Friday night, I get a phone call from Lauren, a friend who I hadn’t seen in over a year. Lauren had the itch to do a little gambling run. I had just returned from Las Vegas last weekend, so I wasn’t in the mood to fly back. Lauren wanted to learn how to properly play blackjack at the casino. She had been practicing online. So we struck up a deal that if she drove to Shreveport, Louisiana, which was about a six or seven-hour drive from her apartment in San Antonio, Texas, I would accompany her.[Congratulations, you found the clue. Now scroll down.]
‘Deal’, she said.
I love falling asleep to the white noise of a long car ride, and I needed to focus on RoadGambler articles, so a long drive was perfect.
I looked through my mail and found a mailer for Boomtown Hotel and Casino in Shreveport. The mailer also had a coupon for two free buffets and $40 worth of free play. That was our destination.
I drove to Lauren’s apartment, and then we took her car the rest of the way. The drive took exactly six and a half hours going 80 MPH most of the way. Texas has higher speed limits compared to most of the country, and highway patrol won’t pull you over unless you’re going about 5-10 over.
We arrived at Boomtown late, so I immediately hit the sack.
Next day, the gambling was to begin. The day started with a comped breakfast at Boomtown. They need to work on their little casual fast deli.
The Boomtown casino was dead. The night that we pulled in, the parking lot was empty. This morning, the casino was like a ghost town. It’s not fun playing when there are like 10 people in the entire casino.
I spent my $40 in Boomtown free play and promptly headed out for Margaritaville. That might be the last time Boomtown sends me anything.
If you ever receive free play mailers or free ‘anything’ don’t be afraid to use it and then leave if you don’t like the place. I do it all the time, and sometimes, it takes a while for the marketing department to realize that you’re abusing the comps and cut you off. Take ’em for a ride; after all, if you play, they have the advantage and are taking you for a ride. So don’t feel guilty or obligated to play.
For those who haven’t been to Shreveport, Louisiana, it’s a small city in the northwest corner of Louisiana that is approximately 20 miles from the Texas/Louisiana border. The area is known as ‘Shreveport’ by tourists, but it’s actually a pair of bordering cities, Shreveport and Bossier City, with a handful of casinos. Horseshoe Casino and the aforementioned Boomtown is actually in Bossier City. I just call it ‘Shreveport’ because people are more familiar with Shreveport.
I love Shreveport for the craps games. At Horseshoe, El Dorado, and Margaritaville, the craps game are 100x, sometimes with $5 minimums during the weekdays. Also, the casinos in Shreveport are very generous with their comps. Know this: if you buy in for anything – I mean ‘anything’ – you should never ever have to pay for a meal. I’m continually shocked and surprised by how many people do not know that you don’t have to ever pay for a meal in Shreveport.
In Las Vegas, some casinos play this game where they don’t allow the floor or pit to write comps. You have to ask the host. That separation alleviates the pit of the responsibility of writing discretionary comps. In other words, it’s a piece of red tape that discourages people from asking for comps when they don’t qualify for the comp.
For example, in Shreveport, the pit supervisor at a Caesars Entertainment property – of which the Horseshoe is one – can write discretionary comps. A pit supervisor in Las Vegas cannot.
Margaritaville is even more generous than Horseshoe. Boomtown, the casino across from Horseshoe, can’t give away their buffet. They’ll beg you to eat at their casino. Even if you haven’t bought in, show the pit your player’s card and say that you’re a guest at Horseshoe and tell them you want to try their food before you start playing. You don’t even have to buy in. They’re desperate for guests. Granted, it’s not the best food, but it’s human-machine fuel to get you back to the tables.
Seriously, if you come to Shreveport to gamble, and you pay for food, you didn’t listen to me.
The two nicest casinos are either Horseshoe or Margaritaville, depending on who you ask. Lauren wanted to play at Margaritaville because she liked the brighter aesthetics of the Margaritaville casino versus Horseshoe. Horseshoe can feel a bit cramped because it’s literally on a riverboat. Margaritaville is on land.
Here’s a pic of the Horseshoe table games pit from one end of the casino. You can tell it’s on a riverboat from the long tubular shape.
Lauren had only played blackjack once in a casino. She was exclusively a slot player. The last time she played blackjack was about five years ago, but she was turned off when the other players at the table gave her a hard time. She didn’t know what she was doing, and the players criticized her play.
I was here to rectify the situation.
While we were having breakfast at Boomtown, we set up a plan. I told her that I was going to count the deck, and we were to make light banter while we played. My friend is somewhat of a tomboy and can sometimes play rough, especially with a few drinks. I told her that if she wanted to have the best chance of winning, she couldn’t distract me. I wanted to work on my counting skills, which are still a bit rusty.
