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October 22, 2014

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The search for the perfect blackjack game …

… leads to a lonely northeastern Nevada town

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Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal

Welcome to West Wendover

WEST WENDOVER—To reach the optimal site for viewing the curvature of the Earth across the eastern portion of the Great Basin Desert, you proceed two miles west from the center of this small Nevada town until you come to a reservoir atop a small mountain. Once there, scramble onto a bluff and look east across the Utah state line into the sweeping expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The most striking feature of the vista is mighty Interstate 80, which was built flat and level across the barren desert yet appears to the naked eye to wrap the landscape on an arc due to the planet’s curvature. It’s a good spot to relax, unwind and ponder your place in the universe.

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Card Counting 101
This is like the obligatory scene in every bad poker movie where the action pauses so the filmmakers can insert a dry explanation of the rules of Texas Hold ’Em for anyone not familiar with the game. Except this is about blackjack, not poker.
• When using a simple “high-low count,” a blackjack player starts his count at zero. He adds 1 whenever a low card (2 through 6) is dealt and subtracts 1 whenever a high card (ace, 10 or face card) is dealt. The other cards (7 through 9) are considered neutral. So if the first cards dealt are 3, 4, ace, 7, 5, 9, queen, 6, then the “running count” would be 2, or “plus 2.”
• When the count is high, it favors the player. He’ll bet more money in this situation. When the count is negative, it favors the house. The player will bet small amounts or nothing at all.
 
• The count also dictates the player’s strategy decisions. For example, a player will stand with a total of 15 against a dealer’s 10—a deviation from basic strategy—once the count becomes high enough. He’ll hit a 12 against a 5—also a deviation from basic strategy—if the count is low enough.
 
• Casino personnel will take countermeasures against card counters, including barring them from playing blackjack.
 
• A number of good books are available that explore these concepts in more depth than most of us can imagine. One of my favorites is Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros’ Way, Third Edition by Don Schlesinger. —JEFF HANEY

I wasn’t here in West Wendover to do any of those things.

I was here to make money playing blackjack. More specifically, I was here to attack the legendary single-deck games of West Wendover, which I had heard through gambling back channels were the best single-deckers in the nation for inveterate card counters like me.

First, a little background. There are plenty of places for card counters to ply their trade. Some Las Vegas casinos, for instance, offer games with six-deck shoes and decent rules that are ideal for advanced card counters.

In my experience, however, the average person’s eyes begin to glaze over with boredom about seven seconds into an explanation of how to approach them: To wit, you take the “running count” (see sidebar) and estimate how many decks, or fractions of a deck, have been dealt and how many decks, or fractions of a deck, remain in the shoe. Then, to determine the “true count,” you divide the running count by …

Zzzz.

See what I mean?

By contrast, even a novice gambler can envision trying to count down a single deck of cards. Single-deck blackjack is responsible for much of the allure and mythology surrounding the game.

Unfortunately, single-deck blackjack is virtually dead in Las Vegas. Most single-deck games now pay only 6-5 for blackjacks instead of the traditional odds of 3-2, a change that has rendered the games unplayable (for us sentient human beings, anyway).

A few scattered single-deckers still pay 3-2 in Las Vegas, but those tables should have a sign on them reading “Suckers Only.” Even players with moderate skills are barred from them in short order.

The Reno area still has plenty of 3-2 single-deck tables, but those games come with their own set of drawbacks. Many Reno casinos allow players to double down only on totals of 10 or 11 rather than on any two cards, a rule that favors the house rather than the gambler.

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Peppermill in West Wendover

Reno is also home to rampant “preferential shuffling,” as it’s known in blackjack lingo. That means the dealer shuffles the cards when a player increases the size of his bet, a tactic that makes the game worthless to a card counter. In fact one time in Reno, a pit boss scolded the dealer, right in front of me and loud enough for me to hear: “Whenever he raises his bet, you have to shuffle!”

I got a kick out of that. It was his way of telling me to get lost without going through the hassle of a formal barring. Well-played, sir. After the boss walked away, the dealer looked at me conspiratorially and said, sotto voce: “He thinks you’re a professional.” I was flattered momentarily, until I realized the underlying tone of her voice was suggesting, “Ha, you, a professional? What kind of a dummy would think that?”

Reno pit bosses are also pretty quick to identify and bar card counters. The same day I was barred from one of the nicer joints in Reno, a host came up to the player next to me—who most certainly was not a skilled blackjack player—and informed him that his suite was ready: the suite with a piano. I’ve been comped my share of suites in my career, but I never got the one with a piano. Damn. Soon after, I was kicked out of the joint entirely. Yeah, casino personnel are fairly savvy in Reno.

So in West Wendover I was hoping to find a wide selection of single-deck games with 3-2 odds, decent rules such as the ability to double down on any two cards, floor people who let me play unmolested and good “penetration,” meaning they would deal out an ample number of cards before the shuffle.

Only a snob or a cynic would call West Wendover, a solid six-hour drive from Las Vegas in the northeastern part of the state, an overgrown truck stop. Upon my arrival, however, I admit I was reminded of Harry Chapin’s old joke about a town in upstate New York: He said he “spent a week there one afternoon.”

