‘21’ or Bust
I Played Blackjack With the World’s Best Card Counter
Inside a secret Chinatown soiree, top gamblers teach a few of their favorite tips on how to beat the house.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and the low-fare overnight buses in Chinatown are idling in rows. Markets have long ago pulled down their metal gratings and thrown bags of pungent trash onto New York’s curbs. And directly under the Manhattan Bridge, on a desolate corner, here’s an unusual sight: men in sequined sports coats and women in Oriental dresses, streaming through a set of sunken double doors.
Inside, in a lobby encircled by shuttered shlock-shops, this dapper group is grabbing $500 Monte Carlo casino chips and gliding up a wide marble staircase. At the top, Vegas showgirls—dripping in feathers and sequins—await with drinks and drawled greetings.
On the second floor, a dim sum palace unfolds. Red and yellow swirl together on the carpet; heavy curtains and fake bouquets adorn the walls. The tack complements the gambling den this eatery has been transformed into for one night only. Black-vested dealers hold dominion behind half-moon blackjack tables and shake dice out over craps boards. Bartenders dole out Tom Collinses and martinis while a band fills the room with jazz.
We’re at the Art of Cheating, a gambling ball hosted by the Obscura Society, the events arm of oddities website Atlas Obscura. It has brought together a handful of the world’s best card counters and cheats to transform the novices into card sharps.
At a blackjack game near the entrance, a gray-bearded gentleman in dark sunglasses taps out the dealer and slides in. He’s “the best card counter in the world,” warns a dapper man with a thick New York accent who also sidles up to the table.
No sane person would trust “Rick Blaine,” a 58-year-old former finance executive, to deal the hand. Blaine’s pal wasn’t exaggerating—in January, Blaine was named the World’s Greatest Blackjack Player at the Blackjack Ball competition, which gathers the world's best counters in Vegas each year. “It was just luck of the draw,” says the man who’s made his fortune in surpassing luck since the ’80s. Thankfully, the chips we’re playing with are fake.
Blaine is an adherent to a strategy developed in the 1950s by a group of U.S. Army engineers, which later developed into card counting. The gist is that an observant player can keep tabs on the cards being dealt in blackjack, calculate the odds of what’s still in the deck, and then weigh them in their favor.
While card counting’s not actually illegal, Blaine and his cohort generously employee fake names, disguises, and carefully crafted personas to fly under the radar at casinos, which take a less than benevolent view of the trade.
The high-stakes lives of these risk-loving mathematicians have been glorified in movies like 21, a true tale about a group of MIT students who beat the casinos. But in reality, success takes practice, discipline, and, of course, more believable disguises. “You get these MIT guys in 21, they look like rocket scientists. You’re wearing a fake watch, Kmart shoes, and betting thousand dollar chips,” Blaine tells me in a later conversation. “What I do best is I sell it. I sell myself as a player who’s a fun-loving gambler and has money to spend, so I fit in wherever I’m playing.”
But like in 21, Blaine often works as part of a team, sometimes of up to 30 card counters with a bankroll in the millions.
“If someone tells me there’s a good game here, I call some cohorts, and say, ‘I want to do something together, how much do we throw in?’ And then we hit ’em.” It’s all above board: The group forms an LLC; sometimes participants get paid an hourly salary; and they file a 1099 tax form to report their winnings at the end. To keep things honest and avoid cheaters, sometimes Blaine makes the whole group submit to a polygraph test.
He picks his tables based on a careful analysis: number of decks being played, how many decks until a shuffle, the variations on blackjack rules that might disadvantage him. He bets low until the count turns in his favor and then dives in, but in a way that doesn’t draw attention. At the top Vegas spots, suspicions aren’t raised until you hit $10,000.
“The casinos are very hip to that. You have to camouflage a big play in various ways,” says Blaine. “Most card counters play consistent, predictable, they’re like robots. I try to use instincts when I sense I’m being watched. I hit them big, get out of there, and they just think I got lucky.”
Staying under the radar is of the utmost importance. “When someone is winning, the casinos want to find out, ‘Who is this guy,’” Blaine says. “One of the first things they do is run him down on the computer software.”
If they ran Blaine through, they’d find nothing. In 35 years of counting cards, he’s has never been kicked out of a casino.
That’s not the case for the friend who delivered the original introduction at Blaine’s table in Chinatown. “I’m one of those guys banned from every casino in the world,” says Nicky, who prefers not to reveal his last name.
On Saturday night, he and Blaine are busy dispensing tips and tricks. Since there are more cards valued at 10 in a deck, players who don’t count cards should always assume that the dealer is holding a 10 as his hidden card. Also expect to pick a 10-value card if requesting an additional card. The strategy suggests always taking a card on hands of 11 or under, and to refuse an additional card on 17 or higher. If the dealer is showing a 4, 5, or 6 card, they have more of a chance of going over the 21 limit.
Nicky has spent 40 years as what he calls “a high-end card counter.” In the 1990s, he got the strategy down to a science. But becoming too good became a drawback. At one point, he says, his notoriety was so widespread he couldn’t walk in the front door of a casino. “I was really hot,” he says.
Now he requires the anonymity provided by a good disguise. “If I’m gonna play, the first thing I do is grow my beard,” he says. “Then I dye it. Then I add earrings. Then a hat.” Once he put his arm in a sling and pretended to be one-armed. “Halloween is the greatest,” he says, estimating that he’s made $300,000 on the holiday where identities are fully obscured.
But Nicky, who’s retired from the lending business in New York, hasn’t slowed. He winters in Aruba and plays the 11 casinos there, where he says they haven’t caught on yet. “I can get away with a lot,” he says. But a more careful mentality has taken over and he sets his watch for exactly 1 hour and 15 minutes. When it buzzes he leaves, no matter how up he is.
All in all, he estimates, he’s up around $3 million off cards in this lifetime.
Halfway through the heated games of blackjack and poker at the Chinatown party, the resident card counters take the stage and show off some tricks. A man named Sal, with diamonds on his fingers and a photographic memory, deals out a poker hand face-down, glances at it, and asks his wife in the audience to guess his cards. “Full house,” she says correctly, then names the exact numbers and suits. They do this trick multiple times. It’s a classic ruse in which partners use a predetermined set of signals to reveal their hands to each other. Of course, it's hardly necessary if your dealer is Sal, who can produce straights and flushes no matter how many times he appears to shuffle the deck.
“The art,” says Blaine when he takes the stage, “is getting away with it.”