Gambling

Colin Jones (S2 E7): KU Killed AC – Gambling With An Edge


[No, Anthony Curtis is just fine, thank you. I went with the clickbait headline to go with the lede.] “Ken Uston’s lawsuit that forbade Atlantic City from barring skilled players ruined playing conditions there.” I’ve tried before to extinguish this fallacy, and I don’t hear it much anymore (today’s BJA counters don’t even known who Ken Uston was). But near extinction of the argument then incentivizes some online wise guy to sound uber-insightful by blurting it out again. So, yes, someone pissed in my morning coffee, and I will continue my fool’s quest.

First, keep in mind that there is a complainer’s bias. The AP community (or at least, the sub-species that lives online) is a bunch of complainers. APs constantly complain about deteriorating conditions, about the lack of information about things they’re trying to learn, about the lack of discretion on information they’ve just learned, about evil casinos, about evil cops. I’m not saying that these complaints are entirely unfounded, just that there’s a bias and an exaggeration. There will always be complainers, usually relatively unsuccessful players, who will try to find a scapegoat, and Ken Uston was a great scapegoat for so many years. Until Colin Jones came along. And now the narrative is: The 21st-Century Card Counter is killing the game, and BJA is a Church of Fools. It’s important to realize that sometimes there no need to assign blame. Situations are what they are, and maybe it’s no one’s fault.

But beyond that, I would question whether there is any empirical basis supporting the slander on Ken Uston. Are conditions in Atlantic City garbage? Some BJA folks could weigh in here, but I would rate AC counting conditions as average or below average. Since the counter looks to play the best known games in the nation (or backyard), being “average” suddenly feels horrible, but it’s average! If you usually hang out with grad students, then the 100 IQ dude you meet in a bar seems like a blathering idiot, but he’s average! The AC penetration is not good, but at least there are still countable shoes! In Europe, you’ll find mostly CSMs. In Macau, you probably won’t see a countable blackjack shoe at all! The game rules in AC are typical (6:5 hasn’t taken over). Game variety is okay (blackjack and Spanish21 are standard, but FreeBet not so much). The limits on blackjack in AC are decent (there are shoes where you could bet $6000, but $500 or higher is pretty standard). In Latin America, most countable BJ has puny limits. If you haven’t noticed, blackjack conditions on the Vegas Strip have deteriorated, and mediocre pen and bad rules (6:5!) are the norm. The mediocrity of AC seems pretty horrible to a spoiled complainer, but it could be worse. Much, much worse.

Even if we concede that conditions in AC are horrible, is that due to the fact that AC can’t kick out players because of their skill? To this I have to answer: Heeeeeeeeellllll noooo! This is apparent from the spread of casinos over the last two decades. Today there are hundreds of casinos that didn’t exist in Ken Uston’s day, and playing conditions vary widely. But we see no indication that whether or not they can kick out skilled players has anything to do with the conditions (“conditions” synonymous with penetration?, I suppose). Tribal casinos throughout the nation do whatever they want, including kicking out skilled players, and yet hundreds of those casinos have garbage blackjack conditions. Oklahoma casinos are all tribal, and generally require players to pay 50 cents per hand just to play (with some conditional exceptions). That’s pretty horrible! But it has nothing to do with any immunity for skilled players. How do you explain the garbage conditions at Wildhorse in Oregon? What about Island View in Gulfport? We can easily name hundreds of casinos with garbage conditions, and entire cities (Reno is pretty crappy, and Wendover ain’t what it used to be). I don’t see the connection.

Those who make the connection to Ken Uston’s lawsuit assume a logical process of casino decision-making which simply isn’t realistic, for many reasons. First of all, it’s not a “casino” making the decision. The decision is made by an individual. A Table Games Manager, or a Casino Manager (and then executed by front-line dealers), whose primary goal is self-preservation, not maximization of corporate profits. So the “logic” that is relevant must be filtered through that guy’s lens. To be fair to the Uston lynch mob, maybe the casino manager is paranoid about APs, and feels that his only option is to offer crappy conditions.

