ThePOGG Interviews – Nathaniel Tilton author of The Blackjack LifePosted by THEPOGG in Blog.
Nathaniel Tilton is a world class blackjack player with a story to tell. His book The Blackjack Life, is a compelling read detailing his start from being an average Joe, to learning an authentic skill, to honing that skill into a finely tuned craft that afforded him an incredible array of fantastic experiences that he adeptly shares in his truly excellent book. I had the pleasure of meeting Nathaniel a few years ago, and while I could see then he definitely had the skills to have a successful blackjack career, I never would have guessed he was as good an author as he was a player. The Blackjack Life is something that honestly could be enjoyed by anybody. It’s one of those books that pulls you right in and makes it hard to put it down once you start reading. As I said anyone would enjoy it, but I would put it on the absolute must read list to anybody that is interested in casino play, especially blackjack.
Many professional blackjack players found early in their lives they had a real interest in card games, gambling, or figuring out ways to beat the system early in their lives. Was there a person or event that looking back specifically influenced the direction your life took?
Well, I always had an interest in competing, whether it was in sports, trivial pursuit, or in my career. But there was something about the science of blackjack that really drew me in. I liked the idea that the harder I worked at it, the more significantly I could get better. That’s not necessarily the case with other things I enjoy, like golf. Growing up, I was often getting into trouble, but usually it was just a case of being overly curious. I guess it’s just in my nature.
At the start of The Blackjack Life you tell us how reading Ben Mezrich’s books on the MIT teams of the late 90′s early 00′s really captured your imagination. You went on to train with both Semyon Dukach and Mike Aponte. Both these men were/are highly respected and profitable players. How did the real people compare to the characters in Mezrich’s books? What did you get out of your experiences with these guys? How did they help you develop your game?
They were completely different than I had imagined. Mike (“Fisher” in the book), wasn’t portrayed too favourably. And Semyon was depicted as all flash. But both guys, as different as they are from one another, were both down to earth. You could tell that they were eager to help out. And I really appreciated that.
Do you feel you could have reached the levels of success that you eventually did without Mike Aponte taking the interest in you that he did? Do you feel having a more experienced player ‘mentor’ you makes that big a difference to your chances of success?
Of course, there’s no question that Mike’s mentoring really helped take my game up several notches. Most importantly, his talent provided me a much needed benchmark for evaluating my own skills. As a player, his skills are legit and I was obsessive about getting to that level. I think everyone is motivated by people in different ways. Certainly Mike was one of the big influences in my career early on. But I also continued to get better and grow in the years after my time with Mike.
Ultimately you ended up choosing to use the Hi/Lo counting system. Was this decision based solely on what Mike Aponte recommended? Why do you feel that one of the oldest counting systems developed is still the best when multi-level counts offer a greater advantage?
When I first started, I so was naïve to the blackjack world that I just assumed there was only one way to count cards. By the time I realized there were other options, I was too engrossed in Hi-Lo. Counting systems are often debated on blackjack discussion boards, but the premise of them all remains the same: as your advantage grows, so should your bet size. Many people consider Hi-Lo to provide the most bang for your buck. It’s a pretty powerful counting system that can be implemented with relative ease. I didn’t see a need to try something else.
You now run Semyon Dukach’s former website – BlackjackScience.com – where you provide seminars and training for novice blackjack players. Obviously it takes more than a few hours, or even several days, to become a winning blackjack player. What do you feel is the most important advice you can give to players who want to learn to beat the house? How do you approach training them in a seminar format?
Any good teacher has to get a sense of where the student is and where they want to be, before showing how to get there. Most students come to me with a desire to “win big” and believe that their skill set is better than it actually is. So I have to temper both by managing their expectations with how volatile the game is and how much more work they need to put in. My advice is always the same, though. If they want to get great, they have to put in a lot of practice. The edge in this game is so slim that each skill involved in counting cards needs to be incredibly sharp. And that requirement turns a lot of player away, or worse, has them head to the casinos ill-prepared. I always joke that I’d love to have to have six-pack abs, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to put the effort into making that happen. Aspiring pros have to put in the effort first.
You ended up in the very fortunate position of having Semyon Dukach helping you out early on after attending one of his seminars and ultimately putting you in contact with Mike Aponte. Have you ever been tempted to take one of your seminar attendees under your wing and help them develop their game?
That’s a great question. When D.A. and I first met Mike, we were far along with our training and he was able to see our potential. A lot of the consultations I provide are with players just starting out, or small teams that just need to fine-tune their team play, so it doesn’t really come up that much. But if I were to find the right person, I’d love to help them evolve with the game, if they wanted that from me.
When Semyon was running BlackjackScience.com he used to run seminars on Shuffle Tracking, Back Card Steering and Ace Sequencing – these advanced strategies are the strategies that made Semyon’s teams so much money and are notoriously difficult to perform, with even small errors being very very costly. Have you ever tried playing any of them? If not, what do you feel are the pros and cons of these strategies? Are they something you’d consider building in to your repertoire in the future?
