My career in card counting began in a church lobby. A casual conversation led to a meeting which led to joining a team of card-counting parishioners, and together we beat casinos at the game of blackjack from coast to coast for seven years, banked by investors for a million dollars. Casinos would eventually label me the “most notorious card counter in America.” No wonder I had to start wearing disguises.
In 2004, I was fired from my copy editor job. My wife and I had a 2-year-old at the time, and had just found out another was on the way. Maybe I should have suspected something was up. My desk had moved four times in four months, most recently into a storage closet.
Just as I started my job hunt, my car died on the side of the freeway on the way to an interview. This was the car my wife and I drove from our Texas wedding to a new life in Seattle, Washington. This was the car we’d driven home from the hospital when our son was born. I watched the salvaging company truck tow it away.
I happened to read a book called “Bringing Down the House,” which told the story of a team of MIT students who bested casinos by using counting strategies at blackjack. The game was beatable and doing so was completely legal. Players gained an advantage by using simple math. Card counting — what if?
I didn’t tell anyone I was looking into card counting, which was well enough. I had trouble finding any reliable information. I tracked down some rudimentary charts. I made a few flash cards, crammed numbers into my brain as best I could, and off I went to the casino. I happened to win, and took a crisp new 100-dollar bill to church to pay off a debt to a friend, but also to do a little bragging about how I had won it. I was waiting for Jim’s jaw to drop, but he seemed nonplussed.
“So, you know Ben then?” he said. Apparently, this church already had a card counter, and he was in my friend’s Bible study group. “He’s done well for himself,” said Jim. “I think he’s buying a house.”
Ben was doing more than buying a house. He was putting a team together. Card counters often form teams to pool money and resources, train and test one another, share the emotional burden of big wins and losses and even to work in tandem beating the game. I decided this was the job I wanted. I was tired of down job markets, low wages, high turnover and inflexible work hours. My wife and I were both tired of falling asleep at the dinner table.
“There was no limit to the number of hours I could play. The office was always open because casinos never close.”
I hadn’t spent much time in casinos, but I liked the idea of facing off against corporate Goliaths. Perhaps the pastor’s kid in me spied an escape from principled conformity, even if it was a little less punk rock and a little more math.
This was not gambling in the traditional sense. If I played right and put in the time, winning was a statistical given. Further, I wouldn’t be putting my own money on the line. Our team was fully funded by investors (mostly friends and family of the team managers) to the tune of seven figures.
I got right to learning and practicing — memorizing perfect basic strategy, learning to keep the count accurately, incorporating deviations from basic strategy when the changing count called for it, betting appropriately and dealing with any other oddities or distractions that popped up. After untold thousands of practice hands, I took a final test and joined the team.
My work order was straightforward. I was handed tens of thousands of dollars in cash and directed to the casino to play beatable blackjack. I was to record my results and bring back any winnings.
Compensation was not dependent on winning. Ten to fifteen percent of the expected return went into my pocket at the end of every session. Based on our bankroll and betting blueprint, I pocketed $20-40 an hour playing local Washington State casinos. In Vegas, I was looking at upwards of $100 an hour or even more.
There was no limit to the number of hours I could play. The office was always open because casinos never close. If the cable bill was due, I could tuck the family into bed and pay it the same night. I could fly off to a casino destination for a weekend of work, and return to be stay-at-home dad with the kids for my wife’s 9-5 work week. My wife and I were excited about what this could mean for our family.
Winning at blackjack demands pinpoint perfection. In learning to count cards, you are trained to follow a number as it rises and falls from one moment to the next. Each card that is dealt brings new information, changing how you bet and how you play your hand. Other numbers are involved—fractions, estimation, division. You have to process the information without missing a card or being derailed by distractions. Have you ever been to a casino? Distractions are everywhere.
At least I was not venturing into card counting alone. I had two managers and between 12 and 20 teammates at any given time. Loosely modeled after the MIT team, we were bonded in beating the casinos.
Ben’s house operated like a 24-hour training headquarters. Players dealt cards at the dining room table. New recruits were put through the rigors of training. People came and went. The basement fridge was stocked with cold drinks. The trampoline in the backyard was full of kids begging to be launched.
We talked through any moral scruples that came up. Some of us were more uncomfortable than others about having to be in casinos, where the air was always permeated with glitz, greed, smoke and all manner of vice.
As part of a faith tradition, how were we serving “the least of these” that Jesus spoke about by beating casinos? It remained an open question.
