Sign of the TimesWith The Real Hustle’s Alexis Conran and Paul Wilson now in the regular GOM line-up, they kick off their regular column with a telling discussion about signaling, and the boundary that separates Hollywood from the real world.
Alexis: The moment I finished reading Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House, I knew the movie, 21, was soon to follow. What was also quite certain was that the movie would have that larger-than-life Hollywood factor poured into it. But what has always been fascinating about teams of card counters is that they really have to be great actors. Both the ‘spotter’ and the ‘big player’ have to be very convincing as regular customers while, at the same time, underneath the character they have chosen to play, they have to communicate information to several people without anyone suspecting they’re all together. I can testify to how difficult it is to play that dual role in such a scrutinised environment.
What did seem unreal was the signaling the team used in the movie. When you’re in character, the last thing you want to worry about is your signals being spotted. I suppose for a movie you have to design signals that register on camera so that the audience can follow along. However, such obvious signals would never be employed by a real team. In real life it’s exactly the opposite.
Paul: In the real world, it’s a lot more subtle, of course, and even if you know someone might be communicating across a table, or even across the casino floor, it can be almost impossible to read the signals. A professional crew will develop their own silent language, incorporating natural actions to create a simple lexicon. There will be a signal to bring money to the table, another to pull back on a bet and even ways to pass complex information from player to player.
Some signals are almost universal. Running fingers through the hair, from front to back, is the classic way to say “cut and run”. If someone on the team makes this signal, the other players will get out of Dodge as quickly as they can. My first week working for a blackjack crew, I completely missed the signal but I saw my guys cashing out and heading for the door. We rendezvoused at another hotel and, when I asked what happened, the boss said, “You tell us. You gave the signal!” It turned out that, after a couple of hours of play, I had a habit of running my fingers through my hair. Without knowing it, I was telling my teammates to hit the road.
Alexis: Having done so many scams, there is one thing we have always learned and that is to keep it natural. It’s amazing what you can get away with in any circumstance as long as what you’re doing seems normal. Again this comes back to good acting. The character has to be real, it has to be believable. Therefore the signals have to come form that character. They have to blend into that character’s mannerisms and behaviour patterns. When you start applying these rules, the signals become a lot more subtle; the lighting of a cigarette with a match or a lighter can mean two different things. Looking for a waitress, checking a mobile, playing with a finger ring, all these signals become embedded in that character's behaviour and therefore are very difficult to spot.
Once a good signaling system has been mastered the results can be extremely rewarding. A good signaling system in a poker game for example can essentially allow a team to only play the best hands, work from a bigger bankroll and by process of deduction, and work out other possible hands on the table. Imagine that. It’s like having two or more hands to play with, the team simply playing the strongest hands and gleaning information from each other.
Online you don’t even have to have a signaling system. You can just use the phone or if you’re a one-man team play on the same table using different IDs and IP addresses. The bottom line is that when people signal and play as a team, they have a huge advantage over the house.
Paul: Years ago I knew a group of regular poker players who used simple signals, among other ploys, to support each other during tournaments. Typically this only happened when two or more of them landed on the final table. Several times I found myself up against these guys and it was almost impossible to beat them without the best hand. I eventually found a way to win back some of my money, but that’s another story.
In a casino, covert communication can be a serious problem and, with new technology, that information can be shared around the world. In the ‘big player’ approach, members of a team monitor the count on every table and bring in their BP when there’s a high positive expectation. Imagine doing the same thing on a much grander scale. Instead of counting down tables in one casino, you can monitor the count in several casinos and only direct your big players to the richest shoes. This requires several big players and a large crew but there’s a much better chance of coming out on top.
This is easily accomplished with cellular devices but moving the money around is the real problem. You could have all of your BPs carrying cash but that needs one hell of a bankroll. You could use high-limit credit cards to pull the money from a central pot, but that can leave a trail. There are ways to do it, of course, and there are teams working on a global scale but rarely targeting more than one casino at a time. Blackjack teams assess their winnings over time rather than day by day. They know they’re playing with a mathematical edge and, even if they go down tens of thousands, they know that the numbers will balance out in the long run. In other words, they’re literally beating the casinos at their own game.