That was never my forte. I certainly studied those techniques and trained for them, but I was never particularly good at it all. Like you said, it can be incredibly lucrative or incredibly expensive, and I decided to just maximize what I was good at, which was counting and small team play. What’s not in my book is the extensive work that I have done with scavenger betting, which includes buying other player’s hands, taking their action when they want even money on a blackjack vs. an ace, taking the rest of their action when they double for less, and even selling bad hands that other people might want to buy. There’s a real art to it all that I enjoy. The timing has to be perfect and you have to build rapport with the other players. But if done well, it can boost EV.
From day one you were training and playing with a partner. It’s very uncommon – due to egos, conflicts of interest and break downs of trust – for blackjack players to work together over the long term. What do you feel have been the keys to your successful partnership over the years?
There’s no doubt that trust is a huge factor. But trust is multi-layered. It’s not just about trusting that your teammate won’t steal money from you. It’s trusting that they’re as committed to the team as you are. It’s trusting that they’re as skilled. It’s trusting that they have your back. Fortunately, when D.A. and I met at Semyon’s seminar, something just clicked. We were both living in Boston with lots of free time. So we would practice, have a few beers, and chat about life. We got to know each other well, and we were both so competitive about getting good, trust wasn’t really an issue. In addition to trust, though, I think communication is a big part of it. You have to be able to talk things through when times get tough or have permission to challenge each other to get better if someone’s skills aren’t as sharp as they should be. If you can’t speak up when things need to be said, then resentment can build and then it’s harder to trust.
Playing on a team can improve the amount you can expect to earn when playing blackjack, but it also poses a large variety of challenges. For you what made playing with someone else the best way to approach the game?
In our case, we were both so competitive. As you interview me right now, D.A. is probably out practicing or reading a blackjack book or article, it’s killing me that I’m not keeping up! In all seriousness, we perfected the delicate balance of encouraging each other to get better, but also wanting to outperform in any checkouts we had. I wanted to be the best card counter in the world and have D.A. be the second best. I think it’s harder for solo players to get motivated like that.
Your book The Blackjack Life discusses at length taking many of the strategies applied by the MIT teams in groups of 4 or 5 and modifying them to work with your 2 player team. These newly modified strategies have started a lot of players thinking amongst the blackjack community and have genuinely revolutionised many players approach to the game. How much do you feel these new techniques affected your lifespan as a player? Was there a ‘eureka’ moment when you were thinking about how you played that really changed the way you approached the game?
Any pro will tell you that there’s not one strategy in my book that was new to the blackjack community. But what was different about our system was how we moved in and out of various strategies within a playing session. We felt like if we could move from back counting and wonging, to big player call-ins, to gorilla big player signaling at the table… all within one session… it would be difficult to detect. And it was. Once we added our balanced betting, which consists of betting varying amounts on different spots, but having them add up to the near-optimal wager, we realized that we had something special. The combination of them all, at just the right times, was the secret to our success.
In your book, The Blackjack Life, you pretty much lead in with the fact that your blackjack career as described throughout the book is over. Did you realize while still playing that a book would be in your future? What was the motivating factor that led you to create this book of your life and times of a card counting blackjack player?
My father-in-law, who has published several books, urged me to put pen to paper and tell my story. At first I was reluctant. I always thought of myself as a decent writer, but I didn’t want to write another Bringing Down the House, and I certainly had no interest in writing a text book on the subject. But then I realized that so many books either focus on the experiences of big teams or the science of solo play. I wanted to highlight the value of small team play in a way that would appeal to both students of the game and casual readers. I could imagine a couple of buddies wanting to learn the game, but not wanting to on their own and not being able to find a big team to play on. So I told myself that I’d just write a few pages and see if it went anyway. Three days later, I had written about 100 pages and knew I was on to something. But it never dawned on me during my playing days that I’d someday write a book.
I feel your blackjack story is unique as compared to the somewhat similar stories that have been told already. There seems to be a very relatable quality to it for the average person to experience. Why do you think that is?
Thanks. Blackjack subject matter can be intimidating for people, especially those who are new to the game. I think my book shows that you don’t need to go to MIT to be successful at it. You just have to have a relentless enthusiasm. My publisher, Huntington Press, and others, have described me as an “average guy,” which is a term that still makes me cringe when I hear it today. But most people relate to that better than to “MIT genius.” People want to believe that they can accomplish great things. And they can. I hope that message is conveyed. I also worked hard to write the manuscript in an authentic way, highlighting the excitement I experienced, but also painting a real picture of the many struggles I endured along the way.
It’s clear from reading your book that you and your teammate D.A. approached blackjack as a business. However, was there ever a time or instance as you became more and more successful in your blackjack career that it affected you outside of the playing spectrum? Kind of like, as the bankroll grows so does the comps and perks the casino offers, did the growing high roller treatment ever affect your attitude or personality outside the casino? Did you ever find yourself playing one of your blackjack persona’s in your personal life just out of habit?
