May 23

ThePOGG Interviews – Ken Smith Blackjack Tournament Expert

Posted by THEPOGG in Blog.

Ken Smith and Penn Jillett

Ken Smith is a man of many talents. A successful advantage player, considered to be one of the most talented casino tournament players of all time and the owner of several very successful gambling related websites. Ken’s BlackjackInfo.com site was one of the best Advantage Play communities on the web and a resource I used regularly during my playing days.

Ken has generously volunteered his time to answer some questions for us on a wide variety of topics spanning his experiences gambling both on and offline.

You’ve discussed in the past that as a teenager you self-taught yourself programming. What was it about programming that specifically interested you? Can you tell us about some of the early programs you wrote?

I always liked puzzles and games, and programming was just another kind of puzzle to me. Personal computers were pretty new at the time, and I first learned to program in BASIC on the Radio Shack TRS-80 machines. Later I learned assembly language programming for the 6809 processor using the Radio Shack Color Computer. I did a lot of graphics programming, and some games. I created a version of the arcade game Robotron just to see if I could do it.

In one of the most interesting projects from that time, I created a program which took a piece of writing from an author and created new random text that sounded like the original author. The sentences would be complete nonsense, but it was surprising how much the nonsense sounded like the original writer. I fed it works by Faulkner, Twain, and lots of others. Now I wish I had saved some of its creations.

I extended that idea to music, taking a piece of music and creating a new random piece that was statistically based on the note patterns in the original. They generally sounded awful, but I have to admit… Feeding in Vivaldi created awful but baroque-sounding pieces.

You’ve stated that your fascination with programming and mathematics were a great asset when you became interested in Advantage Play gambling. What first lead you to trying to find ways to beat casino games? Was there a relative or friend that initially turned you on to the idea or was it a specific book? Did you come up with the ideas simply by using your programming skills to simulate different games?

Who doesn’t love winning? And winning against the house has an added appeal, because if feels like you’re beating the system. I didn’t really have a specific person who steered me into this area, but my early work with randomness led pretty directly into simulating casino games.

While you had proficiency with Card Counting at Blackjack earlier, you didn’t start playing seriously until Mississippi legalised casino gambling in the early 90’s. By that time you were already involved in a software development company. At its peak how many hours were you dedicating to practice Card Counting and actually playing? Did it ever become more lucrative for you than your software development interests? What tips could you give or resources would you recommend to players looking to learn to count cards?

Gambling was a weekend endeavor for me for the first several years, even though it was profitable almost immediately. When I discovered blackjack tournaments in 1994, I began playing two or three times a week and my play began to spread into the rest of the week. Some of the tournament wins were surpassing my income at the software business, so it was not surprising that I started to commit more time to it. I stayed involved in the software business until 2005 or so, but I could have left far earlier.

Card counting today is still a viable alternative, but it is more important than ever to diversify and learn more skills. Counting remains, in my opinion, the best way to start. The skills and discipline in card counting will translate well into other gambling pursuits. There are lots of good books out there for aspiring players. Perhaps the easiest way to start is the free school at my site BlackjackInfo.com. The lessons were developed by a friend of mine, The GameMaster.

As a Card Counter how did you manage the heat (negative attention from casino staff who don’t want players who can beat their games at the tables)? What do you feel are the most substantial differences in playing conditions that have occurred since you first started to play? Do you feel that it’s possible to play professionally using Card Counting alone today or is it essential to branch out into other forms of Advantage Play to maintain enough of an edge to sustain professional play?

The best way to handle heat is to keep sessions short. Back when I was starting out, there were only a few choices of places that I could conveniently play, and I had to hit the same places over and over again. Fortunately, most of that play was in an area where casinos were fairly new. The floorpeople were inexperienced enough that I got away with far more aggressive play than I could today.

Today, even casinos in the most remote areas of the country know what to look for in card counters. It’s just not that hard to spot a skilled counter at the table. Spreading the action around is more important than ever.

While I do know a few full-time advantage players that only count cards, it’s not typical. Most successful players have a whole host of skills in their bag. Card counting is actually the most dangerous advantage play, because it is so well known. If you can find other ways to beat games, you’ll have far less trouble staying welcome to play.

Card Counting – as with most forms of low edge Advantage Plays – subjects the practitioner to huge swings (wins and losses). How did you cope with these changes in fortune practically and emotionally? Can you tell us some stories about the more sever twists of fortune you’ve encountered?

Indeed, card counting is a tough way to make an easy living! The losing streaks are tough to handle, but I always knew I had the mathematical edge. I kept immaculate records, so that was the main way I managed to stay focused and ignore the short-term losses. When I had a bad streak, I would look back over the last twelve months, and see that I had always emerged with a profit in the end.

