Colin Jones (S1 E8): Mail Bag

In this episode of my N-part series looking at Colin Jones’s
book, The 21st-Century Card Counter, I’m just going to briefly
comment on various phrases and sentences that caught my eye. This is like the “Mail
Bag” episodes of Gambling with an Edge, or the Potpourri category on
Jeopardy.

[p. 26] “I’m not going to argue whether people should or
should not gamble for entertainment (though it’s my opinion that gambling is a
very high-risk low-reward form of it).” From spending so much time in locals
casinos, I’d say that the percentage of gamblers who are problem gamblers—by virtually
any definition of the term—is much, much higher than the industry would admit. As
a resort destination, Vegas is a different animal. But locals casinos are built
on degenerate gambling. That said, I think there is a role for recreational
gambling, and CJ underestimates how enjoyable it is for some. CJ is a bit
jaded, because blackjack (and baccarat) are not inherently fun games (you
wouldn’t play them for no money), and because card counting as a living takes
the fun out of the game! One of my old friends came to Vegas with me, and afterwards
said, “You’ve ruined Las Vegas for me,” because he could never again see the
experience in the carefree, oblivious way that gamblers do. I turned it into
work.

[p. 27] “Since I went pro, my overall hourly win rate has
been $432.” I think this might explain CJ’s overall optimism for counting cards,
and the criticism he has received for making it sound like a way to easy riches
(I don’t think that such criticism is accurate or fair, but whoever said the
Internet is fair?). I have no knowledge of the games CJ was playing or the
hours, but $432/hour sounds above EV to me for a counter in his first few years
building a bankroll.

[p. 27] “Sure, it can be thrilling. But it can also be
exhausting, monotonous, frustrating, highly stressful, and an emotional
rollercoaster unlike anything else you’ll ever experience.” That’s more like
it.

[p. 29] “Apophenia is the term neurologists use to define the reality that humans are universally looking for patterns in random information.” Good to know. Apophenia is everywhere. I could put a bunch of random digits in a glossary and people would think it means something!

[p. 30] “Here’s a computer simulation …” Thank you for limiting
the chart to a single page.

[p. 32] “Casinos know this. That’s why they aren’t concerned if a gambler wins on any given night.” This is one of the few points in the book I disagree with. Some casinos don’t sweat it, but many casinos and thousands of bosses expect to win every time, against every player, and take it personally if the player beats the casino. Casinos are babies. Slimy, crap-producing, whiny babies. But I love kids.

[p. 33] “You’d be surprised how many people tell me that they think the casino is cheating them. The casino doesn’t have to!” This is a very, very weak argument against the possibility of cheating. The casinos don’t have to assault players, but they do. The casinos don’t have to rig jackpots, but it has happened (Venetian). Casinos don’t have to ban cell phones or limit you to one hand on carnival games, but most of them do. CJ is making some logical argument, or maybe an ethical one, saying that casinos earn “enough” the legal way that cheating isn’t necessary and they wouldn’t do it. To a casino, there is no “enough”—ever! That said, I am the first to say that some loser whining on the Internet about being cheated did NOT get cheated. No, you didn’t run into a seconds dealer in northern Nevada, or at the Plaza in Vegas, or the Flamingo. Didn’t happen, sorry. The card counter must take accountability for playing a weak game. Losing happens—a lot. If a casino is to cheat these days, by far the most common method is simply stiffing the player or free-rolling against a player. It’s really a variation of the ol’ heads-I-win-tails-you-lose trick that we learned as children, but scaled to the eight-figure level. Casinos are even bolstering legal support for the move.

[p. 36] “Other players have a huge impact on a card-counter’s
win-rate. How? They slow down the game.” Tell him what he’s won! The
implications of this are far-reaching. The reason most players don’t like to
play heads-up is because they lose too fast. This is the basis for the myth
that blackjack is a “team game.” Gamblers’ personal experience is that when
they play alone, they almost always lose. (And they have no scapegoat.) For APs,
finding fast conditions is quite valuable, and playing faster is one of the
biggest skills of an expert playcaller. In a game where the spotter can grind
out a modest but worthwhile profit, an exiting BP will sometimes lock his spots
to prevent civilians from sitting down, thus gifting the spotter a faster game
during cleanup. If an AP team intends to take over a deadspread, all team
members must be ready to pounce, because the first player to sit down will
shill up the game, and civilians will suddenly materialize and sit down, even
though the table was deadspread for half an hour before that.

[p. 37] “(simulation by Cartwright)”—sniff, sniff.

[p. 40] “$500 to the player who won the most over the past three months, $500 to the player who lost the most.” The idea is that getting in hours and betting big according to the team gameplan will generate EV and swings, so swings positive and negative are to be rewarded as a proxy for EV generation. I’ll assume that current team standings are not posted, so that no one is gaming the system by intentionally losing if they are in second-to-lowest position. Nevertheless, I’m not sure how good an idea this is. Rewarding losses is unnerving to me, because I’ve always advocated for improving one’s game in response to any loss. CJ’s policy is probably good for boosting the morale of a player who happens to be losing through no fault of his own (that happens more rarely than people admit). I’ve noticed players get emotionally attached to the results on their own spot, getting irritated by an individual loss, when they should feel happy to show a loss to the pit with an aggregate team win. As a spotter, I love bleeding out while my BP wins! Bloodletting helps me live longer! Rewarding swings wouldn’t be feasible on BP-spotter teams, or teams which target games with wildly different edges. I’m curious how well CJ’s reward structure worked out, since it’s an interesting idea. The MIT teams also expected to see swings from any player correctly executing the gameplan.

[p. 48] “[quoting Breaking Bad] I did it for me. I liked it.
I was good at it, and I was really alive.” That’s the thing about casino
gambling. It uses, as Max Rubin would call it, “cash cash.” Losing
electronic cash in the markets or real estate is one thing, but cash cash feels
a lot more real. We once had a billionaire (well, the heir to a billionaire)
bet the money for us on a brief play. We lost $5000, his share of which was
$1000, and he seemed a bit shaken by it. Something about laying out those
Benjamins on the table felt very real in a way that people in most businesses
never feel. Winning or losing $5000 in minutes playing a card game is not
normal! For most counters, though, feeling “alive” implies the possibility of
feeling “dead” as well. To emotionally survive the swings of counting cards
demands some detachment. The successful counter turns the game into a monotony
of keeping the count, making the bet, generating the EV. Worshipping at the
altar of EV might protect a player’s psyche from a loss, but it means that the
wins become empty as well. Success eradicates the “alive” feeling, and the most
successful counters become drones, putting in the hours, ignoring the
back-offs, grinding out that EV. For the author, feeling “alive” again required
moving on to a new challenge, such as building a blackjack teaching program.

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