[FoRK] Hacking Vegas...
Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK)
fork at ianbell.com
Thu Jan 6 09:25:33 PST 2005
Saw a documentary about the MIT Blackjack team last night on the
History Channel. Was a fascinating tale of cat-and-mouse, the lesson
from which is that on a long enough line, the house always wins.
Mezrich's book sounds fascinating.
Hacking Las Vegas
THE INSIDE STORY OF THE MIT BLACKJACK TEAM'S CONQUEST OF THE CASINOS.
By Ben Mezrich
The Back-Spotter can count cards without even being seated at the
blackjack table. When the count gets hot — meaning the house is at a
statistical disadvantage — this player will signal for the team’s
bettors to swoop in.
The Spotter counts cards while playing at the table. Casinos screen for
counters by watching for dramatic rises or drops in bets — a sure sign
that a deck has gone hot or cold. A Spotter avoids detection by
resolutely sticking to the minimum bet on each hand. When it’s time to
start betting big to take advantage of a favorable deck, he tips off
The Gorilla doesn’t count at all: He just bets big, all the time.
Typically, he adopts the pose of a drunken millionaire who has green to
burn. The Spotters ensure the Gorilla’s “luck” by steering him to
tables where he’s got greater than even odds of winning against the
The Big Player
The Big Player appears to be a type well known to the casinos: the
high-rolling recreational gambler who’s content to slowly bleed his
money away through hours of competent play. In reality, he’s a Spotter
with a Gorilla’s bankroll. He’s not only counting cards, he’s tracking
the shuffle for the high cards that rob the house of its advantage. A
BP always plays a good deck, so he never has to lower his bets by much.
I try to control my breathing as I stroll through Logan International
Airport. Terminal C is buzzing and chaotic, an over-air-conditioned
hive of college students escaping Boston for a long weekend. I am
dressed like everyone else: baggy jeans, baseball hat, scuffed
sneakers. But in my mind, I have as much chance of blending in as a
radioactive circus clown. There's enough money hidden under my clothes
to buy a two-bedroom condo. And to top it off, there's $100,000 worth
of yellow plastic casino chips jammed into the backpack slung over my
My anxiety increases as I reach the security checkpoint. I want to turn
and run, but the security guard is staring at me, and I have no choice:
I show him my ticket. America West, flight 69, Boston to Vegas. The
Friday night Neon Express.
He gestures with his head, and I drop my backpack onto the conveyor
belt. I know the chips will show up on the X-ray machine, but even if
the guard makes me open the backpack, he won't realize how much money
the yellow hunks of plastic represent.
The $100 bills are another matter. This is an airport; they can drag me
to a windowless room in the basement and handcuff me to a chair. They
can confiscate my stash, call in the DEA, FBI, and IRS. It will be up
to me to prove that I'm not a drug dealer. To customs agents, $100
bills smell like cocaine.
In reality, I'm a writer, with six pulpy thrillers under my belt, but
today I'm on the scent of a real life story even more high-octane than
any of my fictional jaunts. I'm ferrying money for Kevin Lewis, one of
the best card counters alive. He's taking me back to his glory days
when he ran a card team that hit Vegas for millions.
The guard doesn't seem to be bothered by the bulges under my clothes.
He waves me through the metal detector, and I stumble toward my gate.
My heart rate has almost returned to normal when I spot Lewis standing
near the back of the line of college kids waiting to board flight 69.
He doesn't look up, waiting until I am right next to him to show me the
edges of a mischievous grin.
"Pretty intense," he says.
I nod. His voice is full of bravado, a stark contrast to his
appearance. Dressed in a gray sweatshirt and khaki shorts, Lewis looks
like a stereotypical college student. His features are ethnic, but
beyond that, indeterminate. He could be Asian, Latino, even Italian or
Russian. He is a carbon copy of thousands of other kids who call Boston
"There's got to be an easier way to carry your stake," I finally say,
adjusting the bricks of $100 bills that are sliding down my legs.
"Sure," Lewis responds. "We went through a gadget phase. You know,
James Bond kind of stuff. But hollow crutches are a lot harder to
explain to the FBI than Velcro."He isn't joking.