But, experience shows us over and over that these decision makers don’t employ proactive policies based on some Rube-Goldbergian logic. The casino boss doesn’t look at the legal ruling, and then say, “Aha! We need to reduce our penetration.” Rather, the decision making is reactive. Major changes in policy or conditions usually occur after something happens—when a game gets whacked, or when a new guy is hired as the Casino Manager. Sometimes a game has to get whacked repeatedly before the casino wises up, but sometimes just once. When the Luxor removed LS from its double-deck game around 15 years ago, the counters all complained online, and assumed that the Luxor had the epiphany that LS was too “juicy” for card counters. Card counters always think the entire casino world revolves around them. While we can’t know the reason the Luxor removed LS, I think the proximate cause was Wheelchair’s 70k hit with aggressive surrendering the night before in High Limit. (The night before!)

If bosses made decisions proactively using logic, then you could say “Grosjean’s lawsuit against Caesars/ImperialPalace is why APs don’t get backroomed anymore.” That statement is exactly like the Ken Uston statement. The empirical basis is not true (APs do still get backroomed today), and it would require the heroic assumption that casino bosses make policy changes based on foreseeing the profit impact of the legal ruling. But casinos have very little foresight. If AC had foresight, they might have realized that their geographic monopoly wouldn’t last forever, and maintaining the city as a viable resort destination might depend on cleaning up the riffraff on the Boardwalk and surrounding streets. How is Pacific Avenue not paved and beautified by now? How is the Boardwalk littered with massage parlors, with not a single Starbucks? Reno made the same mistake: With all due respect to my gun-nut readers, the gun shop, liquor stores, and pawn shops should be located on Soi Cowboy, not on the main pedestrian drag of Virginia Street.

Any longtime AP knows dozens of examples of the reactive nature of casinos. A game gets removed when it gets whacked, or fails to make money. Many times I’ve arrived at a casino only to find that the game we’ve been whacking has been closed for the day, accompanied by some story that I know is a lie. A weak shuffling machine gets removed. A slot machine or video poker machine that is especially vulnerable gets removed or nerfed. A weak dealer gets fired or put on the Big Six Wheel every day.

I’m not saying that Ken Uston and his team had no impact on Atlantic City, in that era. Legal rulings or not, AC had a lot of counter activity. On the Eastern seaboard, it was the only game in town. There were many casino employees who had no clue about counting. There were big teams—Al Francesco and Ken Uston, the Czech Team. With so many aggressive counters running around, of course there would be a casino reaction, one of them being reducing the penetration, but that is precisely what has happened with today’s BJA swarm. When these locusts go through an area, then conditions might go to hell, perhaps for the remainder of that Table Games Manager’s tenure at that casino, or that casino chain.

But that’s a result of getting whacked, or the perception of getting whacked (sometimes casinos blame APs for own incompetent management and poor business results, and Ken Uston also publicized his success whacking the casinos), or a fear-mongering consultant telling them they’re being whacked, not a state regulation that says you can’t kick out card counters.

What’s strange to me is that the Ken-Uston’s-Lawsuit-Ruined-AC argument generally seems attached to some larger implication, or personal grievance. As if Ken Uston personally cost them money. If we removed the rulings from Ken Uston’s lawsuits, would penetration suddenly get good in Atlantic City? Would the CSMs that are there disappear, and be replaced with juicy countable shoes? Of course not. Atlantic City is a dump. No one’s disputing that. But there’s no way you can put that at Ken Uston’s feet, and the technical game conditions that currently exist in AC have nothing to do with Uston’s lawsuits.

And card counting isn’t the only game in town anymore. Most modern APs, and quite a few high-end APs that I know, consider AC to be an excellent venue, probably above average in terms of earnings potential. And those high-end APs specifically do like the climate owing to Uston’s lawsuits. If you feel you still need a scapegoat for why AC isn’t the AP mecca that it “should” be, then I think you can find a better scapegoat than Uston or Jones. Now accepting nominations …

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