– By Don Schlesinger
“I have eagerly sought the advice and collaboration of some of the keenest minds in the area of blackjack research, and together, we have broken new ground in several ways.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE – Sonny has reviewed the 2nd Edition of Blackjack Attack. The photos used are of the 3rd Edition. For this reason there are some inconsistencies between the chapter numbers and content descriptions. For anyone considering buying Blackjack Attack, we would recommend the 3rd Edition as it contains a lot of expanded content. An image at the bottom of this article details the updates that were made to the 3rd Edition.]
In my early card counting days, Blackjack Attack never left my side. It must have been three years before it ever rested on my bookshelf. It was always sitting on the nightstand, or on the desk, or in my backpack during a trip. To this day the cover is still peeling, the pages are worn and dirty, and there are random bits of paper stuck between pages that I hastily needed to mark for reference. Most of my Blackjack books have only slight wear from being read once or twice, but this one shows the marks of being used.
This book is meant for intermediate players who can accurately use a card counting system and are ready to start playing seriously, but still have a lot of questions. Probably they’ve been to some Blackjack message boards and seen conflicting advice, or have a question that was not sufficiently answered by the online community. Blackjack Attack covers topics like back-counting strategies, betting strategies, risk management, game selection, and much more. Much of the research, such as the Illustrious 18 and SCORE, is both original and unique to this book.
More importantly, Don takes the time to walk us through the process of answering each question. He gives the reader an understanding of the methods behind each answer, which allows us to explore and analyze similar situations on our own. Even the more complicated concepts are explained in a way that makes them clear and accessible to students of any background.
You can buy Blackjack Attack here.
About the Author
Don Schlesinger has been a Blackjack mentor both online and in print for well over 30 years. He has collaborated with some of the most notable names in Blackjack and has contributed a great deal of original and groundbreaking research to the field. Some of his first writings were for Arnold Snyder’s Blackjack Forum magazine where he wrote articles and answered readers’ questions. He later found a home on the now defunct AdvantagePlayer.com forums, although he was active on several other reputable Blackjack websites simultaneously. If you were learning how to play Blackjack, you probably learned from Don. He was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2015 and you can still find him active on blackjack websites on a daily basis.
One of Don’s greatest strengths as an author is his ability to explain and demonstrate complicated mathematical concepts in a way that players of any level can understand. The formulas are presented clearly enough that the reader can plug in their numbers and get the answers, and the descriptions will help the motivated students understand the underlying approach.
We start with Don’s first feature-length article – “A Day in the Life of a Table-Hopper”. It summarizes his approach to back-counting the shoe games of Atlantic City. This will be a striking eye-opener to beginning players and a somber reminder for experienced players. Whether you pity him or commiserate with him will depend on how many hours of your life you have spent in casinos. Don really manages to capture the frenzied and frustrating life of a blackjack player. By the end of the story I am reliving those days of burning eyes, sore muscles and a wasted brain. Only when I return home do I realize how badly I reek of smoke and filthy casino chips. And suddenly I feel a cough coming on.
From the very beginning we are taught some of the most valuable lessons – strict discipline, exhaustive planning, careful game selection, and realistic goals and expectations. Don is brutally honest about the amount of work involved in executing this kind of strategy, and along the way we learn valuable lessons about patience, greed, and the often ugly face of variance. No matter how long you have been playing, these are the things that you must repeat to yourself constantly, like a mantra.
My only criticism of this chapter is that it paints a very specific picture of a “professional” Blackjack player that is not necessarily representative of many in that group. Don acknowledges that his camouflage plays are extreme, but also seems to imply that it is the “right” way and best way to play. He often repeats that his objective is not to win the most money but to be welcomed back. While that is a valid concern, it usually isn’t the main focus of a professional. It is a legitimate approach to a “home” casino where the player’s goal is to play frequently and/or earn comps, but most professionals are comfortable playing much more aggressively or with less expensive cover.
Certainly Don’s approach has worked very well for him over the decades and perhaps is optimal for his situation, but it should be noted that other players may have very different approaches that are equally optimal for them. One of the greatest benefits of this book is that it allows each player to customize their playing style to suit their individual situation. It should inspire you to find your own “right” way to play based on the games available to you, your frequency of play, your stakes, and dozens of other factors. Every casino is different and you may even find significant differences between tables in the same casino. Allow your playing style to change in order to take advantage of every opportunity you can find. The following chapters will teach you how.
This chapter is fairly small but Don manages to pack a lot of information into it. He starts with a basic introduction to variance and standard deviation, which are used to calculate the size of the swings that the player can expect in the short run. This is something that all players should understand before they ever make a bet.
