The Count

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

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.

David Terrill

He knows the count. At any time in the shoe, he knows how many paints are left, how many aces are left, even how many fours are left. But those data are secondary now. Extraneous. The information is lodged in the recesses of his mind; he can bring it out when he needs it, but usually he doesn't. He's not a card-counter, he's a card-tracker. "You track the game; you don't count cards," he says. "You track the whole game." His mind, it's always been more analytical than mathematical. Those cards on the table, they represent information. Not single bits of information but information as a whole. To analyze. Together, the cards are a picture, not a sentence to be read left to right. And that picture, that picture of information on the table, blends so easily with the bigger picture of the previous hands already in his mind. Like pouring water into more water.

Not even 9 o'clock yet; only been here since half-past 7. One thousand seven hundred and fifty. Stuart's down $1,750. He has $50 left from that stake of $1,800. Needs to make that $50 last. Still another hour before he can cash in another $500. Uh-oh. Count's high. Means a maximum bet. Two chips in the betting circle. Boom. Fifty dollars becomes $100. Two chips become four. Maybe the cycle's changing. It changes that quickly. Just survive this shoe. If he can just survive this shoe without cashing in more $100 bills, things might begin to look up. End of shoe. Stuart has an even $600. Not bad, but not good for being $1,800 in.

But Stuart believes. He believes in the cycle. Knowing the cycle, he says, is being in tune with the deck. Know that the cycle will change. In every session, the cycle will change; it's just up to the player to stick the session out. When there's a good cycle from the first shoe, that means a short session. No reason to keep playing and wait for an unfavorable cycle. It's about making money, not having a good time. Not about socializing with the damn dealer. If he wanted a good time, he'd take Karen out. Not be at a damn casino. But if the unfavorable cycle hits first, be ready for the grind.

Keep playing, keep playing. Six shoes later, he's got $975. Back down to $250 after another four shoes. Up to $1,250. He's broken $1,000. Up to $1,750. Only $50 dollars away from his stake. If he was chasing, he'd get up, wouldn't he? But he's not chasing. Twelve shoes later, Stuart plummets again to $250. He had been holding steady with a grand, but that last shoe. That last shoe. Lost all his big bets, $750 in one shoe. Lost $200 on a 17 against two queens for the dealer. Another $150 on a 20 with the dealer showing a stiff 13 and then pulling the only card that could beat him, a damn eight. Two hundred again -- he stood on a 14 with the dealer showing a two; flipped over the 10 hiding underneath and then pulled a five to beat him with a 17. And once more, $200 -- dealer pulled a three-card 21 against Stuart's 18.

Lord, this isn't looking good. Those last three hands, that's what got him. He wishes he weren't here. This isn't fun. For a Thursday night. Or is it Friday morning now? Guess there's a reason they don't have clocks in casinos. He has the day off tomorrow.

Blackjack, it's not important. Stuart knows it's not important. He doesn't need their money. If he never went to a casino again, it wouldn't hurt him none. Wouldn't even bother him -- at least not the money part. 'Cause he hates casinos. Made up a whole damn motto about them, and he'll repeat the thing to anybody who'll listen: Casinos, "they promote fun, games, winning, good times, but what they're selling is devastation, despair, bankruptcy, misery and addiction." Yep, that's it. Truer than hell, too. Sure, he'll get the words mangled sometimes, forget a noun or two, but he'll say the same thing. Every time, every time. Just ask him. Look at the people in here -- look at them. Revolting is what they are.

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