SE Nojniloc (S2 E5): The Nit at the Card Table

In pop culture, card counters have a reputation for being MIT geniuses or Rain-Man-esque savants. Card counters roll with that, even though the reputation is entirely undeserved. Within the casino industry, they have another reputation. For being stiffs. That reputation is entirely deserved. And card counters roll with it.

Throughout The 21st-Century Card Counter, Colin Jones warns against tipping: “Sure, tipping feels good in the moment, but just like cover bets, it begs the question, does this really provide enough cover to be worth that feeling? For many amateur card counters, the pressure to tip can be too much to bear and they end up tipping away their edge.” Counters who cave to that pressure make rationalizations about tipping for penetration or longevity, but the growing data sample from BJA is showing that tipping doesn’t boost longevity at all, and even if it did, it’s a very costly, inefficient way to do so.

CJ’s book gives two action items: (1) “I recommend tracking your tips”; and (2) “play 500 hours of cover-free blackjack before deciding if it’s worth employing any form of cover plays.” That second recommendation could be extended to tipping as well. CJ is a missionary on a crusade, and I think he’s producing quite a few converts who believe that tipping is a waste of money.

However, there’s another side of the coin. The no-penny-left-behind mentality has created a swarm of BJA nits, and mama always said, “Nobody likes a nit.” CJ says (p. 163): “I don’t give them an extra penny of my money.” I hear you, brother, you’re doing the Lord’s work preaching against over-tipping, but there’s a difference between cutting costs and being a nit.

In classic terms, the nit is the guy at the poker table who enters the pot only with super-premium hands, who proudly announces that he never chops (because he’s a wannabe, and his vision of a real poker pro is a guy who is better than everyone at the table, including strangers, and for whom chopping would thus be giving up EV). The nit might even berate the fish when they suck out against his pocket AA. For sure the nit laments that no one gives him action the next time he gets AA. In the California card rooms, the nit sees all the big action on double-hand poker, bets minimum or nothing while he waits, and then wonders why the action dries up when it’s his turn to bank.

The flaw in the nit’s game is that he is using what mathematicians call a “Greedy Algorithm.” The nit maximizes EV right now, with no consideration of how his decisions might cost him in the future. Across a variety of optimization problems, Greedy Algorithms deliver good, but not necessarily optimal, solutions. For card players, there is an aspect of social engineering, more-so when playing against humans, or at the backyard joint. Good HC players don’t surrender 19.

The 21st-century card counter lays no cover, tips very little, and dares the casino to back him off. This approach is based on the observation that the flaccid approach of online nerds (who make thousands of posts but never actually whack casino games) leaves too much on the table; that the counter’s margins are too thin to afford much cover, tipping, or missed hours; and that there are casinos everywhere these days. I don’t disagree. But BJA’s guiding principle is “Don’t leave money on the table,” which zealots are taking as an endorsement of an obnoxious, in-your-face Greedy Algorithm, where the counters almost make a show of not giving up a penny in the here and now.

Don’t split Tens—says who? Polite spread—we’re not here to be polite! There are other counters on the table already—who cares?! Everyone raising and lowering bets in unison—so what?!? Everyone buying insurance on stiffs—what, me worry?!! Repeat the BJA mantra: “Don’t back yourself off!” So the 21st-century card counter plays anyway. Then the backoff comes on day shift. But swing shift starts at 8 p.m., hahahaha bwahaha!

Call me old-school, but I’m not a fan of that circus. The classical principle for avoiding other APs was simple: It’s not advisable to expose yourself to their heat, and rude to expose them to yours. For rookie counters who have no prior database heat, there’s still a reason to avoid the situation. When one player is counting, the boss might not notice, or might be too lazy or busy to do much about it, but when two or three counters are at the table, now it becomes a situation, which can trigger panic. Now the bosses say (and I’ve literally heard this): “Those guys are blahblah. Something’s going on. We’ve got to do something!” They can no longer look the other way. When eavesdropping in a casino, you never want to hear the phrase “Those guys”!

So while I understand that a modern counter wants to grind out the hours, could all BJA members within earshot of my voice stop jumping on tables with other counters and trying to turn it into a “We-dare-you-to-back-us-off” party? Why not get in the hours on a table without other counters?

And when a backoff comes, would you BJA folks consider giving that joint a rest? It would probably be hard to get in many more hours, and the situation can escalate to a barring, backrooming, flyer, false arrest, and maybe worse: the immediate death of the target game. If we’re talking about CC, maybe go to a different casino? CC games are much more fungible than BC games. This modern bravado (“Try and stop me! [sic]”) isn’t good for the game, and isn’t even in a player’s own self-interest. “Maverick, it’s not your counting. It’s your attitude.”

On the lack of tipping, the veterans are okay with that—tight is right (but please tip your server at Waffle House). I’ll even help with some actionable suggestions (and you thought you were getting only a rant!).

