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Counters Culture : The Simple Rule of Blackjack is That the House Reigns--To Win Consistently Takes Skill, Luck and the Art of the Con

March 12, 1995| Michael A. Hiltzik | Michael A. Hiltzik is a Times financial writer. His last article for the magazine was about Ethiopia's rediscovery of its archeological history.

Saturday night, about an hour short of midnight, and Bryce Carlson is on the prowl.

The dense palm jungle inside the Mirage, Steve Wynn's South Seas fantasy on the Las Vegas Strip, vibrates to the rhythm of a live pop band. Under faux-bamboo canopies, 80 blackjack tables hum like hives. A young Asian player with a $500 bet stares first at his nine and seven and then at the dealer's up card, a queen. He motions for a hit and draws an eight, busting his hand with 24. As the dealer sweeps away his stack of black chips, a gallery of onlookers murmurs sympathetically.

Carlson detaches himself from the crowd and casually moves on, checking out the other tables, looking for one where the action suits him and his methods. He finds one, takes a seat and drops five $100 bills on the table.

"Changing five!" the dealer sings out. Her pit boss glances over, marks the big action and nods. All he sees is another fish on the line.

Big mistake. Bryce Carlson is a card-counter, and during the next hour he will beat the Mirage for $2,600.

*

CASINOS ALL OVER NEVADA WOULD PROBABLY PAY MONEY FOR CARLSON'S DESCRIPTION, OR EVEN FOR A CLUE TO HIS real name. Not long ago, Bill Zender, manager of the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas and a former counter, publicly hinted he had picked out Carlson from an old surveillance videotape and was fixing to throw him off his property the next time he tried to play. Not everyone believes this, but much of the blackjack world is awaiting the showdown.

For now, let's just say this much: Carlson is tall, but not too tall. Mid-40s. This evening he's dressed to look prosperous but not ostentatious. Brown leather jacket, cashmere scarf. Nice gold watch but no other jewelry to attract attention. His guiding principle is to look as if he belongs and, in fact, he fits into the clientele of high rollers and Southern California weekend revelers like a Mercedes-Benz in a Brentwood driveway.

As a skilled player, Carlson is a soldier in one of Las Vegas' oldest battles. By keeping a mathematical picture of the deck's composition in his head, he is able to raise and lower his bets as the cards shift in and out of his favor. The process is called card-counting but it is much more than that. It's psychology, for the counter must play in a way that draws no attention from a suspicious pit boss; it's acting, because when Carlson wants to sit out a hand in a freezing cold deck, the dealer must believe he is momentarily distracted by counting the bills in his wallet, and it's war. Not by coincidence did Carlson entitle his book about his powerful counting system "Blackjack for Blood."

The idea of matching wits with the casinos has attracted thousands of combatants. The typical counter, as the casinos see him, is young, male, serious and introverted. But the ranks of card-counters with winning records also include plenty of retirees, women and party animals. What they have in common is an aptitude for numbers--although the math is not necessarily complicated--and the discipline to excise superstition and emotion from their play and bet exactly as the count dictates.

"You don't need a photographic memory," Carlson says. "A person of average intelligence could do it, although every counter I've met is probably a couple of standard deviations" smarter than that.

Unlike such stunts as marking cards, card-counting is not considered cheating, a felony in Nevada. Years of court cases have established that it is merely a highly sophisticated way of using information available to everyone at the table: what cards have been dealt. Yet the casinos regard it as such a threat that they can, by state regulation, eject--or "back off"--anyone they suspect of the practice.

"I'm not running a candy store here," Zender says. "If I opened up the place and said everyone could beat the hell out of me, I wouldn't have the candy store for long."

Counters know that the Nevada casinos are determined to protect their blackjack games. If casinos could not bar skilled players, they would find ways to make the games unbeatable. When the late player Ken Uston won a court order forcing Atlantic City casinos to deal to all comers, owners responded by dealing eight decks together and reshuffling after four. But the stupefying slowness in shuffling eight decks frustrates casino owners as much as it does the players; a slow game costs the house money.

A better solution may be the Aladdin, where Zender offers what is perhaps the Strip's most counter-beatable game, but also its most counter-savvy staff; all but one of the shift managers formerly played for a living, and Zender's library of surveillance tapes spans years. The simple reality of casino gambling is that the house reigns. It manipulates the odds, dictates bet limits, controls the rules. To beat the house consistently demands not only skill and luck, but guile. Which is exactly why card-counters can't resist taking it on.

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