Originally published in Gambit Weekly, 1995
“I know what you’re doing!” the motel manager shouts. “I know what you’re doing!”
His yells rise above an ugly beachfront hotel on the fringe of Biloxi, Miss., a few miles from the city’s casino strip. It is late Friday afternoon. We’re about to get thrown out of our room.
“What are you talking about?” Darryl asks, acting innocent. He follows the manager, a thin, older man who, at the moment, is carrying an armful of clean sheets from room to room.
“Would you stop and tell me what you’re talking about?” Darryl pleads again.
Darryl is captain of a three-man team of professional blackjack players who count cards for a living. He arrived in Biloxi the night before, driving a rented car with a suitcase in the trunk, packed with $28,000 in cash, all in hundreds.
The commotion wakes John, a professional player who, like Darryl, has been counting cards for 15 years. John has prematurely gray hear and a four-month losing streak that surrounds him in a palpable cloud of defeat. Our third player, Edis, walks sleepily out of a back room. He’s a thin, long-haired Lithuanian immigrant who is learning to play blackjack to supplement his career as a photographer.
Darryl returns to the room and starts packing. “We have to go. I think the manager’s listening to our phone calls.”
It later becomes clear that the manager grew suspicious when he looked into our room and saw stacks of bills and purple $500 chips. Nobody with that kind of money stays in a dump like this. A room of pale vampires or drug dealers sleeping all day with the curtains drawn, and then going out all night? Not in his hotel.
Darryl looks especially suspect, a massive, Brando-esque 36-year-old with a soft beard and a softer voice. His all-black attire is topped by a black hat, which looks very strange in the bright Biloxi summer sun.
I’m the fourth man on the team, here for the weekend only. I’ve never played a card game in a casino in my life. Nonetheless, I’ve been enlisted for my qualifications: I can take directions and I live near Biloxi. My position is called “Big Player,” or “B.P.” If all goes well, I’ll be sitting at a blackjack table for the next two days, reading the card counter’s hand signals, betting thousands of the team’s dollars.
Or, I might be tapped on the shoulder by an unfriendly “pit boss” and booted out of the casino.
That’s my other qualification: I’m expendable.
There’s a card-counting scene in the movie Rain Man in which a savant’s total recall is all that’s needed to break the house. In Martin Scorsese’s Casino, a pair of professional blackjack players are dragged to a back room where a thug chops off one of their fingers. The reality, however, is that professional blackjack playing is tedious work, and the casinos are making it harder.
“Not as many people are doing it full-time now,” says John, wistfully. The team agrees that there are no more than a hundred career card counters world-wide, not counting amateurs and weekend warriors.
Even for the pros, luck (John calls it “standard deviation”) is still a factor. There are lost hands, repeatedly. That is why teams need “banks,” large sums of money fronted by investors, to sustain them through lean times. A bookkeeper in Hawaii keeps the numbers straight for the 30 players in Darryl’s organization. The current bank, nearly $700,000, financed this trip to Biloxi, as well as other teams’ trips to casinos around the world. The group’s goal is to pad this particular bank by at least 40 percent — an increase of $280,000 — then pay off the original investors. For the first time in his 15-year-career, however, Darryl is staring at the possibility of losing a bank. This one has shrunk to just over $100,000.
During a typical play, Darryl or one of his players may need to count up to eight decks’ worth of cards at a time. Here’s how it works: using a variety of formulas, counters determine what types of cards are at the end of a “shoe” — the stack of decks from which the cards are dealt. If it is mainly tens and aces at the bottom of the shoe, the game favors the player. Low cards, such as deuces and treys, favor the house. The statistical advantage of this type of card counting is no more than one percent.
For a counter to exploit such a small advantage, he must wildly vary his bets. Once a “positive” shoe with lots of tens and aces is identified, he must bet close to the maximum amount — in Biloxi, usually $500 a hand. At the beginning of the shoe or during a “negative” shoe, he must bet near the minimum.
Changing the bet to this degree, however, is “stinky” — card-counter lingo for any suspicious act that could alert pit bosses and other casino employees. A stinky play might lead to the counter getting “backroomed,” or forcibly taken away from the crowds and photographed and barred from the casino.
Thanks to a notorious Las Vegas-based detective agency, pictures of Darryl and other well-known counters are compiled in a book and distributed around the world, and especially to Vegas casinos. When professionals are barred from Vegas, they are forced to seek new casinos with less-experienced management in out-of-the-way places like Korea, Poland and Biloxi. Counters might also try to disguise themselves. “One time, after being away from Las Vegas for over a year, I shaved my head and put on a mustache,” Darryl recalls. “I went into a casino and was playing one dollar per hand. In 15 minutes, I got a tap on my shoulder [from a pit boss]. He said, ‘Darryl, we don’t want you here.’”
