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Moscow player’s diary (Black List).

The Bellagio Casino is located on Tverskaya Street. It is approximately in the middle of your way from Pushkin to Mayakovsky Square, if you walk down the street. You should turn left after the bookstore and you will see the entrance with bright red lights. If you win some money in a card game, there is always somebody who is ready to help you spend it. “Easy come, easy gone” that’s the motto of many casino’s visitors. Many of them think so, but not everyone.

Unfortunately, money doesn’t come always. It happens more often to leave than to come. I’m one of those gamblers who win more than lose. Victories and defeats alternate with each other, but in general I’m always in black. And it’s not quite easy for me. I count cards in blackjack. It’s heavy and intricate mental work, which was preceded by months of regular workouts. The most part of my visits to casinos end with my gain. Game is my job; winnings are my salary, earned honestly and fairly.

It’s Thursday, 10 p.m. I enter The Bellagio.

-Remove metal items, – the guard cast a glance at me.

I take my mobile and lighter out and pass through the metal detector. I’m inside the casino. I put my jacket in the cloakroom, then go to the cashier station and exchange five hundred dollars.

There is nothing to do on the ground floor, so I go up to the second – at the first room there are slot machines, at the second people play poker and blackjack. There are four tables, at blackjack cards are dealt from a shuffle machine. It’s a special box, which constantly shuffle decks. There is no point to count cards, so it’s impossible to win these frigging machines. At these tables sit those who came to lose.  And I came to win. I go up the stairs, the steps are covered with something soft, so the steps can’t be heard. There aren’t any extraneous sounds, nothing should distract you from the game. There is only the rustle of the cards and knock of the ball on a roulette wheel. There is a small room with a subdued light on the second floor. Two tables, one is for blackjack, the other is for poker. There is a hand delivery at the blackjack, eight-deck game. The standard rules, with surrender. That’s why the bets are larger, the minimum one is ten dollars against five on the floor below. I don’t start to play at once, instead of that I order a mineral water with ice, then I stop near the table and start watching the game.

Just two first boxes are free. Two men are playing, two other are watching. The first gambler is a man in his fifties. He dressed with a rumpled brown jacket and his hands are shaking nervously. He drinks vodka and eat a sandwich with salmon. Engineer-alcoholic. All his life he suffers from the spiteful wife and a permanent hangover. When he manages to hide from his wife some money, he runs to casino and gamble it away without remainder. For a gambler with a huge experience he plays normally. Close to the “hole card”, but not perfect. In delicate situations he always makes mistakes. He doesn’t risk and doesn’t go too far. Each round he stakes ten dollars and nothing more than that; for this type of gamblers the result doesn’t matter, just that feeling of freedom is important. These two hours which he spent away from his wife. He is ready to pay for these precious moments, and he pays. A little bit. About two hundred bucks. The gamblers like him don’t lose more.

The second man has a Caucasian appearance. He was about forty, a typical taxi driver, emotional and loud. He comments on the gamblers at the table. He plays bad and recklessly. He also stakes ten dollars, it’s the minimum at the table. If he loses three hands in a row, then he raises to twenty-five. If he loses again, then he put on another 5$ chip. There is a column height of a hundred and fifty bucks close to him, and I think that it’s all his money. The Caucasian confirms my guess: right after he got won a huge gaining, he brakes down 5$ chips in one 100$ chip. At once he hides a chip in the back pocket of his jeans. Fifteen minutes later, cussing out the dealer he gets it back and brakes it in twenty 5$ chips. And he puts 10$ chip in the box. He has five and three and the dealer has four. He doubles and loses. According to my calculations if he continues playing like this, he will have no more than ten minutes for the game. He is drinking cognac.

To the left of “the taxi driver” sits a girl who is long in the leg and it’s her only merit. She plays with indifference and with the dealer’s prompts. It’s her second or third time at casino. She smokes thin cigarettes. There is a feeling that she loses not her own money. Exactly, just as I thought. She gets up and goes to a poker table where sits her elderly boyfriend; she takes his chips in three hundred dollars and continues gambling away. The girl is bored.

A young boy plays at the last box. He hasn’t got much money – about fifty or seventy bucks. He plays “hole card” exactly and correctly. He doesn’t count the cards. When he botches up the hand and the dealer gets twenty-one instead of busting, “the engineer” and “the taxi driver” are cross with him. The guy doesn’t pay attention to them. He drinks a whiskey-cola and smokes freebie Davidoff Lights.

Two men stand near the table. The friend of “the student” drinks a whiskey-cola at no charge, it looks like they stopped at casino in order to get drunk before the party. A tall man, with short-cropped grey hair, dressed simply, but with taste, follows the game closely and he is going to enter as soon as someone will leave. “The taxi driver” comes off just like I have predicted, after ten minutes. He claps his hands, swears like a trooper, rises from the table and leaves. For him it will be a sleepless night of picker-upper, during which he will work his loss off. The grey-haired immediately takes his place, breaks down five hundred in twenty-five and puts a quarter on two boxes. He plays hole card.

I am waiting for the shuffle and then take up the first two boxes. I put my chips in a few stacks. I stake 10$ chip in each of two boxes. I count. There are several card counting systems exist – “Hi-Opt”, “Halves”, “Thorp’s system,” “The High-Low system”. The main idea of these systems is that the player doesn’t have to remember all the cards that came out of the deck. The most common system is The High-Low system”. If you get 2,3,4,5 or 6, then you should add 1 to the running count. If you get 7, 8 or 9, so you should count 0. If you get 10, a picture or an ace, then you should subtract 1 point. At the beginning the count is zero. For example, the dealer hands you 2 and 5, and he gets a Jacks. The running count is 1+1-1=1. And so on. At the control moment points the gambler divides the current count into the number of decks which are remained, and gets the “true count”. The more is “true count”, the greater the chances of a gambler to win. If the “true count” is +10, the gambler’s chances are rising to 7,4%. If it is +5, then the chances are rising to 3,32%. It means that the greater the count, the more aggressive the player must play – to increase bets, change the basic strategy depending on the count. The hardest part is to find out “by eye” how many cards from eight decks left in the shoe. It’s the matter of experience. The count and the strategy must be like a reflex. If somebody wakes me up at night and asks, what I should do if it’s such and such count and with such and such scenario, then I will answer without hesitation.

