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Million Dollar Blackjack

– By Ken Uston

“The opportunity for winning is out there. Games in Nevada, Atlantic City and abroad can be beaten. The only real question is WHETHER YOU ARE CONVINCED THAT YOU CAN BECOME A WINNING BLACKJACK PLAYER.”

Million Dollar Blackjack is a great mixture of instruction and story. Just when your brain starts to overflow with charts and numbers, Ken gladly regales you with tales from his heyday. The book has something for every level of player, from the recreational gambler to the comp hustler to the aspiring professional and many more. It also introduces the reader to many different advanced techniques and playing styles. This is a great book for someone who wants to get a good overview of professional play and discover what options are available.

You can buy Million Dollar Blackjack here.

About the Author

If there’s one thing you can say about Ken Uston, it’s that he was a very entertaining guy. By all accounts he was a showman who loved to be the center of attention and he really knew how to tell a story. In those days you could find him in numerous magazine and newspaper articles, TV shows, and even computer manuals. But unlike Bringing Down the House or the movie 21, this book is a first-hand account written by the guy who lived it. The names have been changed and perhaps a few details were exaggerated (and you’ll have to excuse him for taking credit for a few things that his teammates did). These aren’t fictionalized stories from an author who has never played the game, these are the true stories of the guys who made history and changed the game (and the casinos) forever.

Ken is one of the original inductees to the Blackjack Hall of Fame back in 2002, where you’ll also find the characters “Al Francesco”, “Jerry” and “Daryl” mentioned in this book. Other members of these teams have been nominated but not yet inducted.

Overview
Chapter 1

Ken starts with a short history of gambling and card counting, giving a basic description of how card counting works and how counting systems have developed over the years. This is good for absolute beginners as it serves as a “proof of concept” for card counting, but most people these days at least know the basics.

Chapter 2

Now we get the story of how Ken was introduced to blackjack and recruited to Al Francesco’s team. Right from the start we hear stories of big wins, big losses, being repeatedly barred, and even arrested. The stories are sensationalized but the message is sincere: This is what to expect from counting cards. The swings can be crazy and the burnout rate is high. If the casino bosses don’t kick you out, you might just quit out of frustration and disappointment. This is the story that most books and movies never tell you about, but it is the biggest lesson that every serious player learns. Ken shares this gut-wrenching story right away, even before he shows us how to play basic strategy. It serves as a solemn warning, yet still manages to inspire and encourage the reader to follow in his footsteps. Like I said, this guy knows how to tell a story.

Chapter 3

This is a very short introduction to mathematical expectation and variance. It gives the reader a general idea of the concepts and explains their importance, but the details are not discussed until later in the book. This is just a quick glimpse of how different playing styles compare and what sort of hourly win rate can be expected.

Chapter 4

This chapter describes how the game is played and gives some common (at the time) rule variations. It also shows how the house edge changes for different rule sets. This is a very important lesson to learn since game selection is a crucial part of success for a card counter. Many novice players may not even realize that the rules can change from one casino to another, or even at different tables within the same casino. Showing the effects on the house edge is good motivation for players to scout out the best conditions they can find, even if they are just recreational players.

Chapter 5

This chapter covers basic strategy, which tells you how to play every hand that can be dealt. This is the foundation of all blackjack play. Like the previous chapter, it also shows different rule variations and describes how to alter your strategy to play them properly. It includes several sets of flashcards to help the student practice. Although many of these rule sets are uncommon these days, it is good to show the effects that cause both the house edge and the playing decisions.

Chapter 6

Here we are shown a comparison of some common card counting systems. A small chart compares the Betting Efficiency (BC) and Playing Efficiency (PE) of a few systems as well as a weighted “composite” score. The Insurance Correlations (IC) are not included but they are available online or in other books for the interested student.

While charts like this can be helpful for a general comparison, they really don’t give you any sense of how much more powerful one system is in relation to another. It doesn’t really give the reader any idea how much more one system will earn over another, it simply serves as a broad comparison of the strength of various systems.

Ken takes this opportunity to show us his own simple counting system, humbly titled the Uston Simple Point Count. It is similar to standard level-1 systems like HiLo, but it has a few interesting aspects that make it unique.