The best disguise for a card counter is a front man, the B.P. The counter sits at a table and plays a modest, unsuspicious game, all the while sending signals over to the B.P., telling him how much to wager and whether or not to take a card.
That’s where I come in.
My training session begins Friday evening after the team finds a new hotel. In the room, Darryl draws the flowered curtains shut and spreads a bath towel on the table. He nonchalantly stacks a few thousand dollars worth of chips and begins to run through the signals.
“There are two things you’re going to be told: How much to bet and how to play the hand,” he instructs. “How much to bet is going to be signaled to you with the hand that’s farthest away from the table. If I put my hands on the table in front of the chips, it’s bet one [hundred dollars].” The counter’s hands are on the chips at two hundred dollars, and they glide up the counter’s body for larger amounts.
An hour later, the class is over.
I take my notes and study them, and get ready for my first test, at the Biloxi Belle riverboat casino. We drive separately, and Darryl is already at the table when I board the boat. I meander about until he touches his face, the signal for me to start playing. I sit down. The shouts from the craps table and the noisy staccato songs of the slot machines fade into the background. Before me is my green felt proving ground, and my stack of chips. I’m sitting at a blackjack table with thousands of dollars of strangers’ money, and I still don’t really have the slightest idea how to play the game.
Darryl starts me running. We’re nearing the end of the shoe, and I’m instantly betting $300. From my seat, I can look straight at the dealer and still read Darryl’s hands. My cards are dealt face up. They’re both sevens. Darryl clasps his hands together: split them. Barely understanding what this means, I’m now playing two hands for $600. Two tens are dealt, but the dealer has twenty. I lose.
But I lose by playing correctly.
Immediately, a tall man with short brown hair steps behind the dealer. He’s watching my cards, and my eyes. I try to ignore him and concentrate on my hand, still watching Darryl out of the corner of my eye. Darryl moves his hand to his cheek: bet $500. An hour and a half later, I stand up from the table and try to anchor my shaky legs. I’ve won $3,000.
The pit boss had already taken my name and address. Darryl has a number of assumed identities, all named after his favorite musicians. I gave my real name and and address, telling my fellow gamblers that I’m a business major at Tulane. Some secret identity.
It’s customary for casinos to give complimentary meals and rooms to high rollers. These “comps” help professional gamblers cut overhead. It would also look stinky not to request them. I’m supposed to tell the pit boss that I’d like a room near the casino. I motion him over with my eyes.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Tisserand, but we can’t help you,” he says. He looks at me, as friendly as any man can look without smiling. “You’re a good player. Very good. I think you know what I mean.”
My heart races. I want to look at Darryl, to see if there’s a hand gesture to tell me what to do now. Clap your hands, Chief, and I’ll dash stupidly out the door. But I’m on my own. “O.K., thank you,” I say for no real reason, then gather my chips and drive back to the hotel to wait for Darryl.
“That wasn’t good.” Darryl looks serious. One trip to a casino and I’m already marked as a counter. But Darryl is sure that these casinos, unlike those in Vegas, aren’t sharing information, at least not yet. Our Saturday night trip to the President riverboat is still on.
Darryl estimates that he’s been barred from a casino about a hundred times, and after 15 years in the business, he still resents it. “I get really upset,” he admits. After all, he says, casinos live on bad players. Is it fair that they can bar the few good ones? Barring also affects his ability to make a living. So he takes it personally.
Card counting is not illegal. However, casinos in most states, including Louisiana, are allowed to bar suspected counters, and they may charge players who return with trespassing. In New Jersey, a suit was successfully brought against this practice by a legendary card counter named Ken Uston. (Uston, one of Darryl’s former teammates, wrote several books and appeared on 60 Minutes. He exposed secrets of the trade, alienating him from many fellow counters.) To this day, New Jersey has a law prohibiting the barring of players for counting.
As Darryl sees it, however, this isn’t an effective strategy. “You just make the casino change its game,” he says, “like shuffling the shoe early. It becomes a situation where you won’t want to play. So we’d rather have them bar people and be able to sneak in once in awhile.”
During one game in Atlantic City, Darryl was tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave. He refused. “And they carried me out. It took four men, one on each limb. They carried me right through the casino. I was young and stupid and stubborn.” Darryl’s shoulder was injured and he sued the casino, eventually settling for $19,000. “It definitely wasn’t worth it,” he says.
