The Count

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

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.

David Terrill

"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.

"Casino thinking is typically short-term, and they don't want anybody to be able to beat them," says Dennis Conrad, president and chief strategist of Raving Consultants, a Nevada-based casino marketing firm. "And my beef with the industry is, here you've created a game, everyone likes it, you're making money on it, and when someone beats you fair and square, you bar them. I don't think it's fair. And the industry's take is, 'Gee, if we let those people play, enough of them would play that it wouldn't make it profitable for me, so they'd force me to me change the rules of the game, which would hurt it for everybody, so let me bar those people.'"

As for the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri and his relations with Harrah's, where he can't be barred?

"I can assure you, he's not barred because of counting cards," says Joel Rovics, the casino's marketing director. No matter that before he was barred, Stuart was on a winning streak so sweet that it was just plain lucky he wasn't a diabetic.

Rovics and Xenia Wunderlich, Harrah's director of table games, make a convincing pair seated in an upstairs office in the Harrah's hotel. Earnestly they outline the company rhetoric: that the Harrah's product is entertainment, that theirs is a frequency market depending not on big wins from high rollers but on steady cash from satisfied -- hence frequent -- players, that their 40 blackjack games mirror this company policy. Wunderlich and Rovics both assert -- and proudly so -- that Harrah's encourages players to win money. That means no ominous pit bosses here at Harrah's. No stern floor managers who seep forward, nervously twitching with concern, as player bets creep higher and the stacks of house chips get lower. Harrah's employees, in fact, are specifically instructed to laud winners. Each floor employee, says Wunderlich, is trained in the art of the high-five and other, more creative forms of celebratory gesticulation. And card-counters? They're apparently more than welcome at Harrah's. "It's not a big deal; it's never been a big issue." That's Rovics' take. "We've never even spent any time thinking about that." In fact, Harrah's policy toward card-counters has been, in order to avoid interrupting the flow of the game, simply to let them play. "There's nothing we can do," says Wunderlich.

But maybe, just maybe, Stuart knows too many secrets to be let loose in Harrah's. That's what he thinks. He should -- he's been gambling for the last 40-something years, and it could be reasonably extrapolated that he knows his way around a casino. And that $36,000, it's no small number. But this, this is perplexing. Humorous, almost. They just refuse to let him in.

Any attempt normally results in a half-hour wait and a few transfers of authority before a games supervisor politely informs him that he won't be playing at Harrah's.

"Looks like last time you were here, you failed to show ID, sir."

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