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Unpacking the deck: How I met the many faces of card-counting

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OCTOBER 19, 2018

Remember Jaden Smith’s character in “The Karate Kid”? Far from the pseudo-intellectual cultural icon parading across headlines these days, the character is a scrawny kid from Detroit who moved to China and overcame bullying through mastery of arguably the coolest martial art ever. He was my idol. I remember waiting incessantly for a sequel to that masterpiece to come out. When it didn’t, I settled for this other movie called “After Earth.” Its promotional posters contained this incredibly rousing line: “Danger is real. But fear is a choice.” While the only fear that the audience left that movie with was of seeing Smith anywhere near a screen again, the quote had nestled into my brain in such a way that I’d never forget its meaning.

Fear is a choice. And it is most certainly a choice I’ve made every time I run into an old acquaintance named poker. I refrain from using the term “friend,” because the two of us never really got along. This animosity was made blatantly obvious during my first game, the proceedings of which can be summarized as follows: me being on the receiving end of abuses from my peers for not being able to understand the difference between a royal and straight flush — for a solid 30 minutes.

Determined to fix this relationship, I went onto the DeCal website, having remembered seeing a class teaching something to do with cards. After perusing a multitude of options, including that one Harry Potter class no one can stop talking about, I arrived at “The Card Counting DeCal: Beating Blackjack and the Statistics Behind It.”

Card counting. That has cards in it. Poker has cards too. Meh, let’s do it.

Clearly, my philosophy class in high school didn’t do a great job teaching me about false syllogisms. But the error in that professor’s ways arguably opened me up to one of the greatest experiences I’ve had at Berkeley so far. I realize that doesn’t hold much weight coming from a freshman, but hear me out.

I’ll start by setting the scene. It’s the first day of class. 7 p.m. I run past the line forming outside Crossroads toward campus. My shoes hit the ground at an increasingly rapid rate while my mind runs even faster, trying to recall whether this class starts on Berkeley time or not.

7:05. I receive an email from the varsity football coach offering me a position as the new quarterback after witnessing my incredible 100-yard dash from the units to Evans Hall.

Clearly, my philosophy class in high school didn’t do a great job teaching me about false syllogisms.

7:07. I sit down for attendance, sitting among people who, although unknown to me at the time, would reveal themselves to be some of the most brilliant minds I’ve met so far at Berkeley.

Blackjack, as I’ve learned throughout the classes, differs significantly from poker. It is a unique game, where the objective is not to beat those around you, but to beat the dealer. A quick summary of the rules: Each player is dealt two cards, both of which lie face up. The dealer gets two cards as well, one of which lies faceup and the other facedown. Each card is assigned a value, with the players playing to maximize their chances of getting the sum of their cards’ value to hit 21 (known as achieving a blackjack), or till the dealer (who also gets dealt a new card once the players have been dealt theirs) hits 21 or goes above it, resulting in a bust. Dealer busts, you win. You bust, dealer wins.

Now if you’re anything like me, half the reason you sign up for a class is because you’ve seen someone using the knowledge from the class to achieve incredible things outside the classroom. For me, this inspiration stemmed from the movie “21,” a dramatized but invigorating tale of the real-life MIT blackjack team, which applied card-counting techniques to beat casinos around the world. Every time I stepped foot into class, my mind morphed the room around me into the one from the movie. More often than I’d like to admit, my eyes superimposed Kevin Spacey’s face upon those of my instructors.

I sit down for attendance, sitting among people who, although unknown to me at the time, would reveal themselves to be some of the most brilliant minds I’ve met so far at Berkeley.

The next logical step would have been to visualize myself as the protagonist of the movie: a brilliant MIT student with a penchant for nonlinear algebra and a spot at Harvard Medical School. But in the words of a fellow freshman who switched majors after taking Physics 5A, “There lies a difference between what one wants to do and what one can do.”

And therein lies the first stereotype I faced about blackjack. Beyond “21,” other mainstream Hollywood movies such as “Rain Man” perpetuate the same misbelief that succeeding at blackjack through methods of card counting requires a genius-level IQ and a lack of social skills.

I’d encourage anyone with this misconception to walk into our class and find the socially awkward instructor. Perhaps Adam, president of the ACLU at Cal, would fit the description. Maybe Nathan would too, sitting alone in his office as the president of the Undergraduate Economics Association. But definitely Tango, the quiet media studies major who part-times as a tattoo artist, wins at casinos across the United States and, most importantly, talks about the idea of penetration in card decks (essentially deciding where in the set of cards to deal till) by using the same line: “Always remember, guys, deeper the penetration, better it is.”

Now I’m not saying the movies do a terrible job at accurate portrayals. Blackjack, or rather strategic blackjack, requires a firm hold on basic strategy, which at its core is a fixed set of moves to be memorized by the player to be played depending on the total value of their cards and the total value of the dealer’s cards at any given point in time. Once the players have a firm grasp on this, they must then devote their brain power toward keeping a constant track of the count.

Quick summary of card counting for those interested (otherwise, read on): Cards with different numbers are assigned one of three values: -1, 0, +1. Low cards (2-6) have value (+1). Midcards (7-9) have value (0). High cards (10, J, Q, K, A) have value (-1). Every time a new card is dealt, players must update the count in their head. A high count means more low cards have been dealt, thus increasing the probability of a high card being dealt next. This would signal a player to bet more because of their increased chances of hitting a blackjack. The converse also applies.

While there exist several variations to basic strategy, each requires the player to have a strong memory when it comes to recalling the moves in a game scenario.

The first time we were tested on our memory of the tables, I am proud to say that I failed eight consecutive times. What blew me away was not the difficulty of my memory being put to the test, but rather the incredible minds around me, for whom this was second nature — whether it was the guy at the back of the class who passed on the first try and left class early or the girl to my right who had every move at the tip of her tongue.

…each requires the player to have a strong memory when it comes to recalling the moves in a game scenario.

More than impressed, I was in a state of shock. Disbelief. Not only at her incredible ability, nor at any of these remarkable individuals alone, but at where I was. As senior year of high school ended, there was always chatter going around from teachers and parents about how we would be leaving our homes, our sheltered cocoons, our bubbles, for this new and exciting place called college. About how we’d find people unlike anyone we’ve ever met before, and how the paths we forge alongside these people would be the ones that determine the direction our lives would take. And here I was. Living out those very words. The prodigious minds I’d seen in movies were now the ones that sat beside me. The eccentric personalities I’d aspired to craft my own toward were now dealing me cards across a felt table.
Fear is a choice. The fear of not fitting in is definitely a real one. But it’s not a choice I’ve made here. Sat around the chairs in the corner room on the third floor of Evans on Tuesday evenings are a deck of people. Some similar, some coming from different suits, some seeing red where others see black, but at the end, coming together to form a complete set. A set of ideals that I found playing cards in the center of campus, and which I intend to extol across it. Kings and queens, waiting patiently for the count to get high to be dealt and be unleashed. Aces, ready to seize the day and deliver a blackjack on their talent. And, of course, the joker with the penetration gags.

Contact Arth Vidyarthi at [email protected]

OCTOBER 19, 2018