Conceptually, counting cards is incredibly simple.  Take a deck of cards.  With a full deck, the count is zero.  Deal the cards out one by one.  Each time you see a card numbered 2 through 6, add one to the count.  Each time you see an ace, a face card, or a ten, subtract one from the count.  That’s it.  You’re done.  You’ve learned the basic high-low counting system, a system that mathematician Edward O. Thorpe developed and proved by winning huge money during a single weekend.

On the technical side, the hardest part of counting cards exists in playing with perfect strategy.  There are essentially 250 situations that can occur while playing blackjack, and you need to know how to play your cards in each of them.  Memorizing 250 different responses might sound intimidating, but it’s no harder than memorizing the multiplication tables, and you managed to accomplish that before you were nine years old.

Put these two basic techniques together, and you’ve got an edge on the casino.  All you need to do is increase the amount of your bet when the count is positive, and over the long haul you’ll win money.  Of course, any dealer worth the meager wages the casinos begrudge them can count cards as easily as you – so with a basic high-low system, what you’re doing is completely transparent.

The Film: Ocean’s Eleven

The Song: “69 Police”

The Artist: David Holmes

I saw Ocean’s Eleven (2001) at a special screening in Mission Valley for Qualcomm employees and their friends.  I had a roommate who was working on their digital cinema collaboration with Texas Instruments.  The film was a fun bit of fluff, obviously as enjoyable for the actors to produce as it was for us to watch.  The engineers at Qualcomm were deservedly proud of their work, which was absent of lint, spots, jitter or cigarette burns.  It was a fun evening – the Qualcomm folks were still enjoying the tail end of the giddy stock price heights of the 2000 dot-com bubble, and I was on the tail end of my own experience at pilfering money from a Las Vegas casino.

I had learned how to count cards with the help of my aforementioned ex-friend F****, who had mastered the single level high-low counting system and progressed onto more complex ways of modifying bets and strategy to maximize player advantage.  I was still living in San Diego, and for some reason I decided it was imperative that I head up to Las Vegas for the weekend.  I couldn’t convince anyone to come along.  F**** theorized that he might be able to fly out and join me, but it never materialized.  Which is unfortunate, because if he had made the trip, he and I probably would have ended up as co-owners of the El Cortez hotel.

At the time of my trip, Digital 21 had just been released for beta-testing in the casinos.  It was a version of blackjack where the only difference was that there were no physical cards.  Everything else was exactly the same.  Everything.  The table was the same size and shape, with six station, the familiar green felt and traditional betting circles. There were fifty-two cards in each virtual deck.  There was a dealer who “shuffled” and “dealt” the virtual cards and took your very real money.  The only real difference was that your cards existed only as a series of pixels on a little video screen on the table in front of you.

In an effort to drum up some interest in the new feature, casinos had set up most of the table with single decks and favorable rules, like having the dealer stand on soft seventeen, allowing surrender, or allowing the player to double down after splitting a pair.  My own initiation came at the El Cortez, one of the largest downtown casinos away from Fremont Street.  I sat down by myself at the table and watched as my strategy – successful thus far – failed to yield results against what should have been a great opportunity.

I could tell that something was off, because certain hands kept reappearing, and playing out the same exact way each time.  The third time I split a pair of sixes to the same eventual result (breaking even as one hand won and the other lost) I complained to the dealer, who gave me a sour look.  I picked up what was left of my chips and started walking back towards the more friendly tables at Binion’s Horseshoe and the Four Queens.  Halfway back I took pause and reconsidered the situation.  Something in the machine was malfunctioning; that much was clear, and it was making my counting strategy useless.  But it wasn’t like I was losing every hand.  I was still winning a few.  And I realized that if I could figure out which hands I was going to win, ahead of the fact, that the only limit to how much money I could win would be when the casino recognized the problem and shut me down.

After a few more shuffles at the table, I figured out exactly what was happening: the sequence of cards in the deck never changed.  Although the start point would vary, depending on where the cards were cut, the cards would eventually start falling into the same pattern (especially considering how mechanically I was playing; always making the same choices).  All I needed to do was learn the location of the winning hands – and learn the patterns of cards that preceded them.

I went through three dealers, and eventually accumulated just short of $2500 before the El Cortez finally caught on and shut the table down.  After I’d gone from an initial stake of $50 to about $1000 the pit boss started paying attention to me, and spent dozens of hands hovering over my shoulder, trying to figure out what was happening.  It was clear that he thought I was running a basic card counting system – a strategy that I’d completely abandoned – and my chaotic bet structure had him completely flummoxed.  I shudder to think of how much money I threw away on losing hands just trying to divert his attention.  Things finally fell apart for me after one of the dealers, a shrewd asshole that apparently I wasn’t tipping enough, finally called what card he was about to get while the boss was watching.

I managed to sneak in one last $700 hand (even when you can predict the future, having $700 riding on a single hand will set your heart pounding) before abandoning the table.  As I waited at the cashier, I watched several men in suits gathering around the table, a bovine herd trying to puzzle out the mystery of the table, dealing out hand after hand, reshuffling, and doing it all over again.  They never bothered me – but I’d imagine someone at the casino got into quite a bit of trouble for letting my run last as long as it did.

I ended up spending the majority of the money paying down my student loans.

I can still think of plenty of mistakes I made; of how I could have exploited the situation better.  All of them revolve around extending my run.  I could have deliberately made bad plays to give the dealer different hands.  I could have played two hands at times.  If F**** had showed up, the two of us could have played that table at the maximum all night long.

In the end, I was very happy to emerge as victorious as I was.  But there’s a bittersweet edge to it.  Blackjack is no longer exciting for me – no matter how great of a run of luck I put together, it will never come anywhere close to that magnificent evening when I knew the lay of the cards in advance.  These days, the only gambling I do is occasional craps, when I can find a low-limit table, or sports gambling.  Stay tuned this fall for my football picks column – I’ve got a new system to beat the house.  It’s a lock, I swear.

Steven Soderbergh has commissioned David Holmes – a DJ from Northern Ireland – to produce the music for two of his films.  The first, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Out of Sight (1998) featured a series of upbeat jazzy interludes that framed the scenes perfectly.  The second was Ocean’s Eleven, which relied heavily on the use of a reimagined version of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” as a leitmotif, but also managed to sprinkle in various other compositions by David Holmes, including the particularly memorable “69 Police” along with the end credits of the film.

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