In the spring of 1981, WCBS-TV New York planned a week-long exposé on the low probability of a gambler winning at virtually every game of chance.
Each night would feature a different gambling situation: horse-race betting on Monday, sports betting on Tuesday, lotteries on Wednesday, casino craps, roulette, and slot machines on Thursday. The investigative reporting each night was to be by the very popular John Stossel. The week’s coverage was intended to build up awareness that luck was not enough. The gambler, over the long run, didn’t stand a chance. But on the final night, Friday, a glimmer of hope would be presented—the only professionally offered game at which the player has the advantage: the game of blackjack, when the player is a card counter.
To dramatize this final night of hope, John Stossel was to attend a session at a school of blackjack counting.
Enter Jack Barnes (aka Jack Byrne).
At the time, as an avocation, I owned and operated the Jack Barnes School of Winning Blackjack, on the 12th floor of an office building on East 43rd Street in New York City. At the school, I trained students to beat the dealer. I also kept an eye out for those top students who might best fit into blackjack teams working Atlantic City and Las Vegas. I was a professional counter. I was part of the “blackjack subculture.” And I was the professor in the school.
My school was chosen for the training of John Stossel.
Three weeks before the gambling feature was to broadcast, John’s producer came to the school to study the shooting and recording situation. The mini-casino room itself was ideal. There was a fully authentic and expensive blackjack table and casino seating for seven. The dealer (“Jack Barnes”) sat on an elevated leather stool. On the wall behind the dealer’s seat were professional charts of gaming odds, blackjack plays, and betting rules. The three other walls were covered with a ceiling-to-floor wallpaper depicting life-sized gamers playing at life-sized casino gaming tables, craps, baccarat, and, of course, blackjack. The table was illuminated by a green shade soft spot. The producer loved the room, and we discussed various camera set-ups for close ups of the cards, the shoe, the chips, etc.
We agreed that I would have a couple of students on hand, and I explained to him I might not be able to have the more serious ones as they would not want to be identified on a Channel 2 broadcast testifying to their skills. I told him that I would, of course, be disguised. WCBS-TV was quite aware of the blackballing by casinos of anyone they believed was keeping track in their head of the cards played. Once identified as a counter, I would be unable to continue at the game, as my credentials and picture would be broadcast throughout the casino industry by a service called Griffin.
We agreed to shoot a week later at six pm.
The Art of Incognito.
At two pm, a renowned Venezuelan make-up artist and his assistant came to my school. This man was known for his seamless artistry, so perfect that even when examined closely off camera, there were no visual clues that make-up or disguise was in use. I had heard he had even been used by drug undercover agents and CIA operators.
During the next three hours, my facial lines were reduced over fifty percent by thin threads drawn up and glued from within my hair line, my aquiline nose was given a slight but noticeable bump, my jaws were strengthened and smoothed by wads of a gum-like substance between my cheeks and gums, a tooth became broken, another became gold, my skin tone enriched by about two degrees, and a mole I had under my nose reappeared over my right eye.
I was fifty-three years old but looking thirty-five. The change was not overdone; I looked like my thirty-year-old nephew, Dick Byrne. One of my specially skilled students and sometime-partner in play agreed to participate using his own disguise. His name was Chuck Cassidy, and he was an artist by hand by day and an artist at counting by night in the after-hours of the tiny casinos located illegally around the New York City. Chuck’s disguise? A shoulder-length brown paper bag over his head with eye and mouth holes cut out.
When John Stossel came into the Gaming Room with his crew at five pm, he saw Chuck first and said, “Wow, perfect. What better way to tell the viewers you guys can’t afford to be recognized.” Then he reached out to shake my hand but stopped and said, “Wait a second—how could you appear on my show and not become identified as a counter?” He answered his own question. “You couldn’t!” He leaned across the blackjack table to look closely at me and said, “Jesus, are you in makeup? I mean, disguise?”
I said, “Of course.” Then he said that he, as an investigative reporter, often had worn disguise, but it always looked too obvious to him. He said that mine didn’t show any signs at all. I told him I’d introduce him to my beauticians.
Just then, the producer, who had been delayed in traffic, arrived. He came in the room, patted John on the back, then looked around and asked, “Is Jack Barnes here yet?”
I said, “He’s down the road, about twenty years.”
The session went very well. John’s skill as an investigator showed immediately. He asked all the right questions and listened to the answers. He quickly began to understand the basic principles of the counter’s edge in a casino. I explained the basics:
The Basics of Beating the House.
1) A deck holds fifty-two cards. Thirty-six are non-tens (Ace to 9) and sixteen are tens. The ratio is 2.25 to 1.
2) At this ratio or higher in favor of non-tens, the remaining cards play favorably to the house. When the ratio is reduced to two or fewer non-tens to one ten, the remaining cards play favorably to the player. This is true whether the player has skill or not.
3) The normal flow of cards over long periods of play assures that the first condition, a ratio of 2.25 or more non-tens to one ten, will occur more than 50% of the time, and thus the house will have the edge and win more hands than it loses.