Actually, the more painful experiences are when you’re doing something with a much larger edge, and still get beaten. My worst ever losing day in a casino came when I had an edge of around 10%, which is huge compared to card counting blackjack. But, hey, it’s gambling. You can still lose even with that big an edge. Fortunately, it doesn’t take too much play in those really big opportunities to virtually guarantee that you’ll finish with a profit.

And getting too lucky can be a bad thing too! A teammate and I won all three prizes of a land-based casino drawing in one night. His name was called all three times, for $1000, $1000, and a car. I wasn’t sure he would get out of there without being lynched by the crowd. That was the end of a golden opportunity at that casino, as both of us were no-mailed, and the rules for the drawing changed. We had won a total of five cars there, and probably could have kept going if we hadn’t gotten so darned lucky that night.

By and large 6:5 Blackjack (Blackjack games that only return $120 for a $100 rather than the normal $150) has failed to gain the traction in the online casino market – other than with a few of the smaller and less popular software platforms – that it has gained in the offline gambling meccas in the United States. Why do you feel players were willing to accept this game so readily in the offline market? How do you feel about online casinos starting to offer this inferior game? Would it have any impact on your willingness to work with them?

When 6:5 first appeared in Vegas, I knew we had a problem. The typical player these days just doesn’t seem to care about the payouts that much. The new generation of players go to Vegas for a lot of different reasons. Gambling has become just something to do in between clubbing. And those players don’t expect to win. The casinos’ long-time description of “gambling as entertainment” has gotten a lot of traction, and many players seem to be willing to play almost any version of the games.

At online casinos, it is different. It is only about the gambling. Still, 6:5 is starting to appear online. I just hope that the online table players are slightly more knowledgeable about the games than the offline players, and may be more likely to avoid the 6:5 tables. If the games get a lot of play, they will continue to spread.
Fortunately, I think the online space is so competitive that 3:2 will not be entirely replaced. With the much lower overhead involved in online gambling, these places should easily be able to pay 3:2 and still make a healthy profit.

On my affiliate sites, I would still be willing to work with a casino that deals 6:5 blackjack, but you better believe that I would make sure the players know about it in my review. I want to make sure that my players have all the information they need to be successful, whatever their goal. And that certainly includes warning them about short pay blackjack. 6:5? Just say no!

Talking to Anthony Curtis recently, he described the end of his career as an Advantage Player largely coming about due to his success with Stanford Wong’s tournament team, a group of players that you will have competed against regularly in years gone by. As he gained more and more success at the tournament tables, casino staff became familiar with his face making it increasingly difficult to play covertly on the main casino floors. Given your incredible success as a casino tournament player (Anthony Curtis describes you as “one of the top tournament players in the world”) do you feel that your similar success playing tournaments resulted in the end of your ability to exploit other advantages, or were their other factors that contributed to you moving away from more traditional Advantage Play methods? Have you completely moved away from Advantage Play, or are you just more choosy about the games required to get you to the casino?

Surprisingly, I never found my early tournament success to be that much of a problem for live play. There were exceptions, at locations where I was unusually lucky and won multiple major tournaments. But by and large, since tournaments are always a long shot, you could win one every now and then without being identified as too much of a threat. Television changed that a lot. In the years after World Series of Blackjack and the Ultimate Blackjack Tour aired on TV, I was recognized a lot more often, and my ability to play was definitely affected.

I have lost some options as a result, but I’m able to play more freely than most people would think. Blackjack is still a problem many places for me, but that actually had more to do with surveillance in general than with my tournament success. But for most games and opportunities, I’m still a player. More choosy, yes, but still a player.

You’ve described Card Counting and Blackjack as the “starting point” for anyone seriously considering learning how to beat casino games – a statement that I completely agree with. I assume that you describe it as such as it lead other places for you. Other than Card Counting and tournament play, can you tell us anything about the other Advantage Play methods you’ve been involved with over the years? What have been your biggest successes/worst mistakes while playing?

In recent years, I have played a lot of promotions and drawings. Just like any other part of profitable play, promotions have their own risks. For example, you can only win so many car drawings at a single casino before you’re no longer welcome!

Mistakes are inevitable. Things can go wrong in so many different ways, and I feel like I’ve seen them all. I know better than that of course. Next month I’ll probably find a new way to botch some play!

Here’s a somewhat silly example…

I stopped in at a small and remote casino to scout the place. I found a very good video poker game, and ran about $50,000 in bets through the machine. I stopped off at the players club and cashed out my points as cashback, and headed home.

