For nearly a decade, I made my entire income from card counting at blackjack. More often than not, people who knew about it would mistakenly ask, “How’s poker going?” I’d usually just reply, “Well, it’s blackjack, but it’s going fine.” With the popularity of Texas Hold’em and the World Series of Poker, every housewife knows about poker pros, but very few people know that there are some of us out there making a living at blackjack. For those interested in making a living at either game, let me breakdown five of the top differences between the two professions.
1 How Other Players Affect EV (Expected Value). Beating poker is primarily dependent on your ability to extract more money out of your competition than they will extract from you. It does not matter how good of a poker player you are if the other players at the table are better than you. Conversely, you don’t have to be all that great at poker if you consistently find poorer players to give you action. When you are playing blackjack, you are solely playing against the house. There is a common misconception that players can affect your odds at blackjack. However, the only measurable impact they have on a professional blackjack player is by impacting how many hands you will be able to play. This causes me to avoid crowded tables so I can generate as many hands per hour as possible. But there is no concern on whether the other players will help or hurt my pursuit of crushing the tables.
2 How Limits Affect EV. One of the factors that most fascinated me about card counting was the scalability. I started with $2,000 and was probably expecting to make $2/hr. However, I didn’t need to spend any of the money, so as my bankroll grew, so did my betting and my expected profits. I quickly teamed up with a few friends, and as we won, we continued to be able to increase our betting, finding higher limit tables to fit our growing bet spreads. At one point, I co-managed a team with $1M in cash, allowing us to play some games worth over $1,000/hr while knowing the exact mathematical calculations of our risk of ruin. You can absolutely scale your poker play, but it’s not as linear, nor is risk as measurable. As I pointed out above, you must always be aware of the skill level of the field in poker. To be honest, I’m perfectly comfortable betting thousands of dollars a hand at blackjack because I know that if I do the same thing at a high limit game as I would at a lower limit game, the math will work out the same, just with a higher return. I’m in the positive for my career at poker, but I know that if you throw me into a high limit poker game, I wouldn’t expect to make the same number of bets per hour as I’ve won at lower limit games. I would most likely get eaten alive at a high limit game. This doesn’t make one game better than the other in my opinion, but I have found that different types of people tend to gravitate to each profession.
3 Calculating your Advantage. The only way to verify that you are a winning poker player is to win more money than you lose over a long period of time. If someone came to me and said they were a professional card counter, I could watch them play for an hour and verify whether they were the real deal or not. Card counting is based off such a concrete system of playing decisions, it is insanely measurable. This is the only way we were able to scale our blackjack team. We took people who didn’t know how to count cards then trained them until we verified their skills. Another way of putting this is that even after losses of $20,000 or more at blackjack, I can look back and know that I made the right decision every hand. Furthermore, I know that those losses cannot even be avoided at times. Whenever I’ve had a losing night at poker, I question every losing hand I played. I might have lost because of me, not because of variance. Conversely, when I win at poker, I can bask in the fact that I outplayed my competition. When I win at blackjack, it had less to do with my psychological prowess, but just that I followed my set of rules properly and the cards happen to follow according to the math. Again, which profession is “better” probably has more to do with personal preference than anything else.
4 Card Counters are Constantly Getting “Fired”. Poker tables gladly invite competition. Casinos, however, only invite suckers to their blackjack tables. As soon as you prove to a casino that you are any serious competition, they will quickly remove you from the playing field. Backoffs are a part of life for card counters. There are things you can do to lower the frequency, but you cannot do anything to completely avoid them. I tell people that when someone starts their blackjack career, it’s like they have hundreds of places of employment. But with each casino backoff, it’s like you are getting fired from one of those places of employment. The most successful card counters I know are constantly looking for new places to play. Many have traveled around the world and will show up on opening day at any new casino in the US. Poker players may travel a lot, but it has more to do with the tournament circuit than because they aren’t welcome anywhere else. There are plenty of poker pros who simply drive to their favorite casino’s game and play it day in and day out without a single thought to how the casino feels about their play.
5 Poker Pros Enjoy Celebrity Status; Blackjack Pros Hide Their Expertise. Sometimes I wish I had chosen to become a poker pro. Then I remind myself I don’t have what it takes to be a poker pro anyway, so I’m just grateful I at least found some way to beat a card game. I dream of walking into a casino and being greeted by both the casino and my fans, all of whom know what I do, and cheer me on for it. Instead, I’ve got casino patrons who think I have a serious gambling problem or that I’m a spoiled rich kid with money burning holes in my pockets. Such is the conflicted life of a card counter; you make your living by doing something the people around you don’t know that you are doing. Every year, I attend the “Blackjack Ball”; an invite-only gathering of many of the top advantage blackjack players in the world. It’s an interesting event because for many of the people attending, it’s the only time they get to discuss their trade. Then again, we card counters tend to be an awkward, antisocial bunch, so there probably aren’t many card counters who would enjoy celebrity status anyway. If bright lights and fame are what you are after, I’d recommend continuing to perfect your craft at the poker tables until you have your big break. If you enjoy subterfuge and the feeling that you’re doing something you aren’t supposed to, then card counting is the perfect outlet!
Colin Jones is one of the card counting pros behind Blackjack Apprenticeship. His blackjack team was featured in the documentary, “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.” When he’s not teaching people how to beat the casinos at blackjack, he is either cheering on his beloved 49ers or working on HatsRCool.com.