The Count

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

He's tired. He's too old for this. He, Stuart Ziglin, the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri. Too old. Got him smelling like a filtered Camel Wide, he'd been in there so long. How many did he smoke? He's got to stop. Fifteen? Twenty? Thirty? Who knows? He smoked more cigarettes than he won chips tonight, he knows that much. Dumb game. Can never figure it out. It's that randomness. That blackjack randomness. 'Cause he made all the right moves. Split all the right pairs. Doubled down when he should've. Bet the table limit when the count was right. Stayed on a 15 with the dealer showing paint; hit on a 15 with the dealer showing paint. He wasn't guessing on the table; he wasn't going by feel. As far as he's concerned, those feel players -- most everybody else out there -- might as well give their chips to the dealer before the game even starts if they're gonna do that, if they're gonna go by feel. Even made up his own word for what they do: SWAGing -- scientific wild-ass guessing.

No, the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri would never be a SWAGer; he calculated his moves tonight at downtown's President Casino on the Admiral the way he always does. He knew precisely what move to play. It was just that randomness that did him in tonight. And that six-deck shoe. And the cycle. He was just on a bad cycle. Give him a two-deck game, no middle-deck cut, head-on against the dealer, and watch out. Let him double down on split pairs and surrender early? He'd be greased clockwork, a Baptist preacher given a locked church and a full congregation, Gore Vidal writing American history; shoot, he wouldn't even feel as if he was working for his money anymore. St. Louis had something close to that two-deck game once upon a time, some five, six years ago -- was a candy store, is what it was, but no use even thinking about that now. Won't happen again, now that counting cards is legal.

But, Lord, he's too damn old for this. This: riding home from a casino in the dead of night. Missing his wife. Missing dinner. Chewing on the same soft candy he feeds his horses. Karen had said she was going to cook tonight. And when she says she'll cook, she wants him to be there. He meant to be there. He had told her so before he left. It was going to be a short session, honey, he'd said. She'd been half-asleep on the couch when he said it, so maybe she hadn't heard. But he had anticipated the quick in-out. A solid grand or so up, of course. And now look at him. A dozen hours later, past midnight. Slurped down a heap of cold pasta topped with oily string- bean stir-fry in the President's poker room. The wad in the Montana silver money clip Karen gave him now 30 $100 bills thinner. Whew, that's three grand.

He shouldn't have gone to the ATM. He was chasing. No, no, he wasn't chasing. The best blackjack player in the state of Missouri never chases. Every time he gets up from the table, it's a whole new game. Even this loss -- it's not even really a loss. He's just taking a break. And then he'll be back to recoup. He has to ... because Stuart, he doesn't lose. He gets hives; he gets sick. It's the truth -- Karen'll attest to that. Losing -- it makes him psychologically ill. And when something makes you ill, you just don't do it. Simple as that.

He did, once -- lose, that is. But now ... now the numbers won't let him lose. And the casinos, they know it. If blackjack is anything, it's a game of numbers. And Stuart took their numbers. Their edge. Tonight, though, just has him feeling rough. Blinking sleep from his eyes, flying west down Highway 40, peering stiffly through the windshield to where the pickup's headlights are muted by night. Gas pedal pressed down and engine revving faster, faster, he hasn't even made it across the Missouri River yet. Faster. This is just too long of a drive, especially when he has to work early tomorrow. Casino's valet parking didn't help either -- took a good 20 minutes to bring the truck around. He just wants to get home and crawl in bed with Karen. She's probably asleep. He needs to call her: "Karen? Hi, hon, yeah, I'm on my way home ... OK, bye." Yep, he woke her up, but she didn't mind; she never does. What would he do without Karen? That scamp Arnold's probably in bed with her now. In his spot, more'n likely. Dog shows no respect. No respect. Came over three weeks ago from across the street, refused to go home and, his first night as a Ziglin, he claimed the bed. Typical Ziglin animal, that Arnold -- Frankie, the chocolate poodle, uses a fork to eat; the barn cat has a damn litter box and is afraid of mice.

It must've been that poker game. Seven-card hold-'em. Twenty-forty. Should've never sat down. Took him close to six hours to win $350. Could've won triple that in a third the time if he'd had the right cycle in blackjack downstairs. But no, he played hold-'em till the river's surface outside turned from gnarled bark to black emptiness. Then the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri went downstairs and sat down at a six-deck table. Wrong move. Bad cycle, bad cycle. And too late, much too late to start on a Sunday night. Funny, he never gets like this -- feeling old, that is -- till he's out of a casino. Just like he never gets religious till he's in one. What's that they say? The only difference between a preacher and a gambler is that when a gambler prays, the gambler actually means it. Ha. Stuart likes that one, 'cause he's been known to get damned religious sitting at a blackjack table, and, hell, he hasn't ever been no preacher man. He'll preach to his cards, maybe ... yeah, Stuart Ziglin'll preach to his cards, though most people, they don't know nothing 'bout that -- isn't a secret, but no point in bragging about it. Losing that three grand tonight isn't anything to brag about, either. Home's coming up, though -- too tired to think; just wanna push that Arnold out of the way and sink into bed. That's right, just sink into bed.