The game I played was very close to a break-even play for a skilled player, once you factored in the cashback. And, with the game available at $100 per spin, you could run a lot of money through it in a few hours. Still, break-even doesn’t interest me.

A month later, when I received the marketing mail from that casino, I saw that they were having a one-day promotion where they were offering 10 times players club points. With 10X points, that break-even game now had a player advantage of around 1%. Playing quickly, my expected win was close to $1000 an hour. Now I’m interested.
I headed back to the casino on the promotion day and started to play. When I had accrued about $900 in points on my card, I decided to go cash the points. I figured that if I kept building up a huge balance, it would be a problem at the player’s club, so I would plan on cashing out multiple times instead.

When I got to the player’s club, I had a nasty surprise. When I tried to cash out my points, I was told they no longer did that. Now, the points on the card were only good for food comps. And, since the only restaurant at this casino was an awful buffet, I had just earned $900 of useless buffet meals! The rules at the club had changed in the couple of months since I last played.

At least I didn’t play all day first! I was shaking my head all the way to the car. Add one more kind of mistake to my list!

You’re best known for your prolific Blackjack tournament play. You’ve written two books on the subject (‘How to Win More Blackjack Tournaments’ and ‘How to Win Even More Blackjack Tournaments’) and are considered by even the best players of the game to be one of the most formidable tournament players of all time. What first interested you about casino tournaments? Would you mind telling us about some of your experiences playing in casino tournaments? Was it exclusively Blackjack tournaments you played in? If not could you explain some of the nuances of playing different games in tournament format?

Tournament blackjack remains, in my opinion, one of the most complex games in the casino. Every time you gain a deeper level of understanding of the game, you realize there is more to learn. In my early years of play, I was fortunate to have a group of friends who were as intrigued as I was by the challenge. After every event, we would talk for hours about the situations that had come up at the tables, trying to understand how we could improve our chances of winning.

I had an amazing run of mid-size tournament wins at a casino in Mississippi. These events were held several times a year, and usually had around 200 participants. I had an amazing run at that event, winning first place in 5 out of 8 tournaments in one streak.

Although blackjack tournaments have always been my main focus, I have played in any kind of table tournament you can imagine, from roulette to Caribbean Stud. The best games for a skilled tournament player are actually craps and baccarat. Because all players are betting on the same event, a good player can have a massive advantage in these events. Unlike blackjack, a craps player can’t draw a better hand than you. It’s all the same roll of the dice.

With regard to tournament play, different players have different opinions on what skills transfer between Card Counting and Blackjack tournaments. For instance, former MIT Card Counting team Captain Mike Aponte has discussed Card Counting during tournament play to assist with playing decisions. Do you find that Card Counting is beneficial during Blackjack tournaments? What other skill that you picked up from your days playing regular Blackjack do you feel helped with your tournament success? What tips would you give a beginner looking to learn to win at casino tournaments?

I’ve often said that card counting is not useful in tournaments, though in truth that is an exaggeration. Sure, it can be mildly helpful if you have the discipline to not risk much of your bankroll just because the count is good. Even then, I find that in the last half of a round, I have far more important things to concentrate on than the card count. Knowing your opponents’ bankrolls, and spending your time optimizing your bets is far more effective than wasting brain power on the count.

Solid basic strategy is a must, even though you’ll often have reason to deviate from it in tournament play. For someone just starting with blackjack tournaments, sign up for as many small weekly events as you can. Watch the other players, and you’ll quickly start to realize who the successful players are. When they are playing, stand behind their table and ask yourself what you would bet in their position, and see how often you can predict their play. Ideally, make some friends with whom you can discuss the game.

You’ve taken part is several televised Blackjack tournaments. Can you tell us how your involvement in the World Series of Blackjack and the Ultimate Blackjack Tour came about? How did it feel to compete against some of the most successful Blackjack Advantage players to ever have played the game? Ultimately tournament Blackjack failed to gain the long lived television success of its poker counterpart. What do you feel the issues were that prevented tournament Blackjack from successfully transitioning to a television format?

Those were my most memorable experiences on the blackjack tournament trail. The original World Series of Blackjack which was produced and aired by GSN was amazing in every way. I was able to meet lots of players whose names and reputations I had known for years. From the MIT team to well-known blackjack authors, I had met only a few of these guys before I arrived to film the first season of WSOB at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. It was a real treat to hang around those guys for a whole week. I made friendships that have lasted ever since, and I learned a lot from those guys.

