Gambling has got to be a slam dunk exciting premise for films. Once again, mathematician, computer scientist, engineer — and part-time gambler — Salvador Cordova joins fellow engineer and Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks to talk about gambling and probability — how hard math types (advantage players) like himself have beaten the odds without cheating. And, this time, they discuss how their skills while working together can wind up as a movie. From Robert J. Marks in Card Counting Strategies and Dangers (podcast):
This portion begins at 00:23 min. A partial transcript and notes, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.
Robert J. Marks: Have you ever taken advantage of your skills embedding with other people? …
Sal Cordova: Yes. Team play.
Robert J. Marks: Now there have been a few movies made about card counting. One is 21 , with Kevin Spacey. If I remember the movie right, he was a professor and he was training some people on how to card count:
Bringing Down the House: Robin Hood meets the Rat Pack when the best and the brightest of M.I.T.’s math students and engineers take up blackjack under the guidance of an eccentric mastermind. Their small blackjack club develops from an experiment in counting cards on M.I.T.’s campus into a ring of card savants with a system for playing large and winning big. In less than two years they take some of the world’s most sophisticated casinos for more than three million dollars. But their success also brings with it the formidable ire of casino owners and launches them into the seedy underworld of corporate Vegas with its private investigators and other violent heavies. – Simon & Shuster (2003)
How advantage players use team play (it’s not just a movie)
Sal Cordova: They got people from MIT, and also Harvard School of Business, to be card counters and they had the bank roll. So the idea is, if you have numerous people betting smaller, the Law of Large Numbers, helps you. Again, the Kelly criterion … But it was also to disguise their betting patterns.
Robert J. Marks: So that they were more stealth in what they did.
Sal Cordova: Oh, this was clever. It was the Big Player model. You’d have some guy who would sit at the table and his job was to count. And when the count was very high, when the shoe was hot, he would signal… This Big Player would walk around and he would see it. And it’s like, wow. And so, you had the card counter sitting there…
Robert J. Marks: And he’s not winning anything…
Sal Cordova: Maybe he’s betting $25. So the Big Player comes in and just throws a $20,000 bet.
Robert J. Marks: But because he is new, there’s no track record of what he bets. And so they think, “Ah, this could be normal… ”
Sal Cordova: Right. He’d wander in to the table and, if he is a good actor, he’ll just be throwing all this money. And the Law of Large Numbers would start. You’d have to do this process quite a bit but it started to rake in the money.
And so they kind of avoided the problem of surveillance at one level, because they would be focusing on the guy just sitting there the whole time. And that was one form of team play.
Robert J. Marks: Now, have you ever participated in team play?
How Sal Cordova has used team play — and ooh la la!
Sal Cordova: Not at that scale. Because I was a marked man, I had a female team player and I would be signaling to her.
Robert J. Marks: Now, is this when you were dressed up as a pimp and she was one of your girls?
Sal Cordova: Yes.
Robert J. Marks: Okay. So here comes the pimp and his girl?
Sal Cordova: And there are other advantages to that, because surveillance cameras are from the top. And, not that I ever got her to do this, but… ideally you would kind of like her to have a very low cut dress. And you hope that the surveillance guys would be made…
Robert J. Marks: Distracted? Are you serious? There’s lots of psychology in this, isn’t there?
Sal Cordova: I was at a table once and this woman was practically showing really too much — it was the talk of the pit bosses, especially a female pit boss: “Did you see that girl sitting there?” And I could just kind of just blast away. I’d be “the invisible man.”
Robert J. Marks: Really. So, it was like [you were] a magician and she was your distraction.
Sal Cordova: Oh yeah! I didn’t worry about being surveilled.
Sometimes, if you’re a card counter, you don’t want to display your skill level. Sometimes you deliberately not play to your full maximum. The guy playing at his full maximum would be going to be betting from five to $1,500 and it’s going to be so obvious you’re skilled.
So I had the female partner there and … okay, I’m an Asian male. I look scholarly. I’m going to be target. She looked just like an ordinary person. And I’d signal her discreetly. It would be a verbal cue. Depending on what I would say, she’d know to raise or, or lower her bets.
Robert J. Marks: Oh, was she playing simultaneously with you? So it wasn’t one after the other, like in the Kevin Spacey movie, it was both of you playing?
Sal Cordova: Right, that’s the Big Player model. There’s a book called The Big Player by Ken Uston.  He was an executive of the Pacific Stock Exchange. So there again, you have that connection to what we call the “real casino,” which is the stock market versus the brick and mortar. He was the one that started the Big Player model, and then the MIT team started to copy it.
Robert J. Marks: But how did they know that she wasn’t card counting if you were sitting at the same place?
Sal Cordova: They’d eventually figure it out, but a woman is usually… I know this sounds so sexist, but she’s usually not suspected of card counting. Because women are known to be intuitive and most of the card counters are almost dominantly male. So she didn’t fit the demographic profile.
So yeah, I’d be signaling her and it was fun because then… I didn’t worry about… they never got her on it.
Robert J. Marks: But they got you.
Sal Cordova: Oh, they got me as a solo player. I didn’t get to have that partner very often, but it was fun…
But the trick was we had all these marketing coupons. The marketing coupons would be much larger than our disadvantage. That was one of the advantage plays we would use. That’s where I was getting these 20% loss rebates. But those were toward the ends of my casino days.
