Colin Jones (S1 E2): The Devil is Mr. Jones

For the amount of vitriol directed at Colin Jones online,
you’d think the man eats babies. In reality, he’s guilty of a far greater
sin—he wrote a card-counting book, The 21st-Century Card Counter.
That book is one pillar of a viral card-counting enterprise also supported by
the documentary movie Holy Rollers, the website
blackjackapprenticeship.com (BJA), and the in-person boot camps offered from
time to time. Before I continue with the multi-part book review I began in my
last post, let me address the mild controversy surrounding the book’s author,
Mr. Jones (“Jones”? Really?).

As a disclaimer, let me say that other than reading CJ’s book, I have no connection whatsoever to the BJA empire. I’ve never attended a boot camp, and I know CJ only from meeting him a few times at Max Rubin’s annual Blackjack Ball. I won’t bother to start with the perfunctory, empty statement, “He’s a really nice guy,” because that definition of “nice” carries no weight with me. I’ve known friendly talkers who would buy you coffee or pick you up from the airport, but still abuse you and steal six or seven figures from you, so what does “nice” really mean, anyway? But since you asked about CJ, yeah, he’s a really nice guy.

But let’s skip the personalities and focus on the business activity. My read on the room is probably a bit biased to start with, because I empathize with CJ and the attacks he receives, so if the overall player-community opinion on the man is in fact positive, then I’m defending the preacher to the choir. I’ve certainly seen a lot of positive feedback regarding the boot camps, I’m a fan of the book, and I’m a believer in using online videos and software as a teaching tool.

One of the knocks I’ve heard is that CJ makes card counting
sound like an easy way to get rich, and that exaggerating or glorifying card
counting is dishonest. I can’t speak to the boot camps, but the book doesn’t
misrepresent card counting in that way. CJ admits he got lucky with a couple of
key breaks early on (page 8) that changed his entire life narrative: “I’m
certain I would have lost my $2000 if something incredibly fortuitous hadn’t
happened. … Ben also agreed to test me out. I failed miserably.” CJ’s origin
story describes how he thought he was ready to play, but then got humbled by
the test. And now BJA offers that same necessary experience to new players via
the boot camps.

Of course CJ is selling a product, and is therefore an advocate. The book describes his own successful card-counting journey, and perhaps inspires others to try. Are we to fault the man for having a biased rose-colored worldview, as a consequence of having enough good luck to avoid card-counting hell? That certainly doesn’t make him dishonest. That counting has a dark side—losing, heat, grinding travel, loneliness—is no secret, and there are plenty of voices who will send that message (Arnold Snyder says, “You will lose.” I say, “Card counting is a prerequisite tool, not an end goal.”). I don’t think the onus is on CJ to be a discouraging voice for the strongest students to overcome (Navy Seal training model). As far as the book goes, I don’t get the feeling of players who win every time while getting comped to the penthouse suite, the way the movies Rain Man and 21 might portray.

The book has interviews with BJA players interspersed throughout, and I would concede that I felt the book was lacking interviews with losers (I love watching and learning from a train wreck). But losers and quitters disappear from our community, and probably don’t want to be interviewed for a book about it, so I didn’t feel that the omission of such material was dishonest. Besides, this isn’t a textbook. If it’s a bit of a feel-good book, so what? Do you really want to read another Las Vegas Blackjack Diary? I felt that The 21st-Century Card Counter paints the dark side of counting in a different way: the hero of the tale turns $2000 into $600000, but then gives it up! Even success is empty, boring. You could make some money counting, and then what? +1, +2, +3 true, bet two max bets, back to +2, now -2, wong out, repeat. Is that what you want your career to be? Is that what you want your life to be? And do you want to leave your family, go to Iowa, and stay in a dumpy motel to do that?

So CJ moved on to build BJA, including the boot camps, which have now become so successful that they are fully subscribed even at a price per head around $3000, for which CJ gets further criticism! It’s a bit bewildering that players in the AP community can criticize a businessman for selling his product at the price the market will bear.

