Norm Wattenberger is the author of Casino Verite Blackjack training software – widely regarded amongst the Blackjack playing community as one of the best training tool that anyone who’s looking to learn to count cards could have access to – and the fantastic books Modern Blackjack Vol I and II. Alongside this he’s a well-travelled and experience advantage player in his own right, who has been involved in a host of different profitable gaming endeavors and advised many of the most successful teams and players ever to have sat at the felt. He’s graciously agreed to take some time out to answer a few of our questions.
Many talented players interest in gambling and advantage play started at a young age, with a significant relative or friend fuelling their passion or even stumbling upon a book early in their lives that fired their imagination. Could you tell us a little about how you came to work in the field you do and what’s influenced the decisions you’ve made along the way?
Well, I have been interested in probability theory and gambling since my early-teens. But, had no concept of advantage play at the time. In my late-teens, I became interested in gaming simulation. Unfortunately, I had limited access to computers as they were still massive machines in the 1960’s. I really had no knowledge of beating casino games until stumbling upon Thorp’s book in the 70s. On influences, I have been very lucky. As a provider of Blackjack practice and simulation software, I have had the opportunity to talk to a remarkable number of players and researchers over the last couple of decades. The names in the Blackjack field are well known, and there are many players that contribute additional valuable advice and research on the various forums. But, there also exist far more experts that quietly ply their trade in casinos worldwide without public exposure. Years of chatting with such about requested changes to my software and other subjects has been more valuable than all the books and newsletters in my private library. I have also been able to collect private papers, team manuals, and other unpublished works that have influenced my views. Thinking back, I owe a great deal to my users.
When starting out, which count did you learn first? Did you consider any alternatives before deciding on the count you wanted to learn? Would you still start off with this count today or is there another system that has been developed since then that you’d recommend more strongly for an inexperienced player? How much practice did it take for you to become a profitable card counter?
I started with the Thorp Ten Count. A couple weeks later, I visited Lawrence Revere, and have used the Revere Point Count since. Frankly, I made these choices because they were the choices that existed in the mid-1970s. In those days, most people used a Revere count. Today, the most popular counts are HiLo and KO. I don’t know what I’d choose for myself if I started over. But, I suggest HiLo and KO more often than the more complex counts. As for time to become profitable, I was undisciplined when I started and had no concept of risk. Solving the discipline problem depends on the person. Fortunately, risk is much better understood now due to a great deal of research.
Over the years you have helped a huge number of players develop their skills, from inexperienced players to teams looking to tighten up their game; in your opinion what do you feel are the biggest barriers to a new player looking to count cards at a serious level today? Have these barriers changed since you started playing? Is it still possible to make a living counting cards?
No question that the rules have tightened over the decades. But, some of the largest impediments are the same. The first is due to the fact that many new counters started as gamblers. You need to completely cleanse your mind of gambling instincts and addictions. Serious advantage play is a job. The second is bankroll. Most new players underestimate the funds necessary to play with an acceptable level of risk.
Yes, it is possible to make a living counting cards. Although, I never advise anyone to join the life. These days, such players are more likely to spend time traveling to take advantage of casino promotions, looking for rebate deals, looking for advantages from sloppy dealers, looking for advantages in newer variations of games, and pooling funds to decrease risk.
I would also add that people have different goals. Some advantage players play as their main source of income. Some have jobs and pick up a bit of extra income. Some just want to know they can beat the casinos at their own game, enjoy the casino freebies, and really do not need to win.
You’ve consulted with some of the most successful teams ever to play Blackjack, helping them to develop and improve the strategies they’ve used to attack the game. Could you tell us a little about the different issues you’ve consulted on and some of the more interesting strategic problems you’ve helped solve? What do you feel was the benefit to you of helping these groups of players?
Most of my work with teams has been related to calculating projected profit and risk or providing specialized practice software. There are very sophisticated teams, and they don’t need my advice on technique. I have certainly profited by keeping up with techniques in use.
Beyond counting, there are many more advanced strategies that can be applied to beat the game of Blackjack; Shuffle Tracking, Ace Sequencing, Back Card Steering and Hole Carding to name but a few. How viable do you feel these approaches are against the modern game? Do you have much experience applying them yourself? They all generally involve manipulating the game to one degree or another through use of the cut card or selectively choosing the seat you take – what do you feel about the ethical ramifications of such plays? Are they really beating the game or are the beating the situation?
Opportunities for using such techniques have been reduced over the decades, but are certainly still viable, in particular hole-carding. My personal experience in these areas is far more on the analysis side. Generally, these are ethical strategies. However, there are players that I personally feel have gone past an ethical line.