In playing a game — and doing so in a way that was largely frowned upon — what was my service to society? I decided early in my venture that I was able to provide for myself and my family, which was plenty.
We were a team, but mostly we took our trips and played our sessions alone to maximize the return and avoid being identified together. I had a routine of tucking my kids into bed on school nights and driving to play at the nearby casinos. By the time I returned home, the kids had usually crawled into our bed, leaving no space. I tiptoed over Lego-covered floors, climbed up tiny ladders, and squeezed into whichever child-sized loft bed was available to me.
An hour or two later, it was time to wake up and make school lunches, which, if the kids were lucky, included whatever comped food I had brought home the night before — pizza, sub sandwiches, chicken strips, bags of potato chips. To date, no casino has ever comped me Lunchables and juice boxes.
Finally, I was able to pay the bills on time. I could choose the days and times I worked and how many hours I put in each month. I had more time to spend with my family. The work was never boring.
Card counting is completely legal. Nevertheless, casinos have the right to refuse service. When they decided I represented a threat to their bottom line, they often asked me to stop playing. In card counting, this is called a “back-off.” They can be nice, they can be mean.
In Palm Springs, they snatched my ID and refused to give it back. In Washington, they refused to cash me out. In Chicago, they used physical force to try and prevent me from leaving the casino until I had “signed some papers.” For the most part, they know better than to get themselves sued, but they have crossed lines.
Casinos also share information to one or another national database. “Flyering” is when a casino creates a wanted poster with a player’s picture and information and sends it to other casinos to be on the lookout. At Caesar’s Palace one night, I saw my face on a piece of paper coming out of a fax machine.
The practice of disguising myself began the first time I ever donned a baseball cap on my way into the casino. I traveled with very different sorts of looks and did wardrobe changes in the backseat of my rental car. I rolled into town like a greasy Harley-riding metalhead. I returned to the tables a second time looking like your neighbor’s geeky accountant. Casinos rarely put the pieces together.
I kept at it. I liked traveling, I liked beating the game and sticking it to the casinos. I had the tolerance to wait patiently for the cards to turn my way through wild losing streaks, and to put up with the ire of pit bosses and superstitious players.
I had just been told to leave a Vegas casino one day, when I heard my name being yelled from across the casino. I turned around to see a man in a ZZ Top beard and denim vest coming my way. He had one arm and he extended it to shake my hand. “You must be pretty good at what you do,” he said.
“Not at the moment,” I said.
He introduced himself as head of surveillance. Not for one casino, but the whole chain. “No need to introduce yourself, of course,” he said. “I’ve known you for a while.”
He could name every session I had ever played at his casinos. He spoke with a twinkle in his eye. He wasn’t shaking me down or sizing me up. He wanted to live vicariously through stories of a working card counter. He even offered tips for ducking security at his casinos.
Our team stayed in contact with him. It wasn’t much later that he passed a piece of information to us. The premier tracking and investigation force, the Griffin Agency, had bestowed upon me a title: Most Notorious Card Counter in America. All told, I played more hours and won more money than anyone on my team — approaching $1 million.
In 2011, a documentary film about The Church Team was released (“Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians”) and our team soon ended. In time, one of my former managers would build a successful business around training newcomers to beat the game. After a half-century of tomfoolery on the part of casinos attempting to prevent card counters, the game remains beatable.
My stint as a card counter on one of the biggest teams in recent history lasted six years. I found a work environment rich in camaraderie and never short on excitement. I learned how to structure my work life more efficiently. I was no longer exhausted or distracted in the same way as a parent. I experienced the benefits of investment in real time. I learned how to weather the extreme highs and lows, known as variance (big wins and losses). But above all, I learned from card counting how to pay better attention — starting with cards, but extending to the people in my life, to myself and to who I was as a person.
And since I was a writer before I was ever a blackjack player, I considered my odd engagement as a down payment on some future collection of my stories.
Sure enough, away from blackjack, I have since turned back to my writing. But the lure of blackjack remains. Many players burn out, but I never got tired of beating the game. When my former manager Colin built a blackjack boot camp for aspiring counters, he called on me to help teach in front of packed rooms and at makeshift blackjack tables.
On weekends in Vegas, I train prospective players how to square off against the casinos. They love seeing the surveillance photos of me in various disguises. They love the wild tales. And when someone invariably asks me if I will ever play again, the answer is always yes.