Having not attended a boot camp, I won’t comment on whether the price is worth it, but that really depends on a customer’s individual circumstances. But for a two-day seminar providing niche instructional material, that price isn’t an outlier. I’ve heard price complaints about my own work, too (Howard Schwartz, then proprietor of the Gambler’s Book Club, said that my book, Beyond Counting, was overpriced—it was $40), but I can’t say I’m sympathetic to the customers. Developing quality content takes a lot more time and work than customers realize.

I think it’s good that the price of the boot camp is high. Price barriers in the AP world greatly weed out casino spies, trolls, and unmotivated students. Part of the reason Stanford Wong’s Green Chip was such a great site for so long was that even a modest $60 weeds out a lot of the hacks and trolls, while not deterring anyone serious. If anyone questions CJ on the price of a boot camp, I hope he parrots my answer to people: “If you’re wondering if the price is too high, then you’re not part of my target market, so I would advise you not to buy the product.”

Mainly, CJ gets criticized for churning out lots of BJA
players who are going to “kill the game.” All of us players and former players
think about this when we distribute information in the AP world. In CJ’s case,
I’d make several points. First, if a guy doesn’t know you, is it his job to
protect your game, or even worry about it? Why would a stranger to you owe you
anything? If he was once a friend or teammate of yours, you might have some
standing to complain, but how can you fault him otherwise? He’s running a
business, making a living for his family, and in this case helping others do
the same.

Now if a person claims to be a player advocate, then I do
think we can impose a higher standard: Does the business benefit players or
not? For answering that question, the obvious perspective is not whether the
business benefits you personally, but the player community as a whole. I’ve got
as much of a personal gripe as anyone, since one of my target games was
directly killed by the amateurishness of some BJA rookies. That said, I believe
that the BJA empire will lead to a greater net, aggregate amount of money
sucked out of casinos. So I don’t think CJ is a hypocrite or con man at all,
and BJA has a growing list of success stories. CJ might already be the most
successful trainer of blackjack players in the history of the game.

When it comes to killing games, that’s part of the ecosystem. If there’s one bottle of water in the desert, do you criticize a guy for drinking it? Is he supposed to save it for the next guy, who is then supposed to save it for the next guy? At the end of this recursion, there has to be someone who drinks it. It doesn’t bother me when games get killed as a result of someone making a bunch of money. It only bothers me when a game gets wasted (a la Chevy Chase in the Three Amigos, wasting and spilling the water instead of drinking it). But if fair professional competition kills a game, then that’s efficient.

I have seen some of the reckless amateurism: a bunch of BJA
minions all sitting at the same table, all rubbernecking at each other’s cards
on insurance decisions (and then using the cliché excuses for buying it), all
capping their green chip bets with a red chip when it’s unnecessary, etc. But
this behavior isn’t because CJ is a bad teacher—it’s because these players are
rookies!

A 6-year-old who has played the violin for six months sounds terrible, but it’s not because the teacher is bad. It’s because the kid’s a rookie without much experience. If you look at self-taught APs, they’re equally abysmal during their rookie years, and far beyond. I know many “APs” who’ve been HCing for a decade or more, and they’re terrible! Chinning the rail, the gimmicky drunk act, the 8-hour massage, the knees up on the rail, the wheelchair or slot-machine chair (Wow! Never thought of that! You’re so clever!), buying insurance on the spotter’s trivial bet—I could go on and on.

The emergence of the BJA army has killed some games, and will continue to do so, but probably some money will be made while they do it. In the case of card counting, the threat to the game is overblown. Card counting isn’t that easy to kill. Dozens of books have been written about it over the past sixty years, and counting is still alive. And if you’re an AP, facing increased competition, then maybe you should up your game, instead of criticizing CJ. I’ve been watching this mushroom cloud as it creeps towards me, with a new generation of counters looking to evolve beyond counting, and while I don’t personally like it, we’ll be ready to compete. Our crew continues to train. There are too many targets to kill. We can always get a game.

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