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The Almighty Buck

MIT vs. Las Vegas 509 509

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 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:39AM (#4070416)
    4 Deck shoes are prevelant in Las Vegas, with 2 Decks being out there if you stay away from the strip and and are willing to play with a higher minimum.

    Another thing to remember is that counting cards only tilts the odds in your favor, so that in the very long run you may come out on top. In the short run, you are not that much better off.

    When it comes to trying to win money, I'm as happy with a video black jack machine as I am at a table. But, I don't try to leave as a millionaire either and I'm more concerned with having a good time than anything.

  • by tgd (2822) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:40AM (#4070425)
    Dealers have to follow the house rules no matter what they think the next card may be.

    If they have a hand below 17, they have to hit, no matter what If the table's rule is hit on soft 17, they have to hit no matter what. Doesn't matter if they know you've got a blackjack, or they're positive the next card is going to bust them.

    You're right, though, card counting is perfectly legal. Most casinos don't have a problem with it until you start to win a lot. At that point, they can't have to arrested, but they have no obligation to allow you to keep playing.

    (Also, the house advantage isn't anywhere near 90%, its a couple percent at best, depending on the rules you end up playing with)
  • by msheppard (150231) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:48AM (#4070477) Homepage Journal
    The house does NOT have a 90% advantage. If they did, no one would play. The house has a very small advantage, but it's more than enough. A 1% advantage at a table where a million dollars moves through the betting circles is a $10k profit, every night! And this small percentage is the STATISTICAL advantage the house has if the players all play perfectly, and they DON'T, they take chances, especially when they are loosing, so it definatly adds up to a big profit for the casino.

    Smart people should realize this and will understand that gambling against a casino is a form of entertainment, not something you should ever expect to profit at.

    Now, playing cards with your buddies, then your putting your wits up against someone you know... that's REAL entertainment!

    M@
  • Re:Old News (Score:2, Insightful)

    by AssFace (118098) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <77znets>> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:54AM (#4070508) Homepage Journal
    actually no - it didn't.

    Beat the Dealer was written and that was all single deck - but the Wired Article is discussing the early to mid 90's with the MIT kids and they developed a system that would work on the 6 decks (involving several players that were to not look like they were in with each other).

    Casinos will always catch on and prevent anything that is winning in their casino. They now have a few companies that have a database of people that they don't want in their casino, and then they can cross reference it with who these people checked in with, eat with, are seen with, etc.
    This way they can see if people are in groups or not, instead of just random players together.
  • 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)!
  • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Wolfier (94144) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:11PM (#4070627)
    For what's worth, please reconsider your wording. In no sense is card counting "cheating".
  • 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.

  • by Howzer (580315) <grabshot@NOSPaM.hotmail.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.

  • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mrcparker (469158) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:22PM (#4070698)
    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.
  • by dmorin (25609) <dmorin@NOspAM.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?
  • by drix (4602) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:23PM (#4070716) Homepage
    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.
  • by Edrick (590522) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:33PM (#4070776)
    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.
  • 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) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:43PM (#4070811)
    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.
  • by Bozar (458678) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:45PM (#4070831) Homepage
    "So 25-125 million dollars payoff for the team.

    I wouldn't mind that in my pocket"

    neither would i ;-)

    but if you're going to be making money honestly (which they are) then there are cases where people have made much more (some college dropouts, for example)

    This article reminds me of the stupid stories about how some high school or college student made millions during the dot-com era. I regard these as a symptom of a problem, not as a role model to follow. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and when someone seems to be getting one, something is broken and sooner or later it's gunna get fixed :-D. You see this again and again - from dot com to gambling, and in particular Long Term Capital Management. If you ever have some time to read a fantastic book about something... oddly similar to the wired article, check out _When_Genius_Failed_

    Replace MIT students with Nobel prize winners, replace millions with billions, and throw in a potential collapse of the western financial system... it is well worth reading.
  • 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.
  • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dboyles (65512) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:50PM (#4070862) Homepage
    Yeah, I called up Hillary Rosen to ask her if using my CDs to make a compilation disc for my personal use is stealing. She said it is.

    If counting cards was actually cheating, the casinos would have card counters arrested rather than simply ejecting them.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:05PM (#4070964)
    a) You have no idea what the Constitution says.
    b) Your understanding of casinos came from B movies
    c) You're a stupid fuck.
  • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hard_Code (49548) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:09PM (#4070980)
    "And try to keep to the Hillary Rosen, DMCA references to topic that's actually on that subject"

    The point you seemed to miss is that you don't ask the plaintiff whether a certain behavior is a crime, because obviously they believe it is.
  • by Nogami_Saeko (466595) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:15PM (#4071012)
    Sorry,

    If they don't like card counters in the game, they should drop the game from their floor, or modify the game's rules so they can maintain their advantage without kicking people out.

    The whole idea of being able to kick out people who have a perceived advantage rubs me the wrong way... If they're cheating, arrest them - otherwise the game is there to play, so play it.

    Infact, the first thought I had was a Invader Zim flashback to Megadoomer - two kids playing and when one has a perceived advantage, the other yells "I'm not gonna play with you any more!"
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:33PM (#4071121)
    Ah. Great article. This brings back memories but counting isn't as glamorous as they make it seem. I picked up some counting books in high school, got hooked and made decent money for a teenager with no job. When I went off to college I stopped. It just doesn't make sense to go through all that work for a 2-4% advantage over the house. In that last session of the article the guy walked off with $12k. I'm willing to bet(no pun intended) that was luck. Getting a 2% advantage over the house is one thing but you've got to do it for 8 hours a day and then some. And mistakes are costly. Losing a big hand on a high count is acceptable but losing a big hand when you mess up the count is devistating. One thing the article did not mention is that the number of hands is important. One person for 8 hours a day is equivilant to four people working 2 hours a day - the more hands your team sees, the more likely your advantage over the house will be realized. Either way, you have advanced counts, gorilla BPs, dozens of people...that's a lot of work.

    Also, for any techno types out there I recommend Ken Uston's Million Dollar Blackjack book. He has some great stories plus /.'ers may want to read about the computer he was using back in the day to do his counting. It was small, strapped to a users leg, and would take input/output as binary signals. Pretty impressive for its time.
  • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by EvanED (569694) <evaned@nOsPAM.gmail.com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @01:33PM (#4071127)
    So let me get this straight... using skill at card counting to win is cheating, but setting up a game so that you're guranteed to win in the long run (w/o counting) isn't? Hmmmm...
  • 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
  • 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.
  • by mlas (165698) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @02:09PM (#4071368) Homepage
    When you win large amounts at a casino, you get chips at a table, which are then cashed in at a cashier's window. They make you fill out tax forms if you cash out more than $10,000, but less than that is up to you to report (or, ahem, not). If you however cash out several times for $9,000, there is no automatic tax reporting... and you needn't show any ID at all.

    So, you're holding a wad of cash untraceable to you and you're going to voluntarily report it to the IRS so's they can take ~40% of it? And you're a card counter? Riiiiight.

    Turning $200,000 into a cashier's check requires running that money through a bank and raises a big red flag to the IRS. Carrying big wads of cash == ~40% increase in profits.

    Not that I've ever won anywhere near enough for this to be an issue ;) but I've seen it happen.
  • 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 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.
  • Re:Not TOO hard. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by karmawarrior (311177) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @03:34PM (#4071945) Journal
    You're doing something in a game of cards that gives you an unfair advantage so that you can win more money.
    Which means the casinos are cheating doesn't it?

    I mean, you are aware that they've rigged the games so that the odds are such that in the casino will win most of the time?

    And presumably, given the technique you're condemning is using your brain - not looking over the dealer's shoulder, or slipping the dealer a bribe - but merely using knowledge and odds to make intelligent decisions about how much to bet and how far to go - all 21 players who do not blindly just ask for more cards and make the decision at random when to stop are "cheating"?

    That's like saying "I killed someone with a portable rail gun but it's not murder because I had to really put my mind into making the gun".
    No, it isn't. Murdering someone isn't a game, and someone who's the victim of a murder is unlikely to have encouraged you to believe that it is.
  • House Disadvantage (Score:3, Insightful)

    by IPFreely (47576) <mark@mwiley.org> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @03:51PM (#4072043) Homepage Journal
    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 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 stuart_farnan (75498) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @06:46PM (#4073096)
    The entire setup seems entirely fair to me:

    1. Some people here call card counting cheating, this is obviously rubbish, even the casinos dont see it that way, it is playing by the rules and you are fully entitled to play any way you like. The casinos decide on a certain way to play (each has slightly different rules) and these are based on statistical analysis to try and have an advantage. Card counting is simply the player doing a similar thing on their side.
    2. Other people think that it stinks that the casinos ask you to leave when you win too much, but this is also totally fair. Its a two player game, you play by choice, and so do they. The reverse equivalent of them asking you to leave 'cos you are winning too much, is you walking out cos you are losing too much. Do you people think you should be able to force the casino to play you?

It is much easier to suggest solutions when you know nothing about the problem.

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