The truth is, Kevin Lewis isn't his real name. This amiable kid lived a
double life for more than four years. In Boston, he was a straight-A
engineering major at MIT. In Las Vegas, he was something more akin to a
rock star. He partied with Michael Jordan and Howard Stern. He dated a
cheerleader from the Los Angeles Rams and got drunk with Playboy
centerfolds. He was chased off a riverboat in Louisiana and narrowly
avoided being thrown into a Bahamian jail. He was audited by the IRS,
tailed by private investigators, and had his picture faxed around the
Along the way, he amassed a small fortune, which he keeps in neat
stacks of Benjamins in a closet by his bed. It's rumored he made
somewhere between $1 million and $5 million.
THE BABY-FACED CARD COUNTERS TURNED "21" INTO A HIGH-ROLLING ARBITRAGE
For six years in the 1990s, Lewis was a principal member of the MIT
Blackjack Team, an infamous cabal of hyper-geniuses and anarchistic
whiz kids who devised a method of card counting that took the gaming
world completely by surprise. Funded, in part, by shadowy investors and
trained in mock casinos set up in classrooms, dingy apartments, and
underground warehouses across Boston, Lewis and his gang used their
smarts to give themselves an incredible advantage at the only truly
beatable game in the pit. A baby-faced card-counting team possessed
with impressive mathematical skills — here was a novelty that turned
blackjack into an arbitrage opportunity. Their system was so
successful, it took nearly two years before the casinos began to catch
on — engaging in a cat-and-mouse war with the well-trained MIT
To the casinos, there's no difference between legal card counters like
Lewis, who use their brains to beat the game, and the brash,
increasingly high tech cheaters who steal tens of millions of dollars
from the resorts every year. In response, the casinos have developed
equally sophisticated means of identifying, tracking, and eliminating
their enemies: i.e., anyone who doesn't consistently lose.
"It's Robin Hood against the Sheriff," Lewis says, summing it up as we
wait with the Vegas-bound crowd. It's an interesting analogy, yet it
falls severely short. In this story Robin Hood is stealing from the
rich to give to himself. And the sheriff has a thousand eyes, covering
every inch of the sky.
"It started the summer after my junior year," Lewis recalls. "I had
these two friends who were always disappearing for long weekends. Both
had dropped out of MIT, and neither one seemed to be interested in
getting a job. And yet they always seemed to have tons of money.
Hundred-dollar bills, all over the apartment."
Andre Martinez and Steve Fisher (their names, like those of the other
members of the MIT Blackjack Team, have been changed) were brilliant
kids with a shared anarchistic streak: Martinez had mysteriously left
MIT his senior year; Fisher had likewise quit with a semester to go
before graduation. Lewis was surprised when they asked to meet him late
at night in a classroom on the Infinite Corridor, the long hallway that
runs down the center of the MIT campus. There, he was presented to a
roomful of students he recognized from his math and science courses —
the core of the MIT Blackjack Team. At the helm was a man in his
mid-thirties with frighteningly bad teeth and equally poor hygiene, a
former assistant professor who went by the name Micky Rosa.
As Rosa explained it, the team had been around for nearly two decades.
In the beginning, it was more of an after-school club, a place for
mathematical geniuses to play cards and pontificate on card-counting
theory. MIT being MIT — the world's premier stable of brilliant young
math and science prodigies (many of whom had always been a little too
smart for their own good) — it wasn't long before the blackjack club
had reached an elite level of play. In recent years, their after-school
hobby had become a business. Rosa had gathered more than $1 million in
seed money and was organizing regular assaults on Vegas and other
casino centers around the country: riverboats in Louisiana, Chicago,
and Mississippi, and Indian reservations in Connecticut and Michigan.
He was recruiting a select group of students, and Lewis fit the
At first, Lewis was skeptical. "I'd read a bit about blackjack, and I
always thought of card counters the same way the casinos thought of
them. Bald white men with glasses, hunched over the cards, scrapping
out their tiny advantage. But Micky was talking about something much
Blackjack is beatable.
