The Count

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

"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.

David Terrill

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."

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."

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