Finally, after years of low-limit, “advantage-play”, life-in-a-casino degeneracy, I figured out the ultimate way to beat the casino this afternoon.
Of course, the story starts off that I was minding my own business, playing $5 Spanish 21 in pit 3 (non-smoking) at my nearby Sycuan Casino. I’d been doing this every weekend since I started this blog 5 months ago. I’d already played 10 hours for the weekend, which would likely total up to 20+ hours by Sunday night. Like clockwork, I’d also been toking out $10 per hour, giving each dealer $3 or $4 in $1 chips at the beginning of their push, and letting them play it anyway they wanted to.
I played at Sycuan an average of 4 days a week, for 30-40 hours a week, losing an average of $2/hr, plus toking out $10/hr to the dealers. So it cost me about $400/week, but I considered it cheap entertainment. The casino won $70/week from me, but they threw me about $10/week in loyalty rewards, and another $20-$30/week in food comps. So, my net donation to the casino was about $35/week, or $1/hr. However, there was no getting around the $350/week in dealer tokes ($10/hr). I was there for the socialization, and I wanted to treat the dealers fairly for standing up, dealing 400 hands/hr, putting up with the Idiots who somehow find it eminently reasonable to blame the dealer for their losing the rent money on their bad decisions, like playing with it in the first place. And the casino forces them to be nice to the Morons, by spying on them with secret shoppers, even though they need to be nice to customers to make a living anyways (their paychecks are essentialy $0 after taxes, benefit deductions, and 401k).
In the thousand hours I sat playing Spanish 21 @ Sycuan, I never found a single player that employed basic strategy, or for that matter logical thought, to their gambling. All my publishing of the odds, and my practical examples of 21 hour straight sessions, sometimes coming out ahead, could not convince people to hit a 14 against a dealer 2 or 3, or even to hit a 13 against a dealer 5. Instead, I’d see the same thing that the dealers see every day. People actually trying to figure out what the next card coming out of the shoe would be, or trying to figure out what the dealer down card was. E.g., they say “she (the dealer) doesn’t have it”, and they stay on 15 against a dealer 9. Or they think the dealer “has it”, and they surrender. They clearly know they won’t improve their hand by hitting.
So anyways, I see this crazy behaviour every day, the way the players blame the dealer for drawing to 20, or 21, or otherwise not busting. They anthropomorphize the cards coming out of the shoe as being controlled by the dealer, or the dealer’s properties at the time. “The dealer is hot. I’m going to sit out a few hands.” Or, “the dealer isn’t busting”. But while I enjoyed watching all of this (ok, I felt better about myself when I was playing with these people), I found out that the anger the losing players throw at the dealers ends up being rather hurtful, no matter how experienced the dealer is at handling it. I think a particularly hateful way to treat the dealer is to sarcastically blame them for the losing hands, like “of course you make 21 when I have 20″, and disgustingly and dismissively violently gesture at them. There’s a certain type of personality that ends up doing this when the losses get bad.
Anyways, the dealer has to make a living too, and I could afford to toke, so I do. As I understand it, they’re taxed on about $18/hr in expected tokes, so for a 6-spot table, this works out to be about $3/hr per person. Okay, so I toke at 3x the average. But there’s a lot of people that don’t toke anything, so the average is made up by the people who do. So since I toked $3-$4 on every down, and I could care less what the outcome of a $5 hand was, and I’d have reasonably intelligent discussions with the dealers about anything other than the game itself, and always had a good time playing, it made me a very good customer from the dealer’s perspective. And, as they said, “especially in this economy.”
