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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Bringing down the house

29 December 2003

Dear Mark,
What do you know about a group of college students who were featured on NBC Dateline who beat the casinos in Las Vegas out of millions by card counting? Doug F.

First, Doug, a quick point of fact. It was ABC Primetime who did the segment, not NBC Dateline.
Here's how it went down. During the 1990s, six MIT students by employing card counting techniques made millions of dollars playing blackjack in Vegas casinos on the weekends.
Your typical card counter can be spotted easily because they tend to make large bets for no apparent reason, but these counters had four individuals spread out making them as a group much harder to detect. They used a back-spotter that would stand and count cards, but not play. A spotter, who would make small bets at the table and relay messages to the Gorilla. The Gorilla would move around from table to table placing huge bets when the spotter and back-spotter indicated that there might be an advantage at a table. And finally, you had the Big Player, who would play large hands and count the cards.
Casinos fastidiously keep track on card counters by employing agencies that seek out, and monitor suspected card counters. They were caught when someone from their own inner circle sold their names to an agency in Las Vegas. After that, anytime they entered a casino; they were shown the door.
It is an interesting story, yes, but hardly new. Ken Uston described the same sophisticated of team collaboration and mathematical mastery two decades earlier in his book, The Big Player: How a Team of Blackjack Players Made a Million Dollars. But, Doug, if you want to read more about this group of counters, check out Ben Mezrich's book, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students who Took Vegas for Millions.


Dear Mark,
Do you happen to know the origin of strip poker? Russell R.

I received a question similar to yours a few years ago, but to date, I have yet to find the actual origin of the game strip poker.
I can perceive risk takers of past cultures sitting around a campfire playing with black walnut half shells filled with pine resin and charcoal shaking die trying to induce the opposite sex to shed a garment or two, but I still cannot find any lineage of the game.
Your question, Russell, does remind me of a true story a dear friend shared with me that happened in a casino in Monaco. An American consultant working out of Milano, stopped off for an evening of fun while en route to Paris to pick up his wife — of French extraction — who'd been visiting the family farm up around Charleville.
He staked out a roulette table where a gorgeous brunette, very nearly into a low-cut gown, had done well early on, but had been on a slide for the last several spins and clearly didn't have enough moolah left to play again. She stamped a pretty little foot and began to leave with the bravura look that needs no translation: "OK, you bastards! Just you wait!"
She and my acquaintance had been playing on opposite sides of the table and were aware of each other but hadn't actually spoken until she now stormed past him. He had been quite lucky and now, like the generous philosopher he was, he tapped her on the elbow and offered to stake her for another round or so.
"And why would monsieur want to do that?"
"Blind faith, cash overload, not to mention an eye for the chic and decorative."
"Too kind, a gallant gesture .... and collateral ?"
"Your underwear — at so much per item."
"Oh, mon Dieu, jamais, jamais; I'm not that kind ... etc., etc."
And so it was arranged that in exchange for his loan, she would visit the ladies' room and return leaving in his hands whatever she wore under the gown — at 30,000 francs per item.
As it turned out, bit by bit, she lost the 90,000 francs and along about dawn withdrew to her hotel. The consultant, a man of wide-ranging concepts, well above dreary details, was left with three items of intimate apparel in his pockets.
Typically, he failed to dispose of the evidence, and would his wife ever believe how he got them out of a pure humanitarian gesture?
Of course not.

Gambling quote of the week: "Vegas holds a warm place in my heart, although, I used to go in a $30,000 car and come home in an $800,000 bus." —actor James Caan

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.