Ken, I'd like to say that it is an honor to interview you. Although I don't know you well, I admire and respect your mission of helping your readers play blackjack and beat the casinos at their own game. That said, I hope this interview helps the readers of your site, old and new, get to know about the man behind BlackjackInfo.com.
1. What was your educational and career background before and during your time as a blackjack writer and expert?
I grew up at a time when personal computers were new, and I found them fascinating. I was a self-taught programmer in my teens, and landed my first paid job developing custom software for our school system when I was about 15. I continued learning and working in the field through four years of college, earning my degree with a major in computer science and a minor in math.
Rather than continuing on to graduate school, I started a software development company with a business partner right out of school. I did the development work, and he did the sales work. We specialized in accounting systems for retail businesses that do in-house financing. We remained a small company with only a handful of employees, but eventually had our software installed in 25 or 30 states around the country.
I left that business ten years ago to pursue gambling and my websites full time.
2. Where and when did you start playing blackjack? Which authors did you study? Please tell us about your journey not as a blackjack writer but a blackjack player.
In the mid-1980s, I visited Vegas for the first time with a friend. Prior to the trip, I did some research at the library and found a basic strategy somewhere. I don’t even recall the source. But I had heard enough about the game to know the importance of playing correctly. I studied before we left for the trip, and played a pretty solid basic strategy game in my very first trip.
I enjoyed the vacation, although I don’t even remember whether I won or lost. In any event, my bets were small, $5 to $10. It was definitely a recreational trip and I had no plans to pursue the game after that. After all, I lived in Mississippi. Las Vegas and Atlantic City were the only options for gambling, and I was too far away from either to make it worth study. Or so I thought...
In 1990, the Mississippi legislature surprised most residents of the bible-belt state by passing a law allowing casinos in the state. Two years later in 1992, the first casino in Mississippi opened its doors in Biloxi. The Isle of Capri was about 90 miles from my home. My interest in blackjack was immediately rekindled, and now I was serious about the game.
I started building a library of books about the game. I read Thorp, Uston, Wong, Humble and Revere. Fortunately, my math background was solid, and I could easily separate the quality books from the vast amount of nonsense that gets published about gambling. I wrote software to analyze the game and test the different systems. That gave me an in-depth understanding that you can’t get from just reading about the systems, or even by playing the game.
In Mississippi, all casinos were required to be on the water, either on the beach in the Gulf of Mexico, or along the length of the Mississippi River. But in 1992, when I started “going to the boats” as we all called it then, I was already playing a winning game of blackjack.
Double deck games with good cuts were everywhere, and the pit personnel had their hands full managing the inexperienced dealers. They weren’t even looking for advantage players. And why should they? The average player at the tables was terrible. They were making so much money that they really didn’t care that a handful of players like me were extracting profits on a regular basis. For a savvy gambler, it was a good time to be on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
3. You're the author of the book "How to win more blackjack tournaments." Tell us about your own background playing blackjack tournaments.
By 1994, casinos along the Gulf Coast were opening left and right, and they were all looking for ways to bring more players through the doors. Weekly blackjack tournaments became a very popular marketing tool in Gulfport and Biloxi. You could play in events on six days of the week at various properties, two on some days. The most popular events had a $50 entry fee and a $10,000 prize pool. They were structured to accommodate up to 210 entries, but were almost always short of 200, making them an overlay right off the bat. With a first place paying $5,000 and a field of mostly inexperienced players, it was an absolute candy store for the skilled players. There were a dozen or so players that took the tournaments seriously, and the published lists of winners showed the same names winning them, over and over. I was among them. Just in the first six months, I racked up dozens of wins with a healthy number of first place finishes.
Tournaments for me were an ideal mix. I loved the game, I loved the competition, and I loved figuring out the strategies. It also become a huge social occasion. I made new friends who had the same interest, and we would spend hours over comped dinners debating the fine points of strategy.
