Colin Jones (S2 E3): Courage

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In the half century since Ed Thorp published Beat the Dealer, dozens of card counting systems have been developed and promoted. Any numbers nerd with a simulator and a couch can sit there and spit out card counting systems, complete with all the technical mumbo jumbo about the method of index generation, the true-count conversion, the optimal bet ramps, and don’t forget N0. From there the posers can endlessly debate merits of one system over another, without ever even having to suck a chip out of a casino rack.

When card counters suffer huge losses, they go back to those “experts” for an autopsy. Here it comes: Should I memorize more indices? Is my bet spread okay? What is the optimal wong-out point? Is HiLo good enough? Should I play on a card so I can get a buffet and a George Foreman grill?

This is an entire school of red herrings. The Armchair Theoreticians (ATs) talk about this stuff ad nauseam, because it’s all they can talk about; they don’t spend much, if any, time actually whacking casinos. But when you get to page 82 of Colin Jones’s book, The 21st-Century Card Counter, you know this dude’s the real deal. In the chapter “Do I Have What It Takes?” he delivers the kill shot, possibly the greatest sentence in a dozen books on card counting:

“Do you have the courage to drop back down to one unit to start the next shoe?”

The courage. The courage. Clearly, this man has been there.

You see, playing at a live table in a casino is entirely different from sitting at home in front of the practice software. The live table brings pressure of three types—the fear of losing real money, the social pressure to conform to the conventional idiocy on how to play the game (because doing otherwise is a betrayal of the “team”), and the fear of heat.

When the counter finishes a shoe with big bets, it can be very scary to drop back to one spot of the minimum to begin the next shoe. The counter feels very naked and obvious when he does that, and that fear of heat might prevent him from doing what his mathematical system demands. In a yin-and-yang way, the heat he expects from making that naked move is what makes betting big off the top (or even medium) an effective form of betting cover, in my experience. I’ve seen many a boss walk away with a smug expression after seeing a reassuring big bet off the top, but it takes long experience to make good decisions on when and if cover is worth it.

Strangely, the counters who fear the nakedness of dropping down to one unit off the top of the new shoe don’t seem to feel inhibited when they are rubbernecking at each other’s cards for insurance decisions, or yucking it up and making inane comments to justify play deviations, or joining a table that already has a counter. I suppose that doing that amateurish garbage as part of a group of amateurs gives them some kind of perceived herd immunity.

Oftentimes feeling naked is simply a side effect of knowing too much, and giving others too much credit, and exaggerating your own importance. Do you really think they are smart enough and care enough to be watching you? (Possibly.) I have a teammate who has to follow my instructions on the table, and when she started she didn’t even know basic strategy, because her job was to always just follow my signals. Then one day I told her to hit a hard 17, and she hesitated and gave me the “Really??” look. “Who told you that you were naked?” She had apparently gone online and learned some BS.

CJ mentions several forms of pressure: “I was too timid to ask for a comp”; “What will you feel, literally in your body, when players complain about you?”; “When the dealer is hustling you for a tip?”; “You’re there to beat them at blackjack, not for social reasons, and certainly not to be their favorite person.” You have to be prepared to be cold (as cold as Oliver Queen leaving that poor sap tied up in the cave in Arrow Season 1 Episode 15).

To teach students how to resist pressure, and become accustomed to it, CJ mentions an intriguing challenge during the BJA classes. “So rather than taking the 10 seconds to formulate and execute the right decision, you give in to the pressure and just make a rushed decision. This needs to be amended. To help trainees for the Church Team overcome this, we made them pause the game for a full minute when it was their turn to make a decision. Pausing the game for a minute feels like an absolute eternity when everyone is staring at you.”

That sounds like a great idea. I’d love to hear what former students have to say about that challenge task specifically, because it’s really on the mark. A successful player needs to be able to hold his ground in many situations, with another player, a dealer, a boss, a Gaming Agent. You’ll often encounter some player who tries to be the “Table Captain.” It’s usually an obnoxious male. We generally don’t allow that, and use a variety of tactics to take psychological control of the table ourselves. I always want my BP to be the Table Captain. At a table of newbies, the dealer might be the TC.

I generally agree with the advice to try to be well-liked at the casino, but that doesn’t mean you should chat with everyone (unnecessary exposure and memorability), or be a sheep, or lose sight of the goal. The goal is not to be well-liked. The goal is to beat the game, consistently, and ideally without anyone knowing that you’re beating the game.

The worst-case scenario is the AP who needs to feel well-liked by everyone, and who thinks the way to do that is to buy their love through tokes. You cannot buy their love. Even if you could, it’s not the most cost-effective way to achieve that goal. In most cases, excessive toking, typically justified as a savant-level read on interpersonal casino dynamics, is really just an AP’s inability to stand up to social pressure.

In a final warning about the challenge of card counting, CJ writes: “Most likely, the risks involved in trying to mitigate your fear aren’t as great as the risks of doing nothing about it. … Can you overcome your fears? Be brutally honest with yourself. If you’re certain that you can’t or you’re not sure if you can, that’s okay, but card counting probably isn’t for you.” Amen.

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