance, about half the time be weighted to the player.

      The problem then becomes picking that time. Back-counting is part of the solution. So too is the fact that machine shuffling just isn't very good for the casinos, except in terms of hands/hour, which whilst it mostly favours the house, also favours the player under certain conditions.

      Two more things.

      1. The maths on all this is not trivial and most people think about the problem incorrectly (ie. there is no "random" in a finite set which has had discrete operations performed on it) and it effects their maths when they do try and tackle it this way.

      2. I agree with you 100% about the distractions. The kind of brain which can hold a count, up to seven side counts, track shuffles through a machine on an 8-deck shoe, remember to effectively mask play, keep an active backcount going on surrounding tables, and still smile at the dealer and appear a lucky fool, act like a chronic smoker or toilet-goer to Wong in and out effectively, etc etc is extremely rare.

      Also remember that most people who say they win at cards are LYING. I do not even play Blackjack, I can't do the above with my brain. I know hundreds of _gamblers_ some of whom lie about winning at cards. I only know one person who does, actually, win at cards.

    • by Edrick (590522)
      The distractions are not the main concern as they can be blocked out with practice over time...the REAL issue is being able to appear to the rest of the people around you as an average lucky schmuck. Most card counters are very quiet at the table because they have so much going through their heads --- or even worse, they try to act "normal" and in the process make fools of themselves.

      This is a psychological exercise as much as one of memory and calculation. It is akin in some ways to cheating a lie detector test, something that few people can manage.

      If you are playing for high stakes and to take the casino to town, then this is a much greater worry than if you are just hopping in for a few hours, but still is relevant.
  • MIT Cost (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SamiousHaze (212418)
    Interesting to me that the kids who have the cash (or are given the cash) to go to MIT feel the need to try and rip off the casinos...
    • Re:MIT Cost (Score:2, Informative)

      by paiute (550198)
      You don't have to have the cash. MIT is need-blind admissions. You just have to have the brains. MIT may be the closest thing to a meritocracy in higher ed. You can't buy your way in. Even if your dad built them a new building, you have the same chance to get in as the janitor's kid.
    • ...feel the need to try and rip off the casinos...

      Duh- they're hackers, and this is everything from math to social engineering to just plain fun.

      What's the reasoning for a bunch of really bright geeks to take on the house (legally) when even the laws are in the house's favor? Because they believe that they can do it. The money's just icing; how they keep score.

    • Re:MIT Cost (Score:4, Insightful)

      by nathanm (12287) <nathanm.engineer@com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:42PM (#4070810)
      Interesting to me that the kids who have the cash (or are given the cash) to go to MIT feel the need to try and rip off the casinos...
      They're not ripping off the casinos. They're using their natural talents, superior intellect, and some training and practice to win at blackjack, playing by the rules.

      Casinos, on the other hand, bar card counters. Ensuring they keep profiting from poor old retirees and others who don't understand basic probability. Reminds me of a /. sig I've seen: The lottery is a tax for people who are bad at math.
    • Re:MIT Cost (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Bizaff (443681)
      I have never seen, nor will I ever see, how this is "ripping off" casinos.

      Using a little prob and stats to get up on the house in which almost every game GUARANTEES you will lose over time is not wrong. It's well within in the rules to look at the cards being played, and it's well within the rules to bet what you want, when you want.

      It is kinda funny that the only way the house can win against people this organized is to take its ball and go home.
  • I wish I could have made seven figures while I was still in college.

    I don't know about you Timothy, but I wouldn't mind making seven figures now.

  • by evilned (146392) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:39AM (#4070412) Homepage
    Sorry, but counting cards is not illegal, its not cheating. Its just a highly developed way to play blackjack. Now the casino's have the right not to let you play for what ever reason they decide, but they can't arrest you for counting cards, they can only kick you out and ask you not to come back. Considering its one of the only ways the house can be beaten legitimately, I say more power to anyone that does this.
  • Quote (Score:5, Funny)

    by MjDascombe (549226) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:39AM (#4070418) Journal
    To quote an old freind of mine : "Whats the point in counting cards, you know there are always going to be 52."
  • Cheating Roulette (Score:2, Interesting)

    by plasticpixel (323537)
    The article was a great read. It reminds me of a story about some 'techies' that built the shoe computer that helped them predict where a Roulette marble would drop. Apparently they would use the computer to calibrate the wheel's spin and the marble against each other and then try to calculate the region of the wheel the ball would land. I figure that if you can at least know which half of the wheel you're going to land the marble in, you've already got a hedge on the house. If anyone has any links to that story please post.

    Someone should make a "Ocean's Eleven" style movie about this type of stuff.

    Personally, I stick to Craps. The odds are nearly even if you stick to the Pass line. Most people I've seen playing the game love to play all the sucker bets instead. At least I usualy walk out with my original money in my pocket and a few free beers in my tummy. :)
    • Re:Cheating Roulette (Score:4, Informative)

      by bovinewasteproduct (514128) <gclarkii.gbdispatch@com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:59AM (#4070549) Homepage
      Craps, my game...:)

      Actually, with a free-odds bet, both pass and don't pass are in your favor by a small margin (about 4 percent). Stay away from anything in the center and you'll be fine...:)

      The three games I play in a casino are, in order, craps, pai-gow poker and baccarat, all three are low house odds. Baccarat is rare, just when I feel lucky. The other two I can play for hours on a couple of hundred dollars, just soaking up comps having fun.

      If you just out to have fun, the big secrets are, one, be polite ,and two, always tip the dealer; they will remember it! At craps play this helps alot...:)

      BWP
      • by _ph1ux_ (216706) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:57PM (#4070904)
        Ya Craps is a fun game... I have played a lot in Reno - but my first trip to Vegas will be beginning of september...

        I know the game rather well - my ex-father in law was a pit boss who taught me how to play.

        I play the pass line for the most part. On come out bets I throw a dollar or two dollar (depending on table rules) on Yo (11) or C&E (11 & 7) - this has very good odds if you hit it.

        also about every 4th or 5th bet I will throw a few dollars in the field - with hopes of hitting a 12 (pays triple)

        but yes tipping the dealers is very important. Also - dont just tip them, bet for them... if the bet wins, they get much more than you would have tipped them in the first place. throw a few on a number for the dealers....

        this does two things:

        they watch your betting style, and tell you when to play on certain bets.

        when you get rather drunk - they watch out for where your money is, and keep track of your bets. (and no not for the house... some are really good about trying to help the better win)

        looking forward to playing in vegas. But never bet with money you cant afford to lose.

      • by Pfhreakaz0id (82141) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @02:29PM (#4071530)
        ummmm. no. The "odds" bet has Zero edge. Nada. You get paid based on the odds of the event happening. For instance Odds on a point of ten (this is behind the pass line) pays $2 for every $1 wagered. This is because there are six ways to lose ( six ways to roll 7: 1-6, 6-1, 5-2, 2-5, 4-3, 3-4) and only three ways to win ( 5-5, 6-4, 4-6) 6:3 = 2:1. This is, to my knowledge, the ONLY bet in a casino which has no house edge (in other words, in the long run, the casino makes no money from it. That's why you usually don't get comp credit for odds bets)

        BUT, to be able to place that bet, you have to place a pass bet, which DOES have a small house edge (1.414%). This is why casino's limit the size of the odds bets to some multiple of the size of the pass line (or don't pass line) bet. When you see an advertisement for 3x craps, that means you can place 3 times your pass line bet.

        Want some good, cheap entertainment while gambling? Forget slots. Go play craps. Ask the dealer for help. Just play the pass line for the minimum (usually $5, but you can find cheaper in downtown Vegas) and the max odds behind it unless it's out of your $$$ range. Cheer like a mad heyena, drink a lot, and under no circumstances say "seven" out loud. Craps players are a superstituious lot.
  • Ben Mezrich!!!! (Score:2, Informative)

    by cioxx (456323)
    It's funny how nobody noticed who wrote the story.

    Ben Motherfucking Mezrich. One of the best young fiction writers out there. According to the footnote it says he turned to writing non-fiction and his new book on this^ particular subject.

    If you're unfamiliar with his works, I encourage anybody to check out Fertile Ground, Treshold and Reaper [amazon.com] which rips on Microsoft-like organization and their set-top devices in a really good techno-suspense novel.

    Apparently he's back. And it's good news.
    • Mezrich wrote an article for the Boston Globe called "YOU'RE GOING TO BE HUGE: THE UPS, DOWNS, AND SHEER ABSURDITIES OF THE WRITING LIFE" which may or may not detail why he switched to non-fiction. However I don't know since you have to pay to read it.

      - adam

  • by Frank of Earth (126705) <frank@NOSpAm.fperkins.com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:44AM (#4070451) Homepage Journal
    "The guard doesn't seem to be bothered by the bulges under my clothes. He waves me through the metal detector, and I stumble toward my gate."