Think about the numbers tomorrow.

Harrah's Casino in Maryland Heights won't let the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri through its doors, much less play the game; maybe it's how well he knows the numbers. Those blackjack numbers. They used to let him play. He'd be there all the time. Even the Remington "Mountain Man" on his fireplace was inspired by the casino -- Karen bought that sculpture after she saw him admiring it in Harrah's lobby. He's had his fair share of losses at Harrah's. But then he tweaked his system and had more than his fair share of wins. Next thing he knew, he wasn't allowed inside. It was "a business decision," the casino told him, when such business decisions were legal.

Can't really say what Harrah's has against him now, though. Now, when those types of "business decisions" aren't exactly legal anymore. It's not that he's counting cards, they say. But they won't let him in. Now it's on a technicality he thinks is fabricated. He didn't even sue them; a few years back, he did sue Players Island for not letting him play blackjack. And, sure, Players may have been bought out by Harrah's last March, but still ... he doesn't have anything against Harrah's. And the lawsuit never made it to a jury. He would have won it if it did -- that's what his lawyer told him. The lawsuit paid off anyway. They changed the law, the state did. All because of him and his lawsuit. It's right there, spelled out bright and clear, under the Conduct of Gaming: card counting (without any assistance) "shall not be considered cheating" effective Aug. 30, 2000. Official-sounding and everything. But those people at Harrah's, they still won't let him inside.

The man knows his numbers. A card-counter. No, a card-tracker. He's better than a card-counter. Counting cards? It's pie. Takes practice to make good pie, though. "It was over and over and over, working with one deck, working with two decks, and then going to play," Stuart says. "It's a tremendous amount of training, but it's mental, more than anything else. You have to really stay in tune to what you're doing and really want it to happen, and what fuels the fire is winning and that you have the possibility of being rewarded greatly for your efforts."

The essentials of Stuart's efforts: To assign mental values to different groups of cards in the deck and, more important, to allow those assigned values to guide betting strategy. The simplest method: Low cards (twos through sixes) are one; neutral cards (sevens through nines) are zero; high cards (tens and aces) are negative one. Numbers. It's about numbers for Stuart, not luck. The concept: Bet high when the count's high, bet low when the count's low. Nothing to it -- when Stuart's doing the counting. Mix the right numbers with the right amounts of money; make money. The numbers, they say so.

The theory: Blackjack, it's organic. Unlike other casino games, the odds in blackjack are constantly changing as the game progresses. With each card dealt, the composition of the deck changes. And Stuart, he knows only too well that blackjack's changing odds naturally lend themselves to sometimes favoring the player, sometimes the house. For the player, "sometimes" is 14 percent of the time. For the house, it's 86 percent. Stuart, like any trained card counter, capitalizes on the 14 percent with increased bets, thereby turning the standard house edge of about 1.25 percent -- statistically speaking, the casino's guaranteed minimum -- into his own edge of 1.25 percent. It's almost as if they have to pay the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri to play the game. Taking the casino's edge is no insignificant accomplishment. Consider the fact that blackjack players at Harrah's bet $5.6 million in January alone.

Consider further Harrah's assertion to the Missouri Gaming Commission last year when the casino industry argued against legalizing card-counting. A typical $25 blackjack table at Harrah's, they said, operates for about 580 hours a month and seats an average of four players. Assuming 80 betting decisions are made per hour, bettors make 46,400 bets at the table each month. With the standard 1.25 percent house edge and an assumed $37.50 average bet, the table expects to take at least 47 cents from each player per bet, which, for Harrah's, translates into a $1,044,000 expected yearly take for each table. However, if card-counters such as Stuart flipped the house's 1.25 percent edge as one of the four players, Stuart, assuming 40 hours of play per month, would pocket more than $36,000 a year from that one table.

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

And to the captains of the casino industry, he's an advantage player. Harrah's reported to the gaming commission that two such advantage players had been identified by staff at their casino in Maryland Heights. Stuart knows he was one of them. He also knows that Harrah's -- and every other casino -- wants to stop him and every other card-counter.

"If counting cards was as far as it went, then fine," rails Steve Browne, former owner and general manager of Cactus Jack's casino in Carson City, Nev. "The problem is, when you get an advantage player, they'll push you in every form, fashion, corner, inch. They'll get every inch they can take, and if, all of a sudden, you say, 'Oh well, we'll let counters play, it's only fair,' next thing you know, the counters will want to bring computers to the table; maybe they'll want to tape the game so they can practice; they'll want you to change the betting limits to let them bet way up high when the count's good and $1 when it's not." In Vegas, they kick counters out; in Atlantic City, where, as in Missouri, counting has also been legalized, industry countermeasures have harmed the game, slowing it down with deep-shoe cuts and more shuffling and taking away of excitement by decreased bet spreads.

"Casino thinking is typically short-term, and they don't want anybody to be able to beat them," says Dennis Conrad, president and chief strategist of Raving Consultants, a Nevada-based casino marketing firm. "And my beef with the industry is, here you've created a game, everyone likes it, you're making money on it, and when someone beats you fair and square, you bar them. I don't think it's fair. And the industry's take is, 'Gee, if we let those people play, enough of them would play that it wouldn't make it profitable for me, so they'd force me to me change the rules of the game, which would hurt it for everybody, so let me bar those people.'"