Ok, so finally, here’s the story I’m trying to get to. No matter how good of a customer you think you are, an occasional moronic floor supervisor will do something completely stupid, and walk over with another floorperson, from another pit in another room, and indiscretely pull you out of your game in front of all the players to warn you about something minor you did in the previous week, or 35 playing hours, and 4 sessions ago. The floor super told me I couldn’t buy surrenders from people, like I’ve described in my previous post. I know they told me not to do this. I refrained from doing it in general. However, when you’re in the middle of a 21 hour session, in graveyard, and you’ve been friendly with the players for hours, and you’re trying to educate them about the game (i.e., teach them not to over-surrender), it feels like a pretty minor offence. Oh, and did I mention, I toke out $10/hr, win or lose?
So, I got pretty angry when they did this happened to me today. I was really tired from my 7 hour session that ended at 3am the night before. I was beside myself that they’d bring up something minor from last week and make a deal out of it. I didn’t like being treated poorly for all the toking that I go out of my way to do. I always state that I’m going to lose $1/hr to the house, and spend $10/hr on the dealers. It’s been my stated policy all the while I’d been putting my 35 hrs/week into the place.
So I got indignant, and sarcastic. I dismissingly agreed that I shouldn’t do it, and returned to my table, upset. Everyone wanted to know what the fuss was about, and I said bad things about the way the house was treating the customers. I told my fellow players that the house treats us poorly, and consider us suckers. So the floor comes back into the picture, and tells me that if I say anything disparaging about the casino, she’ll bar me from playing. Then I said, “please, bar me, throw me out”. She told me just to sit down and play. But I decided right then and there, that was the last thing I was going to do. It was clear that I called her bluff, since they were way out of line relative to my good behaviour, as an extremely loyal regular customer. What casino treats their regular donors like this?! So she walked away, but I remained agitated.
Now, here’s the best angle to shoot when if you’re upset with the casino. Threaten them that you’ll officially self-bar yourself. By law, they have to take you seriously, and they’re all trained how to handle the request, and there’s a formalized procedure for processing it. And the best part is that it’s irrevocable, except for a complicated appeals process that has to go through a state gaming commission hearing. If you’re a good regular, the casino does not want to you threaten the nuclear option. Sign the paper, and they lose revenue. Do it in front of all the other customers, and it’ll put dangerous ideas in their heads. Maybe it is a good idea to self-bar yourself from the casino. I’d probably be better off, and save thousands.
Don’t threaten “I’m never coming back here”. It doesn’t mean much coming from a degen gambler. They send you some loyalty rewards in the mail, and you’re back the next day to redeem them. Sign the “Sycuan Security Self-Exlusion Form”, say for a year, or 5 years, or permanently, and by law, they’ve lost all revenues from you during the exclusion period, or they’re liable for damages and penalties from lawsuits or the state gaming commission. Thank g*d for consumer protection laws.
After the idea came to my mind, it sounded better and better as I thought it over for 30 seconds. I asked the floor supervisor in my pit to sign me up. I could tell he wasn’t happy with my decision, but he had to obey my request. I was going to save countless hours and money, and do something better with my time. After all, there are 10 other places to gamble in town, and most of them are much nicer than Sycuan. It was win-win for me. Why the hell was I toking out so much money in the first place? That visit from the floor supervisor was a wake up call to me. Why was I wasting so much time in that casino? How could I continue donating to a place that scolds you for your loyalty?! I had no choice but to come to my senses. I never would have thought of the self-bar unless I had been riled up by the confrontation, and I never would have executed it unless I did it on the spot, half in anger, half in brilliant insight.
They Sycuan staff were very nice as we started the ball rolling on the self-exclusion process. Security staff came by with the forms, and had me cash out my chips at the table. I think I’m the only person who enacted a one year self-exclusion from the premises while they were winning. I won about $35 in my final session, and $45 from the night before. After coloring-out at the table, security walked me over to the cage to cash out. I toked the cashier as I put my $336 back in my wallet (I bought in for $300). We walked outside, and I filled out the self-exclusion form, and they took a picture of me for their files. Then one of the guards suggested I should cash out whatever cashback I’ve earned on my Club Sycuan loyalty rewards card before they confiscated it. So, they walked me back into the casino, and in fact, we moved to the front of the line at the Club Sycuan desk. They swiped my card, verified my picture ID, and filled out a voucher for $35 cashback. Then security walked me over to the cage again to cash the voucher. A lady saw my security escort and the voucher, put two and two together, and asked me how much I won (she thought the escort was for some big payout). I told her it was for $35, and that she should check her card for cashback awards. The security guard agreed with me, and told her that you never know what you might have accumulated. We didn’t tell her that I was being escorted out of the building, for good.