Most players don’t realize how complex tournament strategy can become. It’s far more complicated than card counting. Even after years of play and study, I still find there is lots to learn about the game.
Those early years led directly to my later work as an author about tournaments. I began writing for Blackjack Confidential, a magazine devoted to blackjack tournaments, and I launched a website about blackjack sometime around 1996 or 1997. In 1998, it would become BlackjackInfo.com.
In the following years I traveled extensively playing tournaments, from Chicago to the Bahamas, from Canada to Aruba. For a brief time, blackjack tournaments came to TV. I appeared on all four seasons of World Series of Blackjack on the Game Show Network, and I won a $50,000 tournament in the premiere episode of Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS. It’s been a long and amazing ride.
4. I know you wrote a whole book on playing blackjack tournaments, but can you give any quick advice on getting invited to tournaments?
Mike, casual readers may not pick up on you switching gears in this question, so I’ll make it clear. The blackjack tournament world has changed a lot over the last ten years, and the most influential change is that most high-value events have switched from “open” events to strictly “invitational” events. It is frustrating, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise us as players. A casino is virtually guaranteed a profit when they bring in a large group of their most profitable players. If they instead have an open event attracting an unknown crowd of players, they may not make any money at all. Whatever the case, invitational events are now a fact of life.
To get into the best events now, you must figure out how to get on that list of “good” players in the casino. But of course, what the casino thinks of as “good” is exactly the opposite of what we as players want. We want to win. They want reliable losers.
For most casinos, the perceived value of a player comes down to a single number, the theoretical loss. The “theo” is a measure of the mathematical expected loss you will generate. It is based on which games you play, how much you bet, and how long you play. Many casinos use your “Average Daily Theoretical” or ADT to decide which event invitations you will receive.
My advice for getting these invitations without spending a fortune:
A) Concentrate your play (and hotel stays) on as few days as possible. If you stay several days and play a little each day, the casino ADT will show you as less valuable than if you stay one day and play heavily only on that day.
(For a tip about this regarding hotel checkout day, see the section “One Easy Change to Improve Your Casino Results” in this article.
B) Get a host, and don’t be afraid to ask for his or her help in getting tournament invites. You need to maintain this impression of being a valuable player, but hosts can often override the strict numerical criteria if they like you.
C) Machine play on video poker machines can be a cheap way to generate theoretical loss. Some casinos allow machine play to count for table play tournament invitations, and some don’t. Where allowed, this can be a cheap way to generate a bigger theo than you really should have.
The key here is that video poker is a game of skill. If you learn to play accurately, your expected loss will usually be quite a bit lower than the “theo” rating for the machine you are playing. That’s a great way to inflate your theo. Of course, the variance in video poker is high, so be prepared for some expensive trips offset by an occasional big win.
D) When playing tables, make sure you inquire with the pit about your rating before you leave. We all know that pit crews are notoriously bad at accurately recording your bets, and it seems like they tend to short your play if you don’t ask. The good news is that they usually seem to feel guilty about it if you do ask, and often give you an inflated bet amount instead. That’s a win!
5. What is your opinion on the state of card counting in 2016? What do you say to those who say that the casinos have put so much emphasis on protecting the game against counters that they have let their guard down to other forms of more lucrative advantage play?
I wrote about the state of card counting recently, here.
The article’s conclusion is that for card counters restricted to locations near their home, times are tough. Most game conditions are worse than ever. The flipside is that there are more casinos dealing blackjack than ever, so if you have the bankroll and ability to travel, you can still do quite well.
For the second part of your question, I agree that casinos focus on protecting their games from card counters almost to the exclusion of anything else. Most serious players are beating other games. The heat is minimal, and the money is better. Even machine play has been a sweet spot in recent years, which has gone mostly unnoticed until recently. Smart players will find the money, and it’s still out there.
