Just this month, author Philip Reed published his latest book, “Wild Cards: A Year Counting Cards With a Professional Blackjack Player, a Priest, and a $30,000 Bankroll.” It chronicles his introduction to card counting by an ex-MIT team member, his struggles with mastering card counting, and the philosophical lessons learned about money, gambling, and fear.
If you’re looking for high-flying adventure with million-dollar bankrolls and high stakes cat-and-mouse action between card counters and surveillance, this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re looking for an authentic story of the ups and downs of low to medium stakes card counting, Wild Cards is worth checking out. It reads well and Philip’s perspective is uniquely relatable for the hobbyist card counter.
I had the opportunity to read the book and interview Philip about his book and dig deeper into some of my favorite quotes, sections, and lessons. Check out our interview below!
What’s the backstory to the book? What compelled you to write it? Who’s the audience you had in mind when you came up with the idea?
Phil: I was writing a novel called The Fraud Triangle, about a CFO investigating a scam in his own company. My idea was that he would be very corporate from Monday to Friday and then go to Vegas and count cards on the weekends. The problem was, I didn’t know anything about card counting. Soon after this, my friend Jaacob (correct spelling Jaacob) Bowden, a professional golfer, who created www.swingmangolf.com, met with Bill in Las Vegas to give him a golf lesson and saw him play blackjack. When he came to visit me he said, “You have to do a book on this guy!” He also gave me a tattered copy of the MIT Blackjack manual. I read it and thought, “Hmmm, I think I could do this.” I called Bill and the rest, as they say, is history.
I always saw this book as appealing to both blackjack players and a mainstream audience. I wrote it as a beginner so readers would relate to my fears and share in the challenge.
One of my favorite parts in the book is when you tell the story of a multimillionaire who’s biography you helped write. “Often, Funt would speculate about much of an advance we might receive for the publication of his biography… Then I realized that it wasn’t the *having* of money that he desired but the *getting* of the money. When the money went from someone else’s possession to his… the flow, if you will, turned him on.”
One of the odd effects of being a card counter is that you’re constantly dealing with large amounts of money flowing back and forth between you and the casinos. How has card counting changed your view on money? Do you see it simply as a tool, or does it hold a stronger power of you?
Phil: On one level the book was an investigation of my relationship with money. In the beginning, when I lost $700 in a short, painful session, I equated that to the cost of a new set of golf irons, something I would keep and use for years. In fact, in the beginning, I brought a $1,500 bankroll in $20 bills. Later, I became comfortable carrying larger amounts of cash on $100 bills. And the money became just a tool to winning at blackjack. You have to put your money on the table — at risk — if you want to win.
I would like to say that money doesn’t hold power over me, but it does. I feel crappy when I lose and I feel elated when I win. I actually believe that people’s ideas about money, including my own, is one of the most flawed perceptions about life.
In the book, you say “[Casinos] intentionally attempt to confuse people in the casino areas by reversing design principles in an attempt to increase time (and therefore, money) spent. However, the principles of good orientation design are applied to shopping areas in order to facilitate more efficient shopping. It’s all about money!”
After your time in casinos, are there any other observations you’ve had about the negative affects or tactics of casinos?
Phil: Casinos exploit a basic human weakness and it has ruined many people’s lives and destroyed marriages and relationships. Casino owners know that their customers will lose, often more than they can afford. And yet, if a card counter uses skill to win what is, to them, a small sum, they are treated like cheats and criminals.
That said, casinos are made of many low-wage workers who are themselves victims of a corrupt system. I met many dealers who seemed like nice people and I always tried to treat them with respect even though they were, in a sense, working for the enemy. And, I’m a little ashamed to say, I grew to like some casinos and prefer them over others. But it is important to know what you are dealing with and always be wary.
One of the things that was interesting to me was the struggle between trying to be an advantage player and gambling tendencies (E.G. You played a 6:5 game, even though you knew it was a bad game; you would leave in the middle of the shoe based on wins sometimes, rather than simply playing according to the count; you seemed more interested in your win/loss after a single shoe rather than just trying to generate EV and letting the math work itself out over time). I’ve found that, in many ways, I end up putting as much energy into helping people stop *gambling *as helping them become card counters. Where are you at now? Do you consider yourself a gambler who keeps the count or a stone cold advantage player?
Phil: I sometimes hear my wife tell people: “Phil likes to go to Las Vegas and gamble.” When she says that I wonder who she is talking about. I’ve never thought of myself as a gambler even though I make many of the same mistakes gamblers make. I wouldn’t even consider playing blackjack unless I had at least a small advantage.
In terms of my skill level, I practice every day and I’m still getting better. I adapted the KO system so I don’t have to deal with negative numbers and I use 18 indexes. I try to play only two-deck games so I can get a positive count more quickly without slogging through four decks before getting an advantage. I’m good at keeping the count but I want to get to the point where it is completely automatic so I can do a better job disguising my plays. Also, when I have an advantage, I’m still reluctant to fully exploit that edge, mainly because I’m playing from a small bankroll.
You detail how difficult your training process was. I have a friend with adult ADD, so I understand what a challenge that can be. But it also seemed that your training process wasn’t very well outlined by Bill (your card counting mentor). You were playing with your bankroll before you had basic strategy memorized or could keep the count. (I died a little bit inside when I read that, because we’ve seen so many people put their bankroll at risk before they have the skills to protect their investment.) What advice do you have for people getting into card counting, based on your training experience?
Phil: Yes, Bill brought me along very quickly, perhaps because he had a higher opinion of my abilities than I did. Also, there is a tendency for people who have mastered a difficult skill to underestimate what is, to them, easy. I suggest that people treat blackjack as a long-term project. I see people playing solitaire on their iPhones so I tell them, why not play blackjack and eventually make some money? Once they feel ready to play in a casino, I recommend that people proceed with extreme caution. Winning easily might be more dangerous that losing. There is also a tendency for people to revert to a gambler’s profile and suddenly go “all in” on a hunch, thinking that is the right way to play.
You quote the book Don’t Forget!, a book on the link between fear and memory loss as saying “You can expect memory lapses when your emotions take over and when the situation does not allow you to sustain attention.” Do you feel like you’ve been able to overcome this? How? We got to a point in our Blackjack Team where we could predict if a recruit had what it took to be a card counter simply by how they handled stress and how emotional they were. Do you think that, similar to air traffic controllers, there’s a type of person who can or can’t handle card counting based on how emotional they are and how they handle stress?
Phil: Figuring out how to deal with stress became a major part of my learning process. The simplest way to handle it is to start small and build up gradually. You use the air traffic controller analogy but I often think of pro golfers standing over a 4-foot putt that is worth $200,000. Most of the pros have been playing tournaments since they were teenagers, so there is an imprinting process which might carry them through. However, others get the yips and leave the game.
Another way of dealing with stress is to understand how you react to it. Once you see how you perform you can look for ways to improve. In most cases – blackjack or golf – the stress is largely mental so sometimes mind tricks which can help you. In fact, if you form a different perception of what stress is, you can overcome it. Playing blackjack you might lose a lot of money. But the air traffic controller is holding peoples’ lives in their hands so that is a whole other level of stress.
One thing that helped me is that I’m very consistent. I knew this from a variety of other sports and activities I’ve performed in my life. This helped me to follow a plan and look for results in the long run, not the short term.
On the “Gambling With an Edge” podcast interview you did, you mentioned that you and Bill adjusted the split of profits based on his higher level of EV. What did that look like?
Phil: In most cases we contributed evenly to the bankroll and had a 60/40 split with Bill getting the larger share. This usually worked out fairly and we didn’t have disagreements about the results. And, as I said in the podcast, there were times when I was a significant contributor.
You talked about bet spreads and deck penetration, but not much about avoiding negative counts. Did you guys play through negative counts?
Phil: In most cases we tried to play two-deck games so the negative counts didn’t last more than a few hands. If we were at a six-deck game, with other people at the table, and the count was very low, I might fake that I had a phone call and step away from the table until the count rose again. Either that or I took a bathroom break, leaving my chips on the table, and came back for the next shoe.
You raise a good point, though. Every successful counter has to learn to minimize negative counts and capitalize on the high counts.
Out of curiosity (and if you’re comfortable sharing), how has card counting gone for you since you finished the book? Hours? Units won?
Phil: Since I finished the book I haven’t played as much. However, I still practice almost every day. I’m also looking for ways to improve my play and gain more of an advantage. Since I’m in Southern California, I usually wind up in Las Vegas once every few months.
I feel more confident at the tables but I can’t say my winnings have increased dramatically. I’ve tried to find a level where I can enjoy the game but still make real money. If I had a bigger bankroll, or more time, I would concentrate more on the game. Perhaps in a few years, when I retire, I will return to it with more energy. By then, I expect that keeping the count will be automatic. I hope there are still good games to play. There is a terrible trend to 6:5 blackjack payoffs which might kill the game for me.
I haven’t been backed off recently but I’m a conservative player and I play short sessions. Bill has gotten very busy with his investment business so we haven’t connected recently. We are always in touch, though, looking for time to meet in Las Vegas or Biloxi.
I think my favorite part of the book is just how card counting was a vehicle to you tackling your fears. Can you speak into this some more? What has been the fruit of those lessons?
Phil: I’m glad you liked that part of the book because, for me, that was the biggest lesson I learned. Almost every year I set a goal of overcoming fear. And I’ve never really done it. But I do know that managing fear has a direct impact on your enjoyment of life and your success. Looking back on this project, there were so many times when I had to face my fears and move forward. That’s the key. You can’t eliminate fear, but you can move forward anyway. And, as I say at the end of the book, when you move toward your fear, there seems to be a force that works with you to overcome obstacles. This sentiment has been expressed in many forms. For example, the expression, “Fortune favors the bold” says it nicely.
Any other stories or things you’d want to share?
Researching Wild Cards, I came to enjoy reading about blackjack and watching any documentaries I could find, such as the “Holy Rollers.” I quickly began to see that it is a small, tightly knit community of smart people.
My favorite book became, “Burning the Tables in Las Vegas” because of the approach that Ian Anderson takes.
That’s awesome. “Burning the Tables in Las Vegas” was required reading for people joining our blackjack team (though I don’t recommend using any of his cover plays because they cost too much EV).
Thanks, Phil, for answering some questions for us and I hope you are able to create many more stories through your card counting endeavors!