Walk into a casino, watch people playing blackjack, and it's easy to view the game as a leisurely pursuit that generates thrills for tourists. Usually that's indeed the case. But for a small coterie of professional gamblers, blackjack is all business. It turns out that blackjack teams operate much like investment banks.
In the recently published Repeat Until Rich: A Card Counter's Chronicle of the Blackjack Wars, author and former professional blackjack player Josh Axelrad sheds some light on how these blackjack businesses work. Their means of making money is often built around card counting, a relatively simple mathematical system through which you keep track of cards that have already been dealt, use that information to recognize when the game turns positive for players and bet accordingly.
Historically, the most successful counters have been aligned with small, tightly run, highly secretive consortiums. In his casino-tripping memoir, Axelrad give the pseudonymous name of Mossad to the blackjack corporation he played on. His descriptions underline a few of Mossad's similarities to trading firms.
"Mossad had controls that were analogous to banking controls," Axelrad says. "We had documents that recorded wins, losses, expenses, amounts wagered; it was all kept in a database made from proprietary software. We duly reported our taxes. Over the life of Mossad – which went from 1996 or '97 until 2004 – nobody ever got audited as a result of the team."
Blackjack Jobs: Lucrative But Hostile
Workaday jobs at Mossad ranged from scouting tables to plunking down $10,000 bets at optimal times to surreptitiously signaling big bettors on how much to wager and how to play hands. Meanwhile, at the top end, managers devised strategies and oversaw sessions of play.
Usually team-members worked in fairly hostile environments, as casino personnel hate card counting and do their best to ban counters. That eats into returns, which Axelrad describes as "interesting."
"If you could be in action 24/7, you'd make ridiculous money," he explains. "But, even though card counting is completely legal, casinos are effective at limiting opportunities. So, on a short bank [a playing-period that lasts maybe a week], return on investment would be around 5%."
Money was split in the manner of a customer-friendly hedge fund – after management took a 5% cut, players received 60% and investors received 40% (managers and players always invested) – and accounting was scrupulous. The team even employed computer technology to closely track Mossad's finances.
Investing in Tech and Research
The computer served a secondary purpose, as well. "It analyzed play and results," says Axelrad, who won $700,000 for the team during his five-year stint. "If there were causes for concern [about a player] and that player's results were two deviations to the bad, well, then maybe they would be told to take some time off." The computer also maintained details on gambling opportunities, resulting in what Axelrad classifies as "blackjack's most robust database of casino conditions."
Just as Wall Street firms have researchers who look for good investment opportunities, so did Mossad. Axelrad and the others continually hunted down exceptional games with favorable rules, shuffles that could be tracked and lackadaisical pit bosses.
Sometimes these quests took them to out-of-the-way spots around the United States (newly opened Indian casinos provided fertile gambling ground for the team) and to the fringes of Las Vegas. "We found a good game at Mahoney's Silver Nugget, just about the last casino on anything resembling Las Vegas Boulevard," Axelrad remembers fondly. "The clientele there was so unsavory that armed guards were stationed inside."
In spite of its technology and innovative business model, Mossad hardly proved invincible. One other thing that Mossad had in common with many a trading firm is its end: After a long run of success, it came up against a series of defections, changes in the money-making environment and fresh market-efficiencies (thanks to savvier casino security). All of this led to the team's demise in 2005.
While some of the former members continue to play blackjack in more modest configurations, others have taken on new challenges. Regular viewers of televised poker tournaments have most certainly watched at least two of Mossad's ex-superstars now pursuing followup careers at Texas hold'em.