There were two unsuccessful shuffles. The count is constantly negative. So that’s why I just play on the basic strategy. I’m floundering in zero. Now I lose about fifty bucks, now I win. Now I’m in the black, now I’m in the red. When the dealer starts the third shuffle, I have four hundred and eighty bucks. My balance is minus twenty. The guy at the last box has lost everything. He and his buddy finished up their whiskey and then they left. “The engineer” has won about fifty or sixty dollars. It’s a temporary phenomenon. The grey-haired, just like me, is in low water. I don’t watch the girl with my eyes. The dealer sorts out the cards in several stacks. He shuffles each one thoroughly. Then he collects all the cards together. The girl stretches her hand to cut the deck. It’s the most interesting part of the game for her. No one at the table has anything against it, so she is pleased with it and she cuts the deck. The third shuffle is starting. Again, I play in two boxes with the minimal bets. I’m waiting for the better situation. It may be that today it will not happen. It doesn’t matter. Then I will just play the basic scheme. If I have luck, I’ll win something. Maybe I’ll lose. Someday the count will be favorable. If it’s not today, so it’ll be the next time.

By eye I determine that two of eight decks have already come out. The count is +2. It’s not quite enough. I’m waiting for +5. Several times I get blackjack. The dealer hands not bad. I have six hundred and twelve dollars. The third deck is out of the game. The count is +4. I have just a little bit left to win. I don’t notice anything around me. I focused all my attention on the cards. It’s good, that the girl plays bad and the game always is slowing down, because the dealer starts to explain what she should do. I have time to count the cards and I’m not getting confused. There are several times when the dealer hands small cards. The count is increasing. I’m counting by eye the number of cards which are left in the “shoe”. There are four decks left. The same number is out of game. The count is about +5 and a little bit. I increase the bets up to thirty dollars in each box. Two hands in a row the dealer busts. I’m winning. The count is almost +6. I increase up to fifty. In the first box it gets four and seven. In the second it gets Queen and Ace. The dealer has five. It’s fantastic. I double in the first box. In the second I have blackjack, the payment is three to two. During this round I gain three hundred and fifty bucks. And meanwhile the count is increasing. Cast away all the doubts and fear. I should to take its toll. So I do. I bet one hundred dollars. I already don’t care what’s going on with the others. I’m completely absorbed in the game. The feelings run high in flash point. I’m electrified. I’m tense. Here it is, that’s the reason why people come to casino. If you feel it at once, you will be on the hook. You are swallowed. It doesn’t matter whenever you’re a good or bad gambler, count cards or not, the swindler or just a chump. It doesn’t change the gist of the matter. Now you are not a man – now you’re just appearance. You ate empty and unfeeling. And you are filled with life just here, in these dark velvet-upholstered walls, in the quiet realm of game and gambling.

The grey-haired rises from his seat and comes up to me.

-Could I bet in your boxes, if you have no objections?


He gathers up his chips and put fifty dollars in my boxes so that his chips are under mine. He stands aside. It means that he just gave me his money. I make turns, I decide to take card or not, double or split. If the box wins, he and I get the money. I get it for my bet and he get for his one. If the box loses, we lose together. He just realized that I’m in luck. And he’s right. The cards coming out of the game, and the count is increasing little by little. When the dealer reaches the card cut, that’s to say when there are just two decks left in the “shoe”, he asks whether we want to finish it up or he could shuffle the deck. I ask him to finish, I should say so, because of a great play. The girl doesn’t care. “The engineer” nods. We play it off. The dealer begins to shuffle the decks. It’s the fourth shuffle.

The chips are left all over me, there are very many chips.  At what point it I stop making the stack of them. I count up the total amount. There are one thousand two hundred and forty dollars.  The grey-haired is pleased. He is in a black too. He holds out his hand to me:

-Well done.

– I do my best, – I handshake his hand.

-Good game, – “the engineer” turns to me, raises a shot of vodka and drinks it up.
Meanwhile, the dealer has finished shuffling the cards and the game was started. I bet ten bucks. The count is zero. Several unsuccessful rounds follow each other. It’s a bad luck, but it’s normal. In the card’s games everything is like in life. I’ll sit this moment down and then I’ll increase again. The pit boss’ walkie-talkie is grumbling. She quietly talking with someone, then something whispers the dealer. The dealer looks at me and says:

– You refused to surrender against ace.

-Why? – I ask.

– Without any explanation.

– That perverts, – swears the engineer and shows with gesture the pit boss to bring vodka and a sandwich.

The refusal to surrender against ace is -1% at once. In other words, even card counting will not save the situation. Now I’ll just lose. But, I’m not going to do it. I move my chips to the dealer and ask him the dealer to exchange less valuable chips for more valuable in order not to lug this pile to the cashier station. I get twelve hundred, rise from the table and leave.

I exchange the chips for money; I go up to the wardrobe, put on my jacket. There is a pretty girl-administrator near the guard at the doors.

– Young man, – she addresses to me, – you have a Black List.

– What do you mean?

– You have a black list. You couldn’t play at our casino anymore.

I smile back at her silently and leave the casino. It’s rather cold outside.

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