The first interesting aspect is that it does not use a true count conversion. It is played as a running count system similar to unbalanced systems like KO and Zen. It uses two “strike numbers” to indicate positive and negative situations, similar to the Key Count in unbalanced systems but without the need for an Initial Running Count offset.

The second aspect is that it groups all of the basic strategy deviations into two groups – a plus count group and a minus count group. It is equivalent to having three different basic strategies for different deck compositions.

These aspects make it simpler than a typical unbalanced system. Although it is also less effective, I can see how it might be useful for an Advantage Player who is using a stronger technique simultaneously (e.g. playing a side bet or shuffle tracking).

Chapter 7

Story time again, and not a minute too soon! The last few chapters are very informative but also fairly dense. If you are new to the game then your head is probably spinning.

Ken starts by telling us about his first computer teams. Back in the 1970s personal computers were a fairly new concept. Not many people had them and even fewer people knew how to build and program them. This was long before the days of buying an Arduino with Bluetooth at your local electronics store. The casinos were very slow to react to these machines, and it wasn’t until 1985 that they were officially outlawed as cheating devices in Nevada casinos. This gave groups like Thorp/Shannon (1961), Uston/Taft (1970’s), the Eudamons (late 1970’s), Lichtman (1980’s), Goldberg/Hyland (1980’s), and Purpose/Munchkin (1983) over 20 years to leverage this new technology to their advantage. Ken gives us a rare glimpse into one of the first groups to play computer-perfect blackjack.

When Ken’s computer teams disbanded he moved on to the Gorilla BP style of play, where the BP has minimal blackjack training and simply follows the betting and playing signals from his counter partner. The biggest advantage of this approach is that the BP can be completely oblivious to the game and will seem inconspicuous to anyone watching. The biggest disadvantage of this approach is that it is very complicated and prone to numerous debilitating errors. Ken chronicles these frustrations, as well as a few others, in this section. It serves as a good lesson to players of all levels about the importance of system simplicity, good game selection, and ample training and testing of all team members. Any experienced card counter knows how much of a discouraging grind it can be. Ken is able to capture that aggravation and regret in these pages.

Chapter 8

In this chapter we are shown the Uston Advanved Point Count (UAPC), which is a level-3 counting system that requires an ace side count. It is one of the most powerful counting systems but also one of the most cumbersome. We are given even more flash cards (Kenny loves these things!) as well as some good training methods that can be applied to other counting systems as well. This system is definitely not for beginners, and even experienced players will debate the practicality of such a complicated system. It is a good reference, but a motivated player will probably find much more value in other techniques described later in the book.

Chapter 9

Now we start getting into the interesting stuff. This chapter covers betting strategies and includes advice on calculating betting spreads for different bankroll sizes, risk of ruin, expectation, multiple hand betting, and long run probabilities. This is the stuff that will make or break a card counter. Although it is a little short on math, it is a great introduction to these crucial concepts.

Unfortunately, I think this chapter should have been much longer. He talks about how the short-term bankroll swings will fit within the standard bell curve, but he doesn’t give any way for the reader to calculate the frequency or magnitude of the swings. This is rather simple math and it can give the aspiring card counter a realistic expectation of what the short-term variance will be like. I feel like this is something that most novice players are completely unprepared for. The discussion of risk of ruin should have been more thorough as well. We get a vague chart of 10%, 5% and 3% ruin levels, but I think most players would cringe at that much risk. I would like to see some formulas or methods for the reader to create their own level of risk that they are comfortable with.

Chapter 10

The art of single deck play. Single deck games that are vulnerable to card counting are not nearly as common as they were when Million Dollar Blackjack was written, but there are still some gems that can be found in this chapter. Again we are reminded of the importance of good game selection, but this time we are shown some ways of creating a good game. A few methods of camouflage are also briefly mentioned. These techniques can be used in multiple deck games as well. We will see more advanced strategies for single deck play later in this book.

Chapter 11

This chapter focuses on games that use multiple decks, which are much more common these days. Ken shares with us some of his training exercises and practice routines using his Advanced Point Count. You really get a sense of how “clunky” his advanced system is, although once you become adept at it the calculations can be done in a fraction of a second.

He also gives some advice on betting spreads for different games and some techniques to adapt your spread as your bankroll grows. Just don’t take his estimated win rates as gospel. Many of the games he describes have evolved into much tougher games. You aren’t going to find dealers standing on soft 17 and allowing early surrender (or even late surrender) as much as he did. For that reason I suggest getting your betting advice from another book, like Don Schlesinger’s Blackjack Attack.

Chapter 12

This chapter outlines a few different team playing techniques such as BP, Gorilla BP, and insurance counters. This will give a novice player a general idea of the mechanics behind these techniques, and more experienced players can find ways to adapt these methods into more advanced strategies. He also shows the power of leveraging a joint bankroll and the variance smoothing effects of having multiple players sharing their results. While he doesn’t really give complete strategies here, he does give the reader enough information to customize their approach for the games that are available to them.

Chapter 13

This is the final “story” chapter of the book. It describes the events that lead up to “Black Tuesday” in Atlantic City (January 30, 1979) and some of the aftermath.

Right from the beginning we are again reminded of the importance of good game selection and sufficient training. (Are you getting the hint yet?) As Kenny put it, “…it was going to be a long, slow grind.” But after several weeks of playing, and some clever cooperation with other teams, Ken’s team was able to win $135,000 before the Gaming Commission pulled the plug. What happened next would change the history of New Jersey gambling forever.

Chapter 14

In this chapter we are introduced to front loading, which is when the player can catch a glimpse of the dealer’s hole card as it is being dealt. He discusses how the technique works, how to find opportunities and how to play them. As in the other chapters, his betting advice is bit too aggressive for me (and probably most Advantage Players). He also provides a simplified playing strategy, but since the full strategy isn’t that difficult to learn (especially after removing the “bonehead” plays like hitting 19 vs. 20), I would suggest ignoring it completely. Ken provides a good introduction to hole card play but serious students should follow up with the book Beyond Counting by James Grosjean, ideally the second edition titled Exhibit CAA. The playing and betting advice is far superior.

Chapter 15

Spooking is the act of glimpsing the dealer’s hole card from behind the table when they check for a blackjack. The value of the card can then be signaled to players at the table who can use that knowledge to vary their playing strategy, similar to hole carding. This technique was used in the old days before the dealers used mirror checkers (MAXTime) or electronic checkers (No Peek 21) to check for a blackjack. I honestly don’t know how many of these opportunities still exist. [EDITOR’S NOTE – Spooking may be of questionable legality]

There is also a brief explanation of playing against warped cards. In some situations the warps, nicks, scratches, or other marks that come from normal wear-and-tear can be used to identify the location of certain cards. This can also be applied to cards that have design, printing or cutting errors.

This chapter, along with the previous one, introduces the reader to more advanced techniques than simple card counting. They offer a much stronger advantage, but they are also much more “fickle” as they rely on a very specific set of circumstances. It requires a great combination of luck and skill to make those situations happen, and even a slight change can kill the play.

Chapter 16

Here we learn about a few different methods of cheating, both by the dealer and the player. It covers the usual material like peeking, dealing seconds, palming cards, and capping bets. It also delves into more blatant techniques such as incomplete shuffling and the “dealer’s choice” maneuver. Like many other chapters, it includes stories of actual casino experiences to illustrate the lessons.

Chapter 17

Ken shares few stories of some of his memorable barrings and some advice on ways to avoid them. The camouflage advice is mostly geared towards BPs and high rollers. That being said, the definition of “high roller” differs from casino to casino. Some places will call “cheques play” on a single green chip bet while others will cash multiple purples without requiring any ID. There is some good general advice here, but the reader will need to decide how much cover is necessary for their level of play and which techniques they are comfortable with.

The section describing the Griffin Agency is very outdated. Over the years they have made some very poor business/ethical decisions and have lost a lot of respect in the industry, as well as a crucial lawsuit filed against them. Their “mug book” has been replaced by an online database that is much more easily searchable, but they have struggled to compete in the gaming market. Other surveillance databases, such as Biometrica and OSN/Red Hand, have advanced searching capabilities and can even be used with facial recognition software. Casinos sometimes subscribe to more than one service, as well as having their own in-house systems that may be networked with their sister properties. Other software packages can evaluate a player’s strategy (usually after the fact, but sometimes real-time evaluation is possible) and indicate whether they are likely to be counting, spotting hole cards, etc.