At one time, I was a really good card counter, and distractions didn’t matter to me. I could have a conversation with the dealer and cocktail waitress and not forget the count. My counting skills were polished from continual use.
I could count down a deck in about 15 seconds. However fast you could flip the cards, I could keep track. I would play blackjack at the casinos for hours on end, moving from casino to casino, never playing at one for more than thirty minutes to an hour, at most. In my days as an advantage player, I played blackjack for about 60 hours a week. I could count, and convert to a true count, without thinking about it.
I used to say that counting cards is like riding a bike, but after my Las Vegas trip, where I tried to count cards, I’m not so sure of that statement. Counting is definitely a perishable skill, and I was rusty. On my last Vegas trip, I only finished a single shoe without losing track.
A Short and Quick Explanation of Card Counting
If you don’t know anything about counting cards, just know that if there are lots of tens in the shoe, that’s good for the player, but if there are lots of little cards in the shoe, it’s good for the casino. The reason that lots of tens are good for the player is that players play by different rules than the house.
It’s true that over the long run, the player and the house will receive the same number and types of hands; however, to counteract the house advantage, the player bets more when he has the advantage.
Let me illustrate some examples…
If the house has a blackjack, they’ll take your money. It’s the same as the house taking even money for their blackjack. On a player blackjack, the player receives 3-2.
If there are more tens in the deck, the player is more likely to get blackjack. Over the long run, both the player and the house will receive an equal number of blackjacks, but if you up your bet when the deck is ten and ace rich, you will increase the amount of money that you win for your blackjacks.
If there was some magical world where every single hand of blackjack (the game) resulted in the player getting a blackjack and then the house getting a blackjack, and it alternated that way forever with no other hands ever appearing, the house would go bankrupt in short order.
Other examples include when the house has a 10 or 11 (or any double hand), it cannot double down. The player can double down. If there are more tens in the deck, the player is more likely to end up with a strong hand like 20 or 21.
Finally, if the dealer has a hand like 16, the dealer is more likely to bust the hand if the deck is rich in high-value cards. If there is a disproportionate concentration of low cards (2 through 6), then the dealer is much less likely to bust. Remember that players don’t always have to hit their stiff hands, while the house must always hit their stiff hands.
Those are just some examples for your understanding.
A good card counter has about a 1% to 1.5% advantage. You can get a higher advantage by betting more when the deck or shoe is favorable (called bet spreading), but it’s dangerous and will bring unwanted eyes.
Before you say that 1% is such a tiny advantage, let me remind you that Macau makes billions of dollars a year on a game that has roughly a 1% edge. 1% is actually much more powerful than you think. As player’s, we’re programmed by the casinos to think in terms of winning huge stories in one night. Real advantage play – and consistent long term winning – doesn’t work that way. There are very few ‘big fish’ stories with advantage play.
I told Lauren that when I bet $5, she should bet $5. If I bet $20, she should double her bet. If I raised my bet again, then she should martingale her bet, meaning double her bet. She was on a martingale that had a maximum increase of four steps, while I was using Kelly criterion betting. Kelly criterion betting is a method of bet sizing to optimize bankroll growth when the player has the advantage.
As I’ve described previously in other articles, martingale isn’t a bad system if you have the edge. Martingale is only a poor system when it’s used in a negative expectation situation or game. Martingale will increase the expected hourly loss because of the larger bet size, but if the player has the advantage, then martingale will also increase the player wins because the player is betting more when the player has the advantage. Granted, martingale is still not an optimal way of betting, even when the player has the advantage. The optimal way of betting is to use Kelly criterion bet sizing, but that’s not within the scope of this article.
Lauren and I weren’t there to break the bank. We just wanted to have fun, play some blackjack while negating the house advantage, and get some free comps. I wanted to refresh my rusty counting skills.
My friend also gave me her assurance that if she lost, she wouldn’t blame me. I was the train conductor, for better or worse.
After we arrived at Margaritaville, we settled in at a six-deck game with standard Shreveport rules. If you’re wondering about Shreveport rules for six decks, it’s dealer hits soft 17, double after split, late surrender, and re-split aces and any pair up to four times. Not the best game, but the days of dealer standing on any 17 are long gone, except for the high limit room.
We started with $5 bets and both of us lost our first three hands. We both won the next hand when the dealer busted, and then it was up and down, up and down for the next hour. The count never improved to where we could raise our bets, so we were stuck at $5. My friend was up $12.50, and I was down $20. Not bad for an hour. That’s well within expected variance.
Then we went on a tear, during the second shoe, we won probably 80% of the hands in the shoe. Unfortunately, the count never improved, so we kept our bets at $5. After a third shoe, with the true count never improving, we moved on to the fourth shoe. The first six rounds of hands out of the shoe were all low cards. I’m talking about 2 through 7 low cards, without a single ten value card.