Are there still new techniques to be discussed when it comes to beating blackjack?
Absolutely. (Sorry, that’s all I can say.)
A couple of the more controversial Advantage Play methods to be brought into the public arena in the last few years are Visual Ballistics (training your eye to help narrow where on the Roulette wheel the ball will land) and Dice Control (a technique for creating a higher probability of certain numbers coming up at the Craps table by practicing certain throws). These techniques are hard to validate, as unlike card game where they strategy can be computer simulated and examined over the statistical long run, the player either is skilled enough to perform them or their not and the only way to prove one way or the other is to have the player play a vast number of rounds and record the results. How viable do you feel these techniques are? Are these strategies that a dedicated player really has a chance of mastering or are they a nice idea on paper, but non-transferable to the real world?
I once firmly believed that Roulette was not beatable. Several things changed my mind – but the most important is a major difference between Roulette and other gambling games. In Roulette, you can bet after the game is put into motion. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this might lead to great opportunity. Yes, the ball has to pass through a gauntlet of frets before coming to rest. But, you don’t have to bet on one number, and you don’t have to be right all the time. If you can narrow it don’t to one quadrant, you can still be wrong half the time and have an enormous advantage. Having said all that, beating Roulette is not an easy task and substantial time is required to find the right dealer and wheel.
Dice control is another matter. Assuming that you are hitting the back wall, I personally don’t believe it is possible. I don’t know this 100%. I just don’t see it.
Several of the more infamous MIT team players have went on to offer seminars and one-to-one training to help players make the most of their game. Is this something you would ever consider doing? Do you feel this sort of mentoring is a worthwhile investment for a new player?
People learn in different ways. Some people are clearly aided by an intense, one-on-one approach. Some prefer reading and chatting. Personally, I can’t stand classrooms – either standing up front or sitting in the audience.
Your impact on the Blackjack world hasn’t been restricted to just playing and giving advice, you’ve also developed the most dynamic card counting training and analysis tool available on the market today. Where did your interest in computer programming stem from? Can you tell us a little about the first programs you developed entirely by yourself?
My first, useful application was rather unusual. Back in the 60’s, there was a joint National Science Foundation, University of Pennsylvania summer course in computing and advanced math. They used LGP-30 computers. These were 700 pound computers with vacuum tubes that were so slow you could see them multiply. But, one year, they found that they could not obtain the use of any of these machines. IBM came to the rescue by loaning them IBM 1130 computers. Only problem was that their course was totally built around the LGP-30 machine language and operating tools and the course was starting in weeks. They asked me to emulate the LGP-30 machine language and operating environment on the 1130s. Rather a ridiculous request as I was 17 at the time. Anyhow, I wrote an operating system and emulator which they used for the course, and I then spent the summer goofing off. Rather lucky for me as it started my career.
What was the initial spark that lead you to thinking about using your programming skills to develop a Blackjack training tool? Were you involved in programming for game analysis prior to that? How has Casino Verite evolved since its first release? Do you have any plans that you can tell us about for future development?
PCs were becoming popular, I wanted to gain experience in programming a PC, and offerings in Blackjack were mostly pitiful. The first release of CV was designed to run on a PC with one megabyte of RAM. A typical PC today has four gigabytes — 4,000 times as much RAM. So, there really isn’t much in common between the first and current versions. On the future, I don’t like to talk about new versions until shortly before they are due. I am constantly changing directions based on opportunities, and don’t like to talk about something unless I’m reasonably certain of timely release.
You’ve also developed software to act as a companion to the NFL and NBA sports handicapping of Dan Gordon and Lawrence Scott’s visual and audial Roulette systems. What new challenges did developing these products present?
Well, making a profit with niche software like this is an impossibility. But, I’m glad I participated in the projects as they gave me new insights into advantage play.
You’ve also authored two books – Modern Blackjack Vol I and II. Unusually however you went down the route of publishing them for free on the internet first and then offering hard copies for sale to those who want them. What was the thought process behind publishing the book for free? (you can find Modern Blackjack at http://qfit.com/book/index.htm)
Patience is not one of my virtues. I looked at the efforts of friends in selling a book and then dealing with the interminable process of getting it in print, had all these pages typed up and edited by Don Schlesinger, and couldn’t bear the concept of waiting a year for it to appear. So, I put it online. When requests for hardcopies came in, I followed Katarina Walker’s path when she self-published her great book, The Pro’s Guide to Spanish 21 and Australian Pontoon.
You’re well known as a prolific Advantage Play message board poster and have recently set up BlackjackTheForum.com to fill the void left by the closure of Ken Smith’s BlackjackInfo.com message boards. What benefits do you personally feel you gain from contribution to such forums? Are they useful places for inexperienced players to get quality advice about the game? Advantage Play forums are notorious for ‘flame wars’ as posters often question the motives and skills of their fellow forum members. How do you approach moderating such a volatile community in a fair and reasonable manner?
I was very sad to see Ken Smith’s board close for new posts. I had no interest in running a forum myself, as I had talked to others about the problems and had had some experience myself in the ARPANET days. I liken it to horn-blowing in traffic. If you are standing in a line at the grocery store, and the person in front of you is slow at paying, you don’t yell at the top of your lungs. But, in a car, wrapped in two tons of steel and glass, people tend to lean on their horns. And on the Internet, wrapped in their homes, some people tend to destroy the experience for others, and in some cases, cause serious damage.
A couple of weeks after Ken made his closing announcement, a new Blackjack site appeared with an un-moderated “Outlaw” forum suggesting that Ken’s members join. There was no way that I was going to participate on a forum that had an un-moderated section. Luckily, I just happened to own an unused Vbulletin license and was familiar with its operation. Within two hours, I put up an alternative site, which became BlackjackTheForum.com. So far, we’ve been lucky in keeping flame-wars squelched, partially due to a no politics or religion rule, and partially due to the fact that people saw what happened on Ken’s site and didn’t want to see a repeat.
You also run another site – http://www.blackjack-scams.com/ – that specifically focuses in on the different dishonest systems whether that be unfair rules or procedures offered by various offline casino or the host of bogus systems being sold online. When did it first occur to you to compile this information on its own site? What was the impetuous behind setting this site up? Was it just simply trying to protect players or was there a specific incident that motivated you to put this project together?
I don’t like cons, and gambling addicts are easy prey for conmen. There are professionals in the gambling field. There are people that play purely for entertainment, and budget for a loss. Then, there are problem gamblers looking for get-rich schemes. I don’t want a user of mine’s spouse waking up to find the toaster pawned, and I link to the National Council on Problem Gambling on most of the pages on my main site.
The specific incident behind the Blackjack Scams site, was the invention of 6:5 Blackjack, which I believe to be the largest scam every perpetrated in casino history, far more costly than all the scam gambling systems pedaled on the ‘Net. Indeed, 6:5 Blackjack is a contradiction in terms. If Blackjack pays 6:5, it ain’t Blackjack.
In recent months we’ve seen some progress toward the US re-joining – at least partially – the online gaming market. How do you feel about this? Do you think it’s likely that US customers will ever again be allowed to play wherever they want?
The UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) was snuck into a port security act literally in the middle of the night, never debated, never read before Congress, not seen by the Senate-House Conference Committee that approved the overall bill, and voted on by the Senate and House even though only a handful of the legislators knew the language had been added. The rest of the world must find is humorous that the “Land of the Free” is one of the few places where you don’t have the freedom to use I’Net gambling sites. Having gotten that of my chest, it’s impossible to say what this area will look like five years from now. Legislation proposed so far appears to try to limit players to playing in their own states or within some other boundaries. Sounds like a gross violation of international trade law. But, the U.S. has been ignoring WTO rulings for years related to Internet gambling. In some form or other, the U.S. will again see online gambling. If we are lucky, we will see opportunities, at least in the earlier days, from promotions made necessary by competition. After all, it is much easier to travel from one online site to another than one brick-and-mortar casino to another – and that engenders competition. On the other hand, U.S. casinos are far more greedy than in the golden days of Las Vegas gaming, and have a habit of slow learning.
Finally, in a life long past I used to be involved in music journalism and I’m always fascinated to hear about different people’s tastes and opinions when it comes to music. Could you give us your top five albums?
No. I can’t because it depends on my mood, or the mood I want to move to. And five is far, far too few. In my younger days, I’d wake up, and put on a cut before going off to work. Then another cut. After a while, I’d realize the sun had gone down and I had forgotten to go to work. I’m not that nutty these days; but I get upset at myself, and Apple, if I’m out and my iPod battery runs out.
It’s a rare album where I like more than one or two cuts. I still listen to Led Zeppelin, Cream, Dylan and many others from older days. Side story. I was mistaken for Jimmy Page by a pit boss at Caesar’s Palace in the 80s. Could have had great fun trashing a suite if only I could have faked a British accent. Lately, I’ve posted videos on the misc. page on my forum from disparate artists like Joe Bonamassa, The Kills, Dido, Sully Erna, White Stripes, Beth Hart, and Tom Waits. No good songs about Blackjack come to mind. But, my iPod does include Leonard Cohen’s piece “The Stranger Song” about a Poker player.
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