Walk into any bookstore and head to the section on gambling. An entire
industry has been spawned by the belief that a mix of mathematics and
practice can unlock the casinos' coffers. Beginning with the
publication of Edward Thorp's Beat the Dealer, back in 1962, an arsenal
of card-counting systems has bolstered the popular notion that
blackjack is the one game in the casino where the player can have an
edge over the house. Unlike roulette and craps, blackjack has a memory;
past play can affect future outcomes. By keeping track of the past,
goes the theory, it's possible to predict, and thus take advantage of,
On paper, the theory looks pretty good. Blackjack itself is a simple
game. The player gets cards, the dealer gets cards, and whoever gets
closer to 21 wins. Though most novices believe the object is to get the
best hand possible, the real point of blackjack is merely to beat the
dealer's hand. If the dealer busts (goes over 21), the player
automatically wins. Since the dealer has to keep hitting until he
reaches 17, a deck with more high cards than low is dangerous to the
dealer. Likewise, since a natural blackjack (21) pays 1.5 to 1, a deck
rich in high cards offers more chances to the player for a bigger
payout. Based on these two facts, Thorp, a mathematics professor at UC
Berkeley, developed a system to keep track of the ratio of high to low
cards left in the deck. With his "hi-lo" method of counting, Thorp
could beat the dealer. Adjusting both betting and play to take
advantage of a high ratio, Thorp and his protégés found that it's
possible to maintain an advantage over the house of approximately 2
percent. Playing against a single deck dealt down to the bottom, in a
controlled environment without supervision, Thorp discovered card
counting to be a sure thing.
"WE RETURNED 154 PERCENT TO OUR INVESTORS. TRY DOING THAT ON WALL
Of course, if these conditions ever existed, they certainly don't
anymore. To combat the card counters, the majority of casinos use six
decks, deal no more than two-thirds of the way through, and utilize
thousands of video cameras to watch everyone they perceive as a
potential threat. A player armed with Thorp's book, hundreds of hours
of practice, and a good head for numbers can still eke out a small
profit from a six-deck shoe — but since card-counting strategy relies
on the player's ability to raise and lower his bet to take advantage of
the count, it doesn't take long for the casino to catch on. In Las
Vegas, the casino has the right to bar anyone it wants. (Atlantic City
has more "civilized" rules: The casinos can't bar card counters,
however they can annoy and harass them with constant shuffles, dealer
changes, and other countermeasures.) Individual card counters who
follow Thorp's system and succeed quickly find themselves first
unwelcome and then extinct: In gaming parlance, they're dinosaurs.
By the early '70s, the casinos had overcome their initial panic. They
had learned to identify and contain the enemy. So the enemy did what
every good enemy does: It got smarter.
The team was built around card counting's major innovation since
Thorp's book: a division of labor. While it's easy to spot a lone card
counter raising and lowering his bet to take advantage of its highs and
lows, it's much harder to catch a team of counters working together —
dividing the roles of counting and betting between seemingly unrelated
players. The MIT team took this division of labor even further,
refining the system by cycling in fresh young faces from the deep pool
of mathematical talent back in Boston. Furthermore, every member was
given a faux persona, to be better able to pass unnoticed among those
one might naturally find in a casino setting. But beneath the trappings
of disguise there were only three basic positions: Spotters, Gorillas,
and Big Players (BPs). The Spotters tended to be inconspicuous and
would sit at the table, playing the minimum bet while counting the
shoe. (Back-Spotters were deployed during overly crowded casino
conditions and would maintain a count while standing behind the seated
players.) When a count went positive — when there were a lot of high
cards still to be played — a Spotter signaled either a Gorilla or a BP.
Gorillas didn't count at all: They simply bet big until they were
signaled that the count had gone back down. BPs were Gorillas who had
graduated to a more refined style, counting along with the Spotters
after being called to the table. BPs were able to maneuver along with
the deal, taking advantage of shifts in the count by playing multiple
hands and finding other ways to vary bets without raising the casino's
attention. In either case, the player with the large action (bets of
$1,000 a hand or more) didn't act like a counter. He entered big and
hardly varied his bet. Likewise, the Spotters always bet the minimum,
never raising or lowering no matter what the count. Neither type of
player fit the mold the casino pit bosses had been trained to look for.
And since the Spotters called the BP into the game only when the deck
was hot, the big money was played only in highly advantageous
The team worked at the mathematics — the expected advantages, the
proper Spotter payouts, the appropriate BP betting scheme — in rigorous
detail, with the aid of computers and countless hours of simulated
play. Average profit percentages ranged from between 10 and 20 percent
per gambling foray, but could go much higher depending on the number of
open tables and the number of possible player hours. "The first year I
played, we returned 154 percent to our investors," brags Lewis. "That's
after paying off expenses. You try and do that on Wall Street." The
real genius of the MIT scheme was how it turned the casinos' own
profiling techniques against them, using stereotypes to camouflage the
big money bets.