    Thank god he didn't try to hide the money in his shoes!
    • by drix (4602)
      Yeah my jaw about hit the floor when I read that. Wired says the piece is excerpted from the author's forthcoming book, so I assume he must have been working on it and taken this trip well over a year ago. If you'll excuse the pun, no way that sort of thing would fly after 9/11.
  • Carmack (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CaseyB (1105) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:46AM (#4070456)
    Long time readers will remember when John Carmack won $20K at blackjack [planetquake.com]. Then donated it to the FSF.

    "It takes a small amount of skill to know the right plays and count the cards..."

    • Carmack got booted! (Score:4, Informative)

      by nnnneedles (216864) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @02:23PM (#4071476)
      I remember that, but later, well, even John Carmack got booted:

      <I>A few of us took a couple days off in vegas this weekend. After about
      ten hours at the tables over friday and saturday, I got a tap on the shoulder...

      Three men in dark suits introduced themselves and explained that I was welcome
      to play any other game in the casino, but I am not allowed to play
      blackjack anymore.

      Ah well, I guess my blackjack days are over. I was actually down a bit for
      the day when they booted me, but I made +$32k over five trips to vegas in the
      past two years or so.

      I knew I would get kicked out sooner or later, because I don't play "safely".
      I sit at the same table for several hours, and I range my bets around 10 to 1.<I>

      Sorry can't find the .plan file link. :/

  • Not TOO hard. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by unicron (20286) <unicron@ t h cnet.net> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:47AM (#4070470) Homepage
    I live in Vegas, and I actually know a guy that can do this, and can really clean up at a Blackjack table. It's not about actually remembering every card's place in the deck and trying to predict when the card will come up, it's about trying to predict when face cards will come up. Their's actually a rhythm/pattern to it while you're watching the cards come out, so a REAL easy way to spot someone doing this is to look for someone that's trying to use a make-shift metrinome, like someone rolling a chip in their hands or tapping the table in a specific, contantly-repeating pattern. Pit Bosses can spot this shit through a hurricane, so unless you can count in your head, you're fucked(it seems simple, but it's hot, noisy, and if you're cheating, you're probably pretty nervous).

    It's important to note that it's not like Rainman where you're going to be able to say a 10 of hearts is coming up next, or anything specific like that. You just want to be able to predict with good odds that a face card is going to be up soon. A lot of tables, however, use multiple decks, so it gets pretty hard. Extremely high-roller tables have even been known to use a new deck for every hand. Most tables, though, just have a big plastic holder with 6 shuffled decks inside.

    It's really not that hard, and my friend can make about $5,000 a weekend on average, but remember, you may have to sit at a table for 8 hours a day for 2 days to make this kind of money, but hell, that's a work schedule, and a $1,000 a day isn't bad. Just remember, the trick to not getting caught is don't be a stupid fuck. Don't come in a 10am, play the $5 dollar tables, and 2 hours later be raking in at the $1,000 tables, or they'll nail your ass. If they even SUSPECT your cheating, they'll take the money, kick you out, and you can't do shit about it(what are you gonna do, sue them for the money you came there with?). And this is a at nice casino. God help you if you cheat at a shady casino.
    • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Wolfier (94144)
      For what's worth, please reconsider your wording. In no sense is card counting "cheating".
      • Actually, the official casino policy regards card counting as cheating. I actually thought like you did, and argued the hell out of with my friend, using "how is using math to help cheating?" as my logic. So to shut me up the next time we were getting our blackjack on he asked the dealer, who confirmed that it is cheating.
    • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mrcparker (469158)
      Counting cards is not cheating. Casinos have the right (at least in Vegas) to bar who they want from their establishments, and card-counters are bad for business.
  • Not so strange.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by unorthod0x (263821) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:47AM (#4070473)
    I've met several people who have a very strong technology background and are card counters too (one of them happened to hail from MIT) - this was a few years ago, and some of them went on to create their own .com's, which ended up booming, then folding but ultimately paying out a princely sum to these individuals.

