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October 23, 2017

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Confessions of a card counter

Sony Pictures' 21

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, left) is recruited by Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth, right) to join M.I.T.'s blackjack team -- a group of students that uses smarts and skills to take Vegas for millions -- in Columbia Pictures' 21. Launch slideshow »

I don’t know how many times I’ve been banned from playing blackjack in casinos.

In the parlance of the game, I’ve “lost the count.”

I savored the irony when it happened for the 21st time (get it, 21?), but now I usually just say “dozens.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s the more guys in suits glaring at you as you play, the more trouble you can expect.

In the boundless lingo of card counting, that’s called “heat.” Soon after comes “the tap” — on the shoulder — to tell you that your game is no longer welcome here, sir.

I’ve never encountered an episode like the classic backroom scene with the electric saw and the hammer in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” or the hair-raising scenes in previews for “21,” the movie to be released Friday that was inspired by the MIT card-counting team.

My encounters — aficionados also call them “backoffs” or “barrings” and love to nitpick about the distinctions among the terms — have been civil and businesslike.

The most pleasant came at Fiesta Rancho when it was owned by the Maloof family. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I asked for and received a generous comp to the casino’s Mexican restaurant as a sort of parting gift.

My banning at the Palms, another Maloof property, was also polite, almost apologetic. I was doing my best to mind my own business and look like a tourist enjoying a game of cards. A well-groomed casino official I had never seen before materialized by the table and said, matter-of-factly, “Jeff, you can’t play here anymore.”

A bit jarred, I was reminded of the old Carlin routine in which he thinks he’s incognito in the dark confessional until the priest says, “Now, what did you do that for, George?”

The coolest pit boss I’ve met was in charge at a Harrah’s property in Northern Nevada. Sporting a retro, ’70s Tahoe-hippie look, he won me over with his patter even as he banned me: Hey, man, you’re 86’d tonight, but we know you’re gonna come back and try again. You try to win our money, we try to take your money. It’s all in the game.

Man.

The most uncool was a smarmy, chubby guy at the Beau Rivage, an MGM Mirage joint in Biloxi, Miss. Two players were at a $25 minimum table: Me and a middle-aged woman, a local regular known by name to the casino personnel, playing horribly, drinking in the morning, criticizing my play, rambling on about the “flow of the cards.” As an oddsmaker, I installed her as a prohibitive favorite to have lost huge sums at the Beau Rivage.

I was up a couple of measly bucks when they banned me. The whole Dantean diorama seemed to exemplify the raw, ugly greed of the casino business. It made me feel a little sick. Plus, Chubby shot down my request for a buffet comp.

The trying-too-hard award goes to Arizona Charlie’s, where upon my banning a grizzled old codger of a pit boss snarled, loud enough for me to hear, “We used to take guys like him out into the desert.” In an awe-inspiring feat of physical brilliance, I managed to stop myself from bursting into laughter.

Unless you’re Rain Man or on the MIT team, I suppose, card counting doesn’t always go according to plan. Even playing correctly, it’s a truism that you’ll lose the most money in the best games simply because you’ll be making bigger bets more frequently. Variance, she is a harsh mistress, and all that.

Once, I was playing a good double-deck game in a Las Vegas casino, using the moniker “Ezra Hurwitz.” (I think that “Jeff Haney” guy was already persona non grata there, you see.) I cut the cards, the count skyrocketed and the dealer made a bunch of 20s and 21s to crush the table and cost me a bundle.

After the shuffle, he handed the deck to another player and said, “Let’s hope you cut them ... Better Than Ezra.”

The reference to the band remains, by a wide margin, the wittiest remark I have ever heard a blackjack dealer make.

When things are going well, however, card counters try to conceal their winnings by “ratholing” chips, surreptitiously hiding them on their person. This allows them to keep the low profile they desire. Blackjack Forum magazine once ran an article written by a sleight-of-hand magician detailing rathole techniques.

I should have read it before I played at the Santa Fe (before it was a Station) casino. After instructing the dealer to stop dealing to me (permanently), the pit boss said, “And before you leave, make sure you cash in all the chips in your pocket, too.” Ouch.

Acting drunk is another popular gambit. Order a gin and tonic, pour it out in the restroom and return to the blackjack table, hands smelling like Tanqueray, holding a glass filled with ice, lime slices and tap water. (Obviously, you should never drink for real while counting cards.)

The idea is to look like a fun-loving tourist rather than someone who knows how to play blackjack. As with other so-called “cover” plays, it works until it doesn’t.

I once tried the old drunk act around 4:30 on a weekend morning at El Cortez. Staggering, slurring and holding a bottle of beer, I announced I had lost everywhere on Fremont Street that night, but I was determined to make it all back here at El Cortez.

The gentleman supervising the blackjack games brightened like the Southern Nevada desert sun. “You have come to the right place, sir.”

I pulverized the single-deck game for 45 minutes before a woman in smart business attire, likely the supervisor’s supervisor, gave me the tap.

The movie “21” will probably present card counting in a glamorous light. It carries no mystique for me.

Recently, a visitor from out of town who is successful in business but knows nothing about gambling wanted to play blackjack in Las Vegas for the first time in his life. We sat at the same table and I told him to mirror my bets.

He did. We both got the tap.

Now he can brag — with complete honesty — that every single time he tries to play blackjack in Las Vegas, he gets thrown out.

If only his buddies could have seen us, though, slinking out of the Plaza at something like 1 a.m. on a Tuesday, into the depressing cloaca that is the streets of downtown Las Vegas. Ah, the high rolling life of an “advantage gambler.”

Dave Irvine of the MIT team — the real one, not the celluloid version — once told me disguises never worked well for him and his cohorts. Even professionally applied makeup would tend to melt, or the get-up would just look awkward.

Still, some card counters who have been banned a lot resort to alternate identities or modest disguises to gain more playing time. For example, maybe a guy who actually lives in Summerlin presents a casino player’s card that carries a goofy name and the address of a mail drop in Mill Valley, Calif. Maybe the guy’s short brown hair is covered by a Jeff Spicoli wig.

I, of course, would never dream of associating with anybody who would ever try to pull a stunt like that.

Neither would Ezra.

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