So here’s the dilemma: it’s now a favorable shoe, but it’s obviously way too easy to tell that it’s a favorable shoe, and any sizable increase would result in some heavy heat from the pit boss. I was a little ’tilty’ from counting the prior shoes, so I didn’t really care. I’m not an advantage player anymore, and we had gone through three shoes without any improvement in the count. If we get backed off, then we would go play craps.
I put out a $500 bet and I told my friend to bet half her stack. She looked at me confused, and I could tell that she was thinking, ‘didn’t you say earlier to double my bet?’
But she put out her bet as I instructed.
One of the cardinal rules of smart blackjack play is to never ever bet your entire stack unless you’re willing to go into your purse or you have money to back up a double or split. I knew my friend’s bankroll, and I knew that betting her entire stack would have pushed her to the limit. That’s why I decided on half her stack. Looking back, she was still over betting her bankroll.
The dealer called out, ‘checks play’ and dealt the cards. ‘Ah crap, checks play, now we’re busted’, I thought.
Both of us got stiff hands. I had a 14 and she had a 12 on a dealer 2 face up. So here’s where I’m rusty. In my old days, I would know, based on the true count, where or not to hit. Basic strategy says to hit in this case, but I couldn’t remember at what true count I should deviate from basic strategy. My suspicion was that she should deviate from basic strategy and stand, so I told her to stand.
This thought of ‘hit or stand’ on 12 took me about 3 seconds to debate in my head. My friend was under instructions to play basic strategy, without my guidance, unless I told her otherwise. I was behind her to make sure that if she failed to double or hit, I could correct her. Because she was in front of me and playing basic strategy, if I hadn’t quickly intervened she would have hit.
So very quickly, after debating ‘hit or stand’ in my head, I told her just stand on that.
She stood. I stood. The dealer turned over a 10 for a stiff 12, drew a 4 and then an 8. Bust!
I was paid $500 and my friend was paid $95.
The true count was +5, which I notated for later. For the record, it’s proper to deviate from basic strategy and stand on the 12 versus dealer 2 if the true count is above +3. That just means I made the proper play.
The pit boss came over and started observing. I was thinking, ‘here comes the heat after one hand.’
I left my $500 bet out and told my friend to do the same with her bet.
Next hand, my friend got a blackjack on her $95 bet, and I had 20. The dealer busted and now I was up over $1000 in a mere two hands. The pit was still watching, so I left my bet out. Same with my friend.
In my old AP days, I would have never done what I did. Spreading from $5 to $500 is a sure way to get backed off and have your picture circulated from casino to casino. You can’t earn a living if they don’t let you play.
Very next hand we both had 20. The dealer had 18. Now I’m up $1500.
The cocktail waitress came by and delivered our drinks. I ordered a hot chocolate with a side of Kahlua, while my friend ordered some fruity drink. I couldn’t tell what it was. I didn’t ask her about the drink because I didn’t want to break concentration.
The deck was still ten rich, but I told Lauren to take down her $95 bet and bet $20. I bet $75. I was hoping that withdrawing the bet when the shoe was still obviously a good shoe would provide us some cover or at least make it look like we were ‘hunch’ players rather than card counting.
On the very next hand, I drew a 20, and my friend drew a blackjack. The dealer turned over a 6 to go along with her 5.
‘Ah yes,’ I was thinking, ‘dealer is going to draw a 21 and we’ll look like hunch players.’
It’s one of those rare times I was hoping to lose to make myself feel better.
Nope. The dealer drew an 8 for 19.
Darn, maybe shouldn’t have pulled the bet because I would have won $500 more. That’s just pure greed, but it was for the best to pull back the bets on that hand.
Then the shoe started getting ten poor. We won some hands, and we lost some hands.
After the deck started getting ten poor, I decided to sacrifice a bet and put out a big $500 bet, just for the sake of camouflage.
In the world of card counting, ‘camouflage’ is the act of making a play or bet with the objective of disguising the fact that the player is a card counter. Sometimes, it’s not possible to disguise the fact that the player is a card counter, so the next best solution is to appear to be a bad card counter. Betting $500 when the deck was ten poor is somewhat of an acceptable, if not expensive, camouflage play.
As I was reaching to put out a $500 bet, I couldn’t do it and put out $300 instead. $300 would make it look like I was playing on a hunch because the deck was clearly not a good deck.
When things go right, they go right. On the sacrificial hand, I won my hand, while my friend pushed her hand. I was up about $2200 at this point, and my friend was up about $400. Okay, that was enough camouflage. Betting $300 when it’s highly likely that I’ll get a stiff hand is not something that should be done often, camouflage or not.
