Signed by Kaplan: The Accidental Card Counter
Andrew Uyal did not get into the gambling business because he wanted to beat blackjack. He simply hoped to make ends meet and support his family. It was 2007, the American economy was tanking and Uyal felt it. “That was the worst year in construction,” he told Casino Mir. “And I worked in that industry as a materials tester.”
After losing his job, he collected unemployment for a while before getting hired as a clerk at Virgin River Casino in Mesquite, Nevada, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Six months in, Uyal evolved into a blackjack dealer and eventually got promoted to floor supervisor. That happened in 2011, just after he and his wife divorced. While working on the gaming floor and trying to reconfigure his life, Uyal found himself wondering about card counting.
Luckily for him, his boss, Mark Stevens, avidly counted cards and played blackjack on the weekends. He was only too happy to provide a tutorial. “Mark gave me lessons in his office,” said Uyal. “I practiced counting by watching blackjack games on the job.”
Eventually, as Uyal explains in his recently published advantage-playing memoir, “The Blackjack Insiders” (Huntington Press), he got good enough to put his practice to purpose. He and Stevens began taking three-day trips to Las Vegas and managed to beat the games there. Blackjack would have remained a potentially profitable diversion had Stevens not gotten fired, in early 2013, from the casino where they both worked. Suddenly at loose ends, Stevens vowed to make counting into a fulltime pursuit.
Hungry for adventure and not wanting to miss out, Uyal quit the casino gig. Bitten by the blackjack bug, he too wanted to be a professional gambler. They each kicked in $6,000 to create a $12,000 bankroll and agreed to wager, more or less, from $25 to $200 per hand.
Though the two players were relative beginners, their years on the casino side of the table made them more seasoned than neophytes would typically be. “For example, we avoided shuffling our chips and making decisions too quickly; those things give the projection than you play a lot, which we didn’t want to do,” said Uyal. “We tipped” – which most pro card counters view as anathema – “partly because it was the right thing to do and partly because it resulted in better cuts.”
Most importantly, from working at a casino, Uyal and Stevens knew how to read activity in the pit.
Uyall explained that a shortfall of many a counter is to over-interpret the actions of pit-bosses. He knew, for example, not to panic over a boss who seems to stare you down before turning around and making a phone call. “On the other hand,” he said, “if the pit-boss looks at you, goes to the phone and then looks at you while talking on the phone – well, that is the bad sign; that is heat. Most pit-bosses can’t help but look at the person they are discussing with surveillance.”
Confident in their skills, Uyal and Stevens hit the road in February 2013. Their first trip as professional gamblers was a 10-day spin through the American south, where they played casinos in cities like New Orleans, Biloxi, Vicksburg and Tunica. It was exciting, sounded like a Johnny Cash song and proved to be anything but luxurious. “We stayed in the cheapest motels we could find,” said Uyal. “And a lot of the smaller casinos were uncomfortable. They had lousy chairs and rotten air circulation.”
Over the course of a week-and-a-half, he said, “it was grueling. We played blackjack all night. I got backed off from some places, had big swings in others and got myself into a few holes. Luckily, Mark was steadier. He told me not to worry about it, that we’re in this thing together. That helped but I still hated taking big losses and felt bad about them – even though big wins came as well.”
As recounted in the book, Uyal made eyebrow-raising plays that are mathematically correct when the count is suitably high or low – doubling down with 9 against the dealer’s 7, hitting 12 against the dealer’s 6, doubling with a soft 20 against the dealer’s 4 – and ultimately reaped the benefits: “Between the two of us, on that first trip, we made $12,000 in 10 days – despite my swings.” His cut “would have been several weeks of salary at the casino.”
The returns were nice, but working a 9-to-5 job was considerably less stressful and did not come with the very real risk of going broke. The latter drawback got driven home during a stint in Connecticut. “I came away from it in the hole for $5,000,” Uyal grimly recounted of a trip that began with a botched surrender play and ended with through-the-roof counts resulting in unlucky, sky-high losses. “Then I went to St. Louis and doubled my losing streak.”
Back home in Mesquite, he added, “Mark checked out my play, dealing to me on his kitchen table and he told me that I was doing just fine.”
Unfortunately, though, Uyal’s negative variance, resolved itself during that session in the kitchen. “It was a bad time to win,” Uyal dryly said. “I went on a $3,000 or $4,000 run while just practicing. Mark and I were cracking up. Of course it had to happen then.”
By the fall of 2013, some eight months after Uyal and Stevens turned pro, they had managed to make a success of it. “Basically, by then, I had $15,000 in profits,” said Uyal, explaining that the sum came after factoring in his living costs and blackjack expenses. “But going through the losing streaks was tough for Mark and I. After just eight months, we were beaten up and mentally done. We were sick of the ups and downs. Traveling got old. And, from the start, neither of us viewed card-counting as a long-term proposition. We were at a point where we didn’t want to do it anymore. So we agreed to stop.”
Uyal moved to Las Vegas, took a casino job and remarried. He continues to work in the gaming industry. But, following a few returns to the players’ side of the table, Uyal said that he is retired from life as an AP – though satisfied at having been able to beat the game, at least for a little while. “Winning is fun,” he said, stating the obvious. “But losing is stressful and playing blackjack with an advantage is work. I don’t need a second job at this point.”
When asked about the prospect of gambling recreationally, Uyal sighed and revealed a conundrum. “A couple years ago I sat down at a roulette table and it was horrible, Gambling without an advantage is not fun. It’s hard for me to play a game that I know I can’t beat.”
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ABOUT MICHAEL KAPLAN
With four books (and more on the way) plus hundreds articles, Michael Kaplan is one of the most experienced writer in gambling related subjects.
He have covered big stories including famous gamblers such as Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth for publications including Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. Based in New York, where he regularly writes for the Post.