This is followed by a more detailed explanation which includes examples of several different games and betting methods. The steps are laid out clearly and the reader can easily apply these calculations to their own playing style and game conditions. A big advantage of this method is that the reader can experiment with various strategies and tweak their betting spread using a simple spreadsheet, which avoids the time and hassle of having to run a computer simulation every time.
To close out the chapter, Don discusses the probability of being ahead after playing for a given number of hours. This may come as a surprise to new players who watched a few movies and think they will win most of their sessions. In reality, the money doesn’t pour in and it doesn’t often stay in your pocket for very long when it does. Even a few hundred hours of play is not enough to guarantee a profit. This is a lesson that must be learned early.
This chapter is all about calculating the effects of various bonuses and side bets. It seems like new side bets and casino promotions are popping up everyday, and astute players can make a lot of money if they know how to exploit them. After enough hours of playing, a card counter will naturally become bored and frustrated enough to look at side bets and bonuses as a way to boost their earn. Taking advantage of these types of situations is a stepping stone that leads a simple card counter down the long path of advantage play, so this chapter is very important to a card counter’s growth and success.
Although the specific examples given in this chapter are dated, they are very good representations of the format that these bets and promotions tend to take. Don’s explanations are thorough enough to give the reader the ability to analyze many similar opportunities that they may encounter.
In this chapter Don shares some of the responses that he contributed to various issues of the Blackjack Forum newsletter. He covers several topics in detail, but the first article about proper bet sizing for multiple hands is the most critical for new players. This shortcut will save the player a lot of time when they are tweaking their bet spread. And Don leaves us with a bit of wisdom regarding simulations vs. analytical solutions:
“Again, many of the above problems would probably be handled today, in a trice, by simulators…Analytical approaches permit the development of a ‘feel’ and an ‘intuition’ for the game, which can be stifled by simple acceptance of ‘whatever the computer says.’”
Chapter 5 introduces the Illustrious 18 and Fab 4 index numbers. These represent the basic strategy deviations that offer the highest value to a card counter. Most card counting systems have over a hundred of these index numbers, which can seem daunting to new players. This chapter shows the surprising revelation that the vast majority of the value gained from playing deviations comes from a very small number of plays. The Illustrious 18 covers the standard hit/stand/split/double decisions while the Fab 4 covers surrender (for those lucky enough to have that option).
Don shows how he determined the value of each play and was able to distill out the most important ones. Beginning card counters will save a lot of time by focusing on these deviations first and adding the rest as they go.
Back in the ‘80s there was quite a disagreement over a phenomenon later dubbed the “floating advantage”. In short, it claims that a true count that occurs early in the game is not worth as much as the same true count much later in the game. For example, a TC of +2 with 5 decks remaining is allegedly not as advantageous as a TC of +2 with one deck remaining. After considerable research by several of blackjack’s most notable names, it was shown that the phenomenon does in fact exist and can be quantified.
That’s the short version. For those who want to know the long version, complete with a chronological history that includes private personal correspondence, this chapter is for you. For everyone else, skip ahead to…
Don starts by clarifying a few aspects of team bankroll splits and payouts, but the bulk of this chapter is a sample handbook for card counting teams. The specifics of the handbook would be modified by the players for different types of team play and different team structures, but having a basic framework will save a lot of time. Perhaps most importantly it shows how much planning and preparation are necessary before a new group of players ever start hitting the tables. Many of these details will be things that new students hadn’t even thought about, but it is crucial that all members understand them and agree to the same terms and conditions.
Of course, seasoned professionals will already trust each other in terms of casino comportment and bankroll management and they will already have these guidelines in mind, but this chapter will prevent less experienced teams from learning their lessons the hard way or being caught unprepared when issues arise.
Chapter 8 is very important for beginner and intermediate card counters. It covers the cost of making camouflage plays. These are situations where the player will intentionally make the “wrong” bet or the “wrong” play in order to hide the fact that they are a card counter and look more like a regular gambler. The problem is that the more you play like a gambler, the more you become one. Some betting and playing mistakes can have a huge impact on your advantage, and using too many can turn you into a losing player. If you are planning to use betting or playing cover, you absolutely need to know how badly it is hurting you. While this can (and should) always be verified by simulation, this chapter will give the reader a general idea of what pitfalls to avoid and how to craft a cover strategy that works for them.
As usual, Don gives a detailed explanation of how to do the calculations as well as numerous examples of both playing and betting cover plays. The results will be very surprising to most players. While one or two betting restrictions may only have a moderate effect on your advantage, the additional risk in terms of bankroll swings and distance to the long run may be unacceptable. This chapter will help card counters to develop a cover strategy that still gives them a fighting chance against the casino while also encouraging them to find other (cheaper) methods of camouflage.