6. Other than card counting and exploiting tournaments, what are the best ways to beat blackjack in 2016?
Marketing mail. I’ll leave it at that. For many other techniques, blackjack is not the preferred game for using the skills.
7. For advantage players who feel blackjack is burned out, do you recommend any other forms of advantage play on other games?
Recent years have seen a boom in players using hole card information against many different games. I found that wasn’t for me for several reasons. I’m tall with iffy eyesight (strike one). I’m a lousy “big player” (strike two). I prefer to work alone (strike three).
The edges that I have used instead are less well-known, and are still workable for many friends, so I’m not going into details. Sorry for the unsatisfying answer. Discretion is important in this business.
Players should be observant and open-minded. Look for opportunities where others do not.
8. You have a forum on BlackjackInfo.com. What has been your policy on free speech and protecting the forum from trolls?
Running a blackjack forum can be a real pain! I’m sure you know that well after running the Wizard forums for all these years. I had a busy forum on BlackjackInfo for many years, but finally decided it just wasn’t fun any more. Even though I had outstanding help from my moderators, it only takes a handful of trolls to make life difficult. And the advantage play community seems to have plenty of those to go around.
Because the value of some of the information posted can be considerable, many players are opposed to any open discussion about them. They will often go to great lengths to harass both visitors and moderators.
My own efforts to allow free speech always had to be weighed against the risk of disclosing sensitive information that could cost some players their livelihood. That part isn’t easy. Much easier was the decision to curb the posting rights of anyone who attacked other users. If I fell short in that task, it was because I was too prone to give people the benefit of the doubt when dropping the ban hammer.
I closed off the forum several years ago, and converted the existing message base of 200,000 posts to a knowledge base instead. I remain quite happy with that decision. Blackjack and gambling have afforded me the opportunity to live my life exactly as I want. If I don’t enjoy it, I don’t do it.
9. Your site features blackjack lessons from the "game master" Bill Channels. Bill and I were two of the early birds to the world of gambling web sites. We communicated a lot via Email and I always held him in high esteem. His web site GameMasterOnline.com was, in my opinion, one of the best gambling web sites out there in the early days of the Internet. Unfortunately, I lost touch with him years ago. As I understand it, you purchased his web site and transferred the content to yours. Please tell me how you knew Bill and what has become of him.
Bill was indeed one of the early birds on the web, along with you, me, and Wong. While Bill’s blackjack school has its issues, it has held up pretty well over the years. I corresponded with Bill in the early days over email, and was fortunate to meet him in person a few times. I remember well a fantastic dinner he shared with my wife and I, where he put his considerable expertise on wines and spirits to good use. Among his interesting pastimes, he was the sole US importer of a particular vodka at one time. On my page about him, I describe him as a true bon vivant. I’ve never met anyone who fit that description as well.
Bill has had severe health issues including a battle with brain cancer. I have been unable to contact him in a few years, despite attempts via email, phone, and postal mail. I even contacted his old web design guy, who unfortunately couldn’t help. The last information I have is that Bill was in a nursing facility.
Recently when his domain was about to expire, I battled other potential buyers to grab it. I saved it from the fate of most expired gambling domains, which is a spam trap. Unfortunately, the content was lost when the site expired. Although some of it is still accessible via the archive.org Wayback machine, the web lost a lot of good content when the site went dark.
10. Between selling your site and all your gambling books, it sounds like you're riding off into the sunset. As you end one chapter of your life, what lies in store for the next one?
Travel is my passion, and I’m looking forward to doing even more of it now. In the last few years, my favorite trips have included Istanbul, Paris, London, Ecuador, Peru, and the Galapagos. Next month is Sydney, Australia. After that is Rome.
Within a few years, my plan is to live a nomadic existence, spending three to six months in each destination, living places instead of vacationing there. So, yes, I’d say that’s riding off into the sunset.
To Follow Ken
You can follow Ken on his Twitter account @KenLovesTravel and at his blog Sweet Tea No Lemon.