The Count

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

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

At the Ameristar Casino in St. Charles, Stuart sometimes faces the one countermeasure that will make all his numbers meaningless -- they'll shuffle the deck every time he raises his bet. Less than two weeks ago, Stuart visited the casino after work. He had a hot night, even by his standards, and decided to take the next day off work and bring Karen along to the casino. He won $650 before lunch, took a break and sat back down. A few hours later, the table dealer had to call for a new rack of house chips -- Stuart had emptied the first rack.

Then the shuffling began. Ameristar had no intention of allowing Stuart to deplete the second one.

Shuffling after an increased bet is an industry measure intended to deter card-counters such as Stuart by irritating them rather than to serve as a long-run solution. In fact, two Atlantic City casinos tabulated the cost when they tried the same experiment against card-counters; in 13 days, the casinos lost $1.4 million more than the previous 13 days, not to card-counters but to the time spent shuffling instead of accepting bets. "Time is the ally of the casino, the enemy of the player," says Conrad. "Anything that they do that takes more time costs them more money. I think it's a fair question to ask whether casinos are shooting themselves in the foot with countermeasures. They're taking more time and getting fewer decisions, which cost money because that law of probability doesn't grind away at the players."

If Harrah's chose to shuffle after every hand, as Ameristar occasionally does, the result, as with the Atlantic City experiment, would be much more drastic. In testimony before the gaming commission, Missouri Gaming Association representatives cited Harrah's numbers showing that the shuffling tactic would drop bets per hour from 80 to 26 and decrease revenues by $49,000 per year for each table, assuming an average bet of $37.50 and 40 hours of play per month by a card-counter. If Harrah's chose to combat card-counters such as Stuart with a more subtle tactic -- deep-cutting each shoe -- which would also mean more time spent on shuffling, the casino could expect to lose $11,000 per year for each table under similar circumstances, because the bets made per hour would be reduced by 12, from 80 to 68. Either way, the casino loses money. The question is whether the counter is worth the tactic.

By allowing a counter of Stuart's caliber to play, Harrah's would be struggling to stay perched on a tenuous middle ground -- somewhere between conservative blackjack rules that would decrease Stuart's edge on the tables and liberal rules that would keep normal patrons, the SWAGers, content; somewhere between rules that would statistically prevent Stuart from making regular killings and rules that would prevent the casino from maximizing profits with its time-and-volume formula. "The casinos created the game; they've got a game, they've got rules to the game; people come and play by the rules," Conrad continues. "I think all the arguments the casinos have around the card-counting issue are camouflaged by the fact that they don't want to change the game and deal with it. That's all they really need to do, change the game into something else. But now they're afraid that by changing the game, they're gonna run off all the other players that they've created who aren't expert players, that won't like the rule changes. So they're caught in the middle, so they gotta come up with these bogus arguments about providing a service and economic drain. It's real simple: If they don't want a game that doesn't have opportunity for a player to beat them, don't provide it."

Tired; he's tired again. The best blackjack player in the state of Missouri is sitting hunched forward, elbow balanced on the edge of the blackjack table, chin balanced on the palm of his hand. Wearing wide-framed glasses, lenses tinted dark brown. His right leg straddles the supporting beam under the table; his left leg is on the floor. He can keep this posture for hours. No problem. This, this is ready position for Stuart. He's down big tonight. This time, at Ameristar in St. Charles. He's a regular here. He knows the dealers; he knows the pit bosses. And, because they know him, they know damn well he won't be down when he decides to leave. But he's down; he's down big. Hasn't been here an hour yet, and he's already down a good $800. It's one of those cycles. Looks as if it'll be a grind tonight, just a grind. Nothing to do really but pull out another grand. Nothing to do but keep grinding.

He's playing a two-deck shoe. Minimum bet, $25. Maximum bet, only $200. For each shoe, half the deck is dealt, the other half burned. No early surrender. No doubling down on split pairs. All rules -- the low bet spread, the middle-deck cut, the double-down limitation -- to thwart card-counters; all rules designed to thwart him. But Stuart, he doesn't mind. His system, it's fine-tuned. There's a reason for everything he does. A numerical reason.

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