This is Chapter 1 of Colin’s upcoming book tentatively titled “The 21st Century Card Counter: Beating Today’s Blackjack for Tomorrow’s Profits” due to be published March 2019 by Huntington Press
I had never been in a casino. I’d never thought about casinos. I didn’t want to go to a casino. And yet, within a year’s time, I was making more than $400 an hour and closing a $100,000 bankroll, all from money I won from the casinos.
My story begins as my oldest friend Bryan was getting married in Michigan to Amy, his girlfriend of two years. He asked if I’d be the best man in his wedding and while I was excited, I had to spend a sizable percentage of my fortune to take a red-eye from Seattle to Detroit. I was barely off the plane when the ever-energetic Bryan exclaimed, “Let’s go to the casino and play some slots!”
Like I said, casinos were not in my frame of reference. But this was Bryan’s day and I didn’t want to be a wet blanket. So off to the monstrous den of iniquity we went.
It was 10 a.m. and the place was empty. Walking near the table games, I looked at a blackjack dealer, standing with her hands behind her back. I felt like I should apologize. Everything seemed wrong.
“Over here!” Bryan called to me from a row of nickel slots. We each took two dollars out of our wallets and fed them to the machines. I pushed the stupid buttons and in less than a minute, my money was gone.
I couldn’t believe I just wasted two dollars. I would never see that money again. I resolved to never gamble again.
And I never did.
Two years later, I was fresh out of college with a math degree and no ambition other than to get my punk band going. I’d studied math only because I seemed decent at it and it meant that I didn’t have to write any papers. I was far from a math whiz, but I showed up at class, studied enough to get A’s, and managed to finish on schedule. I ended up volunteering for most of my post-graduation summer at Lakeside Bible Camp, an island destination outside of Seattle. I’d grown up attending this camp, was baptized there, and spent time on staff. But this particular summer, two major events completely changed the trajectory of my life.
First, I met a somewhat mischievous red-headed lifeguard named Grace who, though her antics were mild by most people’s standards, was definitely a Bible-camp black sheep. And from my own religious background, she was the perfect fit to go with my blackjack career. Within the year, I would ask to marry me.
Secondly, I was loaned a book, Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong, by Ben, a fellow camp volunteer. Ben said he was trying to teach himself how to beat blackjack with card counting and he thought it might be something I’d be into—being a math guy and all. (Years later, I met Stanford Wong and got the chance to tell him that his books were the reason I became a card counter and that I owed all my success to him. “Oh,” he replied modestly, as he turned to talk to someone else.)
This “card counting” thing haunted me. Was it real?
Back then in 2002, most everyone I knew had heard of it, but no one knew if it was legitimate. In college, a rumor went around that one of our math professors could count cards. I actually summoned up the nerve to ask him if it was true and if he could teach me. He quickly changed the subject. It all sounded like some grand parlor trick, like solving a Rubik’s cube, not something one could turn into a career. (Fast forward a few years and I was in that same professor’s room again, this time as a guest lecturer at his 400-level Calculus-based Probability and Statistics class, explaining the math behind card counting for his students.)
At summer camp, I read the chapters that Ben had highlighted and tried to understand the concepts. At this point, I’d never played a single hand of blackjack, not even for fun. Wong wrote in such a no-nonsense analytical way, it didn’t take me long to understand that card counting was, indeed, legit. Whether I could have any success at it was another story.
In the beginning of Professional Blackjack was a page called “Benchmark Rules,” which assumed certain playing conditions and projected a win rate of $16 per hour. I went to check out the casinos in Washington, only to find that Wong’s playing conditions were better than what was available locally. To make matters worse, I had a tiny bankroll. When I created an Excel spreadsheet to calculate my bets based off of the math in Professional Blackjack, it said I could make $7 an hour. In those days, I thought seven dollars an hour sounded pretty amazing. Little did I know that within a year, I’d be averaging $400-plus per hour and would grow my initial $2,000 stake to more than $100,000.
Given that I’d discovered the ins and outs of card counting in the pages of Wong’s books, I simply followed his instructions. I created flashcards for basic strategy and playing deviations, practiced counting with a deck of cards, and played free versions of online casino blackjack. I hit up the local casinos and card rooms, playing low-limit tables for practice. I bet $5 a hand, adding $1 every time the true count went up.
