The Count

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

Everyone should know more numbers. If they wanna win. Here's a number to know: Casino's got a 5.5 percent edge in blackjack if the player plays like the dealer. Hit on anything below a 17; stand on a 17 or higher. See, both the dealer and player got a 28 percent chance of busting 21, only the player busts first. That's the catch. That 5.5 percent. Need to whittle that number down. No reason to play a game facing a 5.5 percent edge. For fun, maybe, but not for money. It's just plain stupid.

This is where basic strategy comes in. The best blackjack player in the state of Missouri knows basic strategy too well. It's like breathing for him. Easier. Perfect basic-strategy players can shave that 5.5 percent edge to almost zero. It's decision-making: Know when to stand, gain 3.2 percent; know when to double down, gain 1.6 percent; know when to split, gain 0.4 percent; know when to hit soft 17's and 18's, gain another 0.3 percent. It's all been worked out for them already. Mathematically. Memorize it. Casino's just happy that most people don't. That most people SWAG.

Some people, the SWAGers, they'll look at a 16 against a dealer's nine, and they'll shrug. They don't know the numbers. Maybe they'll hit; maybe they won't. They don't know themselves. Stupid -- don't they know they have money on the table? Stuart, he knows better. Even basic-strategy players know better.

But they don't know why. Stuart does. The move's already been calculated by the mathematicians. Numbers. Look at them. Wanna stand on the 16? Don't. Dealer's got 566 drawing sequences in a one-deck game. Each needs to be weighted by the probability of its occurrence for the player to find the dealer's chance of busting: It's 0.2304, the math says. It means 0.2304 bets will be won by standing and 0.7696 bets will be lost. What does that mean, money-wise? Subtract 0.7696 from 0.2304 and round to the nearest hundredth, and boom, you'll lose 54 cents on every dollar by standing on a 16 against a dealer's nine.

So why hit on the 16? Same concept but five times more complicated, because for each of the five cards -- ace, 2, 3, 4, 5 -- you can add to the 16 without busting, the dealer's range of probabilities must be determined. And -- know this, now -- there are now two possibilities of winning: a dealer bust and beating the dealer outright with a higher numeric total. Do the math. It's numbers. The answer? You'll lose 48 cents on every dollar by hitting on a 16.

And the lesson? Six cents says to hit a 16 against a dealer's nine. No reason to shrug; the decision's already been made. It's in the numbers.

But not for the SWAGers -- and not for the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri. The SWAGers, they'll guess; they'll go by their gut. Stuart, he won't hit on that 16 if the count, that card-counter's running high-low count, is more than a five. Basic strategy is just even money, if that. Stuart, he makes money. A card-counter. There aren't many like him, but there are too many who think they are.

"The number is in the dozens, maybe hundreds, of people that can actually work their trade to the severe detriment of the casino," remarks Conrad, the industry consultant, "and for every one of those, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands more, who don't have the discipline, don't have the bankroll, don't have the skill and still think that they're excellent card-counters and are certainly profitable for the industry."

Stuart Ziglin, on the other hand, profits from the industry. More than he wants to divulge. He tends to downplay his winnings, though he keeps meticulous track of them. Losing that $3,000 after 12 hours at the Admiral means only as much to him as paying out a jackpot does to Harrah's. The same numbers that say the casino will, when all is told, come out ahead also say that Stuart, when all is told, will bring home tens of thousands of dollars more than he lost in any given year. His aggregate profit from the five St. Louis-area casinos? That number's almost ridiculously high. He sees no gain in spreading it. Suffice it to say, however, that it's enough to keep him out of the poorhouse. Blackjack income, guaranteed as it may be, is still merely supplemental for him. His job as a "customer-relations representative" at a local business -- Stuart doesn't want his employer disclosed -- compensates him well enough. But it doesn't give him half the pleasure he gets from knowing he's beating the casinos at their game. As a card-counter.

Stuart's pleasure, though, isn't always shared by other area counters. Many are reluctant to challenge the St. Louis game, which has steadily stiffened. Counters would much rather find games more favorable to their trade -- in Nevada, in an inexperienced Indian casino, places where card-counting is not legal, the game not protected. "I don't mess around in Missouri. I found it to be a dead end," complains one area card-counter who has been banned from Las Vegas casinos for counting. "I'm very unhappy with the situation. Even though the casinos can't bar you from the game, the gaming commission still gave them the right to put out a game that's unbeatable. Now blackjack's a game for suckers only, and when you're a sucker, they don't need to bar you."

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