The following is part of a series of interviews of notable blackjack figures by Robert V. Lux, produced for the Swedish gaming website, Kasinocentralen. Each piece is of one-half of the total interview,Robert V. Lux is the author of a number of interviews with well-known poker writers and strategists. He is also a succesful poker player and was in the 2004 Online Poker Nordic Championship. He currently resides in Florence, Italy. with the complete interview reserved for Robert's future book. This interview was done in 2002.
Q For how long have you been playing blackjack?
A I started in the early 80's, back when Caesars Palace offered a juicy single deck game
Q When did you start playing the game and why?
A Some parts of my novel, The Counter, were autobiographical. The section where the protagonist learns to count cards
is pretty much taken from my own personal experience. Two decades ago, I read a story in Sports Illustrated Magazine that featured the late great Ken Uston
. About halfway through the article a light came on in my head. I felt that could have been me. I didn't go to Harvard like Kenny nor have his natural brilliance, but I always excelled in any type of game and was blessed with a great aptitude for math. So I proceeded to teach myself how to count based on the writings of Uston, Wong
, and Revere
Q At what stakes do you usually bet?
A I started out small and initially bet only $2-10 in single deck games. I was fortunate to win early in my career, and I eventually worked up to a top bet of $1000. I never went any higher than that since most clubs had max bets of $500 or $1000.
Q What do you consider your strongest area in blackjack and why?
A My strength was in handheld games. I played a lot of single and double deck for high stakes in an era when virtually everyone else I met gravitated to shoes. My philosophy was always simple: I wanted to play the very best game available, and I trekked far off the beaten path to find the best return for my bankroll. I did get a lot more scrutiny in single deck, but I only played blackjack for one reason - to make money. And by that criteria I succeeded, having won over a million just in handheld games.
Q What's your greatest and worst blackjack memory?
A I've had some nice wins, but it's the losses that really get etched into your memory. The question I often get asked is "What's the most you've ever won in a day?" But I always respond with nightmarish recollections of my worst days. Like the time a nice winning trip got wiped out in the last shoe before I boarded my jet to go home, with most of the bloodbath taking place in the last hand, where I split four times, doubled down twice, and lost my insurance bet. I lost nearly seven grand on that hand alone and dumped twelve grand in that shoe. Needless to say, it was a long flight home.
Q Bad treatment of skilled blackjack players has been a problem for a long time. Harassments, insulting, personal interferers, etc., regularly occur in the casino environment. Have you ever been a victim of such incidents? If so, what was your impression of this? How did you react? Do you have any general ideas on how to eliminate such behaviors?
A I've always been an aggressive player. Rule number one for me was to play the strongest games and to always have a good edge
. Consequently I received a lot of heat. For the most part, casino personnel were usually polite and professional. Only a few times have I experienced behaviors that went over the line. Four times I've been back roomed and handcuffed, and one time I was slammed against the wall. My life was threatened once and I've been chased out of several casinos and across a few parking lots. Fortunately, I possessed breakaway speed unmatched by most chunky security guards and could easily win those short sprints even with pockets stuffed full of chips.
Q How much effort did you put in the work of becoming one of the best card counters in the world? In what ways has it helped being an extremely skilled counter? Do you estimate it has affected your win rate by much?
A I worked harder on card counting than anything else my entire life. I'm a pretty driven person by nature, and I pushed myself to count fast and flawlessly. I did everything possible to squeeze out any extra gain and could never understand why some players gave up so much of their edge. For example, the new book on the MIT team [Ed. Note: Bringing Down the House
by Ben Mezrich] (I have only read an excerpt so far) indicates they used simple counts and sometimes had BP's who just came in and bet and didn't even get passed the count. Much of that book seems embellished to me, but if they did those things with top bets of ten grand, then they were giving up potentially a couple hundred dollars an hour. I know many teams use high low because it's simpler, but over years of play at high stakes, you really pour a lot of money down the toilet by not stepping up to a two- or three-level count.
Q Maintaining a good camouflage at the blackjack table is, by far, one of the most important factors in winning blackjack. On your web site, www.kevinblackwood.com, you write that you have been "showed the door" more than 200 times. What are your comments on this? Do you prefer technical aspects more than strategic features?
A I never relished getting kicked out, but I viewed it as an occupational hazard. If you are a winner, it is hard to camouflage that fact. I tried to move around a lot and visit out of the way places, but the top players will always be scrutinized and often will be booted. I saw far too many counters who played double deck and shoes with very small spreads. It's extremely tough to succeed that way, and I'd much rather win and occasionally get barred than to be a marginally profitable player and never get heat.
Q How has the professional life affected you as a person? How does it affect your private and social life (professional "gamblers" are proclaimed to be very lonely)?
A Not really sure if I agree with that assessment. There is certainly monotony in travel and a grind to this business, but most of the players I met were pretty outgoing. Many of them had an extremely active social life. For me, I had a wife and two boys at home to keep me anchored.
Q How much did it take to give up your 9-5 job to become a professional?
A When I first timidly ventured into the blackjack waters, I speculated that I might be able to make as much as twenty grand a year, once I got my bankroll
up. Fortunately, I won very consistently early and had several good places to play without having to travel, so I soon discovered that there was far more than twenty grand a year to make in blackjack, and I never needed to go back to my old job.
Q Do you win as much as your expected win rate? If not, what might be the reasons why you win more/less? As a professional, you have probably encountered heavy losing streaks. How does this affect you psychologically?
A Overall, I think I won more than my EV [editor's note: expected value
]. But despite my good fortune, it is still the losses that linger in your memory. There were numerous days when I lost over $20,000 and several winning trips were wiped out by big losses near the end. But this is the life we have chosen, and if someone can't sleep nights after taking a bath at the tables, then they should look for a different vocation. I vividly remember the first year my earnings exceeded the magic six figures. I thought about quitting for the year, but as any seasoned professional would tell you, it is illogical to think that way. As long as there are good games available, a counter should keep playing or he really doesn't have what it takes to be successful. So I did keep going and dumped about thirty of that hundred grand back before the end of the year.
Q Generally professional blackjack players
seem to be private about their vocation. It's interesting to read that you seem to be divulging towards the community regarding your job. What is the reason for this? Doesn't a professional want to remain as private and unseen as possible? Don't you fear it might hurt your career?
A My career is winding down. I've spent a lot of my life making money, and now I'm hoping that something in my writing might be worthwhile to others. Perhaps like me, they will take time to pause and reflect on their own journey in life and consider which road really was the wisest.