    What are they doing now? Hopping around the continent to the few casinos that haven't banned them yet and making the big bucks, though as they tell me the pickings are getting slimmer as it's just a matter of time until they get the boot and they're running out of casinos to pillage. Either way, they've got plenty of money, so it's not a major concern, but it seems as if the appeal of a casino-hopping lifestyle ended up catering to their likes more than technology. Sure, they have all the latest do-dads and high tech gadgets to play with as a result of their financial adventures, but their pursuit of technology seemed to ultimately take a back seat to lounge singers and blinking lights :)

    At least in my experience none of these people made a direct correlation between their technology and card counting pursuits. Most were interested in card counting before ever hitting an "enter" key, but they are brilliant coders nonetheless.. Perhaps card counting begets good programmers, not the other way around?
  • Haven't these geeks seen Casino? Personally I would prefer to have my limbs intact. As for this article, all it will do is get people who have know idea what they are doing into counting cards, they will lose money etc etc etc. Gambling is fun, Vegas is fun, but you aren't going to make money off it, no matter how many cards you count, and if for whatever reason you make a lot of money, the casino or whatever power that rules will make sure you don't keep it long.
  • Kuro5hin? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by legLess (127550) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:55AM (#4070515) Journal
    This reminds me of a series of K5 articles a while back: "A Casino Odyssey." The articles are longer than the Wired story, and told from a first-person perspective. Fascinating stuff:
    • The localroger casino stories [links in parent] are some of the most entertaining online articles I've ever read. If you haven't read them, do so now.
  • my grandfather, a well-known math textbook author counted cards. He tried it quite a bit as an experiment, and used some stuff in his books. Shame he never told me wether he won anything
  • I think it's a fun game, playing these kinda tricks against casinos, actually out-smarting them. That it's totally legal is even better. That the casinos don't like it is another bonus.

    Reminds me of hearing people talk about slot machines, and how they see people watching them to see which ones are paying off, and all the LOL's (little old ladies) sitting in front of them pumping their social security in. The thought that one machine would start "paying off," is kinda funny. Do you think the casinos don't know about this? They WANT you to think you are seeing a pattern and they WANT you to try to use it, becuase in the end you are going to loose some money, and they will get it. The slot machines are all computer controlled, and it's not just "pay out %99 of what you get in," it's probably programmed to appear to have a pattern, anything to get you to keep playing.

    Gambling against casinos is entertainment, possible some exersize for the LOL's as well, but in the end money moves from the customer to the casino. If you're having fun in the process than it's worth it. Realize that when you walk in... don't become a Marge Simpson.

    M@
    • There was a report a few years ago on 60 Minutes (or some such show) about the "near misses" that slot machine computers were programmed to give. Seems that the machines were much more likely to produce a "near miss" (one reel one position away from a big win) than random chance. This in turn produced a psychological effect among players, enticing them to play longer, since they "just missed" the big win.
  • BS Alert! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Joseph Vigneau (514)
    Fifty thousand dollars strapped to each thigh. A hundred thousand dollars, in 10 bricks of hundreds, taped across my upper back. Fifty thousand more Velcroed to my chest.

    ...I stroll through Logan International Airport....There's enough money hidden under my clothes to buy a two-bedroom condo.

    Uh, not in Boston. You'll be lucky to get a converted basement in Roxbury with only 200 grand.

    And I really doubt if you can get all of that through airport security; they've tightened up quite a bit at Logan... Then again, the article doesn't mention the risk of being "randomly" picked at the gate, either.. But then again, this story seems to have happened more than a year ago...

    • And I really doubt if you can get all of that through airport security; they've tightened up quite a bit at Logan...

      And tightening security at Logan implies what [satirewire.com]?

  • by jpostel (114922) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:03PM (#4070574) Homepage Journal
    One of the guys I used to work for was a statistics professor at Farleigh Dickenson University a while back. He has been banned from most (if not all) the casinos in Atlantic City. He goes out to Reno and Las Vegas every once in a while for a business trip and plays. When I told him where I was going for my honeymoon (St. Lucia), he asked me to find out if they had casinos.

    The trick with most predictive statistics based winning is that there is also significant losing involved. He told me not to bother unless I have several thousand dollars to lose.
  • Like most Americans the idea of a "members only" casino is quite foreign, but the casinos in London require you to "join". You can't go for the first 24 hours after you join but the minute past you're more than welcome.

    During my last trip to London one of the gentlemen I was there with had arrived a few days earlier and joined a casino. One evening we decided to go play. In about four hours of basic strategy play I was up nearly £300 on £10 and £15 bets. My buddy who wasn't playing any strategy was up £600 at one point but lost it all playing £100 bets. I left with my profits but when we returned the next night we were told we were no longer welcome there.

    Now I wasn't card counting, I don't know if I was doing something that looked like I was, but I am sure they didn't like me taking £300 from them then wanting to come back for more.

  • by GlobalEcho (26240) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:06PM (#4070596)
    I awake one morning to discover that my laptop has been stolen out of my locked hotel room while I slept.