Chapter 18

What Ken calls “caddy blackjack” is a private game hosted by individuals instead of a casino. These home games can range from purely social gatherings to serious cash games. He describes some of the rules that were common at the time and shares a few interesting stories of his experiences with them.

He also gives advice on how to play them and how to host them. He covers things like EV, bankroll requirements and ways to enhance the hourly win rate. The advice is all pretty solid and can be applied to other situations like non-Native American card rooms where players get a chance to bank the games, “casino night” parties and fundraisers, and private card tournaments or poker nights.

Chapter 19

This chapter describes the playing conditions outside of the United States. We are again reminded of the importance of good game selection and scouting for the best playing conditions. As Ken points out, casinos often change the rules of their games, the number of tables available, and their dealing procedures. On top of that, the games can sometimes vary from table to table and from dealer to dealer. For that reason Ken treats this more of a description of games that they have found instead of a list of what the reader should expect to find in different countries.

The real value of this chapter is the playing deviations for certain rule changes and the solid scouting advice. This is something that every player will have to do for themselves and this chapter helps prepare the reader for that job. He also sneaks in a reference to shuffle tracking.

Chapter 20

This chapter covers comp hustling. We are shown a few ways to take advantage of casino freebies such as free rooms, meals, show tickets, and souvenirs. While the strategies are generally sound, the casinos are not always as lax as they have been in the old days. Most casinos keep a close eye on black chips and higher, so players need to be very careful if they decide to hide chips in their pockets. When done properly it can create the illusion of a bigger loss, but when done improperly it can destroy a player’s record. When you walk away from a table with chips in your pocket, the casino personnel may assume that every chip missing from the float was taken by you, especially if they know that you sometimes slip chips into your pockets during play. This can cause the casino to think that you are a much bigger winner than you really are. However, if you can cause the casino personnel to think that another player walked away with the chips in your pocket, you will be viewed as a more desirable customer.

So although the techniques in this chapter can still be effective, the player needs to be a little more creative (and careful) in order to pull them off.

Chapter 21

Casino tournaments can be a very lucrative pursuit, as well as an exciting way to spend a comped vacation. Some professional players even focus on tournaments and casino promotions exclusively. There can be huge advantages in some cases, but other times it is purely a game of luck. The rules can vary greatly from one event to the next so you need to read the rules very carefully to know whether there will be any element of skill involved and what the odds might be.

Unfortunately this chapter really does not prepare the reader at all. The advice ranges from vague (sometimes hit more often, other times don’t) to flat out wrong (play aggressively when the dealer is “cold”). An interested student should read Stanford Wong’s Casino Tournament Strategy and Ken Smith’s How to Win More Blackjack Tournaments.

Conclusion

The main questions for any book, especially one this old, are “Is the information accurate?” and “Is the information relevant?”

The information in this Million Dollar Blackjack is very reliable. Of course there are things that could be argued against, like the practicality of using a level-3 counting system and a 5% risk of ruin, but those are things that each player will decide for themselves. Million Dollar Blackjack covers a wide range of topics and allows the reader to investigate the ones that seem practical and interesting. Ken touches on everything from card counting, hole carding, shuffle tracking, team play, comp hustling, tournament play, and much more. He also shows the cold realities that Advantage Players deal with on a daily basis. When you read these stories, you are hearing them from a guy who actually made these plays in casinos, got barred and possibly arrested, and still came home with the money. This is as close as you are going to get to the “real deal” in any publicly published book. Ken’s other books go into more detail about the stories, but this book actually describes the techniques that they were using to earn the money.

The information in this book is surprisingly relevant. Obviously things have changed a lot since Kenny’s day, but the foundations of the book are just as relevant today as they were back then. The casinos have changed but the scouting techniques are the same. The games have changed but the playing techniques are still applicable. You’re probably not going to find a “Strip Rules” single-deck game with S17 and DA2 that pays 3:2, but you will know that a H17 D10-11 game is worse than a S17 DAS game and you can adjust your playing strategy (and travel plans) accordingly.

Although this book won’t give you everything you need to know about card counting, it will give you a much broader view of the world of Advantage Play and help to guide you in whatever direction you want to go.

You can buy Million Dollar Blackjack here.