I managed to gain an invitation to this first exclusive group of 25 players (later seasons expanded to 40), completely on the basis of my writing about tournament blackjack. My tournament site was the only serious spot for discussion of the games, and I got the opportunity. In later years, they switched to a competitive method for selecting players, and I was fortunate to win my way in as well. In the end, I am one of only three players to have played in all four seasons of the GSN show. (The others are Hollywood Dave Stann and Kenny Einiger.)
Later, Ultimate Blackjack Tour came along with a dramatically revamped format, hoping to make tournament blackjack more exciting for television. I think it succeeded to the extent it could, but the simple truth of the matter is that this game just does not work on television.

Blackjack is simple. Too simple in fact… Who wants to watch guys trying to hit to 21? So you lose some viewers who think the game is too simple. Then, those who follow it closely enough to realize that tournament blackjack is completely different quickly have the opposite problem. No matter how good the commentary is, it is impossible to explain the decision making process for betting and playing in a way that does the game justice on TV. So the game is both too simplistic and too complicated for TV, if that makes any sense. I fear that we’ve seen the last of competitive blackjack on TV. Poker just works a lot better.

The casino tournament market has changed substantially since its hay day. How have these changes affected the smart player’s ability to make money playing in casino tournaments? What advice would you give to players looking to get involved in tournaments today? Do you feel that there’s a market for online tournaments and if so how do you feel the re-emergence of the US online gambling will affect the online casino tournament market?

Tournaments have been on the decline ever since the TV boom. Casinos found that the sharp players who attend tournaments weren’t a good market for them, and they have mostly switched to invitational events only for their most profitable players. As much as I have enjoyed the game, there is no longer much opportunity out there. There are still a few areas where tournaments have loyal followings, but overall the number of events is a small fraction of what it was in the mid 2000s.

Even the online opportunity won’t revive this market I fear. It’s been tried outside the US, and the market just didn’t materialize. Tournaments would have a better chance in the US online market, but I think the combination of a very slow legislative rollout in the US and limited interest mean we’ll never see a real tournament market develop. It’s a shame.

You recently made a post about an ongoing lawsuit brought against a casino when a player lost a substantial sum of money ($500k) when intoxicated. Anyone who’s spent a reasonable length of time in a casino will have seen some extremely drunk people making very poor decisions. I’ve sat at a table with an Asian who could barely stay on his seat doubling down on hard twenty and have a friend who’ve woken up with pockets full of money and no idea how they got it other than that they were in the casino last night (that could have gone badly wrong). Alcohol has a complex relationship with gamblers, with many players actively seeking to consume alcohol while they play. Do you feel that the casino industry takes its responsibility to protect intoxicated players seriously enough? Do you feel it’s appropriate to hand out free alcohol to players in casinos? Is it worth the risk trying to stop a player from playing when drunk given the potential for an aggressive response? Are there any measure you feel should be employed now?

I tend to have a laissez-faire attitude toward issues like this, and think that people should by responsible for their own decisions and mistakes. But alcohol is definitely a powerful weapon wielded by the casinos. In my recent blog post about this case, I described a high-level table games executive who once told me that the key to a profitable high-limit room was pouring generous drinks. Get them drunk, and win the money!

Overall, I think it’s a fair playing field. And frankly, bad play by drunk gamblers keeps the game conditions strong for the rest of us. If everyone stayed sober and learned blackjack basic strategy, we would soon find blackjack tables disappearing from casinos, replaced by other table games with higher house edges, or more likely, more floor space for slot machines! So, let ‘em drink!

You interest in programming lead you to set up three very successful gambling websites – BlackjackInfo.com, BlackjackTournaments.com and SlotCharts.com. How did each of these sites come into being? What are your plans for the future of these sites?

BlackjackInfo.com started as a hobby, and I was the first to offer free customized strategy charts for various blackjack rules. The site became quite popular despite a complicated web address. I think that was back in 1996 or so. Ancient history in Internet time! In 1998, it moved to BlackjackInfo.com, and has consistently been among the top blackjack sites ever since.

BlackjackTournaments.com was a project I launched in direct response to a need of the community. Avid tournament players subscribed to a monthly print magazine called Blackjack Confidential. It’s where we all learned about upcoming events, and got to see published strategy articles and interviews with winners. It’s a small niche market though, and the magazine announced that they would cease publishing at the end of 2003. I launched my site to fill the void. It got a complete makeover last year, the first in its 10 year history.

You also mention a favorite creation of mine, SlotCharts.com. This was based on an original idea, to track and graph progressive jackpots online, showing when they hit, how often, and particularly, highlighting which games had become unusually high. All was well until the surprise legal developments regarding online gambling in the US in 2006. The site has been basically ignored since then. It’s on my list of projects for a complete redesign. It’s still a great concept.