One of our acts was that we were old friends, constantly giving each other shit, much to the amusement of the pit and dealers. It offered us great cover and flexibility. But sometimes after a session like that, we’d be hanging out and continuing to give each other shit, until we realized that we could just be normal again. Other than that, I think about how difficult it was to re-engage in the real world after returning from a trip. Here we were, being wined and dined, going to big fights and shows, staying in luxurious suites, and being driven around Vegas in a limo, only to come back to a Boston morning commute (which is miserable), a 9-to-5 job, and lunch in the office park’s cafeteria. There’s some culture shock. And I wanted so badly to tell my stories to friends, but it always felt like it would sound like bragging. So I mostly just kept it all to myself. I had my regular life as a financial advisor and I had my blackjack life. The two have always remained separate.
Did you find it difficult to actually write the book yourself? What do you think is more challenging, being a top blackjack player, or a now top blackjack author? How did you come to get hooked up with Anthony Curtis and Huntington Press to get your book published? What was that process like?
Writing the book came easily because I just told my story as it happened. It took me about 9 months before I felt that it was in good enough shape to start looking for a publisher. A lot of my chapters start with quotes from other APs and, as a courtesy, I wanted to make sure they were ok with that. So I reached out to Anthony, since many of the authors I quoted were part of the Huntington Press stable. He asked me to send him the manuscript and I eventually met him at his office in Las Vegas. It was a little surreal. I knew a lot about Anthony and his work on Las Vegas Advisor, and I saw him on Travel Channel specials. Initially, he said that they were too focused on poker, but that if they decided to do a blackjack book, he’d strongly consider mine. I was on my flight home from Vegas when he sent me an email that said, “I think we do this.” That was a great moment for me. I was really proud that Huntington Press would be my publisher. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for Anthony taking a shot on me. Not to mention, it was an honor to work with Arnold Snyder who edited the entire book.
Without divulging too much that may hinder any future exploits, do you still play at all anymore? If so does being the author of a book such as yours change the playing experience in any way or minimize it?
It’s probably the question I get asked the most. I specifically withheld certain techniques from the book that we used, just in case I returned to the game. So writing the book didn’t mean that I couldn’t return to playing some day. And I think it’s way overblown that anyone who writes a book on blackjack using their real name is immediately ousted from every casino they step foot in. There are so many ways around that. But as far as whether or not I’m still active, I’ll just leave that up to your imagination.
We both know that certain top notch players over time may get their welcome burnt out in most casinos throughout the country, as well as even many other countries. These players that still have a lot to offer to the game many times form teams and work in a management position for the team and remain very relevant without actually having to play in the casino. Much like in the beginning with your relationship with Mike Aponte. At this point in your blackjack career, although you are not really burnt out as far as casino play, have you ever considered putting a team together in this manner, with yourself as more manager than active player?
A lot of those great players who got burned out were over-exposed early on. The MIT teams, for example, churned players with little regard for their longevity. Whereas, what we developed could still allow me to play today. Managing a team could be fun if it were the right group of players, because I like to coach, but as long as I could still play, I’d choose that over managing. But nowadays, my focus is on my wealth management practice.
Did being a world class blackjack player have any impact either positively, or negatively, on your regular professional life in the financial field? It’s been said there is a correlation between the two. If so could you explain?
There’s not only a correlation, they’re the same. It’s all about sound investing. Getting your money in when you have the best of it, and protecting it when you don’t. And so much of it is about risk management. I think blackjack has toughened me up for volatile markets because I can emotionally deal with the swings better than if I never played blackjack. If more investors approached things with a mindset of getting to the long-term, like so many good advantage players do, they’d have a lot more success. And I try to convey that message on a daily basis. On the flip side, it was easy to understand concepts like standard deviation, which was already a concept I used every day as an advisor.
You are now married, and you and your wife fairly recently have brought a beautiful baby into this world, congratulations. Do you think this whole experience you write about in your book would have been possible if your first reading of Busting Vegas was today, and your interest in beating the house started now instead of close to a decade ago?
Thanks, yes, my family is a blessing to me. One phrase that my wife and I use in our relationship is the concept of “let me be me.” She’s always supported who am and who I want to be. And I think I do the same for her. So if I had the passion to embrace the game today, I think I could devote time to that if I wanted. But I was in a different place in my life back then and blackjack was more of a saving grace for me. I needed it to lift me up and give me something to get passionate about. It sounds funny saying that a card game gave me purpose, but on some level, it did. Today, I’m in a much better place, thanks to my wife, my son, and the game of blackjack.
I really appreciate your time answering a few questions Nathaniel. As always you’re a real stand up guy. Let’s not let it be years before we talk again. I really don’t want the next time we get together be after I find out your sequel to The Blackjack Life has hit the stands! Hmmm….is that a possibility? Did you leave out a few nuggets for another gripping look into your Blackjack Life, or perhaps maybe a few new adventures are in the works as we speak? Thanks again Nathaniel for your time here, as well as giving us a great book.
Thanks, my friend. I really appreciate the time. Your site is a great resource and I really enjoy reading interviews like this. Keep up the good work!
If you are looking to improve your blackjack skills we here at ThePOGG.com would highly recommend getting in contact with Nathaniel at BlackjackScience.com. Having played with Nathaniel in the past our own blackjack expert Aramon would be more than happy to provide any additional information/references he can as required.
To buy a copy of ‘The Blackjack Life’ click here.Tweet