If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re in a similar position to mine years ago. You may have learned to count cards, browse some blackjack forums, and maybe even spread a little at your local casino. But you’ve never taken the plunge into full time play, or moved up to higher stakes that yield a respectable profit. I was in that state for years before I actually became a profitable advantage player, so I thought it might be interesting to share my story with people who are now where I was then.
I hope you like it.
Like most APs, I started as a card counter. This was a result of a trip to a card room in Washington when I was 18. I had no idea what blackjack was other than the fact that it had something to do with 21. I lost $60 (likely playing horribly), but I was interested in learning more so I decided to look into winning at blackjack. I came across a website that talked about card counting.
That summer, I was able to learn the hi-lo count fairly quickly, and I had basic strategy down cold, but I never learned anything about EV, ROR, BR requirements, N0, or anything else of that nature. I did learn enough to know that I didn’t have enough money to make it worth my time, though. I would take occasional trips with friends, keeping the count and playing basic, and I would simply bet more than minimum when the count was high, with no defined spread or plan. Unfortunately, I was too green to realize the value of the games I was playing at the time, and I didn’t like the thought of risking the small amount of money I had for a small expected hourly profit, so I never really made any money off of them.
Life went on, and I’m sure I went through stretches of a year or two without even playing blackjack or visiting a casino, as I never had enough of a bankroll to make an acceptable hourly profit and had other priorities at the time. My life went in a different direction, and I started and operated a successful business throughout my 20’s, but I was getting burned out. After a lot of personal debate, and now being at a point where I felt I had enough money to make blackjack advantage play worth my time, I decided to put my business on hold and see if I could actually make some real money playing blackjack.
The thought of walking the Vegas Strip while getting paid, and traveling the world while pulling one over on the casinos was a daydream of mine. I wanted to see if it was possible. I never liked visiting casinos for fun, and I never gambled recreationally; my interest was mainly out of curiosity, boredom, and burn out at work. After years of being tied down with business obligations and girlfriends who wouldn’t understand the travel involved, I found myself single, with a reasonable money cushion, and I had just finished up my last “real job” project, with no plans to take on another. It was time.
At this point I had never met anyone who played blackjack or other casino games professionally, and, to be honest, I still wasn’t sure if blackjack was beatable because I hadn’t done much studying beyond the basics of counting. Still, I was lucky to have enough money to learn on my own, time to do it, and some great games to choose from nearby. I studied up a lot more. I came up with a bet spread, EV estimate, and a game plan.
Although I could technically afford more, I decided to start with a spread of $25–$200 on some generously-cut double deck games with very good speed and late surrender. I’m sure I made some mistakes along the way, but the games were strong and my spread was decent for the game strength, I would even wong out regularly, so my hourly EV probably wasn’t too bad. Still, after about two months of playing regularly, I was stuck $8000, plus expenses, not to mention the fact that I was out two months of money it took to support my lifestyle, as I had a house payment and other expenses not related to gambling. Nice start!
Starting off losing only motivated me even more. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue or if I wanted to go back to my “real job” but I was definitely sure I wasn’t stopping until I at least got my $8000 back, because I wasn’t going out a loser. The game I was playing was better than almost anything else I could find, and it was driving distance from my house. I was determined to make it. That’s when I got backed off of the DD game. I wasn’t technically even backed off (they must have liked me); instead they just told all the dealers to give me horrible cuts. Effectively, that game was dead to me.
Instead of playing the worse games in the Pacific Northwest, I decided to schedule my first AP travel trip. I was still stuck about the same amount and wanted to turn a small profit before throwing in the towel. According to Stanford Wong’s Casino Blackjack Newsletter, most of the games I could afford to play in Vegas were shoe games. At the time there were some decent shoe games in Vegas, even S17 LS tables on the main floors of some casinos. I had plans to wong out during bad counts and wong in on some good counts when I could, but when I crunched the numbers I learned that I needed to spread to two hands, increasing my max bets to 2x$200 to get an hourly rate similar to what I enjoyed on the game I started on.
So I was off to Vegas for 10 days, staying wherever was cheap and playing rated in my real name to get comps to help with expenses (I didn’t know any better at the time). This trip is when I finally turned things around, putting my card counting career results into the black. I was a profitable card counter. I don’t remember exactly how much I won, but it was in the low five-figures (probably $13–14K). The win was way over EV for that trip, but I was hooked. I continued that year counting, slowly upping my max bet as I gained more confidence and experience, including many backoffs along the way.
After a number of trips cut short due to heat, backoffs, and 86’ings, I decided that I needed to make counting a low priority and look into other AP methods. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already databased due to the mistake of using my real name while counting. I still make many mistakes and will continue to along the way, but I see them as learning experiences. At that time I still hadn’t met another AP, but in my path to find higher EV in less transparent opportunities, I ended up meeting some like-minded players that made AP even more profitable and enjoyable for me. I haven’t looked back since my first trip to Vegas.
I will never forget attending Max Rubin’s Blackjack Ball for the first time last year and winning the Grosjean Cup in a head-to-head counting battle with John Chang, the former head of the infamous M.I.T. blackjack team. It remains the highlight of my career to date and I honestly never thought I would get this far when I started out. I now enjoy freedom to do what I want, have a very understanding and beautiful girlfriend at home, and make a healthy income off of AP. I also have a lot of good friends and associates that I met along the way. For those of you daydreaming, whether it’s about a career as an AP, or something else, my advice is to go for it! You only live once, what’s the worst that can happen?