In general, however, pit bosses in American casinos are courteous to suspected counters. Overseas, it can be a different story. “I was backroomed in Sri Lanka,” Darryl remembers. “There were two civil wars going on at the time. It was really silly to go there. I wasn’t willing to leave with out my money, and [the manager] kept saying, ‘You know, it’s a very serious game you’re playing.’” Eastern Europe and Russia are also risky. Darryl says he was the first blackjack player to be barred in Poland.
In Moscow casinos, he says, players brandish swords openly. One night, he left a Russian casino in a cab, only to be followed by someone he believes was tipped off by a casino employee. A high-speed chase through Moscow ensued, during which Darryl had to repeatedly convince his driver to keep going.
His livelihood might seem insane at times, but somehow a career in card counting has made sense to Darryl. He started playing poker in high school, placing small bets with friends. When he was 15, his mother (who now occasionally B.P.’s for her son) put the the card-counting classic Beat the Dealer in his Christmas stocking. He was 19 and a college drop-out when he left home for Las Vegas with $50 and a 1962 Chevy. He landed a job in a boiler room, selling pens by phone.
“I would go out and lose all my money gambling,” he says. “I read more and studied more. Then I met one guy at a table, and he was playing the same way I was playing. I followed him out. He told me about this other guy, Ron, who used to play with Ken Uston, so I ended up knocking on Ron’s door, saying, ‘Hi, my name’s Darryl, I play blackjack.’
“I kept studying hard, learning different counts. The second time I knocked on his door, he ended up offering me a job, $25 a session to count cards. I was very excited by this, and I quit my job. I was just turning 21, and other than music, that was the last job I ever had.”
While Darryl may be considered the leader of a small corporation of counters, he says his politics are leftist-to-Marxist. He likes to think of his work as a tiny economic drain on an industry he abhors. He estimates his winnings from counting at $1 million, but he’s a compulsive spender, and hasn’t saved any of it. His real love is music; he’s a singer-songwriter and last year he released his first CD on the independent label Tangible. The title song includes these lyrics:
Been awhile since the cards smiled, but one fine day
I’ll be heading down the road on the right side of zero.
“I don’t know what life would have been like without blackjack,” he says. “I don’t know what else would have happened. Maybe I would have ended up robbing banks or something.”
On Saturday morning, we meet in Darryl’s room to troubleshoot my performance, and try to determine why I was so quickly pegged as a counter. It wasn’t hard to figure out. An article in The Card Player magazine by Arnold “The Bishop” Snyder lists these typical characteristics: “Most card counters are clean-cut, young, male, collegiate types. … if you look like a young nerd, and you are playing with $100 chips, you will be under constant surveillance.”
But Snyder also offers a solution. “Having a girlfriend on your arm will do wonders for your act. Wear an Hawaiian shirt. Act drunk. Dress like an outlaw biker. Anything!”
That afternoon, I drive back to New Orleans to convince my girlfriend, Tami, to be at my side for the rest of the weekend. On the way back to Biloxi, we stop at a shopping mall, where Tami buys a pants suit decorated with rows of gold fringe, and heavily makes herself up at the beauty counter. For my part, I pull on a pinstripe shirt and suspenders.
My makeover continues. At the Biloxi Belle, I had been drinking orange juice. That night at the President, I order vodka, straight. Tami stands behind me, dutifully squealing at my bets and drinking my vodkas. I’m getting better at reading Darryl’s signals, so I begin to loosen up and throw myself into the act.
“I go to Tulane,” I tell the man next to me. “Business major. Man, I can’t wait until they open that big casino in New Orleans and I can quit coming over here.”
“Oh yeah?” he replies. “I go to Tulane, too. What’s your name?”
I turn to the player on my other side. I’m rich. I can afford to be rude.
Crowds gather around me, more than last night. My performance is flawlessly obnoxious. If I could smoke without gagging, I’d order cigars for everyone. Other players quit their games to cheer on mine. I laugh with them all. The crowd is oblivious to Darryl at the side of the table, dressed in black, moving his hands across his chips, touching his face, clasping his palms. All eyes are on me.
At the end of the night, I stand up and take my winnings: $6,000. Getting tired, I say. Quit while you’re ahead, my new friends advise me. The pit boss happily comps me a room and meals across the beach, at the Broadwater Beach Hotel, a vintage white and peach melba-colored resort that looks like the kind of place the Marx others used to trash.
I’m jubilant when I meet Darryl outside. His face, however, is solemn. Halfway through my game, I had started drinking my own vodkas and had missed some of his signals. “But I won,” I protested. “No,” he says, “not mathematically.”
It’s about three in the morning when Darryl, Edis, John and I meet in a Biloxi Waffle House to compare notes. The team is in chaos because a player in Chicago is suspected of underreporting his winnings. A series of international calls results in a decision to offer the player a polygraph.