Risk of ruin is one of the most important statistics for all Advantage Players. Everything you’ve learned up to this point has been for this. You can calculate your EV and SD for any set of rules, any bet spread and any camouflage strategy. You know what kind of swings to expect in the short run, but what about the long run? How much can you really afford to bet? This is the final piece to the puzzle.
Using these formulas you can determine your bankroll size for any degree of risk that you are willing to take. Should you break your bankroll into 300 units? 600 units? 1000? Now you can find out. Different players will have very different tolerances for risk, and even subtle changes to the game rules, playing strategy and betting strategy can have a significant impact on your probability of going broke. This is something that every player will need to customize for themselves.
This chapter also includes the “trip ruin” formula so that you can see your chances of losing your entire bankroll within a given number of hours. So if you have a replenishable bankroll that you aren’t too worried about losing, this formula might be more useful. Most part-time and/or recreational players will probably go this route since they can supplement their bankroll with other income.
For the beginning card counter who has not invested in (or developed) a simulator, this chapter will be your bible. It has several dozen pages of computer simulations for various game rules, numbers of decks, penetration levels, bet spreads and bankroll sizes. It also has all the TC frequencies that you will need to make your own spreadsheets (from chapter 2). These charts are only for the HiLo system with the Illustrious 18 and Fab 4, but most likely that is what a beginning player will be using.
Not only does this chapter help the reader to understand the effects of different playing styles and bet spreads by putting actual dollar amounts on them, it also begins to show them the importance of good game selection. Finding a dealer that deals an extra half-deck can make all the difference, and so can an empty table where the player can get 200 hands per hour (or more!).
Additionally, the charts will give the aspiring player more realistic expectations regarding their win rate and level of risk. Certainly there will be many readers who get all the way to this chapter only to realize that their local games are a waste of time. Many dreams will be broken when the actual profits are revealed. Many hearts will collapse when they realize how much work (and variance!) is required for such meager rewards. But certainly this is a lesson better learned from a $20 book than from months of frustrating, unsuccessful casino play. And yet, some readers will study the advice and seek out playable games and leverage their knowledge into respectable sums of money. Some will even use these lessons to find remarkable opportunities that average players would never even look for.
In this chapter we are introduced to the SCORE statistic, which is a way to determine and compare the value of various game conditions. This comes in handy when you have several games available and you want to know which one has the highest profit potential. Is your local DD H17 game really a better choice than the 8D S17 DAS LS game? Is it worth driving another hour to a casino that has a decent 6D game? Once you know the SCORE you will be able to find the most profitable games and plan your trips accordingly. In the world of card counting you have to pick up every little crumb that you can find in the hopes that you might amass a sandwich by the end of the trip.
Part II of this chapter uses SCORE in a different way – to compare different card counting systems. Given a specific game, which system is the best? Is HiLo always better than KO or Red 7? Are level-2 systems really worth the extra effort? Are balanced systems stronger than unbalanced systems? The SCORE statistic can answer all of these questions and more.
Part I of this chapter deals with optimal Wong Out points for shoe games. Once a beginner starts playing regularly they will inevitably begin to ask themselves, “Should I be playing right now?” Maybe they have been backcounting a shoe for several decks without any positive TCs and are thinking, “Should I just give up and start counting a fresh shoe?” Or maybe they are playing a game where the TC has dropped down to neutral territory for a while (but not negative enough to leave) and they are wondering, “How long should I keep playing without an advantage?” This chapter explains the process behind this decision for several different Wonging strategies.
Part II covers risk-averse indices, which are basic strategy deviations that are optimized to maximize profit rather than just EV. In general, for plays that involve putting significantly more money on the table (like doubling and splitting) you might want to wait for a higher count in order to mitigate the extra risk involved. This is especially true for plays that happen when your big bets are out.
This is a collection of some interesting tidbits that don’t really fit anywhere else in the book. A sort of “gambling ramblings” section, to borrow a phrase from Peter Griffin. Don shares many short and concise pieces of advice regarding several aspects of Blackjack play. These topics aren’t necessarily broad enough to devote an entire chapter to, but they are interesting nonetheless. This chapter almost feels like the final pep talk before the coach sends a new player onto the field in the final quarter.
Any decent Blackjack book will teach the reader basic strategy and how to count cards. That’s the easy part. But most books leave the reader stranded in terms of actually using those skills to make money. This book picks up where pretty much every other book leaves off. It provides the tools to let new card counters create a solid plan of attack, and also helps experienced card counters to elevate their game. It covers the most crucial mathematical aspects of the game but teaches them in a way that anyone can understand and use. This is, without a doubt, the second Blackjack book that every card counter should own.