The Count

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

"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."

"That's not true," Stuart protests. "That's completely not true."

"There's a gaming freeze on your account because you failed to show ID."

"That's not true."

"That's what it says. That's all we can tell you."

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

Once again. They tell him he didn't show ID. He shows ID. They photocopy ID. He leaves. He comes back. They tell him he didn't show ID. And it'll happen again. "They advertise 'Win, win, win,'" Stuart rants, exasperated. "They don't want you to win. They can't build those gigantic facilities if you win. They advertise to come in and play a game of skill. If your skill level gets too good, they make you stop."


Numbers, numbers, numbers. Can't stop numbers. The best blackjack player in the state of Missouri knows numbers. There aren't 52 cards in a deck; it's more like four aces, 16 paints, 20 lows and 12 neutrals. Make more numbers than the dealer or let the dealer make too many numbers, the dealer'll give out money. Make less numbers than the dealer or make too many numbers, the dealer'll take your money. Don't want that. Don't want to give any casino dealer money. Numbers. Those are the easy numbers.

There are more -- and more important -- numbers in this game. It's a game of numbers, of probability, of percentage ... for the player. For the house? Just combine those numbers with numbers of time and numbers of volume. Simple. They'll make a game; they'll give themselves the edge in numbers; they'll make money. Statistics say so; numbers say so. Because of time, because of volume. Like flipping a coin and betting heads or tails. They'll flip the coin; they'll charge a dollar a bet. Some people will bet heads, some tails. But they'll set an edge, so they'll win every time. A small edge, say, 2 percent. They'll earn 2 cents a flip. Flip the coin enough times, flip the coin with enough bettors, that 2 cents'll add up damn quick. How many times can a coin be flipped in an hour? How many coins can be flipped in 20 square feet? Time and volume. They make money the old-fashioned way -- any casino owner will tell you that -- they'll stay open and earn it. That's time and volume. And numbers.

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