Darryl picks up a plain waffle in his hands and mutters something about how he can’t believe they named the restaurant after this. “I’m really discouraged,” he says. “At 12:30 this morning, I resigned as team manager.”
John’s losing streak is continuing. Including Saturday’s play, he’s down $90,000 over a four-month span. “And I’ve done everything right,” he says blankly.
Edis has more bad news: At the President on Friday night, the dealer shuffled the shoe early, meaning he suspected a counter. Then he moved the joker up, to show that he would break each shoe early. For Edis, who hopes to enter blackjack full-time, it’s not a good sign.
Yet the trip is generally considered successful. The games in Biloxi are “strong,” with the table limits and rules all working to the advantage of counters. John has also discovered some “weaknesses,” namely, a night-shift dealer with a rabbit tattoo who exposes his “hole card” — the dealer’s face-down card — to the player in the right seat. Finding dealers’ weaknesses can increase the odds in a “square” game. But it’s still not cheating. Tricks like “pressing and pinching” bets after hands are dealt, or kicking cards over to an accomplice, are illegal, and not practiced by serious counters. “That’s not my thing,” says Darryl.
On the last day, Daryl and I visit Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis. Tami had to return to New Orleans, but by now I feel confident in my act without her. Once again, a crowd gathers behind me, and pit bosses monitor my play. I chat with my new fans, gracefully splitting and re-splitting $500 bets; this leads at one point to a $2,000 wager. When I win, the crowd cheers and strangers high-five me. A man spills a drink, and a cocktail waitress makes me stand and take off my blazer, and she carefully towels my back.
I’m not embarrassed. I’m a rich, reckless, chip-tossing Jay Gatsby with all the friends in the world. I throw a chip on the waitress’ tray, not looking at Darryl as I ignore his rule about not tipping. When I finally push off from the table, I’ve won more than $11,000. The casino gives me a container for my chips, and the pit boss tells me to let him know if there’s anything he can do for me.
Darryl recognizes my excitement, but he doesn’t share it. He’s lost count of how much money he’s gambled in his life. He believes his biggest win — $130,000, during an hour and a half in Atlantic City — set a record for most sizable earnings enjoyed by a professional counter in one sitting. But who can he tell? “I’m one of the best blackjack players in the world,” he says. “But I can’t believe I put all that energy into something and it’s blackjack.
“I used to love blackjack. I put a lot of work into meeting the right people. I was just a lot younger, you know? Just 20 years old, no life, nothing to lose. That’s why it didn’t feel like gambling at all.”
We’ve picked up John, and we’re driving back to the Broadwater Beach Hotel. The team is going to pay me my share — 5 percent of my winnings, $1,000 — and I’m heading back home. I don’t want this weekend to end. I’m on the right side of zero.
It’s this feeling of freedom that led John to give up pursuing a degree in accounting and go into card counting full time. It’s only later, he says, that you suffer the on-the-job stresses: the heat from casinos, the counter-measures, the endless coyote-roadrunner dance between pit boss and player. “You’re always having to hustle the game,” John says. “Especially as you get older, it gets a little more difficult just to keep going.” At 39, John occasionally feels like a non-person, because he has only three years “legitimate” work experience.
But there is still the sense of anticipation that comes with each new casino. “The initial optimism and excitement,” he calls it. “The opportunity to go someplace else where nobody knows you. And you can kind of start over again.”
I ask John about the explosion of new casinos in Louisiana, the riverboats along the coast, the Indian casinos. “In the beginning is when a club is somewhat sloppy. There are other distractions. There’s a difference when a club’s been burned and when it hasn’t been hit. And there may be new casino personnel that don’t think a blackjack game can be beaten.”
So when is the best time, I ask, to try out a new casino?
“As soon as it opens,” he says, “we’ll be there.”
I first got to know my friend Darryl Purpose (who did not want his last name used at the time of this article) when both of us participated in The Great Peace March, a nine-month, cross-country march protesting nuclear weapons. I had heard rumors that Darryl had an interesting sideline, and when he called me to see if I wanted to B.P. in Biloxi, I asked if I could write about it. He and his colleagues agreed, provided I didn’t use their last names or give away too many secrets.
Since our adventure in Biloxi, Darryl has gone on to become a deservedly acclaimed singer-songwriter, a favorite headliner for festivals and concert stages who occasionally mines his casino experiences in songs such as “Right Side of Zero” and “Dangerous Game.” (More info on his web site darrylpurpose.com.) In 2009, Darryl was inducted in the Blackjack Hall of Fame. When asked if he still returns to the tables from time to time, Darryl replies mysteriously, “The game’s afoot.”
Meanwhile, I have occasionally played my own games of blackjack, always betting very little money and usually losing it all.