I knew that security wouldn’t let me make a big show out of walking out with my hands/fist up in the air, celebrating my victory over the g**damn casino, but I knew they knew I was polite, and making the move out of principle. In fact, the guard gave me a few Customer Satisfaction Survey forms, since they knew I wanted to file the reason for my self-bar from the casino. So, I just walked by the tables in pit 3 for a last time, said “goodbye” to the dealers (I know them all on a first-name basis), and waved the Self-Exclusion Form in the air. Everyone in-the-know is familiar with the nuclear option, but I’m sure they’re just a little shocked that I exercised it.
As I walked out of the casino, and through the parking lot for the last time, along the same path I’d followed over a hundred times in the last five months, I breathed in the warm summer afternoon air for the first time. Usually, I made the walk in the dark, cold hours before dawn, after wasting a day or two at the Spanish 21 table. With every step, I was feeling free again, and hours later, I would feel immensely grateful for the day.
I’ve been shooting an angle at the Spanish21 blackjack tables at my nearby Sycuan Casino for the past few weeks, but finally “management” got wise to it, and shut me down :( However, it’s still good, and you’ll probably have the chance to do it yourself, provided your casino isn’t retentive about these types of things.
Here’s how it works. I noticed that people tend to over-surrender at Spanish21, because they get used to surrendering from rescue after double, and they figure if its good then, it must always be good. Of course, there are people that never surrender, even after double (they’d rather redouble a 14 against a dealer Ace), but that’s a different story. So I’d see people surrendering 14 against a dealer Face, and all kinds of nonsense. It was okay to pass chips around the table to back someone’s double, and play someone else’s match, so I figured they’d let me “buy” people’s would-be surrender hands. So, they surrender to me, I pay them half their bet, and they play the hand out for me. I own the hand at this point, and if it wins, I get all the proceeds, including the original bet. It’s very simple in practice. When you see someone start to signal for surrender, you say “I buy” and show them the money. They say, “ok, you buy”, take the chips, and now its your hand. Of course, they have to signal to the dealer for the hit, because of the house rules. Hopefully, you improve the hand with the hit, and stand. If you bust, the player feels good about their surrender. If you win, make sure the player doesn’t feel like a sucker (say something like “I gambo”). This transaction is somewhat normal for the Asian players, because of the concept of “color buy” in Paigow. They’re also very adept at keeping track of various intra-player transactions (e.g., “come-come” bets). With American players, hopefully you can simply explain the proposition. Usually though, just have the right amount of chips ready, and use hand gestures to demonstrate your intentions.
Of course, every such opportunity (except for the 16 & 17 against a dealer Ace) is positive EV. Here’s a few examples of what I was getting before they put the kibash on it:
|16 vs Dealer Face||.516306||0.5||3.26%|
|15 vs Dealer Face||.566478||0.5||13.3%|
|14 vs Dealer Face||.61956||0.5||23.9%|
|16 vs Dealer 9||.546484||0.5||9.30%|
|15 vs Dealer A||.543541||0.5||8.71%|
|doubled 13 vs Dealer 7||.532753 (stand)||0.5||6.55%|
There’s one guy (an Italian guy named Robert), who surrender more than anyone could fathom. We got along well, so he’d gladly surrender to me. Unfortunately, he’s a bad chronic donor, so I didn’t see him enough. Besides, he would have caught on sooner or later.
