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Blackjack’s Death Count

BILOXI, MISS. — The future of blackjack has been revealed and it’s ugly. As legalized gambling continues to blossom, with a record 73 million Americans expected to visit a casino before the end of this year, the industry’s managers are scrambling to stack the odds on the simple card game of 21 ever more in their favor.The motivation is transparent: Blackjack is the only game in the casino where a player’s skill can radically increase his or her chances of winning, maybe even shifting the edge away from the house.Now, gambling-machine maker Bally's is marketing a player tracking system that crushes whatever tiny advantage can be had, and that threatens to turn your average 21 table into one more thinly disguised vacuum cleaner.“After you’ve played a series of hands, this table and its computer will evaluate your play, keep track of whether you are an advantage player or not, keep track of what you hit, when you hit it and how you hit when the deck was positive or negative,” said Bally's sales exec Dave Lucchese as he showed me the company’s MindPlay blackjack table during an industry trade show this past spring in the now-hurricane-ravaged Gulf gambling resort. “This is the holy grail for us. You can’t do this with a slot machine.”Skilled blackjack players win money by at least counting the high and low cards that have been played as the game progresses, and by betting accordingly. The more low cards played, the more “positive” the deck is. With so many high cards still lurking in the deck, the greater the chance that the dealer — who has to hit through 16 — will break. As a deck turns more positive, a good blackjack player will increase the bet and, likewise, scale it back when it goes negative. This is called the advantage.For almost a half century, casinos have been trying to limit this advantage. In the 1960s, after the first beat-the-dealers books were published, the big Las Vegas casinos moved from a hand-dealt single deck of cards to a show-dealt game of six decks, making card counting that much more difficult.Other casinos are now introducing single-deck games, usually called something saccharine like “Super Fun 21.” Using only 52 cards, they restore the player’s ability to better track the cards. One catch, however. These mongrelized games radically re-order the payoff rules (reducing a blackjack from 3-to-2 down to 6-to-5, and barring players from doubling their bets on certain combos), thereby handing the advantage firmly back to the house.In the past few years, some casinos — especially Indian casinos — introduced perpetual-shuffle dealer machines. After each hand, the played cards are returned into the machine and mixed back into the deck. No shuffle — no counting. But many players, wisely enough, won’t sit at such tables.Now Bally’s $19,000-per-table MindPlay system takes all of these techniques a step further and packages them in a user-friendly presentation that sets off no alarm bells among average players. “But let me quote the great blackjack player Max Rubin,” says Bally’s Lucchese. “‘MindPlay means the death of card counting as we know it.’” The MindPlay system, promising “total casino management,” looks like any other standard 21 table. “It has minimal impact on the presentation of the game,” says Lucchese. What the player may not notice is that after the cards are shuffled and before they are loaded into the dealer’s shoe, they are very briefly placed in an indented bay where they are instantly scanned into a database. An invisible 1/100-inch computer code marks each card. As the card is eventually dealt out, it is read by another optical scanner embedded in the table’s shoe.Yet another optical reader, implanted underneath the dealer’s chip tray, reads and calculates every chip on the table — as long as the chips are the specially made “Moneypieces” treated with “optical pattern recognition.”All this info is fed in real-time through a computer and then displayed on a monitor, ostensibly sitting on the desk of a blackjack pit supervisor. “This game keeps track not only of the money,” said Lucchese, “but it also tracks the player’s skill.”Whoever sits in front of the monitor knows everything — the tracking and recording of every card dealt and every wager made — in real time. Screen after clickable screen computes, ranks and breaks out every slice of data imaginable: the precise average bet of each player, the relative profitability of each table, how fast or slow the dealer’s pace is, whether the dealer is a “game builder” who attracts more players or a “killer” who chases them away, what precise percentage of advantage or disadvantage each player is performing at and, of course, how much, down to the penny, each one has won or lost. For those players who have handed over a “loyalty card” — the ever more common frequent-gambler card that accumulates points for later freebies — their player histories are permanently filed and fed into a running database. Next time they sit down and hand over their cards, the casino will instantly have their player stats.Lucchese calculates that an average casino can recoup its investment in the MindPlay system within just a few weeks. “This is why we call it total casino management,” he said. “Everyone is tracked. Every player and every dealer. The biggest savings is made primarily by reducing complimentaries.”Let me translate. Traditionally, casinos are willing to “comp” back 40 percent of a player’s estimated loss in free meals, rooms or entertainment. The pit boss standing in a suit behind the table makes the estimate based on how much a player bets and how long he’s been playing (the loss can be estimated by the standing house advantage). MindPlay now eliminates any estimate whatsoever. There’s a cold black-and-white calculation making it easier for a table supervisor to shrug his shoulders at a player’s comp request and say no-can-do — “the computer says you haven’t earned it yet.”Nor does MindPlay necessarily lead to the casino banning a card counter once he’s been identified. Lucchese says with a smile that there are more people who “think” they are effective counters than those who really are. Armed with MindPlay’s scientific analysis, some players who count, but play poorly, would now be encouraged to play more instead of getting 86-ed.It’s not just the players being put under MindPlay’s scrutiny. “Dealer evaluations are historically very subjective,” says Lucchese. “MindPlay is very objective. It identifies each dealer’s ranking against his or her entire class.” Meaning, of course, that even in the hypothetical situation where all dealers in a certain casino are doing an adequate job, some will now be considered “objectively” at the bottom of the cut and undeniably more vulnerable.Another threat posed by MindPlay is that its tracking technology could be used to interrupt a game when the deck has turned too positive and advantageous for the players. One Woodland Hills attorney, alleging he saw a Nevada casino reshuffle decks at a MindPlay table in the middle of a game, sued the makers. But the case was dismissed. And the makers of MindPlay say it will never be used as a house cheating device. It should be noted that compared to Nevada’s stringent standards and enforcement, most other states’ gambling regulations are quite lax.About a hundred MindPlay tables are currently in use, a figure that is growing and that will very soon double. They can be found in the Fantasy Springs Indian casino near Palm Springs, at the El Dorado in Reno, in Aruba, aboard the Titan Cruise Line and throughout the Flamingo on the Las Vegas strip. Caesars Entertainment, which merged with Harrah’s Entertainment in June and owns the Flamingo, is considering placing MindPlay throughout its many other properties.Toward the end of Lucchese’s presentation to me, we were joined by Bernie Burkholder, president and CEO of the nearby Treasure Bay Casino — a Biloxi-coast gambling house built into a replica pirate vessel, which got shipwrecked in the Katrina fiasco.“Isn’t this going to chase away my serious players?” Burkholder asked Lucchese as he ran his hand over the reddish MindPlay table felt.“Exactly!” answered Lucchese excitedly. “That’s the whole point. That’s your competitive edge. The advantage player is going to get up from this table and go next door to play. That’s exactly what you want. Let the other guy have the players who win.”Burkholder merely stroked his chin and pondered the new future of blackjack.