May 10, 2004
Beating the house

The History Channel has run and will run again a documentary called Breaking Vegas, based on a book called Bringing Down the House about a group of MIT students who learned card-counting techniques and won a ton of money at the casinos. I'm gonna have to set the TiVo to record the next showing of this, not because there's anything revolutionary to me about card counting but because I'd like to know how they kept house security from figuring out who they were and what they were doing. I mean, casinos have known about card counters for years and won the right to bar them in 1981. These guys apparently got caught some of the time, according to that Chron story, but not often enough to prevent them from raking in a tidy sum. I want to know how they did it.

I have to say, my favorite story about beating the casinos is chronicled in a book called The Eudaemonic Pie, and it involves a bunch of counterculture engineers who figured out a way to beat roulette by creating a mathematical model to predict roughly where the ball would land, designing and building tiny computers which were kept in their shoes to do the math at the roulette table, and working out a system where one player did the work and signalled another how to bet. Bear in mind, all of this was done in the late 70s/early 80s, well before the micro revolution. It's pretty damn amazing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 10, 2004 to Technology, science, and math | TrackBack

Watch it - it's a fascinating story. Playboy did a nice article on the same group last year and gave a lot of the operational details.

Short version: they were teams, each team member having a particular job. Some bet, some didn't. One member was a counter, one watched for security, three bet using diffferent styles. They had a series of codewords and phrases to communicate (commenting on the weather might mean the deck is face card rich).

A late friend of mine was a counter and good at it. Never got caught but 5 deck shoes put him out of business.

Posted by: Charles M on May 10, 2004 3:00 PM

I read some of the book, and Charles is right. Vegas catches the good card counters (they welcome the bad ones) by watching their betting patterns. Card counters bet in a very precise way.

So the MIT team had the people actually doing the card counting play the same bet, hand after hand. Other members of the team would change their bets, but would move from table to table to avoid the regular patterns (IE, they wouldn't be changing their bet size, but rather floating between tables with the same bet).

It was pretty complex and effective as hell. The people doing the card counting never changed bets, so no one looked at them twice. The people making all the money were floating from table to table, hitting them when they were ripe, and then moving on when they started losing (as high rollers sometimes do. Who wants an "unlucky" table?). Other players would change their bet, but in such a way as to look like they were "reacting" to the floaters big wins.

If I remember correctly, they got caught because several teams were all spotted together at a tennis match. Considering they were acting, in the casino, as if they didn't know each other and were from different places and walks of life....

It made security suspicious, and once they knew who to look for, they were able to work out who was doing what. Still, the MIT kids made a ton...

Posted by: Morat on May 10, 2004 3:43 PM


Thanks for the correction on the process. The role playing was one of the more interesting aspects of the story.

Incidentally, once you are marked as a counter, you are history, at least in Vegas. You will not be permitted in a casino. I think Vegas and Atlantic City now swap blacklists.

Posted by: Charles M on May 10, 2004 4:21 PM

Charles, if you liked The Eudaemonic Pie (which is great fun) you may be interested in another book by the same writer and again starring Doyne Farmer and Norm Packard called... ummm... The Predictors, in which a bunch of counterculture engineers and nonlinear physicists get handed ridiculous amounts of money and computing power by Wall Street in an attempt to revolutionize quantitative analysis. Here's a review.

Posted by: Steve on May 10, 2004 5:46 PM

One interesting note on the story is that the kids didn't play just for themselves. They had venture capitalists who would fund them from a quarter million on up for trips. Most of them are now blacklisted across the country, Atlantic City included.

Interesting interview with the link. The idea that they don't let smart people play is one of the major reasons I hate casinos. There was a REALLY bad mob-comedy movie years ago called Mafia! and at one point the narrative from the main character says "The smart ones would just walk in, give us their money, and leave."

True, except for the smart ones who don't go in at all ;)

Posted by: Buhallin on May 11, 2004 9:19 AM

I watched the show on the discovery network and was fascinated. I would love to get my greedy hands on a copy of the book but before I do, do any of you know if the book tells you how to count the cards? Or, is it the story of who?what?where?why? and how they did it?

Posted by: Andrew Wright on January 7, 2005 9:11 PM