From the table, the worst offer is the 16 vs. the dealer Face. Of course, it’s the most common opportunity, and only yields 3.26%. That’s a great return, but might be more variance than you like to assume. Maybe you can only buy the small bets on these hands. Anything else is pure gold.
Anyway, the retard floor manager on the day-shift saw me doing it, and sternly told me I couldn’t do it. I guess that means if I continue doing it, I’ll get in more serious trouble. Plus, they’ll probably have a staff meeting / memo on the issue, and all the dealers will be instructed to prohibit it. Geez, what a bunch of killjoys. This was the best thing ever.
I’ve heard all the stories about card-counting, and almost managed to watch the entire movie “21”, but I never really saw how card-counting could help against a 6-deck shoe. Well, since it was really easy to add to my Spanish21 program, I devised a simple hi/lo balanced count:
|2, 3, 4, 5||+1|
|J, Q, K, A||-1|
Next, I wanted to see the correlation between the running count of the shoe, and the expectation value (EV) of the next hand out of the shoe. So I ran the simulator for a million shoes, and plotted the average hand net result vs. the running count:
I was surprised to see the very linear correlation between the running count of the shoe, and the profitability of the next hand out of the shoe. Counting works. I never saw this data before (probably because few people want to see this type of thing), but it’s the clearest way for me to see the benefits of counting. And these results were obtained by playing the unmodified basic strategy for the game. Note that the player has almost a 2% edge when the count is +10. And the game is always profitable when the count is positive. (Oh, if we could only sit out while the deck is negative …) Obviously, results will improve by implementing more complicated counting systems (e.g., true counts, based on shoe depth, modifying basic strategy for the count, etc.). But, it’s nice to know that the most basic type of counting yields a positive edge for the game.
As another simple experiment, I added a simple modified betting strategy based on the count:
|count ≤ -5||0 (sit out)|
|-5 < count < 0||1x|
|0 ≤ count < 10||2x|
|10 ≤ count < 15||3x|
|count ≥ 15||4x|
where a bet of 1x indicates your standard bet, and 2x is twice your standard bet, etc. This simple betting strategy using the simple running hi/lo count, and the unmodified basic strategy made the game net profitable (+0.41% of the 1x bet), vs. the normal -0.45% loss rate.
One of the best games in San Diego is Spanish 21 at the Sycuan Casino. The dealer hits on soft 17, but the player can double a hand up to 3 times. This comes in handy with a game that allows doubling on any number of cards, even after splits. I wrote my own program to find the basic strategy for this game, and verified it through simulation. The game at Sycuan yields a small 0.4% edge for the house. That’s really good, considering normal blackjack yields at least 0.6% house edge, and the carnival games and “bonus” bets yield anywhere from 2%-8%. As far as discount gambling goes, this is as good as it gets … it costs you only $.02 per $5 bet. This level of action will hardly pay for the casino lights ($.02/hand @ 60 hands/hr = $1.20/hr).
Here’s the results I obtained from my program. The table almost exactly with The Wizard Of Odds, except for a few cases like 8-8 vs. a dealer 10 (you should just hit), A-3 vs. dealer 3 (you should just hit), and a three card 10 (e.g., 2-3-5) against a dealer 8 (you should just hit). There’s an inconsequential difference on the after doubling table too.
I wrote the program in C++, and used a recursive algorithm to walk all possible player options and their outcomes against a given dealer upcard. The code is very compact, because of its recursive nature, but it’s a little slow. I speeded up the algorithm a bit by saving intermediate decision EVs, and using them to automatically prune off improbable option branches. For example, it took my Intel-based Mac Mini over 6 minutes to solve the basic strategy play for player 5 6 vs a dealer 2 upcard:
Macintosh:Debug show$ time ./spanish_21 -u 2 5 6 dealerHand: 2 playerHand: 5 6 EV +0.348048 double real 6m15.242s user 6m10.942s sys 0m0.799s