Colin Jones (S1 E4): In the Beginning …

In The 21st-Century Card Counter, Colin
Jones describes how he started out: [p. 6] “I convinced Grace to let me take a
third of everything we had in the bank—$2000—to the casino. If I lost it, I’d
be done.” Those two sentences sum up two of the biggest challenges facing a new
counter or AP. Achieving social acceptance or support from family, friends, and
square work colleagues, and starting with a minuscule bankroll make success
incredibly difficult. What business would you dare to start with only $2000?
Would you open a yogurt shop with that? Could you set up a B2B online
marketplace with that? A high-end driving/limo service?

With only $2000, what would happen if you go to Vegas to
become a card counter? You’d be better off getting yourself castrated, going
down to Fremont Street, and collecting $10 from every tourist who wants to kick
you in the crotch. But fools rush in where angels dare to tread, so CJ took the
crazy path of trying to become a card counter.

I like that he mentions that his girlfriend couldn’t
accompany him because she wasn’t yet 21. These real-world nuisances crop up all
the time, and by including them in the stories, the book thoroughly connects to
AP readers who have navigated the same casino jungle. (We baptized a teammate’s
son into the fold on his 21st birthday by letting him bet a game for
us at Mandalay Bay.)

CJ admits getting lucky in his first outing despite inept
play, doubling his $2000 to $4000. On top of that, he admits that having a
counting friend who made a fortuitous connection with a competent counter
allowed them both to receive proper training with accountability.

My casual observation is that like CJ, most successful APs
had some early break that made them continue down the AP path. They could have
succeeded anyway if forced down the path, but without that early lucky break,
they would have chosen to go in a different direction. For me, it was seeing a
hole card on October 31, 1997. That game allowed me to pay off my student loans
and credit card debt. For the great Zeljko, it was a juicy sidebet at a casino
that stubbornly denied it was beatable. For the great Mr. B, it was a sportsbook
so inept that they allowed bets after a game was already over. For many others,
the lucky break was meeting the right teammate or mentor. Many attendees of
CJ’s boot camps cite social/professional networking as the greatest benefit.

As I read CJ’s origin story, I felt that he was stealing my
thoughts. On page 9 [at this rate, we’re going to be blogging for the rest of
the year about this book]: “And it wasn’t only the money that was intoxicating;
I was also in complete control of my own destiny.” I’ve tried to tell people
this many times. A competent person who wants to make the most money possible
should probably go into the traditional business world: a high-powered law
firm, a plastic-surgery practice in Hollywood, an investment bank, a startup
company, a hedge fund—Wolf of Wall Street kinda stuff, minus the crime.

Being a card counter or AP pays okay, but not obscene money.
But the freedom of the AP meritocracy is its greatest appeal. An AP doesn’t
have to deal with the off-putting political drama that infests government, academia,
and big business. If you’ve got the skill and work ethic to beat the game,
you’ll make money, regardless of your religion, gender, or the color of your
skin. An AP who wants to take a month to travel in Europe can do so, and
probably get some work done on the trip.

But freedom can be elusive. The AP lives in a gilded cage,
which CJ ominously warns about on page 9: “If I didn’t want to work, I hung out
with Grace. But if I wanted to put in extra hours to see my nest egg grow even
faster, I did. I’d been bitten by the investment bug and, as I later learned,
there was no cure.”

Lazy players might think AP offers the freedom to work as few hours as desired, on whatever schedule desired. There is that, sort of. But for the hard-working AP, escaping traditional employment’s 9-to-5 rat race is not so liberating. The obtuse corporate boss (so epically portrayed in the Dilbert comic world) has been replaced with a new taskmaster: the successful AP becomes a slave to the game. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere, but for you that means you’ve got to scout the tail end of day shift and get ready for swing.

The game. At 4 a.m., there might be a dealer who deals 150
rounds per hour and cuts off only a half deck on a shoe. On Tuesday, the
dangerous boss might be off. On Thursday from 8 a.m. until noon, you might have
some use-it-or-lose-it free play. On July 16, you’ve got a coupon for a free
night in the hotel and two buffets. You’ve got to make money when the cards
shine.

Twenty years ago, my teammate and I were at the Palms Casino
& Movie Theatre (a Maloof resort!), scouting a known target, but a poster
for a new movie caught our eye. My teammate asked “But what if that game is on?
That could be a $600 movie!” I told my teammate that if our condition to see a
movie is that there be no game on, then we’ll never again see a movie in our
lives, because there’s always a game on. Naturally we checked the pit to verify
that the immediate target was absent before going to see the movie.

So it will be for you, dear AP. The day will come when you
will go to check on a game. A fabulous game. A $500/hour (or more) game. A game
that dreams are made of. And you’ll be begging for the game to not be on. And you’ll
find a unicorn casino that you’ll play dozens or hundreds of times, and you’ll
be begging for them to back you off.

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