After dealing 100,000 hands, I felt I had got to know the heart and soul of blackjack. Every aspect of the game had been dissected and held up to the light. I had developed a basic card-counting strategy to the point where the bank's overall advantage was reduced to a half of one per cent. In other words, for every £100 that I bet during the game, I would be returned £99.50, providing my stake remained constant ('flat betting').
If, however, I substantially increased my bet when the cards were favourable, I could realize a profit of £1 to £2 for every £100 of turnover staked. This might not sound a lot, but it soon adds up. If your initial stake is £100, for example, you can turn over £10,000 in an evening. It was time to put theory into practice.
I began by joining as many clubs as I could, all over the country. Profits were modest to begin with, but there were other perks of the job. I embarked on a pleasant tour of the casinos along the south coast, enjoying what I call 'free evenings': my profit would cover the cost of travel, meals, and drink.
It wasn't long before I was targetting the Midlands and certain London clubs, returning home every morning with a reasonable profit. The strategy was working. More important, the casino managers appeared to be tolerating my presence. I began to earn a good living, about £500 to £600 per week, and I was learning to ride the ups and downs.
I remember getting off to a particularly bad start on my first visit to a club in the Midlands. Within half an hour, I was £500 down. I decided that a good dinner was in order. After dining on a sumptuous steak, washed down with a delightful wine, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my dinner bill had been 'taken care of by the manager. He had spotted a punter with potential. Managers do this from time to time, to encourage you to gamble even more money.
I returned to my blackjack table, whereupon I not only recouped my losses but ended up showing a profit of £500. I tried to share my delight with the manager, celebrating my change of fortune and thanking him for the delicious dinner. The look on his face signalled the beginning of the end of a beautiful friendship. After two more similar visits, I was barred.
It is hard to describe the thrill of placing heavy bets in a casino, especially a glamorous one, knowing that you have a clear advantage over the bank. But there were downsides to my chosen career. It's exhausting having to look over your shoulder all the time, waiting for the manager's discreet words in your ear, 'Mr O'Brien, could you come with me please.' (It wasn't always that polite.)
After a while, I was no longer satisfied with my earnings. It was small reward for a dangerous, itinerant lifestyle. I yearned for more and more profit and was soon taking home £1,000 per day. It was then that I becamc a marked man.
Word travels fast in the casino world. Scores of letters began to drop through the letter box, terminating my membership of casinos nationwide. 'Dear Mr O'Brien,' read one from a club in Luton, 'it has been decided at an extraordinary meeting of the Election Committee that your membership be withdrawn with immediate effect. This means that you will no longer be allowed to visit the club either as a member or as a guest.'
Many people think it is unfair to bar a player who merely beats a casino at its own game, particularly when there is nothing more than mental skill involved. I was doing nothing illegal. But I can understand the casino's point of view: they are in the business of making money, so why should they tolerate someone who reduces their profit margins? Besides, if I am barred, it is my own fault for making myself conspicuous in the first place.
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