The Count

Ace blackjack player Stuart Ziglin has been beating Missouri casinos at their own game. Now they want to change the rules.

Think about the numbers tomorrow.

Harrah's Casino in Maryland Heights won't let the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri through its doors, much less play the game; maybe it's how well he knows the numbers. Those blackjack numbers. They used to let him play. He'd be there all the time. Even the Remington "Mountain Man" on his fireplace was inspired by the casino -- Karen bought that sculpture after she saw him admiring it in Harrah's lobby. He's had his fair share of losses at Harrah's. But then he tweaked his system and had more than his fair share of wins. Next thing he knew, he wasn't allowed inside. It was "a business decision," the casino told him, when such business decisions were legal.

Can't really say what Harrah's has against him now, though. Now, when those types of "business decisions" aren't exactly legal anymore. It's not that he's counting cards, they say. But they won't let him in. Now it's on a technicality he thinks is fabricated. He didn't even sue them; a few years back, he did sue Players Island for not letting him play blackjack. And, sure, Players may have been bought out by Harrah's last March, but still ... he doesn't have anything against Harrah's. And the lawsuit never made it to a jury. He would have won it if it did -- that's what his lawyer told him. The lawsuit paid off anyway. They changed the law, the state did. All because of him and his lawsuit. It's right there, spelled out bright and clear, under the Conduct of Gaming: card counting (without any assistance) "shall not be considered cheating" effective Aug. 30, 2000. Official-sounding and everything. But those people at Harrah's, they still won't let him inside.

The man knows his numbers. A card-counter. No, a card-tracker. He's better than a card-counter. Counting cards? It's pie. Takes practice to make good pie, though. "It was over and over and over, working with one deck, working with two decks, and then going to play," Stuart says. "It's a tremendous amount of training, but it's mental, more than anything else. You have to really stay in tune to what you're doing and really want it to happen, and what fuels the fire is winning and that you have the possibility of being rewarded greatly for your efforts."

The essentials of Stuart's efforts: To assign mental values to different groups of cards in the deck and, more important, to allow those assigned values to guide betting strategy. The simplest method: Low cards (twos through sixes) are one; neutral cards (sevens through nines) are zero; high cards (tens and aces) are negative one. Numbers. It's about numbers for Stuart, not luck. The concept: Bet high when the count's high, bet low when the count's low. Nothing to it -- when Stuart's doing the counting. Mix the right numbers with the right amounts of money; make money. The numbers, they say so.

The theory: Blackjack, it's organic. Unlike other casino games, the odds in blackjack are constantly changing as the game progresses. With each card dealt, the composition of the deck changes. And Stuart, he knows only too well that blackjack's changing odds naturally lend themselves to sometimes favoring the player, sometimes the house. For the player, "sometimes" is 14 percent of the time. For the house, it's 86 percent. Stuart, like any trained card counter, capitalizes on the 14 percent with increased bets, thereby turning the standard house edge of about 1.25 percent -- statistically speaking, the casino's guaranteed minimum -- into his own edge of 1.25 percent. It's almost as if they have to pay the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri to play the game. Taking the casino's edge is no insignificant accomplishment. Consider the fact that blackjack players at Harrah's bet $5.6 million in January alone.

Consider further Harrah's assertion to the Missouri Gaming Commission last year when the casino industry argued against legalizing card-counting. A typical $25 blackjack table at Harrah's, they said, operates for about 580 hours a month and seats an average of four players. Assuming 80 betting decisions are made per hour, bettors make 46,400 bets at the table each month. With the standard 1.25 percent house edge and an assumed $37.50 average bet, the table expects to take at least 47 cents from each player per bet, which, for Harrah's, translates into a $1,044,000 expected yearly take for each table. However, if card-counters such as Stuart flipped the house's 1.25 percent edge as one of the four players, Stuart, assuming 40 hours of play per month, would pocket more than $36,000 a year from that one table.

And so the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri is, well, disliked.

And to the captains of the casino industry, he's an advantage player. Harrah's reported to the gaming commission that two such advantage players had been identified by staff at their casino in Maryland Heights. Stuart knows he was one of them. He also knows that Harrah's -- and every other casino -- wants to stop him and every other card-counter.

"If counting cards was as far as it went, then fine," rails Steve Browne, former owner and general manager of Cactus Jack's casino in Carson City, Nev. "The problem is, when you get an advantage player, they'll push you in every form, fashion, corner, inch. They'll get every inch they can take, and if, all of a sudden, you say, 'Oh well, we'll let counters play, it's only fair,' next thing you know, the counters will want to bring computers to the table; maybe they'll want to tape the game so they can practice; they'll want you to change the betting limits to let them bet way up high when the count's good and $1 when it's not." In Vegas, they kick counters out; in Atlantic City, where, as in Missouri, counting has also been legalized, industry countermeasures have harmed the game, slowing it down with deep-shoe cuts and more shuffling and taking away of excitement by decreased bet spreads.

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