    It's not just in Cryptonomicon that you need an encrypted fs on your laptop. Even journalists should be doing it (but I bet they don't)!
  • House advantage (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Aliks (530618) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:13PM (#4070642)
    There are actually two advantages that the house has over a punter.

    First off the odds are usually in favour of the house by a couple of percent. This (apart from blackjack) gives the house a slight advantage in any individual game. If there are 1,000 people in the casino each betting $10 per game, then the house will win a small percentage of $10,000 per game perhaps $200 - $300. The more punters bet and the more games per hour, the more the house wins.

    But there is another advantage. If an individual player plays against the house over a long run then he will in the end be bankrupted because he has less money than the bank. In essence the bank can stand longer runs of bad luck than the player. The maths is a little complex but if the odds are even between the player and the bank then the chances of being eventually bankrupted are in the same ratio as the bank's money to the player. IE if the bank has $1,000,000 and you have $1,000 the odds are 1000 to 1 that you will eventually be bankrupted. If the odds are actually in favour of the house then you fare even worse.

    This is the reason casinos have no clocks and no daylight. They want you to lose track of time and keep playing on and on. I'm sure there are figures on the average length of time that gamblers gamble, but overall the odds on the casino taking money off you are much much higher than the basic odds per game, and quite plausibly 90%.

    On a side note, the odds quoted for casinos are often manipulated.

    Slot machines are legally set to pay out a certain percentage of the money put in, and in some countries this percentage is displayed nearby. The machinery has to be tested for this percentage to get a gambling licence. However, the test is made over a number of hours, so that the randomness evens out. What the unscrupulous casino does is to set the machine to pay out variably depending on what is happening. In any 12 hour period the odds will be set pretty poor, way lower than advertised. If the machine is left on for longer periods, the payout odds automatically change to pull it in line with legal requirements (more nudges, holds etc). Of course the machine is not left on for more than 12 hours and each power up resets the counter.

    "If you look round the table and can't work out who is the sucker, then it's YOU . . . . ."
    • Re:House advantage (Score:4, Insightful)

      by zericm (21972) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:56PM (#4071284) Homepage Journal
      First off the odds are usually in favour of the house by a couple of percent. This (apart from blackjack) gives the house a slight advantage in any individual game. If there are 1,000 people in the casino each betting $10 per game, then the house will win a small percentage of $10,000 per game perhaps $200 - $300. The more punters bet and the more games per hour, the more the house wins.

      One of the common misconceptions that people have is that the house wins money when the player loses. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, the house makes its profit not when the player loses, but when the player wins.

      Let's say you make the the same even-money bet -- heads on a flip of a coin -- 100 times, at a dollar a bet. In theory, you should end up with your origianl bankroll. Sure, you lost 50% of the time, but you won that money back the other 50% of the time.

      What the house does is set things up so that they don't pay off at the true odds. On the roulette table, they add the 0 and 00. On craps, they pay 1-1 on your pass-line bet after a point is established, or they bar the 2 or 12 for don't players. Or they just give you less money then they should for the bet. For example, most casinos pay 15-1 for the 11, when the odds of hitting that 11 are actualy 18-1.

      This difference between what the house should pay and what it actualy does pay is the vig. Some bets (like pass-line, double odds craps) are damn near even money (1.4%, if memeory serves me), while others (like roullette) are a ripoff (15% vig). the vig is how much of the money that the house holds back from paying the winner. Given enough time, this will grind the players bankroll, and they go home broke. The higher the vig, the quicker the grind, the happier the casino.

      The best thing to do when playing is to avoid the bets with the high vig. Blackjack, Baccarat and full-odds craps are the best bets to make. The bets to avoid? Anything the casino hypes. Ever notice how the stickman hypes the props at craps? That's because those are horrible bets. The best bet on the craps table (the odds) are not even marked.

      Well, that was a ramble and I problably to the details wrong (its been four years since I was serious gambler. I stick with texas hold 'em now.), but the gist is correct, so what the hell.
    • House Disadvantage (Score:3, Insightful)

      by IPFreely (47576)
      All that said, the house has some disadvantages.

      The house can't choose when to play and when to walk. The house is in every hand rain or shine.

      The house can't adjust their bet based on the deal they get. They must accept any bet from any customer.

      The house can't count cards or any other "legal" manover. The draw rules are on the table, no intellegence involved.

      An intellegent gambler does have an advantage over the house for these reasons alone, counting aside. Casinos don't want even fair intellegent gamblers, those are loosing bets too.

  • by futuresheep (531366) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:14PM (#4070646) Journal
    Jeff Jonas makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the professionals who use math instead of miniature cameras to beat the system.