The MIT team thrived by choosing BPs who fit the casino mold of the
young, foolish, and wealthy. Primarily nonwhite, either Asian or Middle
Eastern, these were the kids the casinos were accustomed to seeing bet
a thousand bucks a hand. Like many on the team, Kevin Lewis was part
Asian, and could pass as the child of a rich Chinese or Japanese
executive. "When you're recruiting, you don't recruit white kids. They
look conspicuous. Asian kids, Greek kids, dark skin fits in better with
lots of money in the casinos. White 20-year-olds with $2 million
bankrolls stand out," explains Andrew Tay, one of Lewis' teammates. "A
geeky Asian kid with $100,000 in his wallet didn't raise any eyebrows."
Playing against type was also part of the formula. Jill Thomas is
red-haired, blue-eyed, and partial to miniskirts — a high-powered
consultant who graduated at the top of her class from Harvard Business
School. Nobody would ever guess that she had spent hundreds of hours
training in mock casinos set up by the MIT team. "During the day, I'd
dress like I was going to the pool. At night, I'd wear tons of makeup
and a low-cut top. I'd play the dumb chick, and nobody ever suspected I
was spotting. The pit bosses helped me play my hands."
To further confuse the casinos and to push profits even higher, Lewis
and his buddies mastered practical techniques that expanded on
card-counting theory, with almost magical results. Two of the tricks
that became a staple of the MIT system, shuffle tracking and ace
tracking, exploit a concept called the nonrandom shuffle. Because of
time constraints, blackjack dealers cannot achieve completely random
redistributions during the shuffle. This means that certain packets of
cards remain close enough together to be "tracked" through the deck. By
watching a group of low cards, for example, it's possible to cut the
deck (players assist the dealer by placing the cut card into the
shuffled stack) in such a way that some low cards never have to be
played. Likewise, a good shuffle tracker can "predict" a string of high
cards and raise his bet even before the count goes positive.
Along with tracking groups of high or low cards, a trained counter can
spot individual aces or even series of aces. Since drawing an ace adds
roughly a 37 percent advantage to the player's expected take, tracking
a series of aces through the shuffle can be extremely profitable. And
again, ace tracking helps in camouflaging counting play: The BP raises
his bet to "predict" the ace, not based on the count.
It didn't take long for Kevin Lewis to realize that the MIT team had
taken card counting to an entirely new level. Before heading to Vegas,
he had to pass a variety of tests, all held in mock casinos spread
throughout Boston. His first task was mastering the art of spotting.
Martinez and Rosa dealt him hand after hand, asking for the count at
"Martinez would try and distract me, asking all sorts of questions,
making me fill out comp tickets — harassing me just like a real casino
pit boss," Lewis recalls. "One time, they even had some girls dress up
like cocktail waitresses to try and make me lose my count."
After passing the Spotter test, Lewis moved on to the BP exam. Called
to a table midplay, a BP has to take the running count and convert it
into the more accurate "true count," by estimating how many cards are
still left in the shoe. That's because a count of plus 10 — a ratio of
10 extra high cards to low left to be played — has a much higher value
when there is only one deck left in the shoe, as opposed to six. Once
the true count is established, a BP has to determine the proper bet. On
the test, Lewis was asked to make highly complex decisions — such as
when to split pairs against certain counts — while Martinez and Rosa
graded his play from across the room.
"One mistake can cost a team a large amount of their expected
advantage," Lewis says. "We had these charts calculated out that could
tell you what a single error in play costs in terms of profit."
After passing the BP exam, Lewis moved to real world application.
During Lewis' first weekend in Vegas, the team made $100,000. He was
hooked and soon became one of the team's premier players. Personally,
he didn't have problems with the ethics of the venture. "It isn't
really even gambling. It's no different than the stock market. We use
our brains to earn a profit. It isn't illegal. And it isn't cheating."
But it was something Lewis decided to keep secret from his family and
friends, separating his Vegas lifestyle from his world in Boston. He
knew that others wouldn't understand. A Lewis classmate who decided
against joining the team put voice to Lewis' concerns.
"They approached me my junior year," says Matt Devonshire, summing it
up over a friendly game of poker. "I wanted no part of it.