We then went back to betting $5 a hand. For the rest of the session, we bet anywhere from $5 to $20 and got almost no heat whatsoever from the pit. Maybe they were watching from the sky, but the pit didn’t come by to passive-aggressively let me know that they were watching.
For the next few hours, we followed the script that we had agreed upon at Boomtown, but I told her openly to cap her bet at $20, meaning to bet $5, $10, to $20 martingale when I told her to do so.
After the next four hours, we were winning. I was now up to $2400 and my friend was past $600. Disregarding the outsized $500 bets of the earlier shoe, I was up about $200.
Before we knew it, nine hours had passed. I have no idea how that happened, but a solid nine hours passed from when we sat down to when I looked at my watch. Then it hit me, the pit boss never gave us a hard time after the initial ‘checks play’ round of hands. Maybe the camouflage worked.
I’m sure if we kept coming back, it would have been a different story. I can spot a counter from a mile away, and I’m sure the casino would be on to us if we kept coming back.
During our play, I was paying attention mostly to the cards, but around the ninth hour mark, I look at my friend’s face and she was wasted. I’ve known my friend for over 15 years, and I had never seen her that drunk.
I knew my friend from when I dated my ex. Lauren and I went on a single date when we first met, and we then decided that we would be platonic friends. I’m not her type, and she’s not my type. She says I’m too bossy. She’s more of a chill laid back kinda gal. We are true platonic friends who can share a hotel room together and not be awkward about it. We were also gym buddies, so we’re used to being close, but only being platonic friends.
I asked how many drinks she had and what she was drinking, and she was on her fifth Long Island iced tea. She holds her alcohol well because she wasn’t ‘on her face’ drunk, and she played pretty well the entire time. She’s not the belligerent drunk type.
I colored up my friend and she was up $624 from her $100 buy in. She was ecstatic, ‘I never win at slots!’
She was a believer. She’s also a Belieber if you know what that means. I’m ashamed to admit that I know what that means. I think she was 19 when the Biebs was big.
I cashed out for about $2600, which meant that for the last five hours, I won about $200. That’s more in line with standard card counting win rates.
Margaritaville is usually pretty generous with their comps, so we got a nice dinner comp. Remember that article I wrote about monetary attenuation? I never allow a nice win to affect my perspective on money. I don’t care if I just won $25,000, much less $2600; I’m always asking…demanding…a comp and making the house pay for everything.
After dinner, we played some craps at Margaritaville. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring enough cash to play 100x, so Lauren and I incorporated on the odds and bet about 40x. After about 30 minutes of craps, Lauren said that she had no idea what was going on. I urged her to shoot the dice, but she was a bit intimidated. That’s when I took her over to the bubble craps machine. Bubble craps is a great way to learn craps because players can play and bet at their own pace.
You can play and bet at your own pace until you’re the shooter. If you’re the shooter and you take too long, the girl’s voice from the game will encourage you to, ‘PUSH THE BUTTON!’
As we were driving back to Boomtown, I asked my friend if she learned anything from the session. Her answer was, ‘not really, but I was having lots of fun. I worked on my basic strategy.’
More importantly, she saw that other players will respect a player if the player seems to know what they’re doing. She also saw me push back against a guy who loudly sighed when I hit a 12 against a dealer 13, and that inspired her to have confidence at the table. People are always going to criticize, you just have to tune them out or push back.
My push back was, ‘get the f*ck off the table if you don’t like it.’
She’s not the push back type, unfortunately.
So in the end, we both got some practice in. I worked on refreshing my counting skills, while she worked on her basic strategy.
I did warn her that this win was not typical for a session. It was outside of the expected norm because of the outsized bets we made and won early on in the session.
It was a successful bout of binge gambling. I got to spend time with a good friend, and we bonded through our time at the table and on our drive back. I love the Shreveport drive, and I love gambling on the road.
I’m wondering if Boomtown is still going to send me mailers for free rooms and free play. I think it’s 50/50.
As we were packing up the next day to drive back, Lauren said, ‘hey, let’s have some BBQ.’
This gave me an idea because while I was in Las Vegas, I searched all of Vegas for a real BBQ joint. My thoughts on Las Vegas BBQ are coming up in a separate report.
So we looked up a real BBQ place in Shreveport and arrived here…
The BBQ was slightly dry and lacked smoke flavoring. Being on the road and gambling means trying new places, whatever the results.
After eating BBQ, we flipped a coin to see who would drive the rest of the way. The initial deal was that Lauren was supposed to do all the driving, but I gave her a 50/50 chance. I won the toss, and Lauren drove the entire way home.
Hey, 50/50 is the best I can do.