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Bret Maverick
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A Player Back at the Casino: He’s Undercover but at Home
NY Times

March 23, 2010

By CHARLES McGRATH

ATLANTIC CITY — Sitting one afternoon recently in the lobby of Caesars casino here, where the floor is paved with stone to resemble the streets of ancient Rome, Josh Axelrad was trying to resemble someone idle, unemployed and not too bright. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a Ford racing cap at an off-kilter angle. He was not advertising that, stuffed in wads in his pockets and stacked in a money belt around his waist, he was packing $20,000 that friends had staked him to play cards with.

Mr. Axelrad, who is 35 and has a philosophy degree from Columbia, is — or used to be — a professional card counter and blackjack player. In his memoir, “Repeat Until Rich: A Professional Card Counter’s Chronicle of the Blackjack Wars,” which came out last week from the Penguin Press, he describes how for five years he was part of a gambling team he calls Mossad.

Card counting recognizes that in blackjack, face cards and 10’s are more valuable to the player, while lower cards are better for the dealer. In Mr. Axelrad’s system cards are assigned a value of -1, 0, or +1, and the counter keeps a running tally of every hand he sees, waiting for a time when the deck (or, in most casinos, a shoe containing several decks) is literally stacked in his favor.

Modeled on the legendary M.I.T. Blackjack Team of the late 1970s, Mossad would hit the road for a couple of weeks at a time, invading casinos with squads of players, who had carefully defined roles. There were spotters, who would sit patiently at a blackjack table, keeping track of the cards until the odds tilted in favor of the bettor; controllers, who had mastered odds and strategy; and B.P.’s (big players), who would move in and start placing large bets.

Mr. Axelrad estimates in the book that in a five-year career he won $700,000 for his team. He then went broke playing online poker, to which he became helplessly addicted, and while struggling to write his book he gave up gambling for years. Until this trip he hadn’t been in Atlantic City since 2004. His book is dark, funny, at times painfully honest, and strips much of the mythology from counting, which turns out to be less difficult than most people imagine and also a lot less glamorous.
“It’s very odd,” he said, laughing nervously, as he tried to explain why his bankrollers had entrusted their money to someone who was a self-confessed gambling addict. “But I think my teammates understand it. It’s sort of heartwarming.
They know my entire story, and they understand how it’s possible for the same person to be in a degenerate, addicted pathology, and also be entrusted with their money.”

Card counting is not illegal, he says in his book, and to a certain extent casinos tacitly encourage it if it makes bettors flock to the blackjack tables thinking they can beat the system. What the casinos don’t like is counters who are good enough to win, and in many states such players, if they can be identified, are evicted. Pit bosses keep files and photographs of repeat offenders.

Counters, for their part, resort to ruses and disguises and misdirection. Mr. Axelrad, who is small and intense, used to pretend to be drunk or on drugs. He wore a wig on occasion. “The key is to insert some new problem into the mind of the pit,” he said, “so they’re worried about something else than why is this person betting this way.”

The great enemy of counters is what they call heat, or scrutiny, and Mr. Axelrad said he wasn’t sure what kind of heat to expect at Caesars. It was possible his name was still on file somewhere. He had also heard rumors about new photo-recognition software. On the other hand, in New Jersey a casino can’t throw you out just for counting; the dealer can only try to make it harder for you.

“I’m not concerned,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.” But then he shifted in his chair, and added: “I’m a little frantic right now — being here, the book coming out. I actually aspire to live more calmly.” He had just inherited a house in Kansas, he said, and could imagine living there quietly and trying to write another book.

As it happened, Mr. Axelrad caught heat at Caesars not for counting but for having a photograph for this article taken in front of a blackjack table. So he moved next door to the Trump Plaza, where he said he had once won $50,000 in what he called a very “egregious” way.

“I acted like someone who was mentally dysfunctional,” he said. “I was drooling and acting crazy. It was way over the top, and I got away with it for five days.” He smiled and added, “Trump has a fond place in my heart.”

At Trump Plaza he stood behind a blackjack table for several minutes, back-counting — or keeping track of the cards without getting into the game — and then nonchalantly sat down and began playing. After just a few hands he was betting the table maximum: $500. To someone observing carefully, his behavior — the long period of watching, his practiced hand gestures when signaling that he was sticking or asking for another card, the quick acceleration to high stakes — might have announced “Counter!” except that almost as quickly as he began winning, he started losing.

Face cards and 10’s were turning up just as reliably as he predicted, only they were winding up in the hand of the dealer, who made blackjack after blackjack. Within 20 minutes or so Mr. Axelrad had dropped $4,000, and he got up and wandered away. “That’s just normal statistical fluctuation,” he said, but added, “As someone said poignantly once, losing is the best cover.”

By that evening, Mr. Axelrad wrote later in an e-mail message, he had made back the loss and then some. The dealers at Trump Plaza began half-shoeing him — that is, dealing out only a half-shoe of cards before reshuffling, a tactic designed to thwart counting — so he moved on to a couple of other casinos and ended the day with a profit of $4,639, he said. But for a couple of hours that afternoon he toggled between tables, betting $25 at a time and dribbling away another $500 or so while waiting for a count to turn in his favor. Playing blackjack seemed a lonely and dreary way to make a living.

On the other hand, Mr. Axelrad said he was feeling no heat at all. “I love this place!” he exclaimed. “They think I’m a goober. Or maybe they know I’m counting, but just think I’m no good at it. I’m really enjoying the tranquillity.”
"If all a man can count on is finally pushing up the grass, when I do I'll lay you odds that grass is mine!" - Theme Song For The T.V. Series BRET MAVERICK, by Ed Bruce
Rizzo
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Inner circle
East Coast
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Good story.
splice
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Canada
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As was said on 2+2 by someone wittier than me:

[x] Can count cards
[ ] Can count outs
No. 92
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For anyone in the NY area, Josh Axelrad will be speaking of his book and experiences at barnes and noble bookstore in Park Slope Brooklyn at 7:30 tonight. Admission is free.
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