    Isn't this rather hypocritical? The casinos use math to make sure that they beat you. This is nothing more than a bunch of people using the same techniques that the casinos are using to maximize their chances of winning. AFAIC, It's no different than pitchers and batters learning what the other player does during a certain strike count.

  • As fascinating as the saga of beating the roulette wheels was, the factoid I got from that book that has stayed with me to this day was how to cook rice without measuring. No matter how much rice you are making or what size pot you are cooking it in, add enough water to reach the first knuckle on your finger when your fingertip is touching the top of the rice. NEVER FAILS.

    MIT students are certainly not the first to take a scientific approach to card counting. Back around 1979 I read a mathematics book in the engineering library at Tektronix that explained card counting in great detail. It also predicted fractals would be a big thing.
  • The sad things is... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MarvinMouse (323641) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:18PM (#4070674) Homepage Journal
    that card-counting isn't cheating. But rather, a legitimate strategy to a probabilistic game.

    Unfortunately, casinos don't like losing money. Their sole business is the fact that people come in and give them money for no real reason whatsoever. As soon as someone comes in and discovers that by following their rules they can win that money back, then they are removed from the premises.

    It really does not matter if you are winning at one table or another. If they begin to think that you will take their money instead of give it to them, you will be removed. Simple as that. Card Counting is not cheating, just as keeping a poker face during a poker game bluff is not cheating. It's just good strategy.
  • by dmorin (25609) <dmorin&gmail,com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:22PM (#4070704) Homepage Journal
    True, card counting is not illegal. But did you notice that every time he was caught, the guy *ran* out of there, rather than go into the basement to have a "talk" with the bouncers?
  • The Casino's are the entities that are involved with and/or organized crime, not card-counting groups.

    Breaking into people's appartments, stealing their money, harassing them, killing people -- this is stuff that Casino's do, not card-counters. They are the one's involved with organized crime.

    The rulings by courts that Casino's can exclude individuals for any reason are unconstitutional. McDonald's can't ban anyone from coming in there; restaurants can't ban people from coming there who come there and order cheap meals along with water to save money. In other words, they can't ban the people who aren't as profitable to them. So why should Casino's be able to?

    Stories like this illustrate why gambling is illegal in most states. Casinos are run by crooks and mobsters, who will use illegal tactics to maintain their profitability (i.e., breaking/entering, harassment, murder, blackmail, etc).

    I agree that gambling should be legal; however, it should be tightly regulated and controlled.

    Casino's don't like card counters. Tough. That's not a good enough reason to ban them from your resort. Fast food places can't ban people for any reason, why should Casino's be able to?

    If Casino's have a problem with card-counting, its up to them to come up with legitimate tactics to deal with it: cutting the deck, switching dealers, using large decks, mixing more thoroughly, etc. Plenty of tactics they can use which aren't illegal.

    But quite frankly, I don't care if this ruins their business. They have billions of dollars to spend. If they aren't smart enough to catch on to card-counting schemes and develop counter-measures, they deserve to go out of business.

    Bunch of big whiners. Waaah! Waaah! Keep on crying because your too fucking dumb.
  • It's a sad life (Score:4, Insightful)

    by L. VeGas (580015) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:46PM (#4070838) Homepage Journal
    I first started counting in high school. I had a chemistry professor that turned me on to Beat the Dealer. Every weekend, I put on a fake mustache and hit the casinos. Back in 1980, the casinos really didn't care that much about who was playing, and I was only ever asked for an ID once. Since that time, I've counted off and on and have made, oh, about $75,000 over the years. Luckily I realized fairly early that the life of a gambler is, frankly, a crappy one.

    I've met several pros over the years, and, without exception, their lives suck. Divorces, endless travel, few friends, tobacco fiends. Most that have been into the game for more that ten years or so wish they had pursued a more legit career.

    As the article states, to make any real money, you have to play in teams. The lone counter can make a living, but not a great one. There is a high to playing and winning, particularly when you're young and you have more cash in your pocket than any of your friends.

    Long term though, follow the advice of your elders. Get an education. Get a good job. Invest wisely. Take care of your family. That's a much better recipe for happiness. I know.
  • by tbmaddux (145207) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:58PM (#4070905) Homepage Journal
    As an alumnus of Caltech I feel compelled to respond. IIRC there are old descriptions of statistical analysis attacks performed by Caltech students on Las Vegas roulette wheels in the books [caltech.edu] "Legends of Caltech" and "More Legends of Caltech."

    Caltech students were also responsible for the famous box-stuffing (spamming, really) of a nationwide fast food chain (McDonalds, but I can't be certain) contest in which they took home a vast majority of the winnings by computer-printing their entries.

    In addition, there's a very good review of successful and legal professional gambling by the technically savvy by another Caltech alumnus that was published in "Engineering and Science," a Caltech alumni publication. Get the PDF here [caltech.edu] or here. [statistics.com]

  • by taliver (174409) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:10PM (#4070981)
    One of those stupid little monopoly-money type casinos where the cash could be used to bid at an auction at the end--things like hammocks, phones, etc.

    Anyway, I was wandering around the tables while my date was off dancing with her boyfriend (hey, I am posting on /. after all), and I happened to notice the roulette wheel. They had the odds posted beside it.

    50-1 payoff on guessing the right number.

    There are only 38 slots to pick from.

    Well, my first attempt at putting a chip on every spot got me throttled by a football player who said I was messing up the board. My later attempt of just telling the guy working it what my bet was just had him handing me 12 chips on every spin.

    Very entertaining, humorous, and extremely sad that no one else in the junior or senior class happened to notice this.
  • by foxtrot (14140) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:35PM (#4071145)
    1) Dealers generally don't know if you're counting cards. The guy on the other end of the surveillance camera, on the other hand, does.

    2) Playing a "standard" game (always split 8s, hit on foo, stand on bar, yaada) will always be against you-- casinos aren't stupid. However, anywhere where casinos have to compete against one another, you have a chance to find "better rules"-- for the most part, anything that gives the player a choice is good. There are odds calculators out there on the web to tell you what you ought to "expect" from a given game. Expect odds for any game on a cruise ship to suck rocks. :)

    3) Once you've found a close-to-even game (only off by a percent or so), then you can swing the odds barely in your favor by counting cards. Your expected payout is going to be less than a percent, and the fact that you've deviated from the "standard" play when the count is good will be a signal to the security camera operator to inform you that the house simply can't offer you a blackjack game anymore.

    4) Even without counting, you can "make money" playing blackjack. On a good table, you can basically expect to keep your losses to a sufficient minimum (over large amounts of hands) to cover free drinks. Cheap entertainment over the long haul.

    5) Even counting, you can't expect to walk up to a $5 table with twenty bucks and expect to parlay it into, well, anything. You need enough of a bankroll to handle long strings of "bad luck"-- numbers I've seen are between 200 and 400 times the wager at the table.

    6) Similarly, a night of counting cards isn't going to make you fabulously wealthy overnight. If you play fifty hands at a $5 table, and you've pushed the odds into your favor by a half a percent, which is really good, your expected return is to walk out the door with $1.25 more than you started with. Glamorous, huh?

    7) It's not illegal to count cards. It's also not illegal for a casino to tell you they're unable to offer you a particular sort of game.

    With all of this, you have to play an awful lot of blackjack before you've parlayed your bankroll to where you can graduate to a bigger table with bigger payoffs. You can't lose count, you can't "feel lucky". Most people are better off simply playing the "rules" and making it back on free drinks...

    -JDF
  • by Sierra Charlie (37047) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @02:12PM (#4071386)
    I've been a blackjack card counter since the late 1970's. I started out using the Revere APC system but switched in recent years to the excellent yet simple Knock-Out unbalanced count system.

    This article, as with most Wired pieces these days, has a few grains of truth along with a lot of hype and dazzle. Here's a few points that should be made.

    Fact #1: You don't have to be a math genius to count cards. Using the Knockout system, I just start with a count of zero and add 1 to my count every time I see a card with a value of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7. I subtract 1 from my count every time I see a 10 or face card. The size of my bet changes as the count goes up. It's that simple.

    Fact #2: You can't make money at Blackjack unless you already have money. The way the statistics work out, you need a bankroll of approximately 1000 times your minimum bet to have a reasonable assurance that a bad statistical swing doesn't wipe you out. That means about a $5000 bankroll just to sit down at a $5 minimum blackjack table. Playing at that level will net you approximately $17.50 per hour.

    Fact #3: It's pretty boring. While everyone else is having fun, you're sitting there playing a game that is the gambling equivalent of working a factory job. It's repetitive and tedious; you get penalized cash every time you make a mistake. Most people find that they don't have the discipline to do this over the long haul.

    Fact #4: It's the antithesis of glamorous. The people you meet who are really trying to make money from the casino industry are a pretty unsavory lot. The few who have the discipline, bankroll and skill to beat the casinos also realize that it's important to look just like another player. The professional card counter at a given table is probably the paunchy, middle-aged guy in the "I love Las Vegas" tourist T-shirt.

    Fact #5: It's a dying art. In the 70's, the games were so good, that it took very little to get an edge. The casinos aren't run by mobsters anymore though, they're run by Harvard graduates who understand the games just as well as you do. The rules aren't as favorable, more decks are in play, and they're introducing "Universal Shufflers" that have the capacity to destroy the concept of card counting permanently. The casinos make their money from slots now; they don't have to offer a hyper-competitive blackjack game to lure in players.

    Fact #6: If you have a large bankroll, the willingness to study, the discipline to stick to your game plan no matter what, you can make some money playing blackjack. If you have all of the above, however, I guarantee you that you can find a better way to make money.

    All of that being said, blackjack isn't a bad hobby. Friends of mine like to gamble, and my business sometimes finds me in Vegas. Instead of handing my wallot over to the casino, I instead make some money, have some free drinks and meet interesting people. That's not so bad.

    Just don't listen to too much hype from Wired. :)
    • by mapmaker (140036) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @05:57PM (#4072792)
      In late 2000/early 2001 I spent 6 months playing on the team that MIT has since been rolled into. The Wired article, while admittedly full of dazzle and drama, is mostly dead-on.

      Your facts are not quite correct:

      Fact #1: Maybe you don't have to be a math genius, but you have to be pretty f-ing sharp. The count you've described is only the first step in a real counting sytem. Your "knockout system" is called the "running count"; the "true count" is the running count divided by the number of decks remaining in the shoe (which is determined by subtracting the number of decks in the discard tray from the total number of decks per shoe) rounded down to the nearests whole number. The true count determines your bet - you multiply the true count times your base unit (say $100) to determine your bet for the next hand. Today's team counter has to do all this on the fly, instantaneously, while simultaneously chatting up the dealer, checking out the waitress's cleavage, and doing whatever else it takes to look like the average Joe Gambler. Then he has to signal his BP to make the appropriate bet and vary his play according to the count. It requires significant mental resources!

      Fact #2: Your math is correct, but there is a way to make money at blackjack without having a huge bankroll. You play on a team - a few senior members can provide most of the bankroll (and take most of the profits, alas).

      Fact #3: I've always found counting to be a bizarre mix of boredom and pure adrenal high. Yes, you're repetitively processing the same data stream for hours on end. But you're also this undercover superhero of sorts - using your superior abilities to make gobs of money under the unsuspecting (well, when things go well) noses of these greedy corporate thugs. It's the purest form of excitement I've ever found.

      Fact #4: I've never counted solo, but being on the inside of a successful team is quite glamorous. There's just too much money around for it not to be.

      FAct #5: Possibly true. Counting only works if the casinos don't stop you, and they only don't stop you if they don't realize you're counting. When mainstream magazines start publishing articles about your system, it ain't too clandestine anymore! Counters are in a continual arms race with the casinos, and this particular weapon is about obsolete. Counters are still inventing new ones, but things like continuous shufflers and facial recognition software are getting harder and harder to counter. It may be that we're reaching the point where a counter and his mind can't beat the technological countermeasures used by the casinos.

  • by GlenRaphael (8539) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @02:21PM (#4071454) Homepage
    Thorpe's book referenced in the /. header is only interesting for historical purposes; The card-counting systems developed since then are much easier to use, more accurate and more relevant to the game as it's now played.

    Instead, I recommend people start with Snyder's Blackbelt in Blackjack [amazon.com] or Olaf's Knock-out Blackjack [amazon.com].

    A good blackjack discussion website for serious players is Sanford Wong's bj21.com [bj21.com].

    The Wired article is surprisingly accurate; usually the media makes a hash of articles about card-counting.

    P.S. to any Griffin employees out there: I don't know anything about blackjack. Please remove me from your files. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. These aren't the droids you're looking for. :-)

  • by Stephen Samuel (106962) <samuel@@@bcgreen...com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @03:33PM (#4071935) Homepage Journal
    A friend of mine did that. He got a grant of free CPU time on the mainframe at the University of Alberta in around 1979/80 to do stastical analisys on blackjack. He came up with a nice card counting system.. managed to reduce it to a single index-card cheat sheet. There were different rules for local (Edmonton) blackjack and Las Vegas.

    He was able to make money off of it, but I'm not sure how much.

    The FBI also used card counting many years ago when they did some undercover investigation in Las Vegas. They siphoned cash through the Casinos and then did statistical analysis on how much of it made it to the banks. They used Card counting to limit their losses.

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