Sunday, June 16, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
AMONG Las Vegas casino pit supervisors, card counters have a reputation about a half notch above that of murderers and thieves.
They may be considered criminals by some casino workers, but in truth card counters break no laws.
They play by the book -- literally.
In the game of 21, they keep track of the cards, and they bet more when the deck is rich in 10-value cards.
But, it's really not that simple. Counters devote long hours to study and practice so that they know exactly how much to bet, and exactly when to hit, stand, split or double.
And because they know so much, many counters tend to act secretively and guilty at 21 tables.
Often they play for long hours at a time, talking to no one, carefully training their eyes on each card.
They drink water, coffee or fruit juice. They admonish other players for making less than perfect plays. They tip very little, if at all.
In short, they tend to drive everyone around them crazy.
No wonder they get banned so often.
But not every card counter is so predictable.
Consider Ralph Stricker.
When he plays, he often jokes with floors supervisors and other players, stopping only to flirt with the cocktail waitress or to address a post card to friends back home in New Jersey.
And, oh yes, he also keeps track of the cards -- perfectly.
Rather than try to hide his talents, Stricker advertises them.
He is the world's only card counter with his own 800 number.
People who want to talk about card counting are invited to call 1-800-CARDS-21.
"I get calls from all over the country," Stricker said in a 1-800 phone interview from his home in Atlantic City. "If people are having a question about something in my book, or if they have a problem in general, I'm more than happy to talk to them."
Stricker's self-published book, which is available at Gamblers Book Club, is titled "Silver Fox Blackjack System."
In the book, which instructs players how to develop a simple, but effective count, Stricker makes no bones about the difficulties of being a professional 21 player.
"I do not advise selling your business or giving up your day job for the lure of easy money," Stricker writes. "Casino life is not as glamorous as many have made it out to be. You must be emotionally prepared for the wide swings in the winning and losing cycles."
And, above all, Stricker warns, you must know "how not to get barred," a subject Stricker knows a great deal about.
Years ago, Stricker was labeled "the fox" by a pit boss who was impressed by Stricker's abilities to hide his talents as a counter.
Today, Stricker, 65, is known as the silver fox.
"I guess it sounds better than the gray fox," said Stricker, who visits Las Vegas several times each year.
One thing Stricker has learned at the tables is how not to advertise his talents.
"That's the most important thing," Stricker said. "They'll let anybody win as much money as he wants, as long as the player doesn't exhibit any skill. The casino knows it will get the money back from an unskilled player."
And so, Stricker "strongly advises" counters to refrain from criticizing other players, to play at different casinos on different shifts.
"Familiarity does breed contempt," Stricker said. "You have to be able to realize when you've overstayed your welcome."
And nothing helps a player overstay his welcome more than getting into arguments with dealers or floor supervisors.
"If you do not like a dealer or floor person, do not display your feelings," Stricker says. "They will remember you."
Stricker actually doesn't mind being remembered by floor supervisors. That's because usually it's in a good way.
"I believe I can get by on my personality," said Stricker, who usually provides floor supervisors more than enough entertainment to make up for the comparatively small amount he might win at a given session.
His students agree.
"Ralph honestly likes people, and it shows whether he's playing in a casino or out with a few friends having dinner," said student Steve Rose of New York City.
"I think that in a world of sharks, Ralph is the only (counter) who is honest in every situation, and is an upstanding person. He's also a natural teacher. He'll look at your game and tell you what you're doing right or wrong."
Rose says Stricker is unlike any other blackjack teachers or players he's ever met. Indeed, Stricker is unlike anyone Rose has ever met.
"Do you know what Ralph loves to do in his spare time?" Rose asks rhetorically.
"He loves to shop. He might spend five hours looking for a shirt or a pair of socks, and then haggling over the price. He loves to barter with sales clerks. It's the one-to-one contact he thrives on."
Stricker has been a people person all his life.
He's about as shy as an accordion player at a polka party.
Did I mention accordions?
"Years ago I was one of the top jazz accordionists in the country," Stricker said. "I used to run a music school in East Brunswick. I was teaching 600 kids a week."
Certainly, some would consider teaching hundreds of children to play the accordion a much greater crime than card counting.
"Apparently so," Stricker said. "The whole field collapsed in the '60s. It got a bad reputation from the polka, the Staten Island ferry boats and Dick Contino playing Lady of Spain on the Horace Heidt show."
After he put down his accordion, Stricker went from musical notes (if this accurately describes the sound an accordion makes) to bank notes.
In the late 1960s he formed a financial advisement company in the Cayman Islands.
Unfortunately, in 1974 more than 80 banks collapsed throughout the world, and one of them was the bank that had been serving as the transfer agent for Stricker's company.
And so, Stricker again found himself without a livelihood.
"I was 45 years old and there were not too many opportunities for an ex-president of a failed corporation," Stricker writes in his book.
But then Stricker started reading about blackjack and started studying different card counting systems.
"I fell in love with blackjack because it's the most beautiful of games."
What do you find so beautiful about it, Ralph?
The flow of the cards? Or the flow of the dead presidents when you cash your chips in at the cage.
The silver fox just smiled at that one.