A Card Counter's Vegas Victory

Despite my rather remarkable capacity to concentrate with alcohol in my system, I was struggling to believe my good fortune.
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Avery Cardoza is a renowned gambling expert and the author of many guides to beating the house. His new novel, Lost In Las Vegas, follows two hapless vacationers.

I was a professional card counter. It was 1980 and the casinos weren't savvy about professional 21 players. I was having more than my fair share of good nights at the tables.

My best night was nothing short of unforgettable.

I was making a late-night assault on a casino in downtown Las Vegas -- never mind which one -- and playing conditions were the best I'd ever enjoyed. Single-deck blackjack games were king back then and my skills were particularly deadly against a 52-card pack.

"Two more screwdrivers! Lots of ice!" I shouted as I changed tables, hauling my chips clumsily and playing the drunk, impulsive madman. My bright blue satin shirt glowed under the lights.

They bought my act hook, line and sinker.

Despite my rather remarkable capacity to concentrate with alcohol in my system, I was struggling to believe my good fortune. The dealers were dealing down to the very last card, something that's never done these days. It was early morning and the casino didn't want to lose any hands or time shuffling too frequently in their quest to gobble up all my chips.

Can't say I blamed them. I looked like a lunatic on a mission to give away all my money. I ran from table to table around the semicircular blackjack pit ranting madly, ordering drinks two at a time, chasing hunches, betting erratically, looking, in short, nothing like your average counter. One hand might have $1 bet on it, another $200. I made unorthodox plays that made no sense to the pit boss or dealers and kept them off guard even though they were mathematically based on the six side counts I was tabulating in my head.

Nothing in my play or demeanor suggested to them how deadly I was against a single-deck game.

All smiles, the pit boss and security personnel looked at my huge pile of chips, then at me and licked their chops. What they didn't realize was that, alcohol or not, I could tell you the ranks of the last five or ten cards left in the deck. Before that last card was dealt, I could name it every time.

"That table has bad luck coming! Let's try this one," I yelled, skipping the adjacent table and moving mid-deck two tables away.

My chips were piling up so high that I could no longer carry them all, so I began stuffing them in my pockets. My manic run from table to table had a purpose: When the remaining unplayed cards were favorable, I bet big and when the deck had lots of little cards yet to be dealt, which favored the house, I bet small or simply changed tables. It was blackjack paradise and I was getting away with a huge bet range. The pit boss simply couldn't believe that this hyperventilating, two-drinks-at-a-time maniac was anything but a guy hell-bent on his own destruction.

On one hand, knowing two aces were still in play with barely more than a handful of cards left, I pushed out an extra large bet, hoping to score big with a blackjack. I looked down to see an ace and with anticipation mounting, the second card. Lots of white space, but no, it was a 5. No blackjack, but okay. I drew again, getting the other ace, then a 10 for a hard 17 against the dealer's 10. I motioned for a card. The dealer hesitated, thinking I had made a mistake: You had to be a moron to take a card in this situation. I repeated my hand motion, my gaze apparently distracted by a passing waitress.

As the dealer slid the card off the deck, I screamed, "Stop! Stop! No card!"

It was too late.

The pit boss shrugged his shoulders, but the smug expression on his face clearly signaled his satisfaction at this bonehead move and the house's chance to win my huge bet. Th expression hung there until he saw a lucky four slide off the deck, giving me an unbeatable 21. The pit boss couldn't believe his eyes. What were the chances of my drawing a 4, of all cards? The answer: 100 percent. There were two unknown cards left, one in the dealer's hand and one left to deal. I knew for a certainly that only two 4's had been played, which meant those last two "unknown" cards had to be 4's. The dealer turned over a 14, and after shuffling the discard pile, drew a 5 for a 19. Not good enough.

One hour went by, then two, with my chips piling higher and higher. The smugness of the supervisors turned to alarm and their broad smiles became cold frowns. Soon, more supervisors and security personnel appeared to come out of the woodwork and take an interest in me. I counted eleven of them.

It was time to go.

As their cold frowns morphed into hard stares, I realized that my hot streak had accomplished something I had never achieved: I had emptied the dealer's rack of chips.

After some back and forth action, I made my way carefully to the cage, trailed by a dozen pairs of searing eyes. I dumped the massive pile of chips pressed against my chest onto the counter, then emptied six pockets stuffed full.

I had killed the casino!

The next day, I chose a different shift, but by then the casino had barred me from further play. Within a few months, there wasn't a casino in Nevada that would deal blackjack to me. Banned from plying my trade, I transitioned into writing and publishing gambling books.

The memory of that night remains vivid. Beating the house is always a thrill, but emptying a casino's chip rack? Now that is a beautiful thing!