Colin Jones (S1 E3): What is “Real”?

When I read gambling books, I usually dog-ear pages of
interest. With Colin Jones’s book, The 21st-Century Card Counter,
I had to change my approach. It made no sense to dog-ear every page, so I just
started circling passages and writing notes in the margins. In lieu of a
traditional book review evaluating the book, I decided to treat the book like a
textbook, and go through its talking points in an N-part series. Here we go!

[p. 5] “This ‘card counting’ thing haunted me. Was it real?”
That’s the question I’ve faced and debated publicly for two decades. CJ’s
perspective at the time was a bit different from mine. He was wondering if you
could really make money, or a living, doing it. I ask the logical follow-up:
Even if you could, why would you want to? By the end of the book, the hero CJ
answers his own question (yes, card-counting is “real”), but evolves to answer
my follow-up (answer: “I wouldn’t”).

Now that he has been a successful test case, CJ gets
criticism for making card counting sound too easy. I don’t think that’s fair.
His materials say, “If you do X and Y, you will make money.” The fact that most
people won’t do X and Y is hardly his fault. Does he misrepresent the
difficulty level of executing X and Y? I don’t think he does, at least not in
the book. I think X and Y aren’t that challenging, but I think professional
gambling has been mis-portrayed throughout the media at large, and therefore
attracts a lot of weak, delusional weirdos, who have unrealistic expectations,
and would have had a hard time succeeding in many career paths, not just AP.
I’ve said many times: If the thing that attracts you to being a professional
gambler is easy money and being able to sleep until noon every day (which you
could do), then you aren’t going to be successful. (At least, not by my
definition of success.)

Some of my old teammates think I’m just teasing when I describe card counting as a “gambling habit.” Do I look like I’m joking? A lot of APs look at a game and say, “It’s positive.” Yeah, so? Who said our threshold is zero? An investor facing an array of choices doesn’t pour time and money into things just because they are positive. If you marketed your start-up company to Wall Street, offering a $10 return for every $1 million invested (positive!), you’d come home with an empty hat.

When facing a menu of possible investments, we start by looking at the risk-adjusted returns of each. For a long-term AP, winning takes care of itself, and the only real risk in the casino landscape is heat. Counting cards has a high heat-to-profit ratio, compared to other targets that are usually available in the same casino, sometimes at the same table. To make matters worse, the heat might affect your entire portfolio. Imagine that you’re a skilled stockpicker who can beat the S&P, and there’s a marginally positive penny stock that might get your entire account frozen, because the company is on the Russia sanctions list. But it exhibits short-term volatility and trades on online exchanges 24 hours per day. Only an action junkie with a ten-foot pole would touch that! [word of the day: “junkie”]

I’ve heard people say they enjoy the mental stimulation of counting cards. All the people who link being “good at math” with card counting are a bit loose in their English. Executing a card-counting system involves very little math; rather, it involves arithmetic. There’s a difference. I don’t get much mental stimulation from counting the change in my pocket, which is the same arithmetic task. (When I see the silvery George Washington, I count +25. The tiny silvery Roosevelt is +10. The brown Abe Lincoln is +1. The medium silvery Jefferson is +5. The maple leaf is a 0. When my count exceeds +212, I buy a Power Bar at the gas station.)

The mechanical process of counting cards is a repetitive, rote process with no creativity or problem solving at all. I actually wonder if counting cards (or playing video poker at 1000 hands/hour) for 30+ hours per week might somehow cement some pathways in the brain so that creative thinking is retarded. Over long hours, counting is mind-numbing.

But the boring stretches of waiting bets while the count drones on are interrupted by the occasional frenzy of big bets. For those of you who took a psychology course, does this sound familiar? We know that the strongest way to addict an animal is periodic or random reinforcement: We give the animal an exciting stimulus from time to time, not every time. You all saw the video of the pathetic rat pressing the button repeatedly, hoping to get a shot of sugar or cocaine every twentieth time, dying of starvation when the reward was permanently removed, despite the availability of sure-thing food in the adjacent bowl. Tell me how that’s different from a gambler on a slot machine, or a card counter at the tables.

The fact that the card counter’s game might be positive doesn’t change much. The way this system offers occasional big-betting opportunities interspersed throughout periods of boredom turns the player into a card-counting junkie (the plot of French Connection III, set at the Aviation Club in Paris), always wanting to play one more shoe, and never feeling quite satisfied no matter how many max bets he wins, or how many new ATHs he reaches.

Describing the process as “mentally stimulating” is sad. Meth heads and heroin junkies describe their drug of choice as “stimulating” too. I’m not saying that CJ is basically a junkie-cum-drug-dealer-kingpin. The negative connotations of that don’t fit here, because the addictive product, counting cards, is beneficial to CJ’s customers, if they do it right. I know an AP who is addicted to working out, running, and generally eating healthy foods. Pathetic. He just can’t help himself.

So go ahead and count, and make money. It’s real in that sense. But don’t tell me it’s mentally stimulating or intellectually challenging. Just admit that it feels good to you, and it’s your little gambling habit that might be hard to kick. Rehab counselors like me will tell you that the best way to kick a habit is to replace it with a healthier habit. They’ll also tell you to start with an honest admission. [Here’s mine: I like watching kung-fu movies on Netflix; I don’t claim that it’s mentally stimulating.]

CJ could only kick the habit by removing himself from casinos. But what would happen if he happened to come across a “glorious true 1” (or a more glorious true 4). I have a feeling he can’t help himself. Who remembered the word of the day?

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