Counting on Strategy

For those of you who follow the financial pages, you know that last month, the Tropicana in Atlantic City reported that it actually LOST money on its blackjack tables.  This is not a common occurrence.  In fact, it may never have happened before for such a sizable casino.  At the time, they reported that a single Player had won about $5 million dollars playing hands of about $100,000 per hand.  The casino tried to chalk this up to 'bad luck' (on their part).  My first reaction when I read the story was either cheating or counting.

This week, the Press of Atlantic City reported that this same Player had taken two other casinos for several million as well.  They also identified (and interviewed) the Player.  His name is Don Johnson (no, not the one from Miami Vice).  He is the CEO of a company that uses computer-assisted wagering programs for horse racing. Hmmm?!

Mr. Johnson states in the article that he does not cheat.  He simply beats the casino using his skill and a sufficiently sized bankroll.  He also freely admits that in between his wins he's had some significant losses, but he declines to talk about the size of those losses.  Having no reason to doubt him and realizing that his story is quite plausible, I believe we may have stumbled upon one of the best Blackjack Players in the world.

I'm sure that Mr. Johnson has no idea who I am and I'm certainly not suggesting that he endorses any of my strategies, but his story still reinforces so much of Expert Strategy that I felt the need to comment.

Mr. Johnson knew which game to play - Blackjack.  Blackjack affords the player the opportunity to earn a payback of 99.5% by playing proper basic strategy - which is really not all that hard to learn.  Many casinos will even allow Players to have strategy cards with them as long as it doesn't slow up the game.  

Mr. Johnson clearly knew the right strategy to play.  I have no doubt that he knows basic strategy and then some.  Even without card counting, there are some subtle strategy points that an expert would utilize that the average Player would not.  However, these will NOT turn the game positive.  The only way a Player might be able to turn the tables on the casino is to count cards and to adjust both the wager size and the hit/stick strategy accordingly.  Of course, let's not kid ourselves.  This will NOT turn Blackjack into a 105% game.  With just the right changes, a Player might be able to flip the advantage to his own direction - i.e. 100.5%.

That brings me to the other key point that Mr. Johnson raises in his interview.  He was properly BANKROLLED.  Playing a 100.5% or even a 102% game does not mean that the Player will always win or that his session will go in only one direction.  Just as easily as a Player can win playing a 99.5% game, he can lose playing a 100.5%.  However, when you are playing a 100.5% game, you know that the longer you play, the more likely you are going to win.  So, the key is making sure your bankroll lasts long enough to sustain you through a rough patch.  If you're planning on playing $100K per hand, you better show up with more than $1 million.

It took a great deal of knowledge and discipline for Mr. Johnson to do what he did.  Many have tried a variety of card counting schemes with some success, but not too many are known to have taken the casinos for as much as $15 million.  Of course, a portion of this may have been an element of surprise.  The casinos did not know who he was or what he was capable of, so they gladly let him throw his 100K down at a time and probably figured they were about to make a lot of money.

The casinos were so unprepared that at least one of them agreed beforehand to forgive 20% of his losses.  So, if he had walked away down $2 million, they would have given him $400K back.  Clearly the casinos did not do their homework on this guy.  Kind of like facing Nolan Ryan in his prime and saying he can start the count at 0-1!