I’m sure I was absolutely terrible. The ladies at the tables laughed and talked about me in Chinese. The dealers looked at me like they knew I didn’t belong. My heart pounded every time I slid my top bet of $10 into the betting circle. I hate to think about how many mistakes I made along the way. But I knew it wasn’t a winning strategy. I was just trying to translate what I’d been practicing at home to a real casino environment. And it was all a rush that I’d never known.
Actually, I got lucky and won about $500 in my first week. I was over the moon. I bragged about it to a few friends. But of course (of course!), over the next couple of weeks, I lost back the entire $500. I wasn’t prepared to lose more, so I hung up the gloves to focus on my budding relationship with Grace—and the more steady income serving burgers at Red Robin.
A few busy months later, I quit my job at Red Robin, was scraping along on substitute-teaching gigs, and married Grace. I continued practicing card counting at home, mostly with free online-casino software. It didn’t tell me when I made playing mistakes, was off on my count, or was betting properly. But it was all I had. Obviously, my training was still sorely lacking, though I assumed I had it all down and desperately wanted to give the whole blackjack thing another try. I asked Grace if she’d let me take a third of everything we had in the bank—$2,000—to the casino. If I lost it, I’d be done. But if I could manage to eke out a profit on the days I didn’t get a subbing gig, there might be light at the end of the income tunnel.
Grace figured I would lose the $2,000 but at least get it out of my system. Being that she was always up for an adventure, she signed off on the experiment. However, she wasn’t even 21 yet, so she couldn’t even go into the casinos with me. So I told her I would only play on days I didn’t get called to sub, while she was at her $10 an hour day job.
Two things happened in my first session. First, I admitted to myself that I had a heck of a lot more to learn. I was forgetting correct playing decisions, was distracted by the stress of the in-casino environment, and realized that I couldn’t keep the count and add up my hand in a casino. Second, I doubled my bankroll to $4,000.
After that initial lucky night, I spent the next 100 hours breaking even. I spent hours at home going through basic strategy and deviation flashcards until I never made a mistake. To help train my brain to quickly calculate blackjack hands, I started adding up license plate numbers whenever I drove. After days and weeks at the casinos, my play was slowly improving, but I wasn’t winning. I had all sorts of questions. Should I play one spot or two? What do I do when someone else jumps into the game? Should I bet the same with other players at the table as I do when playing alone? How long do I stick it out? When do I move tables? When do I leave? What else am I missing?
Looking for answers, I called Ben, the only other card counter I knew, ten times a day, pestering him relentlessly. Grace was encouraged that I had made money, rather than losing my initial bankroll, but remained tentative about my new project.
I’m certain I would have lost my $2,000 if something incredibly fortuitous hadn’t happened. While I was languishing at trying to train myself, a member of one of the most successful national card counting teams of the 1990s and 2000s spotted Ben at a local casino. Recruited as a potential new spotter for the team, Ben was trained by them. They had a rigorous test-out process and Ben failed. But he stuck with it. Learning from the best, his game went from break-even to perfect and he eventually passed. After accompanying the team on one high-stakes blackjack trip, he knew their scene wasn’t for him. I bugged him enough that, instead, we eventually combined bankrolls (my $4,000 and his $7,000).
Ben also agreed to test me out. I failed miserably. I made a couple counting mistakes, missed payout errors, and overlooked deviations. Ouch. I was humiliated. As it turned out, this was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. By finally becoming aware of the mistakes I was making, I was able to correct them.
Over the next couple of months, Ben and I started winning. I stopped answering those early-morning phone calls offering me substitute-teaching gigs. The $25 an hour I was making at the tables was double what I earned in the classroom. The thrill of seeing our bankroll grow was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I’d always assumed I’d work a job I hated for my entire career until I (hopefully) had enough money to retire when I was old. No one had ever told me about entrepreneurialism. And though not only the money was intoxicating, but I was in complete control of my own destiny. If I didn’t want to work, I hung out with Grace, binge-watched the latest season of “24,” or played music in various bands with friends. But if I wanted to put in extra hours to see my nest egg grow even faster, I did. I’d been bit by the investment bug and, as I later learned, there was no cure.
After several months, we added a partner. Jeff was an old friend of Ben’s. At that point, we had grown our $11,000 to roughly $25,000, and Jeff contributed another $25,000 to our little team.
We kept winning. We would play for a couple months, then “close the bankroll,” splitting up the profits, going out to dinner with the wives to celebrate, and taking a week off to decide how much we wanted to invest in the next bankroll.
I wasn’t idle during those weeks. I started to use the time to read more advanced books on blackjack, starting with Don Schlesinger’s Blackjack Attack. The more I read, the more holistic my understanding of card counting became.
I also started teaching myself how to use blackjack simulation software. As I studied the impact of every variable in the casino on our win rate, the way we played changed. And it kept changing as my concept for the full potential of blackjack and card counting began to broaden. Stanford Wong talked about finding blackjack conditions worth $20 or $24 an hour. But using the software, I saw way more potential than that. If we continued growing our bankroll, we could reasonably blaze a trail to making $50 an hour, $100 an hour, or who knows how much more.
It didn’t take long to grow our $40,000 investment to $100,000. We were moving beyond the $100-limit card rooms to the larger tribal casinos where we could play up to $500 a hand. By this point, Grace was fully onboard with my “short-term investment strategy,” though she still couldn’t enter the casinos with me. Grace and I discussed at length some of the possible dispositions of the profits and we finally came up with two major splurges: Grace would quit her dental office assistant job to go back to school to become a licensed dental assistant and I would get a jacket…
That’s right, I bought a $100 designer jacket. It was the most expensive article of clothing I’d ever purchased, but I needed something with zippered pockets that could hold the $5,000 or $10,000 I carried in and out of the casinos on a daily basis. A dealer did ask me one night if I was a model, so hey, the coat must have really been worth it.
I was at a local tribal casino in my new coat one afternoon when I noticed a guy wearing track pants and betting $500 a hand. I have to admit, I was intimidated. The dealers at the casino referred to him as “Sammy” and I assumed he was in the illicit pharmaceutical business. He was no drug dealer, as it turned out. He was a card counter, and much more experienced than we were. Over the following month, we got to know Sammy and eventually teamed up with him, calling our team the “Washington Young Bloods” or WYB for short. He contributed $100,000 to our bankroll, so we now had a combined $200,000. We were ready to start playing higher-limit locations around the country.
With out-of-state trips came bigger casinos, bigger plays, and bigger swings. Experiencing the kind of team play portrayed in movies like 21, based on the book Bringing Down the House, presented exciting new possibilities, as well as an array of new challenges. Getting chased by surveillance, “flyered” by casinos (having our photos sent from casino to casino), and riding $50,000 winning or losing swings in a day became the new norm.
Though our first couple of bankrolls were pretty rough, taking a lot longer than expected to meet our goal, I personally seemed to be on an endless winning streak. Overall, however, the team’s performance was consistently lower than the math predicted. We still were making more money than I could have imagined six months earlier, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as the previous growth spurts had been.
In addition, running a four-man team came along with headaches I wasn’t prepared for. Ben and Sammy, in particular, seemed to butt heads on all kinds of issues. Ben and Sammy were both alpha-males, and it was becoming clear that they didn’t trust each other’s judgment, and neither was going to concede… on anything.
After about a year of this, Ben left the team to invest some of his profits into real estate and invited me to join him. Sammy and Jeff continued on with blackjack, but I decided to take up Ben’s offer, feeling both nervous and excited at the prospect of something bigger. We read a few books on real estate investing and jumped in with both feet. We bought during the height of the real-estate bubble in 2005 and 2006, didn’t have a well-thought-out plan, and within a year were $2 million in debt for properties that were costing us nearly $10,000 a month. I still joke with people that we invested in blackjack and gambled in real estate.
With no income and all this new overhead, we fell back on the only honest thing we knew how to do. We refinanced one of the properties, pulling out as much equity as we could, and used it to start a new bankroll.
I was terrified to head back to a casino for the first time after nearly a year-long break. “What if we lose? What if we go bankrupt?” But I trusted our skills and I trusted the math. So I pushed past my fear and started hitting the casinos hard.
Two remarkable things happened.
First off, we started winning. We grew $100,000 into $300,000 in two months and that was just the two of us, not the four-man team. I knew we were up about double our expected results, but I wasn’t complaining about starting things off on a winning streak.
Secondly, a young guy from Ben’s church, Garrett, asked if he could play for us. He didn’t know how to count cards and he didn’t have a bankroll, but he was eager and willing to give up his job at a local restaurant. Ben was excited about the new possibility.
This wasn’t the first time we’d trained players. Over the 3 years Ben and I had been playing together, we considered friends whom we’d taught card counting to be playing with us, not for us. The idea of training players and “managing” a team invested with our money was uncharted territory.
I was reluctant, but after a few weeks of talking about it, we took on Garrett. We trained him, tested him out, and sent him to the casinos with our money, while we continued playing ourselves. Before long, word started to spread in our circles of this strange and compelling career opportunity. Others from our social networks, primarily the churches we attended, began inquiring about the possibility of getting trained and joining the ranks. One player turned into two. Two turned into four. When our old playing partner Sammy heard about it all, he responded, “What is this… the fucking church team?” We knew it was meant as a slight, but thought it was pretty funny. The “Church Team” name stuck.
As the idea of a larger-scale blackjack team began to grow, we knew we needed more capital to keep the business stable. We approached some family and friends—and only those few who had already poked their noses in, curious about making money via card counting—about the idea of investing in the team. We guaranteed nothing, but showed them two charts: our past performance and a conservative estimate of our future potential. A few weeks later, we had a bankroll of a half-million dollars.
The money couldn’t have come at a better time. Just as the ranks of blackjack trainees began to grow, Ben and I went on a horrific losing streak. In one tragic trip to Las Vegas, we lost $120,000 of the $200,000 we’d won as a two-man team, including a nauseating $86,000 loss at the Hard Rock. As gut-wrenching as the Vegas trip was in the short-term, we had been through enough swings over the past 3 years that we didn’t lose heart. The system worked, our skills were top-notch, and with additional players, we could take things to the next level. So rather than decreasing our play, the investors’ additional capital meant we now had enough money to raise the stakes.
On the other hand, being responsible for other people’s money is a whole different animal. I never lost a night’s sleep riding out the swings with my own money, but shouldering the weight of family and friends’ money definitely came with bouts of night sweats and indigestion. It was a relief when, only four weeks after this new burst of capital, we were calling all of our investors to inform them that we (now consisting of seven tested out players) had already reached our $100,000 goal, and they could access their investment. With this kind of return, it was no surprise that no one wanted to cash out, choosing instead to roll over their profits into the next bankroll.
Like clockwork, another month later, we were up $126,000. Investors were thrilled. Ben and I continued adding more players to the ranks (eight tested out and six more were in training) and the money train kept rolling along. Some bankrolls took longer than others, but by the end of 2006, nine months after the official formation of the Church Team and accepting investor capital, we were ahead $500,000.
In 2007, we started off with a first-week win of $120,000 (thus closing another bankroll). At that point, we had 15 players and five more in training. Though we experienced some of the typical highs and lows of card counting, it seemed like we’d struck gold. Real estate was the furthest thing from our minds. All of our energies were directed towards the Church Team. By the end of that year, we’d beaten casinos for more than $1,570,000. Spirits were high, egos were huge, and whenever I asked Ben if we should stop adding players, he always responded, “We can handle one more.”
The new year, 2008, began with high expectations and new reasons to be excited. My oldest friend, Bryan, had moved to L.A. with his wife, Amy, to pursue documentary film work. To help pay the bills, they’d both joined the Church Team. After his first documentary project wrapped, Bryan began scouting for new project possibilities. What could be more interesting than filming the inner workings of a group of high-stakes card counters, most of whom met through the church? After agreeing to the project on the stipulation that we would have input on when it could be released, Bryan began filming what would become Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card-Counting Christians.
With 28 players, three trainees, a million-dollar bankroll, and a camera crew following us around on our exploits, we had all the makings for a perfect storm and we sure got one—our biggest losing streak ever. At one point in early 2008, the combined losses, expenses, and wages paid put the team down $465,000. While losing streaks happen, this was way outside of normal. Then we began to see and hear things from our players that slowly opened our eyes to the fact that we had an unhealthy team on our hands. When we re-tested the entire team, over half the players couldn’t pass the test they had previously aced. This lined up with our results… only half of the players had been profitable for the team.
We took some drastic measures, which included convincing investors to close a bankroll while it was at a small loss so we could make structural changes to the team. We showed a handful of players and trainees the door, realizing not everyone has the skills, mettle, and dedication it takes to be successful as a card counter. For those who stayed on the team, we increased our training standard, and changed our payout structure to greater incentivize team profits over “hours played.” We also started shrinking our bankroll, eventually settling back at $500,000. The goal was to have a team that was a little bit leaner and meaner. Even with the big losing streak, we turned things around and managed to end 2008 with a profit of $426,000.
However, as soon as the team stopped growing, Ben lost interest and never regained the excitement he felt when the sky was the limit. I was still bullish on running the Church Team, but with stricter standards, finding new players became a challenge. It had happened so organically in the past. As it turned out, we never found new players who matched the original core group.
The trend from 2008 continued for the next couple of years: we brought in close to $500,000 a year, but each year the size of the team shrank. Only a few new players came aboard. A few more players who couldn’t maintain the new performance standards were let go (in some cases after six-figure losses—ouch!), and other players moved on for various reasons. Ben finally left the team at the beginning of 2010 to focus on a startup business he’d helped build that was taking more of his time and attention.
As much as I loved co-managing the team, I knew I didn’t want to run it on my own forever, nor did I want to start hitting the streets looking for new and unknown players. I was friends with all our team members and it felt like something that simply couldn’t be replicated. Grace and I also started having kids. We were pregnant with my son shortly after the Church Team began, but by the end of 2011 we had added two girls to the family with another daughter on the way! Even though Grace was able to stay home with the kids, it was harder and harder for me to be away from my young family.
So I began throwing myself into this wild side project Ben and I had dreamed up with a friend a couple years earlier—Blackjack Apprenticeship.
What I loved most about running the Church Team was teaching, training players how to crush casinos and learning new things about the game along the way. But as the team took on fewer and fewer new players, and the training dried up, I wasn’t learning anything, and it all had started to feel like that job I figured I’d hate until I retired. Beyond that, the relational challenges of hiring and firing friends and being responsible for $500,000 of friends’ and family’s money were taking their toll on me.
And then there was Blackjack Apprenticeship, uncharted territory, calling my name. BJA consisted of online videos and a players’ forum, plus live card counting seminars, or “Blackjack Bootcamps” as we called them. And there were always new blackjack apprentices who could benefit from my card counting experience and expertise. In addition, every day I was learning new things about running an internet business. Most importantly, I was home every day to spend time with my wife and kids.
At the end of 2011, while in the midst of one particularly long bankroll, I realized my mind was much more on Blackjack Apprenticeship than the Church Team. It was a scary place to be, given that I was responsible for eight players and a half-million dollars of mostly other people’s money. After making one of the toughest decisions of my life, I called up each investor and player, telling them I was pulling the plug on the team.
The investors and players were all understanding and we ended on good terms.The Church Team had taken $3.2 million out of casinos, had provided investors with a return that beat the stock market by 500%, and had been one of the craziest and most incredible episodes I’d ever had the privilege of being a part of. The relationships, experiences, and life lessons I learned during those six years helped shape me for the next phase of life and beyond, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
To date, I’ve played on and run teams that have won roughly $4 million from casinos, with my personal share of more than $600,000. But through Blackjack Apprenticeship, I’ve had the honor of training way more players than I ever did while running teams. And the pros who have come through Blackjack Apprenticeship have taken considerably more from casinos than $4 million.
This is where you come in.
I assume that if you’re reading these words, you’re either a battle-hardened advantage player who has to read every new book that comes out on the subject or you have aspirations about living, to some degree, the blackjack life. Whichever group you’re in, you’ve come to the right place. Here, you’ll receive the benefit of a few of my war stories and plenty of advice culled from years of beating blackjack, managing teams to beat blackjack, and building a business around (you guessed it) beating blackjack. My story continues. I’m not finished with blackjack. Not by a long shot. That’s why I’d like you to become part of it. If you have what it takes, with the know-how contained in these pages, you’ll build your own successful career in blackjack and beyond, just like I did. What do you say?