4) But with knowledge of when the remaining deck favors the player, the player who can adjust his or her betting and play has the secret to a winning career at the game.
5) To know the ratio of remaining cards in play, one must be able to track the cards that have been taken out of play.
6) When the game favors the house, even by the slightest, the informed counter puts as little money as possible at risk. He bets down. When the game favors the player, even by the slightest, he puts as much money into play as he can afford to risk.
7) The more professional counter adds more information to his decisions than this simple non-tens/tens ratio. He keeps a side count of aces because, although an ace is a number among those 1 to 9, it has special impact because it is also an 11, which, with one of the sixteen tens in a deck, becomes a blackjack, and blackjack pays extra, 1.5 to 1. Since the dealer wins your bet only when he has blackjack, this extra half-bet payout is an important contributor to the counting player’s edge. (He or she might be betting $100 when the odds favor the house and $1000 when they favor the player).
8) The counter will not track eights and nines because they are neutral to player and dealer. But he may also keep a side count of fives and sixes, the best cards for the dealer while still in the deck. That’s because the dealer has no choices regarding play. He must hit until he has 17. The player can always choose to hit or stay. When a dealer has a hand that can be busted (12 to 16), he is saved by low cards falling, and five gives him a completed hand (17 to 21) without the risk of another hit, whereas a 6 will bust only a 16. The fewer fives and sixes in the deck, the greater the risk for the dealer hitting a bustable hand. And the more reason for the player to choose to stand with his bustable hand.
9) Blackjack is the simplest of card games. In poker or bridge, there are fifty-two cards with fifty-two separate and distinct values. In blackjack, those same fifty-two cards have only eleven values, nine from 2 to 10 (10, J, Q, K are all a 10) plus two for the Ace, which can be either a 1 or an 11. The suits are irrelevant in blackjack. The second simple thing about blackjack is that the dealer is a robot and is permitted no options or choices. The dealer must always hit his first cards if they are less than 17. When his total reaches 17 or more, he must stop. That’s it. But the player can choose to never hit or to always hit, regardless of the cards he is dealt.
10) This freedom of choice is the source of the edge to the counter. When the deck is rich in tens, and the player and dealer are each dealt a total of, say, 16, the player will not take another card, but the dealer must. The play favors the dealer busting and the player winning. But if the deck is poor in tens and rich in fives and sixes with the same two hands, and if the dealer’s up card shows a 6, the average player with a 12 to 16 and playing according to “Basic Strategy” rules available in all casinos will choose to stand while the dealer must hit. If the player busts, he loses whether the dealer subsequently busts his own hand or not. However, the probability, in this distribution of remaining cards, is that the dealer will not bust, in which case he will beat any stiff hand held by players. The counter, will always hit his stiff hands in these cases and lose less through making some of the hands that he was likely to lose.
11) The very simplest count taught at the school was tracking the ratio of non-tens to tens remaining in the deck. With a single deck in play, the counter starts with the number 45 in his mind. For each non-ten (1-9) played, he adds a point. For each ten played, he subtracts 2. So if cards come out 2-5-6-4-10, the count has moved from 45 to 47. Then, if cards come out in the same ratio, the count moves up two more points to 49. That means that eight non-tens have played, leaving twenty-eight (from thirty-six of fifty-two), and two tens have played, leaving fourteen (from sixteen of fifty-two). The ratio of twenty-eight to fourteen cards is two to one, and thus at a count of forty-nine (a/k/a Gold Rush) the game favors the player. For multi-deck shoes,, the count begins at four points lower for each additional deck carried in the game, thus at 41 for two-deck, 33 for four-deck, 25 for six-deck. In each case, when 49 is reached, play favors the player. The counter does not have to know the number of cards left in the deck—just that the “Gold Rush” ratio has been met or exceeded.
John Stossel, an “A” student.
John picked up on the concept more quickly than the majority of my untrained students. We played a number of hands for the cameras and for show, and I demonstrated some more complex counts from a single deck where, with four cards remaining, I could predict their full composition.
After about three hours of taping, we were through. I had always admired John Stossel’s skills as a reporter, so we tossed a few mutual admirations back and forth before saying goodbye. But I never told him that I was not Jack Barnes but Jack Byrne, and that I had met him in the past as head of Jack Byrne Advertising and spent hundreds of thousands of my clients’ dollars on his TV station. I also did not tell him that Jack Byrne was now CEO of CARMA (Casino and Resort Marketing Associates), a new company geared to providing marketing solutions for the fast-growing casino industry.
As for the quality of the disguise…. I went back to my apartment that evening without removing it. The doorman stopped me and would not let me pass. I told him I was a nephew of Jack Byrne, and would he please call up to the apartment to announce me. He saw a resemblance, so he did announce me. My son, Kareem Devlin, was at home with Charlotte McAlpin, a graduate student of Hunter who had lived with us for three years as his governess. She got on the intercom with me and told me that Mr. Byrne was not home. I told her I just wanted to drop something off for my uncle and went up.
You can’t fool family.
The elevator opened up down the hall from the apartment entrance. Charlotte was standing just inside the partly opened door with KD wrapped behind her legs. She looked nervous as I approached. I said, “Hi!”