As for the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri and his relations with Harrah's, where he can't be barred?

"I can assure you, he's not barred because of counting cards," says Joel Rovics, the casino's marketing director. No matter that before he was barred, Stuart was on a winning streak so sweet that it was just plain lucky he wasn't a diabetic.

Rovics and Xenia Wunderlich, Harrah's director of table games, make a convincing pair seated in an upstairs office in the Harrah's hotel. Earnestly they outline the company rhetoric: that the Harrah's product is entertainment, that theirs is a frequency market depending not on big wins from high rollers but on steady cash from satisfied -- hence frequent -- players, that their 40 blackjack games mirror this company policy. Wunderlich and Rovics both assert -- and proudly so -- that Harrah's encourages players to win money. That means no ominous pit bosses here at Harrah's. No stern floor managers who seep forward, nervously twitching with concern, as player bets creep higher and the stacks of house chips get lower. Harrah's employees, in fact, are specifically instructed to laud winners. Each floor employee, says Wunderlich, is trained in the art of the high-five and other, more creative forms of celebratory gesticulation. And card-counters? They're apparently more than welcome at Harrah's. "It's not a big deal; it's never been a big issue." That's Rovics' take. "We've never even spent any time thinking about that." In fact, Harrah's policy toward card-counters has been, in order to avoid interrupting the flow of the game, simply to let them play. "There's nothing we can do," says Wunderlich.

But maybe, just maybe, Stuart knows too many secrets to be let loose in Harrah's. That's what he thinks. He should -- he's been gambling for the last 40-something years, and it could be reasonably extrapolated that he knows his way around a casino. And that $36,000, it's no small number. But this, this is perplexing. Humorous, almost. They just refuse to let him in.

Any attempt normally results in a half-hour wait and a few transfers of authority before a games supervisor politely informs him that he won't be playing at Harrah's.

"Looks like last time you were here, you failed to show ID, sir."

"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."

"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.

"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."

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.

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.

They disgust him. Like the fellows sharing this table with him. Get excited every time they win a hand. Losers, all of them. Wandering around like they lost something. Well, they have. Casino's the only place in the world where people plan to lose money. "I'm only gonna lose $200," they'll say. Makes no sense. So he'll say: "The point is to win money ... there is no other point." What else do they say? He's heard it so many times. "I had a good time," that's what they'll say. "I won about $800, and then, you know, I did this and I lost it back, well, I kinda broke even and we had dinner and actually I only ended up spending about $200." That's how they say it. Every time, just like that. Run-on sentences and everything. Stupid ... they didn't win anything. Don't they know that? And not one of them has a smile on his face.

Hell, he was like that, too ... once. Nothing but a loser. Won more $1,000 bills than he could squeeze into a money clip one night in Vegas. Dropped it in a week. That was more than 20 years ago. A loser. For all the games he played, not just blackjack. But especially blackjack. Blew his whole bankroll too many times to remember. One time, when he was just a kid, he dropped everything but his last 20. Sat down at the bar, had himself a drink. All he had was that $20 bill and his plane ticket home. Guy came up, said he was selling neckties. He said, "Wanna tie, kid? Five dollars a tie." Just like that. Wasn't thinking; he told the guy, "Sure, sure, I'll take a tie." Gave him his 20. Guy gives him five ties and says, "Here, kid, take five." Walked off with his 20 quicker than a sneeze, left Stuart with a plane ticket home and five ties. Too many stories; he's got too many stories.

Gambling was his life once; now blackjack is his second job. That's all it is.

But a second job that's making him work harder than he should tonight. Two-fifty? Ludicrous. He's been here more than five hours now. Should've left when he made his stake back. Was only $50 away. No, no, what's the point in that? The point is to win money. Intestinal fortitude, that's what it takes. Most folks don't have it. But he does. Who could put the table limit on a hand, lose it, put it on the next hand, lose it, and put it on the next hand again, if the count's right? Not many people. But he could. That's what this game takes. Intestinal fortitude. Trust the numbers. Don't fight them. Trust them. Because that's what the game is ... numbers.

Tired again. The best blackjack player in the state of Missouri, he's gone now. Back on the highway. Back to Karen. A bit later this time than the last. Four-thirty in the morning. Had to go. Casino shut down. There's 55 $100 bills in his Montana silver money clip. Mediocre night. Cycle finally went his way. Knew it would. He'll be back. Place even money on that. There's still money to be made.

Because numbers, the numbers don't ever change.

"People with a considerable amount of money that are comfortable in their lifestyles, if you ask them the question, 'Would you rather have happiness or money?' what do you think the psychological effect of that answer is on the person?" Stuart asks rhetorically. "I'll tell you. They would stop and think and say, 'I wouldn't be happy living any other way other than the way I'm living now.' So, to answer the question, I would rather have money, because the money contributes to making me happy ... that's what it means to me."

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

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