The Blackjack Ball, an annual get-together of professional gamblers, was historically hosted by Max Rubin over New Year’s, when the big card-counting teams would create their own fireworks all over Vegas. It was great fun while it lasted. But New Year’s became a victim of its own success. Vegas is so crowded on holiday weekends that getting a room, a parking spot, or a seat at a blackjack table is almost impossible, and certainly more trouble than it’s worth. And, the big-team model went extinct. The Uston team is no more (though some of its original players are still out there). The Czech team isn’t even a distant memory. The MIT team lives on only in the movies. Do any of the Greeks even play anymore? Hyland’s old gang is mostly doing other stuff. The Holy Rollers are now a decentralized swarm of counting zombies.
With no more counting teams to accommodate, The Blackjack Ball these days is scheduled to avoid the chaos of New Year’s. But the pandemic brought a whole new type of chaos. While the casinos probably would have loved to see a hundred of the world’s top APs (who are mostly 50+ years old) wiped out by a single superspreader event, it was not in the cards for 2021.
Instead, Max’s organizers are eagerly looking forward to holding the next in-person event in 2022. For 2021, using the wonders of modern technology, the usual attendees had a chance to share news from the trenches via Max Rubin’s 1st Annual Blackjack Call.
In a moderated Zoom call with some 50 or so participants, we took turns talking about various stuff. I’ll share here what I spoke about, on the topic of “Playing during the Pandemic.”
Masks were a mixed bag. Much has been made about the opportunity for card counters to run around wearing masks and go back to places where they’d previously been backed off. Yes, I did see masked counters show up at my local joint, and they got some play in, but they didn’t last long before getting backed off anyway. Wearing a mask at a place you play regularly doesn’t help much, because everyone still recognizes you instantly. The real benefit is to wear a mask and go to a place where you’ve never played before, and get some hours of play in without anyone even learning what you look like. You start with a clean slate, and you get to play without dirtying the slate. There aren’t many worthwhile places that I haven’t played before, so the masks didn’t benefit me personally much, but some counters definitely benefited from the masks, all else being equal.
But when is all else equal? Because casinos are paranoid about masks, many of them started IDing or photographing people at the door. Some of us angels feared to tread there. For those players who went in anyway, getting photographed at the door negated much of the benefit of masks. There were some players who got backed off and possibly databased due to these procedures.
Conditions generally were a mixed bag. The biggest change during the pandemic was that most casinos restricted table games to three or four players. At crowded locals casinos, it was very difficult to get a seat, especially if you wanted a particular seat. Many APs reported having to routinely wait over an hour for a seat, often giving up. Wongers couldn’t wong.
Not only was it difficult to get a seat, but there was a lot of awkwardness and sometimes arguing with other patrons. If you actually played, you might have had someone standing right behind you waiting for a seat, literally breathing down your neck (during a pandemic).
On the other hand, if you actually got a seat, you then enjoyed a three-handed game, which was noticeably faster than a full table. If your team controlled two or three of the seats, the game speed was probably doubled. The session win rate was noticeably higher as a result. Debating this with some teammates, we think that all things considered, we prefer the restriction on number of players.
Other pandemic protocols were a mixed bag as well. Masks and plexiglass made it harder to hear and see. I’m not the only one to report my glasses fogging up due to the mask. Teammates had a hard time hearing verbal signals. However, dealers couldn’t hear us talking either, and masked dealers behind plexiglass were less chatty, further boosting our game speed. There’s a big lesson there for all APs, but especially the loquacious counters: Enough talk!
Were there “special” opportunities? Yes. As a direct consequence of tables being limited to three players, some casinos started allowing players to play two boxes on games that were previously limited to one. All players, AP or otherwise, prefer this option.
In Washington state, the minicasinos erected outdoor tents with better ventilation. However, these tents did not have the proper electronics to manage the progressive jackpots, so the existing jackpot monies were dumped off via very generous promotions. There were backoffs, but some players made a quick five or six figures.
Due to closing times to accommodate coronavirus cleanup procedures, various machine opportunities were available that normally wouldn’t be. In one striking example, a $50000 must-hit-by jackpot that was ready to pop was abandoned on closing night in early 2020, and was available on re-opening day (and hit with about $1000 cash in).
Due to the lockdowns (and perhaps the stimulus checks), online poker made a bit of a resurgence. Sitting at home for months was a perfect time to play online and study GTO strategies and tutorial videos.
But for all the paranoid casino personnel who are sweating all the supposed special opportunities for APs, I want to explain something: Adaptable APs can always find targets. At any time in any context, finding playable targets is just routine business. It’s nothing special. We’d rather not have restrictions on travel, dining, and entertainment. We do not want to wear masks (but we will do our part). And we certainly don’t want the risk of disease.
For those APs who avoided casinos during the pandemic, who are now wondering whether they over-reacted and played it too safe, I can share some insight there, too. Do we know people who went to casinos a lot who died of coronavirus? Yes. Do we know family and friends who got it? Yes. Did I personally get coronavirus? Yes. And I got it at the casino.
I consider myself a numbers guy, but I’m willing to boil it down to the practical bottom line (so please don’t nitpick me here). If you played only casinos that required masks and also banned smoking and drinking, and you yourself were careful, you could have played actively and not gotten the virus. But if you played full-time, including casinos that didn’t have those full restrictions, you were likely to get it. And if you had gotten it, that’s a gamble you don’t want to take. I consider my own symptoms to have been on the mild, lucky side, but they were still worrisome, and not like the flu. Had any of my older (or fatter!) teammates gotten it, or any attendees at The Ball, I’d be extremely worried.
Of course, we’re not out of the woods. So if you’re still staying home, I’d say to hunker down and keep watching Netflix (I recommend the IP Man series). When we get to the other side of this pandemic, the games will still be there.