I didn't care that it wasn't technically illegal. It just felt wrong.
There was so much about it that seemed so shady."
Fake names. Fake IDs. Individual bankrolls in the hundreds of
thousands. VIP suites. Limousines with fully stocked minibars. Casino
hosts offering carte blanche in a city that had built its reputation on
easy access to a thousand different forms of sin. For a group of young
math and engineering geeks, this was heaven on earth. In the beginning,
Rosa ran the team like a business, enforcing stringent rules against
alcohol, fraternizing with the local fauna, any extracurriculars that
didn't involve blackjack felt and hi-lo ratios. But as the real money
began to pour in, Lewis and his teammates broke out, starting their own
squads with their own capital.
"I was Donkey Boy my first trip out," reminisces Andrew Tay, speaking
of the spring of 1994. "We were at one of the clubs; I think it was at
the Hard Rock. Lewis hands me a Ziploc bag. 'Put this in your pants,'
he tells me. 'What is it?,' I say. 'Don't ask.' It slipped down my leg
as I walked across the dance floor. I went to the bathroom and pulled
it out. It was $200,000 in chips."
Over the next year, the profits continued to multiply at a staggering
rate. Although there were losing weekends — Lewis described how one
night he blew $100,000 in just two hands — over time, the team was
mathematically destined to win. The more hands played, the more certain
"Around July 4, 1995," Lewis recalls, "we had this phenomenal weekend.
All told, we won about $400,000. A bunch of us were sitting around the
pool at the Mirage, and I had a duffel bag under my lounge chair. The
duffel had $950,000 in cash inside. I was 22 years old. What the hell
was I going to do with that kind of money?"
At the time, the casinos made it easy to stay liquid. This was before
the era of the CTR — the cash transaction report — which obligates the
casinos to report any transaction greater than $10,000. "In the old
days," Tay explains, "you'd win a quarter-million dollars, and they'd
give it to you in cash. On New Year's 1996, I walked from the Mirage to
the MGM Grand with a paper New Year's hat filled with $180,000." Back
in Boston, Lewis and his friends kept the money in cash, declaring the
winnings in the "other" category on their IRS forms. "You'd find $100
bills all over my apartment. Dig in my laundry, there would be $100,000
under my socks."
Although the money was a testament to the brilliance of the MIT system,
the overwhelming success began to breed a sense of paranoia. Things
were getting too easy: With each mega-casino that opened on the Vegas
landscape, the pot of potential riches seemed to grow bigger. Other
card-counting teams were cropping up at an alarming rate, some
reportedly having as many as 100 members. At major casino openings, it
wasn't unusual to see dozens of Spotters working the same pit. Sooner
or later, Lewis felt, someone was going to notice what they were doing.
The paranoia, it turns out, was justified. With the mega-resorts came a
new influx of corporate money — and a corporate sense of cautiousness.
The new casinos had billion-dollar price tags; Vegas had more to lose
than ever before.
My first few days in Las Vegas, I get a small taste of the new
paranoia. I awake one morning to discover that my laptop has been
stolen out of my locked hotel room while I slept. The next afternoon, I
meet with Beverly Griffin, head of the Griffin Detective Agency, the
leading "intelligence provider" to the gaming community worldwide. She
agrees to see me — but wants to meet in a crowded outdoor café adjacent
to the Paris hotel — a chaotic public setting. It's impossible to use a
tape recorder, or otherwise get her words on permanent record.
"For 34 years, we've been out here on the Strip collecting information
for clients all over the world," she begins, her kindly features muted
by the shadow of a faux Eiffel Tower. "Almost every casino in the world
uses us. We've got agents working 24 hours a day, covering every shift
at every hotel. If someone wins a bunch of money, leaves one casino,
and walks down the street to another, you can be sure we'll have
someone watching him when he gets there."
The most important weapon in the war against counters and cheaters is
information. The Griffin Agency has spent more than three decades
developing new methods of gathering and relaying that information,
acting as the eyes, ears, and arms of nearly every casino on earth. In
the beginning, it was all about the human element: agents following
suspects across the casino floor, identifying them from grainy stills
taken by security cameras hidden above the gambling pit — the familiar
Eyes in the Sky. Using these photos — and thousands of hours of
investigative legwork — Griffin was able to compile a legendary
facebook, providing photos, names, aliases, known accomplices, even
home addresses and phone numbers of people who win too much too often.
