Blackjack: A Loser's Game

There's obvious allure in a film like the current box-office hit "21," a sexed-up account of the real MIT students who took Las Vegas for millions at the blackjack tables in the 1990s. Like the nonfiction book it's based on--Ben Mezrich's best seller "Bringing Down the House"--the film glamorizes card counting, the practice of tracking dealt cards to gain an edge over the house. The message seems to be, if you can count to 10, you can be a millionaire.

And no one has embraced the message more warmly than Vegas. "Casinos were lining up to host the premiere," says Jeff Ma, who led the real MIT team and appeared in "21," which was shot at the Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock and Riviera casinos, among other spots on the strip. Why would casinos like a film that shows them getting scammed? Because card counting isn't nearly as easy or profitable as the movie makes it look--and Vegas is happy to let you learn that the hard way.

"This movie is great for Vegas. It perpetuates the myth that blackjack is beatable," says Ma, explaining that amateur counters will try it and "fall apart at the table." Few people are prepared for the chaos of a real casino. "There's a hot cocktail waitress walking by, there's a football game on, there's somebody asking them when their dinner reservation is, and the minute they say it's at 7, they forget the count," he says.

Not that card counting is a sham. Blackjack is a game of probability, and each dealt card reveals valuable information about the remaining cards. When the count is favorable--meaning the deck is laden with 10s and face cards--the advantage shifts to the player. But mastering the count takes unshakeable concentration and hundreds of hours of practice, says Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, a monthly newsletter on how to keep your shirt in Sin City. Most aspiring counters will need six months of training and several years of table time before they're good enough to make any money. And that's assuming they don't get caught: card counting isn't illegal, but casinos will boot you out if they catch you trying it. "People think it's an automatic winner, and it's not," says one Planet Hollywood host, who asked for anonymity discussing casino strategy. "It's nothing that any of us lose sleep over."

Card counting is also generally less lucrative than it is in "21," where the team nets hundreds of thousands of dollars a night by playing tables together. The real MIT team positioned players at different tables, where they bet the table minimum and maintained the count. When the deck got hot, meaning the count favored the player, they discreetly signaled another player to join in and bet big. That way the winnings seemed like dumb luck and didn't attract the attention of casino management.

But the MIT group was a Dream Team: not just brainy but also well-funded and highly disciplined. The majority of card counters work alone, betting a consistent sum, and grinding out a razor's edge return over the long haul. A seasoned pro can earn between $70,000 and $230,000 a year, working eight hours a day, 50 weeks a year under perfect conditions, according to Olaf Vancura, the author of "Knock-Out Blackjack." That's assuming no mistakes, no hassles from management and a return of around 1 percent on all wagers. But casinos are increasingly taking countermeasures, like dealing from an eight-deck shoe and reshuffling earlier and more often. Gambling insiders say that the major houses also employ retired card counters to identify active ones, and use facial-recognition software to help them stop known counters before they place their bets.

Still, card counting is a legal way for the average John Doe to feel like Danny Ocean, living on guile and guts. Since 1962, when Edward O. Thorp, an MIT math professor, popularized the practice with his best-selling book "Beat the Dealer," blackjack has become the most popular table game in Vegas. The number of tables has tripled since then, to more than 3,000. The theory of card counting was one of the best things ever to happen to blackjack, says David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "It gave the game an insider's lingo, and a reputation as a skill game."

It has also made a killing for casinos, with revenues in Nevada shooting north of $1.4 billion in 2007, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission. "The bottom line is that if the game doesn't make money for a casino, they won't offer it," says Schwartz. The fact that they haven't stopped offering blackjack, says a lot about your chances. You can bet on that.