Then comes the hard part. What card counters do memorize are strategy charts that take up to 100 or more hours of intense cramming to master. The best counters practice daily with flash cards, mumbling to themselves, "When do you split a pair of 9s? When the dealer is showing anything from 2 to 9 but not 7."
Q. What is your best play if you have a pair of 7s against the dealer's 10?
A. Hit in Las Vegas, stand in the Bahamas and surrender in Atlantic City.
Surrender does not mean the counter should turn himself in to the security guards. It is but one of several house rules that vary widely, and critically affect the counter's strategy. In Atlantic City the player is allowed to fold his hand and forfeit one half of his bet before the dealer checks his own down card to see if he has blackjack. Called early surrender, it is not to be confused with conventional surrender, the five variations on doubling down or the myriad other adjustments the counter must learn to make if he is to avoid going home in a barrel.
Then comes the really hard part—actually playing. Many are the counters who have perfected their systems at home only to turn into bumbling idiots when real money is on the line. It takes a unique strain of steely-eyed infighter to survive the pressure, suspicion, fatigue, hostile dealers and, worst of all, inevitable losing streaks. If he does survive—if he does not make the common, fatal mistake of trying to recoup a loss by exceeding the bet limit allowed by his bankroll—then and only then the counter may achieve his goal of turning the 1.5% advantage the house has over the average player into a 1.5% advantage for himself.
Provided, that is, the house is not playing the more profitable, and revengeful, game of fleecing the fleecer. To a man, the counters claim that the casinos are guilty of all manner of dastardly tactics including out-and-out cheating. Of course, such accusations are only that, and make a convenient excuse for losing. And, just as vehemently, the casinos deny that they would risk losing their licenses by doing anything underhand. Still, charges of stacked decks, phantom shuffles, doctored drinks and house "mechanics," or crooked dealers, are so often heard that the cloud lingers. In his book Your Best Bet, Mike Goodman, a former Las Vegas casino manager, casually admits that, before a crackdown, some of the Nevada casinos routinely removed 10-value cards from shoes "for years."
The casinos know their quarry's habits well: intense concentration, darting eyes and—the big tip-off—erratic betting patterns. To compensate, the counters make foolish "cover bets" and engage in more evasive actions than a counterspy. Indeed, for the hooked, the intrigue is part of the high. "Make no mistake, gambling is superexciting," says Taft, a blackjack subculture unto himself.
Born Keith Gustin Seidensticker Jr., Taft remembers little of his father, except to say, "Well, the first time he was in prison had something to do with selling undelivered airplane engines through the mails. The next time was for rum-running." Taft's stepfather, whose surname he assumed, was a math teacher at Cut Bank Junior High, and young Keith was the nearsighted kid who was forever building bombs in chem lab and shocking teachers by hot-wiring their classroom doorknobs. He hummed around town in a three-wheel electric car of his own design that featured a tootling exhaust pipe borrowed from a church organ. He also built a stubby-wing airplane with an outboard motor that made it out of the garage and down the driveway but, alas, never got off the ground. "I was a real weirdo," he says.
While attending Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., Taft designed a blimp in which he planned to circumnavigate the earth. Instead, after graduation, he went back to Montana to teach high school physics and music, and build a prototype of the first snowmobile, a huge, growling, tank-like thing that flattened a neighbor's fence. "I couldn't get it out of reverse gear," he says. Eventually he took an engineering manager's job with Raytheon and in 1967 moved to Sunnyvale, which is 40 miles south of San Francisco in the heart of " Silicon Valley," so called because of the concentration of electronic firms in the area.
Then came the fateful lucky-buck trip to Reno in 1969. More than as a handyman's fling, Taft viewed his secret blackjack project as a "new frontier, a chance to break out of an increasingly partitioned world. Whatever the outcome, I felt I could justify all the work involved by the technical knowledge I would gain. Certainly, making additional money was a strong motivation but only insofar as it would buy my freedom to become what I've always wanted to be—an inventor. Call it a Walter Mitty dream, but I saw the gambling computer as my bridge to the independent life."