Anyone who ended up in the Griffin Book was in danger of being barred
from any casino that employed the agency — that is, if someone on the
casino floor was lucky enough to notice the offender and make a
facebook match. In the beginning, it was just this sort of luck — or
old-fashioned detective work — that broke the biggest card counters.
"The team play confused us at first," Griffin explains. "I remember
when Ken Uston — perhaps the father of card counting — hit us hard for
a year, maybe more. We'd been watching him at Caesars, and we couldn't
figure out how he was winning. Then one afternoon, my husband went to a
tennis match and saw Uston sitting in the stands. Next to him were a
few other people my husband recognized from the tables at Caesars —
people Uston had pretended not to know. We realized they had been
spotting, and figured the whole thing out."
In recent years, Griffin has taken her facebook high tech, combining
advances in facial recognition technology with sophisticated
data-mining software. Do two seemingly unrelated players always appear
in the same casinos at the same time? Did a consistent winner and a pit
boss once share a phone number? "If someone is winning a lot, you can
bet we're going to be called in. Because in a casino, these things can
go bad very, very fast," explains Griffin. "A lot of money can be lost
in a short amount of time, and with the high tech cheaters, it's even
While card counters use math to ensure a modest but steady winning
streak over a long period of play, high tech cheaters opt for the quick
hit-and-run. Jeff Jonas, chief scientist and founder of Systems
Research & Development, the company that created much of the software
used by Griffin, invites me to his office on the outskirts of Vegas for
a tour of the more effective tech tricks of the cheating trade.
"Smile for the camera," he exclaims, brandishing a tiny plastic lens
the size and shape of a jacket button. "This is the smallest fully
operational TV station in the commercial industry. It literally
broadcasts TV-quality visuals. Some guy will sit down at a card table
with this camera attached to his sleeve, an antenna on his back, and a
lithium battery in his belt, and broadcast the image to a van outside
with a satellite dish. A guy in the van will slow down the video so you
can actually see the cards that flash by during a shuffle." Another
cheater Jonas once caught was wearing gloves in the middle of summer:
It turned out he had a computer attached to his hand, keeping track of
cards by tapping his fingers.
Members of the MIT team tell me about a group that tags the high cards
in a deck with minute traces of radioactive isotopes. Team members wear
Geiger counters attached to their knees, getting positive readings when
the high cards come out of the shoe. There's another tale about a
scammer who marks cards with ink that can only be seen with special
red-filtered contact lenses.
Getting caught is no small affair. Cheating at cards in Nevada can
carry a sentence of up to 10 years. Card counting, on the other hand,
will merely get you kicked out of the casino for good. But to Griffin
and the surveillance establishment, the distinction between cheaters
and counters is irrelevant. "Our job is to provide the casinos with
information to explain why someone is winning," Griffin says. "It's up
to the casinos as to what they want to do with the information."
Jeff Jonas makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the professionals
who use math instead of miniature cameras to beat the system. "These
teams of card counters are a new definition of organized crime. They
use the Internet to recruit each other, to share vulnerabilities of
casinos and even specific dealers, and they are always searching for
ways to gain an unfair advantage over the house."
WHEN THEY FOUND HIM, HE WAS LYING IN THE TUB, THE DUFFEL CLENCHED TO
The irony is that a bad counter often will play a more negative game
than a solid player who is simply using basic strategy. One mistake per
hour obliterates a counter's advantage, and two an hour is more costly
than not counting at all. According to Andrew Tay, casinos know this
and so rather than automatically ejecting a known counter, they'll
"watch his play, track his wins and losses, and if he's identified as a
bad counter, they'll comp him a room, make him feel like a king, and
laugh as his 'positive' game slowly bleeds him dry."
In the end, the MIT team was brought down by its own success. They
were too good at what they did, too smart to remain unnoticed forever.
By the end of the decade, Griffin was onto them. As we exit the café,
she says, "There's always a way to get inside these teams. Sooner or
later, someone gets cold feet. Or someone gets greedy."
Then, without prompting, she adds a seeming non sequitur. "What would
your mother think if she spent all that money to send you to MIT and
you turned into a professional card counter?"
I had never mentioned to her the real focus of my article. Perhaps my
paranoia wasn't misplaced.