Do card counters get beaten up, as in the movie Rounders?
Robert J. Marks: You know, there was another movie about card counting called Rounders, with Matt Damon and Edward Norton. They got caught card counting and some thugs took them out in the back and beat them up.
Robert J. Marks: Did you ever get beat up or do you know of anybody that got beat up? Does that happen or is that pure fiction?
Sal Cordova: It doesn’t happen this much in this day and age…
Robert J. Marks: “This much?” Now, you left the door open for it possibly happening…
Sal Cordova: I haven’t known of anyone in Las Vegas because of all the surveillance cameras. And they don’t need to hurt anyone. They just ban them from the casinos. Now it’s facial recognition.
They could just make sure they never come through the doors. So that’s how they’re able to deal with them.
The darker side of the casino trade
Sal Cordova: But in the old days, when the mob owned the casinos…
Robert J. Marks: Oh, this would be like in the Thirties and Forties. And Fifties…
Sal Cordova: Even in the early Sixties. You did not want to be winning too much or they’d be on to you. If you were doing something, they could beat you up, then. Now, the one incident I know of Kenny Uston getting beat up was when he was insulting a dealer. And the mob actually took offense and they beat him up for that.
Now I will tell you this. I can’t speak for the other countries, how the casinos are run there. There’s some places that are nice to play on, but you may not want to be there, because you don’t know how you’ll be treated. Like, some of these gambling boats that go out, the captain is the law out in the sea. And I heard that they’ll threaten to throw you overboard. Or they’ll keel haul you. Have you ever heard of that? They take you and they put you on one side of the boat, and drag you under the boat to the other side.
One advantage player at a boat I love playing — and I made money on that boat — they discovered this guy was an advantage player. They may have flyered him, meaning they circulated his photo. It got to the surveillance team… But anyway, he won a lot of money and they said, “No, we determined you’re a card counter. We’re going to take all your winnings and all your chips.”
And he protested. And the captain said, “You protest, we’re going to throw you overboard.” So they took all of his money that he won legally. But because they took the money when he was out in the open ocean….
Robert J. Marks: So it’s international law, probably a law of their own.
Sal Cordova: Right. A law of their own. He got back [but] he didn’t have any of his money.
Next: The Holy Rollers: Christians who gamble for God (despite all this)
Note: This information is intended for math nerds and people entertained by probability theory and statistics. It is not directed at anyone who has a gambling addiction. For help, see Gamblers Anonymous.
Here are the writeups (with partial transcripts, notes, and links) of all the podcasts with gambling maven Sal Cordova:
Gambling: WHY the house always wins in the long run… The casinos are not cheating. They rely on the Law of Large Numbers, part of the mathematical structure underlying our universe. Robert J. Marks and fellow engineer and mathematician Sal Cordova look at the many creative methods gamblers use to improve their odds.
Casinos: How nerds gamble and win, using the Law of Large Numbers The American Physical Society created Las Vegas’s worst week in history and Don Johnson cleaned out Atlantic City. How? Sal Cordova explains to Robert J. Marks how nerd gamble and win, mainly by deciding whether to play at all and, if so, how to manipulate the house’s strategies.
The struggle between casinos and advantage players The scene is enlivened by assorted other characters who use romance to help in the struggle for a big win. Sal Cordova explains. Often the advantage player, who astounds us by seemingly beating probability, is taking advantage of the casino’s upper management’s weaknesses.
Can casinos ban would-be customers who might get TOO “lucky”? Sal Cordova was good enough at card counting that his photo was circulated and the casino nabbed his driver’s licence… But as casinos slowly eliminate loopholes, “math whiz” advantage players seem to find others.
Can you really be a card counter without resorting to magic? Math nerd (and successful gambler) Salvador Cordova explains how card counters improve their odds in blackjack. Successful card counting strategy originated in a theory out of Bell Labs and also found its way into hedge fund management.
Probability: Now for the basic arithmetic of card counting… The advantage player who dresses like a bum (or worse) has it all worked out, in part with the help of a computer at home. Sal Cordova tells Robert J. Marks that mathy pro gamblers could retire after a year, using the Exponential Growth Law, but casinos spot them and kick them out.
Gambling: And when advantage players team up, dealer beware! On the other hand, the movie industry has made a good thing from films of the legendary exploits. Sal Cordova details for Robert J. Marks odd strategies he and other advantage players use to win via the Law of Large Numbers — until they’re found and ejected.
The Holy Rollers: Christians who gamble for God. Not only have many successful players been Christians, probability theory was developed in part by a philosopher who became a devout Christian. Strange as it might seem, the successful Rollers were not really “gambling”; they followed the Law of Large Numbers — and the computer — obediently.
- 00:07 | Introducing Sal Cordova
- 00:23 | Team Play
- 09:47 | The Big Player Model
- 15:47 | Holy Rollers
- 22:47 | Pascal and Gambling
- 26:17 | Final Question: Should you count cards?
- Thorp, Edward. “A favorable strategy for twenty-one.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 47.1 (1961): 110.
- More information on Keith Taft
- More on the movie 21
- More on the movie Rounders
- Who was Blaise Pascal?
- More on the movie Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians