Why Was Ben Affleck Banned from Blackjack at Hard Rock Casino?

 

I’m with the Banned: What it Means that Ben Affleck Got Booted from Blackjack

why was Ben Affleck Banned from Blackjack at Casinoby David Drury

Every celebrity plays poker.

Poker is good for celebrity.

You get to show your face around town; you have something to keep you busy in Vegas while the wife is keeping up with the Kardashians; you boost public perception for throwing your snazzy fedora in the ring at charity tournaments.

You restore blood flow to the parts of your body that forgot how piles of money can make you feel something. Just for showing up you get all kinds of comps, cred, and curtain calls. If you study up and play smart you might even fashion yourself into a winning player. The full arsenal of your brainpower and competitive wiles are welcome here—but cross the casino floor to the blackjack tables with that kind of know-how, and all bets are off.

In recent days, award-winning writer, actor and director Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, Argo) made waves in the press for his card-playing prowess. But oops! This was not the World Series of Poker he was besting. This was blackjack. Granted, it sounds like he was doing fairly well for himself. But while he was beating the game itself, the bigger game stepped in his path and said, “Get lost.” Unlike playing against a table full of dudes in hoodies, Affleck was playing against “the house.” The house banks the game, the house sets the rules, but ultimately the house all too often fixes the game by playing you for a fool, only to run you off when you call the bluff.

What really happened at the Hard Rock?

What we know is this: Affleck was playing blackjack (or “21”) in the high limits room at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. After a time was told he was “too good” at the game, and while he was advised that he was welcome to play any other games in the house, he was not no longer welcome to play blackjack. Now, lest you think this is code for, “You’ve won too much money,” it is not. The Vegas casinos can handle celebrity action. They, in fact, crave it. “Too good” is code for, “You are using common sense to turn the tables on our sweet, sweet cruel advantage over you, and we don’t like it one bit.” How do I know? The same thing has happened to me in the same high limits room at the same casino, not to mention time and again at blackjack tables across the country. I am a professional card counter.

As suspect as that may be, please be clear. Nothing Affleck did was illegal. So-called news outlets suggested that Affleck was “under investigation,” implying that some kind of less-than-admirable legal entanglement had followed him out the door. Not even the Hard Rock wants you to believe that. They quickly released a statement that Affleck remains welcome, and that it is the policy of the hotel to “not comment on any casino customer’s gaming play.” They do truly mean that he is welcome. I am certain that as we speak they are seeing to it that he has free suites and Ed Hardy shirts for life. Of course, that part of it has to do more with the PR nightmare they brought on themselves than anything else. But still, they are always happy to have him or anybody else with money to burn out there on the gaming floor… so long as the casino can keep their statistical edge intact while they do it. All the verbal bans I ever receive at the blackjack tables end with a cordial invitation to play the slot machines. There’s probably something to that.

What is card counting?

how to blackjackIn blackjack, you are dealt two cards. Based on seeing the dealer’s up-card you have the option of taking more cards or not. The goal is drawing as near to 21 as possible without going over.  The dealer plays his hand according to a set of house rules. The highest hand wins and the money moves accordingly. The guesswork and risk and passion of the game revolve around that next card coming out of the shoe. What will it be? Will it make your hand and double your money? Will it bust you? Will it make the dealer’s hand, or will the dealer bust and have to pay the whole table? Your instincts will start to bend your mind in one direction or another in that moment, searching for a justification to hit or stay.

If a raft of low cards have just come out, it seems reasonable to assume a big card is due, and vice versa. A guy named Ed Thorp had those same fragile instincts. Using early computers, Thorp examined whether keeping track of the cards could lend itself to gaining an advantage over the game. Thorp was a numbers man, and he arrived at a startling discovery. With some basic mental gymnastics, you can gain a clear advantage over the game. His conclusions were published in the book Beat the Dealer in 1962, marking the birth of card counting.

Let’s break it off, by which I mean down. Essentially, when more small cards have come out and there are more face cards and aces still in the shoe, the advantage starts to slip out of the casino’s hands and into yours. There are different tracking methods, but odds are that Affleck was using the most prevalent counting method, called Hi-Lo. As the cards come out, the player gives the low cards (2,3,4,5,6) a value of +1, and the high cards (10, jack, queen, king, ace) a value of -1, while the middle cards (7,8,9) are assigned no value. So you do a lot of adding and subtracting ones, and when and if that number starts climbing into higher positive territory, you start to gain an advantage over the casino.

If you bet the same amount every hand, it’s all a wash, BUT if you decide to keep the bets low when the cards are not in your favor and then raise your bets high when the advantage is yours—bingo. Over time you win—not more hands, just more money. Why aces and faces? Aces favor the player because when you get a blackjack, you win three dollars from the casino for every two that you bet, but when the dealer gets blackjack, she only gets to take your original two dollars. More faces mean that the dealer is more likely to bust. Remember that while you can stop drawing cards at any time, the dealer is compelled to keep taking cards until she has reached at least 17.

And why should card counting be tolerated by casinos?

Ed Thorp published his guide to beating blackjack. The book went gangbusters. Only then did the game become wildly popular. The casinos must have been torn. Curtain opens on a windowless room full of heavyset men in suits thick with Jersey accents and hair grease standing over a boardroom table, wringing their hands over this changing of the tide. “So let me get this straight,” a man says above the din while lighting a cigar, “The upside is we got all these suckers crowding our casino now, laying out their money on a game they hastily think they can beat? But the downside is that if the bastards actually know what they are doing, they will beat it? What to do, what to do? Let’s eat meatball subs.”

The casino has engaged in a push-and-pull tug of war with patrons of the game ever since. They want the customers to come in, but they don’t want the money to go out. They want to keep the game technically beatable without actually taking a beating. They are forever playing cat and mouse with themselves by adjusting rules to attract patrons away from other casinos or alternately to limit the advantage of skilled players at the table. This is how the game has evolved to having all kinds of rules and variations. After a half century of this tomfoolery, the game is still offered, and it is still beatable. The casinos make money hand over fist by keeping it beatable. And by god, Ben Affleck wants to beat it. He is Batman, after all, and Batman deserves respect, if only because he doesn’t always play by the rules of the Gotham city police force.  

Is there really more to every story?

Ben affleck card counting hard rockA manager at the Wynn and Encore casinos in Las Vegas had circulated an internal email days prior to Affleck’s Hard Rock abrupt dismissal. It said, “Ben Affleck (the actor) …was informed that he was being way too obvious moving his money with the count. He was spreading $100 -10K on the double decks and $0-20K ([email protected]) on the shoe games. As of now, he is still being allowed to play per casino management.”1 Notice that he was being obvious and was still being allowed to play. This is the one instance where notoriety might play to the favor of a card counter. Good on you, Ben.

Other terms have been used by the security professionals to describe Affleck’s manner of play. “Perfect basic” means that Affleck was employing perfect basic strategy. Basic strategy is not only statistically proven, and not only is it welcome at casinos, it is provided as a courtesy on a little plastic card at most casinos and openly discussed among players and staff at the tables. Dealers will tell you the correct play if you ask. Nobody who isn’t a counter sticks to it much, because hey, who needs reliable information when you have hunches.

“Moving money with the count,” was another term used, which means that Affleck was betting low when the count was to the advantage of the casino and betting high when it was in his favor. He was betting from a hand of $100 up to two hands of $10,000 each. That is a fairly aggressive 1 to 200 spread. Translation: he was Going For It.

He either didn’t know or didn’t care about traditional “cover,” meaning that he really wasn’t doing anything to smokescreen his actions or throw the casino off the trail. I imagine they might have tolerated a very respectable 1 to 20 spread from him for a much longer time, but then again, maybe Ben has a day job that keeps him from the time commitment. Card counting is about mitigating risk to make for a successful career. It’s fun to play fast and loose, and until you get that first backoff, it’s hard to know what casinos will tolerate. “Takes insurance according to the count,” was another observation, which again separates Affleck from the typical player in terms of skill.2 Surveillance also noted that he was using $100 chips to keep track of the count while playing. That’s more of a rookie move, but not so uncommon for someone who doesn’t count cards with regularity because, ahem—day job.

What could Affleck have done differently?

What could Ben have done differently? Maybe something.  Maybe nothing. A little concessionary cover play might have gone a long way. Especially considering that he had the whole rich celebrity thing going for him. I have gotten banned from playing blackjack in 22% of my 1,300 playing sessions. I know!  I was surprised too, because honestly it felt like half. Believe me, I was no Houdini.

Several years back, a gaming protection agency identified me as the “Most Notorious” active card counter in America (a heartfelt thank you to Ben for now assuming those duties, by the way!). How is that for flying under the radar? All the casinos knew me by name. I saw my face coming out of a fax machine in the pit more times than I can remember. Still, I found ways to get plenty of play, and never had my thumbs broken. Card counting’s protections under the law have been upheld in every court case I have ever read. Remember—You are using your brain to compete at a game which casinos have invited you to use your brain at to try and beat.

How then shall we live?

Card Counting MemeI learned that even when card counters get kicked out, in time they often go back anyway, more often than not finding ways to play successful sessions where they were once told they would not be welcome. Until the casino reads you the trespass act, you have the right to try and find a playable game in a public setting like anyone else. Sometimes the casinos forget they are supposed to not like you.

I’m sure that there are plenty of casinos prepared to forget they are not supposed to like the idea of Ben Affleck in their casino. I mean, look at that face. And therein lies the answer. The first casino that publicly decides to let Affleck play will surely attract enough attention, in the form of foolhardy blackjack wannabes to cover their lifetime losses to the Affleck family fortune. How long will it take? Maybe a day. And for the rest of you, don’t be a foolhardy blackjack wannabe. Take a lesson from Batman.

For those interested in joining the ranks of successful card counters, the money is there for the taking! Blackjack Apprenticeship exists to provide the best training, community, and resources on the web for card counters. We can teach you how to turn the tables on the casinos and use effective cover to extend your playing career in the process. Click here to find out more about Blackjack Apprenticeship!

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David Drury lives in Seattle, Washington where he writes under the pseudonym Loudon Ofton for Blackjackapprenticeship.com. For six years he was the winningest player on the Church Team – the blackjack team that was the subject of the 2011 documentary Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians. He is currently shopping his collection of blackjack stories to publishers, as well as supporting a festival run of the independent feature film Big in Japan, in which he plays a card counter who ditches the game for a chance at musical stardom in Japan. . .

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