The Blackjack Life, a Review

Posted by Ellis Shuman, September 30, 2014

The Blackjack LifeAdvantage play in Blackjack is any effort to win more using “honest” skills such as memory, computation and observation. Counting cards, for example, lets a Blackjack player know when the odds are in his favor and on what occasions he should make bigger bets. These techniques, while considered legal, give players a long-term advantage in the game and as a result, they make the advantage player an undesirable guest at the casino. Players caught counting cards, or suspected of any other “honest” skills, will be asked to leave, mostly with a polite warning that they should never return.

A group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard perfected in the 1980s a system of card counting and signaling and became known as the MIT Blackjack Team, which reportedly reaped millions in profits from unsuspecting casinos. The real life escapades of the team led to two books by Ben Mezrich – Bringing Down the House and Busting Vegas – and the popular Kevin Spacey film “21”, which took artistic liberty to fictionalize the characters and their actions.

Advantage play in Blackjack is still alive and kicking, as demonstrated in The Blackjack Life by Nathaniel Tilton (Huntington Press, August 2012). The book describes itself as “a journey through the inner world of card counting, the lessons of teamwork, and the clandestine pursuit of beating the odds.”

Tilton was introduced to the techniques of the original MIT Blackjack Team by Semyon Dukach. In an introduction to The Blackjack Life, Dukach writes that he has “always believed that players should look for new vulnerabilities in the game, develop strategies to exploit those vulnerabilities, and then share those ideas with other aspiring players.”

Dukach confirms that Tilton and his partner “were able to absorb the many different strategies that exist today and combine them in a highly efficient and effective way, while staying true to the mathematics of the game.”

Blackjack at the Melton Hall Casino Night. Photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0 mattbuck, flickr

The Blackjack Life tells the story of Tilton’s learning process, of his initial forays into casinos and the basic strategies he and his partner employed. Not everything is rosy, as casino employees frequently escorted Tilton out the door and quite often the cards didn’t fall in the expected statistical patterns. Compared to the famed MIT team, you won’t see Tilton winning millions. The impression is that of a job (to win in Blackjack) that needs to be done, and Tilton making all efforts to do that job well.

Dukach and Tilton are the team behind Blackjack Science, “the ultimate online resource for aspiring advantage players.” The website (Ed. Note: apparently no longer online) lists the challenge set before any player who wants to succeed professionally in the game of Blackjack:

The challenge is really two-fold.  First, in order to be successful, the game has to be learned with impeccable precision and an unwavering commitment to playing and betting perfection. It’s at that level that a player is truly feared by casino personnel, who see a threat to their bottom line.  At that point, the second part of the challenge begins – playing a winning strategy without being detected.

The Blackjack Life describes how Tilton excelled in this challenge. Not everyone can follow in his footsteps, but any player who reads this book will make casino personnel wary.



Further Reading:  

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Previous articles by Ellis Shuman:

How Poker and Scrabble Are Very Much Alike

A Lot More Blood than Aces

The Moneymaker Effect and How It Changed Poker

Dutch Boyd Goes on Poker Tilt with His New Book

Poker Success of the Poet's Son

Poker and Philosophy: Thinking Your Way to Better Poker

The Wolf of Online Processing

The Greatest Poker Songs of All Time

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