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The Almighty Buck

MIT vs. Las Vegas 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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  • 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.
  • MIT Cost (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SamiousHaze ( 212418 ) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:30AM (#4070356)
    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:Odds (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EnderWiggnz ( 39214 ) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:38AM (#4070409)
    best odds on teh floor is bacarat, betting on the player, *truly* 50/50...

    of course the game is as exciting as flipping a coin, but oh well...

    second best is craps.

    third is BJ
  • Cheating Roulette (Score:2, Interesting)

    by plasticpixel ( 323537 ) <mark.maehem@com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @11:40AM (#4070421) Homepage
    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. :)
  • 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..."

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

    by unicron ( 20286 ) <unicron@LIONthcnet.net minus cat> 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.
  • 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?
  • 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:
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • by Lord_Slepnir ( 585350 ) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:03PM (#4070573) Journal
    Sorry, I couldn't let this go

    Greedy fucks at Casino's. They rig the game against you so that you basically can't win (i.e., house has 90% advantage).

    If you were to go to The Wizard of Odds [thewizardofodds.com] You'll notice that the house edge in most games is not 90%. It's more like 2-3%. They know that people are not stupid, and while some games are horribly rigged (Slot machines for example) most of them will give out 97% of what they take in...that 3% they keep is what lets you get a luxury room for $20 / night.

    Then, when a few smart people (maybe one out of 1000) come along who can count cards and actually break even or better, they bitch and whine.

    Execpt that one person can literally bring down the whole casino if they have an edge. Pretend that you can win 52% of the time. It takes one minute to play one round of blackjack. If you're making $100 dollar bets, you'd be making $240 / hour off of the casino. And to think that they don't let you get away with it.

    Its just a technique -- a legal one, as opposed to casino's illegal techniques of winning. Look in Hoyle's rule-books on cards. They won't mention anything about it being illegal to count cards. However, their rules for blackjack don't set it up so that the dealer has a 90% advantage.

    I won't debate that card counting is legal, as long as you don't use a computer or calculator. And you're right, they don't set it up so that the dealer has a 90% advantage. The advantage is that the dealer wins should both the dealer and the player bust. There are other little differences as well, but it's not overwhelming.

    By the way, does anyone here really think that the dealers don't count the cards? Bullshit. You know damn well they do.

    Dealers play by a set of rules. Hit on 16 or lower. Stand on 17 or higher. That's it. Not much card counting.

    Furthermore, casinos have a number of tactics to foil card-counting, such as cutting the deck, starting a new deck, or mixing in several decks.

    You mean they try to randomize a game of chance? They MUST be cheating

    Everyone knows there is a house advantage in the casinos. When you enter a casino, you're on private property, and thus have to play by their rules. If you don't like those rules, you can go to another casino whose rules you like. But good luck finding a casino that will let you cheat.

  • 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.
  • 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 . . . . ."
  • by admiralh ( 21771 ) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:15PM (#4070656) Homepage
    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.
  • by NoData ( 9132 ) <_NoData_&yahoo,com> on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:15PM (#4070658)

    Dealers are trained to count cards so they can monitor if players are counting cards. When the count is favorable, they can spot opportunistic bettors, and employ counter-measures if need be.
  • 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 Fat Casper ( 260409 ) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @12:52PM (#4070870) Homepage
    The main subject of the article only had 1 to 5 million bucks...

    He started out with investors, who got a lot of money. The money that went to the team got split between the whole team. He didn't do it all the time, having to be subtle. They were just doing it in college- how many actually dropped out or made it a career? I have to stand by the idea that while the money was awesome, it wasn't about the money. Once you have a few million, a shitty little savings account can pay quite nicely. There's greedy and then there's greedy. I wouldn't want to "work" in a casino if I didn't have to, either.

  • 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 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 reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @02:13PM (#4071392)
    Neat article. However, I was rather perturbedby the opening anecdote about ferrying an enormous amount of cash through Logan Airport- the same one that the hijackers that destroyed the WTC flew out of. Bricks of hundred dollar bills, box cutters, no questions asked... just what the hell does security do there anyway?
  • by Stephen Samuel ( 106962 ) <samuel@bc g r e en.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.

  • Re:Glazed over facts (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 14, 2002 @08:29PM (#4073726)
    Card counters carry the money in hard cash to avoid CTR forms, which let both the government and the casinos know exactly how much money is being withdrawn. Professional thieves are a concern to anyone carrying large amounts of cash, but this is exactly what card counting teams do. I

    Hotel security can enter any hotel room they want. Casino security can "back room" anyone they suspect of a crime, such as cheating or trespassing. Card counters are routinely ejected from hotels. Although some counters have indeed sued casinos over rough treatment, it does happen more often than you would suspect.

    Cheating teams have employed miniature tv cameras and one team did attempt to use a computer underneath gloves. They were caught exactly for the reasons you stated.

    There are boom mikes that can pick up conversations in a crowd. However, the PI who was being interviewed was not concerned about some sort of FBI sting operation. She simply didn't want to be recorded the way journalists normally record people, with a handheld tape recorder. This is why she chose a crowded place.

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire