Semyon Dukach has rightly earned his place in the annals of history as one of the lynch pins involved in the organisation, management and key strategists involved in what is arguably both one of the most successful card counting teams ever to have operated and one of the most successful incarnations of that team. His exploits are documented in Ben Mezrich's 'Busting Vegas' and the History Channel's documentary 'Breaking Vegas'.
For those readers here who aren’t familiar with your story, could you give us a brief outline of what the main MIT card counting team did and more specifically how your specialised crew played?
Basically we practiced card counting and other techniques for getting an edge at blackjack, and then went to casinos and tried to win as much money as we could.
Ben Mezrich’s ‘Busting Vegas’ seems to make out that you moved straight on to playing as part of a very advanced group of players – is that how it happened or did you play with a counting team before moving on to the advanced techniques (card steering, ace sequencing and shuffle tracking)?
I did learn counting first, but right away I started doing card steering and later some ace sequencing, and minimal shuffle tracking. I was very dedicated to the idea of professional blackjack, worked very hard, and did in fact become one of the strongest players early on.
Could you give us a rough outline of the timeline of events, from you joining Strategic Investments (SI) to your eventual retirement from the game?
The blackjack timeline for me started in 1980 or 81. I came to the US from Russia at the age of 11 in 1979, and the thing I enjoyed most was playing the new video games, especially PacMan. Each game cost a quarter, but I would generally only have one quarter to spend every few days, so I was motivated to learn how to play better. I solved the problem by going to the library, and looking up PacMan in the card catalogue. It turned out there was exactly one book on the subject, Mastering PacMan by Ken Uston. I had studied it closely, and soon could play as long as I wanted on a single quarter. After that I naturally wanted to know what else that brilliant man has written, and that’s how I discovered everything about blackjack, card counting, and gorilla BP team play. So when I met
the MIT guys years later, I knew exactly what I was getting into, and was confident it would be worth the effort.
Beyond that, the timeline was: 92-93 Strategic Investments, summer of 94 Hickock team with JP and Andy Bloch, fall 94 brief stint on combined post SI team, 95-97 heyday of Amphibian Investments with me leading as the primary instigator, 98 sporadic part time play or investing as Amphibian also split into multiple groups, and I was busy with Fast Engines which I started in ’97. No team play or really any play worth mentioning since 98.
The advanced techniques described in Busting Vegas are notoriously difficult to perform – many advantage players who try end up losing money due to their own mistakes – how long did it take you to get good enough to perform these techniques profitably during live play?
It’s not hard to apply them in perfect conditions. It’s easy however to lose money when you try to do them regardless of circumstances. I probably played a losing game on occasion in the beginning as well, but eventually learned to rely on simple counting much of the time, and only pull out the more lucrative methods when the actual conditions warranted it, which had much to do with the precise way a particular dealer executed the shuffle and cut process.
‘Busting Vegas’ makes out that you were backed off very very quickly after you started playing with the advanced techniques. Did it really happen that quickly or did it take the casinos time to figure out what was going on?
My longest stint was at Caesars in 93 as Nikolai Nogov, I think I went about 3 months with almost every weekend doing cuts mostly before finally getting kicked out. Generally though we did get heat fast. I think my first barring was in the bahamas with [Johnny] Chang in the fall of 92, and I’ve been in Griffin ever since.
Did the casinos ever figure out the specifics of what you were doing, or were they simply backing you off because they decided you were winning too much?
Usually neither. They backed us off when they saw us with other counters they recognized, or when Griffin warned them. Sometimes they did figure us out, but rarely. And winning wasn’t always a problem, though they did watch us more closely when we won. Of course we only won about 60% of trips at best.
A lot of stories are told about the back rooming of card counters and other advantage players – can you tell us about your experiences with this practice? How many time have you actually been back roomed? Have you or any of the players that you played with ever experienced any violence?
3 or 4 times. No violence, but some thinly veiled threats. The story about monte carlo was pretty accurate (except it happened with Katie and Andy [Bloch], not some fictional blended characters). People I knew have been threatened more explicitly. People they knew have been hurt, but before my time, and generally outside the US.
In Ben Mezrich’s other book about blackjack – ‘Bringing Down the House’ – many of the events depicted in the story only vaguely resemble the actual events that occurred, when indeed they occurred at all. I was hoping you could help us out by giving us the real story behind some of the big events in Busting Vegas:
During the teams trip to Aruba, in the book you ultimately end up getting robbed at gun point on a golf course on the island of all the winnings you’d earned and ultimately barred from ever coming back to the entire island? What’s the real story behind your trip to Aruba?
I got backed off on the 2nd trip, and gently asked to stay the hell away, but I’ve been back to windsurf many times. The gun point story is real, but it happened to someone else (someone [Johnny] Chang knew) and on another island.
In Atlantic City, the story depicts you getting pulled into a car at gun point and robbed outside a casino, by what appears to be two junkies who had watched you play and win. Did this happen and if so could you tell us how you felt and how it eventually turned out?
It was based on something that happened to me in Houston when I was delivering Pizza in high school, and I was in fact robbed at gun point in a very scary incident, taken for a long ride in the back seat not knowing whether I would come out alive. It got transposed by the author into the general background of Atlantic City violence, but it didn’t really happen there. At the time I didn’t do anything to discourage him from such liberties, which is something I now regret, and accept shared responsibility for the fact that the book is only about half true.
One of the biggest events in the book happens right at the start with you and a team mate being involved in the crash of a small plane and running back to the burning wreckage to pull out the money stashed in the plane. Can you describe for us the events of that night? Was that the end of the team flying themselves back and forth? Have you ever been back in a plane that small again?
It was [Johnny] Chang’s plane, he had just learned to fly it, and not very well at that. The incident was described accurately. I was afraid of small planes for a few years, but since then have taken some lessons, and in fact learned to fly helicopters and received a private pilot’s licence. I’m on the board
of terrafugia.com, and when that plane is available I expect to buy one and fly it.
The book talks about the team using an old safe in one of the basements of MIT to store the team bankroll – is this actually where you kept your funds?
Yes. Eventually that safe was transported by an industrial flat bed truck into the basement of a house I owned, and it’s there as far as I know to this day, though I sold the house years ago. It was a very cool ancient safe, I think MIT used it for payroll in the thirties.
During the teams trip to Europe you would have encountered the European casinos requirement for ID on entry – how did you cope with this? Did you simply play under your own name?
Yep, real name in Europe. Which was why we never lasted long there, except in the occasional place that didn’t share info like Barcelona.
The book reaches its climax with some dramatic events in Monte Carlo. Would you mind giving us your own account of what happened during and after your session at the Casino de Paris?
It was pretty much as Ben [Mezrich] described it. Snide cops, threats of long jail time, separate interrogations in the police basement, and a stern warning in the morning to never return. I want to come back and sue their ass one day, but I haven’t gotten around to it.
At the end of the book you reach out to a PI who’s been investigating your team and has ultimately had you backed off from many casinos to help locate a friend who may be in trouble – did you really do that? If so do you feel it ultimately affected your ability to play afterwards?
Yes. I reached out just like was written. Except it was not about the person with the drug issues who in fact based on a real player, it was a different player who apparently had some form of clinical depression and fell asleep in a room for a few days. But the investigator helped me find him, it was absolutely true.
What are the most significant departures from fact in Busting Vegas?
I'd say the heavy use of composite characters, where entire lives were mixed together into a virtual person. For instance there was no woman in whom i had a romantic interest on the team at all. In fact i was married and had a young kid, so that's pretty significant.
Also the meeting in the brothel was pure fiction.
In Busting Vegas several chapters were told from the author's perspective and a few were set in the casino. Did you teach Ben to perform the advanced techniques?
I did play with him once just to show him how it's done. I steered a ten and he was amazed to see it work. So that was true.
Why did you ultimately stop playing? Do you miss it?
It was a waste of my time to continue. We didn’t produce anything valuable, no one ever thanked us for our efforts, and the money was much less than starting internet companies. Also the challenge of beating casinos wore off with time, especially as I realised how dumb most people who worked there were. I love my job now as an angel investor (earlyglobal.com), helping young passionate startups with money and advice, and I wouldn’t spend my time doing anything else.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to learn to count? How about if they want to progress their game onto the advanced techniques?
Don’t waste your time. Try to find something important to improve in the world, and work hard at it instead. Find your passion, but find it in something positive for others, not in an empty zero sum game. But if they are still determined, there’s plenty of books around. Read them all, then like the joke: How do you get to Carnegie hall ? Practice, practice, practice.
Do you feel that the advanced techniques are still widely useable or are those days over?
I suspect they were never widely useable. They were useable on occasion, and they probably still are.
What was the most you ever bet on a single round or Blackjack when counting? How about when using the Advanced Techniques?
2 hands of $10k. 4 hands of $10k.
Did you play any games other than Blackjack?
Poker for occasional recreation.
Can you tell us another interesting or exciting story from your playing career that wasn’t covered in Busting Vegas?
Can’t think of one right now, Ben [Mezrich] milked me pretty dry and added a bit to what I gave him at that.
You have two blackjack training DVDs out (‘Counting and Betting Techniques’ and ‘Advanced Techniques’) and offer private training for both blackjack and poker players. Tell us a little bit about the training you offer and who you think it would be useful for?
I don’t do any of that, but a friend [Nathaniel Tilton - interview coming soon] has taken over the blackjackscience.com site, and he still sells my old DVDs. They are good for someone who wants to understand how we played. He also wrote a
great new book about his own team play (he learned counting at one of my seminars) [titled The Blackjack Life].
Tell us about the other projects you’ve been working on since leaving advantage play behind?
I took smtp.com public, but mostly I’m focusing on angel investing, have about 20 companies I’m helping right now, with modest amounts of money and huge amounts of advice and help. Earlyglobal.com is the website. I also do a bit of writing. Search my name and the Washington post. And I announced an award: troublemakeraward.org.
Finally if you had to pick one casino as your all time favourite place to play, which one would it be?
I hate casinos. I hated them all. That’s helped motivate me to take their money. It’s absurd for me to describe a place as my favorite. They lie to people and take their money. Fuck them all.
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