The BlackjackInfo.com message boards went on to become probably the biggest Advantage Play community to have existed to date online. A few years ago you closed down this forum. Can you discuss how you built this community, the difficulties associated with running a successful message board and what ultimately lead to your decision to close the boards? How did this community differ from the one that evolved on BlackjackTournaments.com? What do you feel are the pros and cons of gambling sites offering message boards?

Because you run a message board here at ThePOGG, I know you understand what goes into the process of managing a forum. Looking back, I don’t regret a moment of the time and effort I put into the BJInfo forums, but now that they are closed I also don’t miss the headaches that went along with it.

I think the community of casino advantage players can be particularly troublesome in a message forum environment. Knowledgeable players can be easily irritated by newcomers, and they feel threatened because much of their knowledge is hard-earned, valuable, and fragile. By fragile I mean that techniques can be endangered if too many people begin using them. Message boards offer the opportunity to share information, but also the risk of sharing too much information. It’s a fine line.

For BJInfo, I just found that I didn’t enjoy the process of handling the board any more. And I’m fortunate in my life… I really don’t have to do anything I don’t enjoy. So the decision was made.

My BlackjackTournaments.com site also has a message board, and it remains up and running. The board has far lower posting volume, and the community is a lot more welcoming and less protective. It just works better, and thus has survived.

Unlike many affiliate websites, you had an established and well trafficked website long before you started advertising casinos. What made you decide to start placing casino adverts on your sites? How did you go about choosing the brands that you work with?

Because my main site BlackjackInfo started as a hobby, I resisted any kind of advertising for a long time. From the very beginning I received frequent requests from casinos to consider ads. I finally decided to put up a few ad spots in 2000, and it worked out OK. People weren’t as opposed to the idea as I thought, and it definitely gave me incentive to continue to produce material. Much of the valuable content on the site was a direct result of me working harder because of the ad dollars. I am a perfect example of how advertising supported content can be great for the audience. Without the ad money, I wouldn’t have spent nearly as much effort in developing the strategy trainer for example.

Initially, I chose brands that I had personally had a good experience with. Later, I began to rely on the frequent feedback I got from visitors to help me fine-tune my sponsors. I always had a fear of promoting a site that I would later learn was mistreating my players. I had very few problems though. Sticking to the major software providers helped a lot, though even that was not a guarantee.

As readers will have guessed by this point you’re based in the US. The US has a fractious history with online gambling, essentially illegalising it in 2006. Fortunately the US is slowly re-joining the market now. What ramification do you think the re-emergence of a properly regulated US market will have for players and affiliates? How have you prepared for this change?

A few years back, I realized that any online gambling progress in the US was going to happen state by state. Our federal government has been dysfunctional for so many years now that I did not expect any progress to be at that level. I was right. We now have three states that have begun offering legal and regulated gambling in the US… Nevada (poker only), Delaware and New Jersey (both offering casino and poker games.)

I positioned myself for the coming affiliate market in the US with a network of state by state sites. For now, the clear leader is my http://www.new-jersey-online-casinos.com/ site, where I am publishing candid reviews of the online casinos there. In fact, I’ve been traveling to NJ to try out the games in person. So far, so good, although it is still an open question whether online gambling will thrive in this limited market.

Finally, I used to do some work in the music journalism field and I’m always interested to hear about people’s tastes in music. Could you give us your top 5 albums?

My musical tastes are extremely eclectic, ranging from opera to Mississippi Delta blues, so my favorites are all over the place.

So, here we go…

  1. Philip Glass – Glassworks
    (Glass is a minimalist composer, and this album from 1982 is my all-time favorite.)
  2. KT Tunstall – Drastic Fantastic
    (I love all her stuff, but this 2007 album is awesome from start to finish.)
  3. Juliana Hatfield – Made in China
    (Cynical and bitter, but oh so rocking.)
  4. Sarah Jarosz – Song Up In Her Head
    (Don’t let the idea of bluegrass keep you from checking this out. It’s a pretty innovative sound, and Jarosz is an amazing talent.)
  5. Sonny Rollins – A Night at the Village Vanguard Vol 2
    (Rollins, the classic Blue Note jazz saxophonist recorded this album live in 1957. Amazingly, he’s still touring, now at age 83!)

Thanks for the interview! I enjoyed the questions, and I wish your readers the best of luck.

1 Response
ThePOGG Posts an Interview with Ken Smith « BlackjackInfo Blog
May 25, 2014 at 11:48 pm

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