At the Holiday Inn Express across the street from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, it's business as usual.
A salesman for a valve company checks in before making the rounds of his customers. An executive works on his laptop in the lounge, waiting for the shuttle van.
In Room 327, a pair of businessmen settle in for a daylong seminar. The trainer has set up his materials: a green felt casino tabletop, chips and a six-deck stack of cards.
Welcome to Blackjack Class.
"I want to start treating blackjack as a business, and not something recreational," says Bill, a 39-year-old entrepreneur from Elma.
Like the other student in the class, he agreed to let The Buffalo News sit in on the session as long as his last name wasn't published -- which would surely lead to his banishment from area casinos.
Joe, 48, from Hamburg, says he plays poker for a living, but has never put a dollar in a slot machine or any casino games. "Legalized robbery," he says. "That's what I call it."
That's because casino gambling is almost entirely stacked in the casino's favor. Players might win in the short run, if they can walk away when they get lucky. Over time, though, even the smartest gambling strategies do little more than slow the rate at which players hand over their money.
Card counting changes that, says David Irvine, their teacher, who worked his way through college as a member of the famed MIT Blackjack Team. "Do I think that blackjack the way we play it is gambling? No," he says. "Investing in a stock is a much bigger gamble than playing blackjack, if you're trained properly."
>Millions through math
There have been plenty of "systems" advertised over the years to guarantee gamblers an edge, most offering only the illusion of success. But in the early 1990s, a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology applied higher math to Las Vegas-style blackjack, and found a way to make it pay.
By counting the number of 10s, aces and face cards played, they calculated the odds on the remaining cards. A deck rich in high cards favors the players, who can earn more by hitting blackjack, and limits the house, because dealers go over 21, or "bust," more often.
By increasing the size of bets when the deck is favorable, a player can turn the odds in their favor.
The MIT students didn't invent card counting; they just turned it into an industry. They trained as a team and ended up winning millions of dollars before being banned from the casinos. Since card counting is simply observing play closely, it is not against the law. Most casinos, however, can refuse to let anyone gamble.
A book on the MIT Blackjack Team's exploits, "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions," won them wider fame. Actor Kevin Spacey is adapting "Bringing Down the House" into a movie, and Irvine was featured on a recent episode of HBO's "Real Sports."
Irvine formed a company called the Blackjack Institute with another team member. For $5,000 he'll come teach you the system, which is how he ended up in Cheektowaga.
These days, Irvine's main job is putting his MIT engineering degree to use working on Department of Defense disarmament programs. He's married and has a baby girl, which is just as well now that the wigs and fake glasses don't fool the casino security that often. Irvine has earned a spot on casino watch lists. He carries a copy of the security alert issued with his face on it, shot from an overhead casino security camera.
But not all of the attention he gets is hostile.
"I've had security guys say to me, 'You can't play here any more. But if you have time, would you like to go to lunch?' "
Casinos have caught on to the tactics that allowed the team to win big, but there's still enough advantage left to make training worthwhile, Irvine said.
"It's not a get-rich-quick scheme, but if you learn how to count cards, you can stop losing money," says Irvine. A few hours of instruction, followed by a few months of practice and memorization, and focused students should be able to make their Las Vegas vacations pay, he says.
Do it wrong -- like "999 out of 1,000" would-be card counters -- and you'll only go broke faster, Irvine says.
In the Cheektowaga hotel room, Irvine's got a green casino felt stretched over a table, and is dealing Jim and Bill hand after hand, stopping to ask, "What's the count?"
The players are staring at a chart that outlines basic blackjack strategy, which most veteran blackjack players know by heart. The other side bears a list of situations where counters deviate from the generic strategy, depending on the count.
That's one of the main ways casinos catch on to counters. Standard play dictates that a gambler holding 16 versus a dealer's 10 "hits," or asks for another card. A counter may refuse another card, or "stand," depending on their analysis of the deck.
"That's a numbers play that's going to make you unpopular at the table," Irvine warns. Many blackjack players are so tuned to playing basic strategy that they sometimes criticize other players' decisions, including taking cards that should have been "theirs."
That sort of illogical attitude helps casinos make money.
"I like to play cards, but I don't like to gamble, if you know what I mean," says Bill, who has won up to $42,000 at a single tournament. He's spent plenty of nights in the Seneca Niagara Casino's poker room, mostly with high-limit players he knows, hoping "for a couple of fish to come in and donate four or five grand."
Poker is about playing against other people, an easier opponent than the relentless odds of table games or slot machines.
"If you count cards at blackjack, they say you can turn that edge around," Bill says. "We'll see."
The basic ideas behind the MIT system are relatively simple.
1. Keep track of the 10s, face cards and aces as they're played.
2. Compare that number to the number of decks remaining.
3. Use that ratio to calculate your bet.
The Blackjack Institute system offers a series of memory aids and methods to make doing the math in your head simpler. It's not the only card-counting system gamblers use, but it's gotten the most publicity.
Doing those things in your head, on the fly, during a fast-paced casino game takes practice -- lots of practice. Irvine recommends his students stay away from casinos for at least two or three months while they get the system down pat.
Don't bother with the Canadian casinos, Irvine says -- they use "continuous shuffle" machines that make counting impossible.
-- Andrew Galarneau