Without tipping the dealer, how can a player be likable? Part of this would be simple social skills, but since many card counters have none of that, we’ll have to go in another direction. Praise, flattery, and flirtation can sometimes work, but I’m not going to author a pick-up manual here. Rather, I suggest that you become a low-maintenance player (LMP). Being easy to deal to goes a long way. From the dealers’ point of view, the LMP doesn’t give them much revenue, but the LMP doesn’t cost them much either.

My BP Rocky once won $95k in a single sitting, and tipped a grand total of … [wait for it] … zero. At the team meet-up afterwards, he said that since I was calling the play, he wasn’t going to do anything unless I gave him an explicit signal to do so (he was an obedient, Japanese “company man”), and I never gave him a signal to tip. I had to explain to him that I expected him to use his own judgment on that, since we don’t have a signal to tip (!). The entire blackjack session was normal and pleasant, and after Rocky left the game, the dealer didn’t say one word about him. Rocky simply didn’t tip, but he was an extremely low-maintenance player. He just sat there, quietly playing his cards with no fanfare.

Here are 21 Keys to Being a Low-Maintenance Player, which I’m going to turn into a clickbait slideshow if I can broker a deal with Taboola:

  1. Don’t smoke.
  2. Don’t be a shot-taker. Don’t put out double-down money on 55, and then claim you wanted to split when a 6 comes. I think dealers hate shot-takers more than they hate non-tippers (though it might be close). There are people online who think these moves are slick, but they’re skanky moves that will cost you at a place you play regularly.
  3. Don’t bend the cards.
  4. Don’t do anything that might make the dealer nervous procedurally. For instance, don’t touch your bet after the hand has begun. In a handheld game, don’t touch your cards again after you’ve tucked them. In a face-up game, don’t touch the cards at all. Don’t pass your hand over your original bet when you place double-down money (I never pass my hand over my bet).
  5. Don’t do anything that puts the dealer in a position to have to enforce procedure. A normal dealer doesn’t want to have to police stuff like players using cell phones, players snacking on food under the table, players betting on each other’s hands, players holding their cards beyond the table rail, blackjack players wearing headphones, players throwing water bottles, players urinating on the roulette wheel ([shout-out to Ashwin]), etc. (And if a dealer does like to enforce that stuff, then that dealer is a hall monitor who should not be played, and certainly not tipped.)
  6. Don’t hold up the game. Have your bet ready to go, bet your light if you’re going to bet your light, don’t squeeze out your cards while everyone has to wait on you, and don’t be on your phone. And don’t color down a single green chip every hand when you’re betting red on carnival games.
  7. Don’t make rainbow bets.
  8. Don’t bet an amount that results in $2.50 payoffs or chips (from blackjacks or surrenders), and definitely don’t save those up until you have enough to make a bet entirely using the pink/riffraff chips.
  9. Don’t tell the dealer what the payoff is, unless the dealer specifically solicits help.
  10. Don’t throw your cards in when you bust. (I lay them out neatly.)
  11. Make your hand signals clear and standard (don’t try to be slick or creative).
  12. Act only when it’s your turn. Giving your signal while it’s still the previous player’s turn will look rude (but some of my BPs do this, because they respond to my signals immediately, instead of waiting for their turn to act on my signal).
  13. If the dealer asks for a hand signal when you already gave one, just repeat your hand signal without comment. Don’t say, “I already waved it off” before repeating your stand signal.
  14. Don’t whine about losing, and certainly don’t blame it on the dealer.
  15. Don’t let the dealer see you toke the waitress more than $1.
  16. If you’re not going to tip the dealer, then don’t, but do not embellish that frugality with standard lines that may be true, but are simply not believable. In particular, don’t say, after winning a big hand, “I’ll get you at the end.” Unless you know that dealer and already have a trusting relationship with that dealer, that line will cause an immediate resentment and likely response, “Yeah, right, like I haven’t heard that line a thousand times.” If you come here often, you don’t want to annoy the dealers.
  17. Go south with chips if you’re sure the dealer won’t notice, so that your growing pile of winnings doesn’t generate envy.
  18. Don’t talk too much if the dealer doesn’t want to talk. You have to be like a good cabbie (what an oxymoron!), or barber, and sense when the customer wants to be chatty and when the customer prefers the silence. Sometimes the dealers find it relaxing to be relieved of the forced, fake pleasantries. One time I had to rebuy on a game, and as the dealer just pushed me the chips with no comment, I teasingly asked, “Aren’t you going to wish me ‘Better luck this time’?” She replied, “You don’t care about that.” I could play her heads-up for an hour, and we were both comfortable without saying a word to each other.
  19. Don’t flirt with the person that the dealer likes.
  20. If you have a lot of chips, color up when you leave the table (try to make intermittent color-ups during the game when the rack runs low, to facilitate payoffs, and also avoid a huge color-up at the end).
  21. Clean up after yourself. Don’t leave empty cups, used napkins, ashes, or a chewing-tobacco spit cup. Throw out the trash yourself before you leave.

And if doing all of these things doesn’t add any value to your game, then tipping probably won’t either.

[If there are any dealers reading this, please comment below!]

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