The Count

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

"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."

David Terrill

"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.

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.

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