Picture Laughlin, but less cosmopolitan … and with no jet skiing.

The three main casinos in West Wendover—the Peppermill, Rainbow and Montego Bay—are owned by the same company. A fourth, the Wendover Nugget, is connected by a skywalk to Montego Bay. The headline of a review of the Nugget on one of the major travel sites made me laugh: “Not great, but not as horrible as some reviews would have you believe.”

The fifth casino in town, the Red Garter, was the seediest, but it had the best neon sign. It portrayed an old-fashioned lady of the evening, her American thighs seductively exposed.

I pictured a conference room filled with stuffed-shirt casino executives.

Stuffed shirt No. 1: “Okay, what should we adopt as our official corporate logo? Remember, this is the image of our company that we will be presenting to the public. It should reflect our values, our ideals, our very character.”

Stuffed shirt No. 2: “How about a prostitute?”

True to their reputation, all of the casinos offered single-deck blackjack with 3-2 odds and good rules.

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Rainbow

In a hard day’s night of blackjack, I visited all five joints but focused the majority of my action on the big three, which collectively offered dozens of single-deck tables. The games with minimum bets of $5 or $10 had maximum bets of $500, with the $25-minimum tables offering a $1,000 max bet. While those limits might not attract the famed MIT card-counting team, they’re more than enough for the rest of us mortals.

It is a truth universally acknowledged among card counters that if you’re not careful, paranoia can get the best of you. For example, you’ll think every ringing phone in the pit is the surveillance department calling to sound the alert that you’re counting cards. When the pit boss starts an innocent conversation about the NBA playoffs, you’ll think he’s really testing your reaction to see if you can keep your cool—and the running count—or if you will fold under pressure.

That’s why I shrugged off my initial contact with a pit boss in West Wendover. I had been employing a version of what author Don Schlesinger once termed the “single-deck drunken slob routine,” varying my bets wildly, wagering a lot in high counts and a mere pittance in negative counts. (Of course, you should never actually drink while counting cards.)

The boss came right up to me and said, almost in my face, “Are you having a good time over here? You look like you’re having a lot of fun over here. Well, keep having a good time.” Then he walked away.

It’s possible he was just overly friendly, but I got the distinct feeling he was f*cking with me. As a veteran of these encounters, however, I opted to brush it off and keep playing. I hadn’t come all the way to West Wendover to treat the game gently, as I might elsewhere. I wanted to test the limits, to discover if this flyspeck on the map really was a single-deck paradise.

Watching for other card counters at a blackjack table becomes instinctual after awhile, if for no other reason than to take their presence as a cue to walk away. After all, the spectacle of a couple of players raising and lowering their bets more or less in unison tends to awaken even the most clueless pit boss.

I spotted no other counters during my time in West Wendover, however. I did see plenty of players seemingly employing the single-deck drunken slob routine—except in their cases, it was not a routine. Their typical move entailed losing a hand in which the count plummeted deep into negative territory, then firing out a much larger bet on the next hand.

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Montego Bay

All the while, I had no contact with the pit crew except for the one boss I had decided to dismiss as a freak.

These factors encouraged me to increase my “spread”—lingo for the difference between large bets in favorable counts and small wagers in negative counts. I was beginning to think that perhaps I had found single-deck heaven.

There’s a phrase among blackjack insiders that goes like this: “The heat was from the sky.” It means that when the pit bosses are ignoring you, the surveillance crew is tracking your every move through the cameras in the ceiling of the casino. I try to avoid using that phrase because it smacks of jargon and a lame hipper-than-thou attitude, but I’m not sure how else to say it. And in West Wendover, the heat was from the sky.

I had sat down at a $5-minimum table. I was chatting with a college-age kid nursing a small stack of red chips. I had made a few inconsequential bets and played out some unmemorable hands. I did not see it coming, literally or figuratively. The pit boss approached the table from behind me, wearing a suit and the kind of non-ironic mustache rarely seen outside of the law enforcement realm or 1980s baseball cards.

He was here to deliver “the tap”—card-counting slang for the tap on your shoulder from a casino official that occurs when you’re about to get barred from playing blackjack.

This tap came along with a phalanx of security guards to escort me off the property. After a brief negotiation, though, I was graciously permitted to grab a few hours’ sleep in my room, check out and then never come back. For good measure, the barring applied to all three of the major casinos under common ownership.

It was Proust who said the only paradise is paradise lost.

I repaired to the small mountain outside of town and watched the headlights of the westbound traffic on I-80 crawl across the curvature of the Earth, reviewing what went right and what went wrong.

Card-counting purists would say I shouldn’t have abused the single-deck game, that I should have bet less even when the count was high, in order to stay under the radar. For those card-counting disciplinarians who, unlike me, give the games the respect they deserve, this remote town is probably a fine destination to ply their trade.

But I wasn’t concerned about achieving longevity in the blackjack games of West Wendover. My plan was to push the boundaries, to crash and burn if necessary.

And in the end, I’d say the card-counting scene in West Wendover is not horrible, but it’s not as great as some reviews would have you believe. At least I don’t have to spend another week there one afternoon.

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