"I still remember the first time I got barred," Kevin Lewis says. "It
was at the Rio. I had just sat down to play. I had $500 in the betting
circle. Then these two guys in suits came up behind me. One of them
pushed my money out of the circle. 'We can't let you play here
anymore,' he told me. Then he tried to get me to go downstairs to the
basement of the casino with him. I ran right out of there."
Lewis and I are sitting in a 2,000-square-foot suite at the top of the
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. There's a widescreen TV, a fully stocked bar,
leather couches, and a picture window overlooking the twinkling neon
strip. This is one of four "celebrity suites" spread out across Las
Vegas that Lewis has access to this evening, all complimentary,
arranged by various casino hosts who know nothing about his past. All
they see are the dollar signs on his bankroll, and the action he's
willing to put down at the tables. It's not enough to be rich. You've
also got to be willing to play.
"Pretty soon," he continues, "we started to get heat every second or
In Boston a week earlier, Martinez had described a frightening
encounter at another casino in town. He had been playing all night at
the high-stakes tables and had returned to his room sometime after 2 in
the morning. There was a loud knock on the door, someone identifying
himself as hotel security. Martinez grabbed his duffel bag full of
chips and tried to find someplace to hide. When they found him, he was
lying in the bathtub, the duffel clenched to his chest.
They took him to the basement. "They asked me to stand against the wall
so they could take a picture. I refused. Then they asked me to sign
something that said I would never return to the hotel."
"It's called back-rooming," Jill Thomas explains. "It's an intimidation
technique. They can't legally do anything to you, so they try and scare
you. They read you the trespass act — if you return to the casino in
the future, you'll be trespassing, and then they can arrest you."
The troubles came to a head for Lewis' MIT team on a weekend excursion
to Shreveport, Louisiana. The group had traveled to play the riverboat
casinos — replicas of 19th-century paddle wheelers — located on the Red
River. The first stop was a place called the Horseshoe, a 25-story
hotel attached to a garish floating casino. About halfway through the
evening, Lewis was walking by one of the blackjack pits when he saw
something that caught his eye.
"There was this group of floor people — pit bosses and a shift manager
— standing around a fax machine. There were pages coming off the fax,
dark with ink. I got a little closer and saw one of the guys pull off a
page full of pictures. I knew we were in deep trouble."
Lewis signaled his team and headed for the parking lot. The suits
followed, chasing him all the way outside. Running for the car, Lewis
had a moment of pure terror.
"Here I am in the middle of nowhere. Is anyone going to notice if some
Asian kid disappears in Shreveport, Louisiana?"
Back in Boston, Lewis' people discovered that their problems were just
beginning. It turned out someone associated with the MIT team had sold
a list of member names to the enemy, reportedly for $25,000. In
Griffin's words, someone had gotten greedy. Still in their
mid-twenties, Lewis and his friends were fast becoming dinosaurs.
"Even Robin Hood has to know when it's time to quit," Lewis says,
looking over the Strip from his celebrity suite. "It was getting to the
point where we couldn't walk into a blackjack pit without some suit
coming up behind us. They were even coming after our Spotters."
By mid 1997, the state of tension caused a rift in the team, eventually
splitting the group in half. After Shreveport, Martinez and Fisher
formed their own group and continue today to hit the casinos on a
monthly basis. Lewis decided to go it on his own, forming an alliance
with Jill Thomas and Andrew Tay. Then a few months later, someone broke
into Thomas' apartment, stealing more than $50,000 in blackjack
winnings from a safe in her bedroom. Although he has no proof, Lewis
suspects that the robbery had something to do with the MIT team. Maybe
someone on the inside sold out — or perhaps one of the cats was trying
to send the mice a little message. Either way, Lewis decided he had had
enough. When, just two months after the robbery, he was audited by the
IRS, he made the decision to stop playing professionally.
"We could have kept playing, like Martinez and the others. But it just
wasn't worth it anymore. The double life had gotten too difficult."
"So that was it?" I ask. "You just took yourself out of the game?"
Lewis doesn’t answer, but I see a hint of mischief in his eyes.
Rock music blares in my ears as I trail Lewis through the Hard Rock
casino. The Hard Rock isn’t like any other gambling den in Nevada: It’s
cool, it’s hip, it’s more LA than Vegas, all done up in wood tones and
plush velvet. Loud and young and in-your-face, from the Harley-Davidson
in the lobby to the Playboy-style grotto out back, it’s the ultimate
Friday night scene. Lorded over by beautiful blond waitresses in black
miniskirts and dark stockings, the crowd tends toward models,
actresses, and A-list celebrities, all vying for one another’s
I wade through — and in truth, at the moment I fit right in. My hair
is slicked back. My shirt is open two buttons at the neck. A borrowed
charcoal-colored Armani jacket drapes over my shoulders like a cape.
Inside, I am Jell-O, but I don’t let it show. I try to mimic the way
Lewis moves through the casino. I copy his swagger, walking in long
strides as if my cock runs halfway down my leg. Like the casino itself,
I am cool, I am hip. I pretend I am rich enough to be strolling toward
the high-stakes blackjack pit, rich enough to smile at the dealers and
wink at the cocktail waitresses. Tonight, I’m a player.
“This looks good,” Lewis says, stopping at a table in a corner of the
pit. He drops onto one of the stools, gesturing for me to sit next to
him. I look at the little plastic card on the felt, and see that the
minimum bet is $300. I cough, breaking character, and Lewis smiles.
“Maybe I’ll spot you the first few hands.”
He pulls out a roll of $100 bills — cash that I had smuggled through
airport security a week earlier — and drops it onto the felt in front
of me. I’m no Rain Man, but I can count along with the dealer. Twenty
He waves me silent, as the dealer finishes shuffling the deck and
stacks the cards in the plastic shoe. A cocktail waitress brings us
drinks — matching glasses of Jack Daniel’s, easy on the ice — and we
each exchange a few thousand dollars for chips, leaving $300 in our
respective betting circles. The cards start to come out, and I settle
into the game, playing basic strategy like Lewis has taught me.
Ten minutes pass in near silence. I keep to the minimum bet, and I
notice that Lewis’ pile of chips changes shape as we move deeper into
the deck. I try to see if he’s counting, but it seems he isn’t even
paying attention. His head is cocked to the side, his face relaxed, his
eyes barely moving. It takes me a moment to realize that, indeed, he is
watching the cards — through the reflection in my whiskey glass.
I start to follow him more carefully, raising my own bet with his.
After a few hands, he notices what I’m doing and laughs. OK, he seems
to tell me. Let’s play a little.
Over the next hour, I am treated to a display of pure talent. By midway
through the shoe, Lewis has spread out to cover three betting circles,
all with minimum bets of more than $1,000. He’s splitting tens and
cutting to aces; he’s playing all the tricks I’ve researched and read
about, and he’s letting me tag along. Pretty soon we’re up $12,000. I
am about to double my bet for what looks to be the last hand of the
shoe, when I notice that Lewis’ hand is suddenly in his hair. I know
from my research that the movement isn’t natural; it’s a signal from
Lewis’ gaming days, an alarm — get up, get out, now. I look up and see
two men approaching from the other side of the high-stakes pit. Both
are wearing dark suits with stiff lapels, and the taller of the two is
talking into a cell phone.
I see Lewis gathering up his chips, and I start to do the same. The
dealer asks if we want to cash out, but before either of us can answer,
one of the suited men steps forward.
“Mr. Lewis, can we speak to you for a moment?”
Lewis shoves his remaining chips into his pockets and pushes back from
“We were just leaving.”
I scoop up my own chips, nearly upending my stool as I step away from
the table. I can see the other gamblers in the crowded pit looking over
at us, whispers rising above the rock ’n’ roll. I feel a mixture of
fear and pride as the two men in suits begin to escort us out of the
blackjack area. When we reach the edge of the pit, the taller of the
two puts his hand on Lewis’ shoulder.
“Mr. Lewis, we can’t have you playing blackjack here anymore.”
Lewis’ eyebrows rise, indignant and surprised. I know it’s an act. He
has heard this before.
“Why not?” Lewis asks, more for me than for appearances.
The suit spreads his hands, palms out.
“You’re too good for us.”
He’s smiling, but I can tell from his voice that he’s dead serious. He
doesn’t want us anywhere near the blackjack tables, because he watched
us play from some security roost above the casino floor, analyzing our
moves through the Eyes in the Sky. He sees Kevin Lewis as a threat to
his casino, a danger to his bottom line.
And the truth is, he’s right.
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