As I came closer, she began to show panic, “What do you want?”
I said, “Don’t you know me?”
She answered, “No. No, but you look like family.”
I was five feet away, and then my son looked up at me with great intensity and said, “Daddy?”
Disguise can fool most of the people most of the time, but you can’t disguise blood.
But that is not the only story here. The story gets better and, for me, considerably more profitable.
What goes around comes around, sometimes.
Two months after the WCBS-TV show ran, I was in Las Vegas for a few days of serious blackjack. One evening at about seven o’clock, I was in Caesar’s Palace, the most respected casino in the counter’s world. I was sitting at Blackjack Table Number 1 in Caesar’s Palace’s Pit Number 1. There were three other serious players at this very serious table, which was the only table still dealing single-deck blackjack at Caesar’s. The table minimum was $50, maximum $5000.
I had been playing for about two hours and was barely even. There was a lot of “heat” at this table. Pit personnel knew counters liked single-deck, so they lurked around watching the players very carefully for any plays or motions that may give their professionalism away. I had been a legitimate player at Caesar’s long before I became a counter, so my “cover” was pretty well established. Nevertheless, the ability to jump a bet without “pit suspicion” was far more constrained in the single-deck game than with the four- or six-deck shoe.
Then Costa DiSoto, the pit boss, came to our table and said, “In a half an hour, they’re going to be shooting some TV thing here at this table. For your convenience, we’ll set up the same single-deck game at Table 3, if you guys want to move.”
“Are you going to stop this game, Costa?” I asked. “No, Jack, the game goes on, but obviously some guys don’t want to be on TV, and I think this stuff might be broadcast someday. You want to stay, you stay.”
I was happy to stay because I visualized that there would be a lot more attention paid to the Hollywood actors or whoever it was coming to the table, leaving me a bit more comfortable in ranging my bets and other plays without drawing attention.
A half-hour later, here was some activity behind us, and we turned to see an entourage of at least twenty people heading our way. TV cameras were held high, recording the approach. Grips were lugging lights. Make-up artists were hugging cosmetic bags. And walking at the center front of this entourage was Harry Reasoner, famed host of CBS-TV’s award-winning 60 Minutes, carrying his CBS-TV mike, and there, by his side, walked the world’s most publicized blackjack counter, the heralded Kenny Uston.
The dealer finished the hand in play. Two players took their chips to move to Table 3. Two of us stayed at Table 1.
Carlos played MC and introduced the surrounding casino personnel and the players at the table to the two distinguished gentlemen. He then explained that the play would continue at the table, but that it might be a little slow because Kenny Uston would be teaching Harry Reasoner how to count. Harry graciously explained that 60 Minutes on the CBS network was doing a special on gambling, and the feature would be lessons by world-famed Kenny Uston on how to beat the casino in the game of blackjack.
Kenny’s eyes were giving me a “wellwellwell—lookwho’shere” look, and I responded with a “whatcanItellya?” shrug. We were well acquainted. In fact, Kenny lived at the Jockey Club in Las Vegas, where my partner in CARMA, Jim Fischbach, maintained a company residence. Jim played the guitar, and Kenny played the piano, and they often took over as the entertainment in the lounge of the club. Kenny took a seat to my right with Harry to his right. The other player was to my left.
The session lasted close to two hours. There were interruptions for changing camera angles, for getting zoom-in shots on cards in play, for powder-dusting brows and noses sweating from the hot Klieg lights, for reviewing what had just been explained. However, the dealer dealt virtually the entire deck after every shuffle up (a great advantage for counters) and Kenny was reporting the count on every play and predicting the outcome of the cards not yet distributed. Kenny could count four parameters, so he had an even greater counter’s edge than either of the pair of Jacks… Jack Byrne or Jack Barnes. I shifted my count to tracking fives and sixes, adding to Kenny’s input. My chips started to grow, but nobody was looking at me. All eyes were riveted on the titanic figures of blackjack and network TV at my side. Count poor? I bet $50. Count rich? I bet $500. Nobody cared. In the two hours, I won $12,300. Harry and Kenny had been betting low and had earned about a $1,500 gain between them.
When the session ended, I shook Kenny’s hand and said, “Mr.Uston, sir, I’ll sit next to you any time. Just call me.”
He leaned toward me and whispered, “You owe me, you prick.”
I said, “Thank you, I will.”
WCBS-TV, the flagship station, had scooped its CBS network famed 60 Minutes show by two months. As for John Stossel, the scooper, he went on to compete with Harry Reasoner and his scooped CBS network frequently from his new post at ABC Network News, where he is co-anchor of 20-20. After moving up, John has won some nineteen Emmy® awards, has been honored by the national Press Club five times, received the George Polk Award for Outstanding Local Reporting and the prestigious Peabody Award, and has authored two highly spirited books.
As for me, I was pleased with the $12,300 hit but saddened by the necessity of not telling anyone about the delicious coincidence. One of me was there for the scooper. The other of me was there for the scoopee (and the loot).
But neither of me could tell anybody about the other me’s experience.