BOOK REVIEW / Hard work for easy money, when the chips go down: The money-spinners - Jacques Black: Faber & Faber, pounds 12.99

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The Independent Online
CAN you make money in a casino? Well, yes. The best way is to own one. Even then, with the odds all running in your favour, it is necessary to work hard at it. Quite a few casinos go bust through slack or greedy management.

Roulette, queen of casino games, is the favoured game of British gamblers. I know of three ways to beat it. First is simply to get lucky by hitting your number at odds of 35-1, cash in the chips and then run for the exit. Cop and hop, in the argot of cockney punters.

The second way of winning at roulette is to fix the wheel. It has been done on occasion, as the author of this mathematical memoir on trying to win in casino games reveals. On a recent visit to a London casino, one player, described as a mystery woman, kept on betting the same series of numbers, which kept on coming up, netting her a six-figure sum in the process. Her success, against all the laws of probability, aroused the suspicions of the management. Further inspection revealed that the tension screws holding the numbers ring in place had been tampered with, to tilt the wheel.

The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, back in the 1890s, probably applied a very similar method, using ocular means. He studied the run of numbers over a few nights' play, in order to pick out the statistical blips, which would occur through tiny mechanical irregularities. But today casinos take care to ensure

that their wheels are always properly balanced.

The third way of winning at roulette is to have a micro-computer concealed in your shoe, which calculates the speed and trajectory of the ball when the croupier spins it, and predicts where it is likely to land up. It then transmits, in a matter of micro-seconds, a signal to a confrere at the table, who plonks down his bets accordingly.

This ingenious system is no different, in principle, from calculating the trajectory of a moon rocket. A casino engineer in Reno, who had worked in the space programme before joining the gaming industry, informed me that casinos are more careful than the military, because their money is on the line.

Unfortunately, as revealed in an amusing book titled the Newtonian Casino, which recorded this experiment in winning at roulette by a group of technocrats in California, there is so much static in casinos that it interferes with the electronics. But just to be on the safe side, Nevada casinos have since made the use of computers illegal.

The only game that players can legitimately win, by a complicated process of counting the value of the cards of every hand, as dealt, is blackjack or twenty-one. The Money-Spinners rehearses in detail the experience of the experts in this field. Very few counters, however, even when mathematically perfect, can make a living at the game. There is too much heat from casinos, which either shuffle up the deck before the count can be established, or, more likely, just sling the player out. 'Go count the spots on the dice, fella.'

It was nave of the author, who discreetly calls himself Jacques Black, who has a first from Oxford and is now a management consultant, to suppose that he could make a life for himself (as opposed to a living) at blackjack. It is far too boring to go on and on, mechanically counting down the decks in order to exploit a minimal edge. A dedicated and successful counter of my acquaintance told me the other day that his advantage in London is pared down to one-third of 1 per cent. He spends a lot of time playing in France.

The Money-Spinners draws judiciously on a variety of well-known gambling sources, but does not have very much that is at all new to say. The implication of the sub-title - 'How professional gamblers beat the casinos at their own game' - is not quite an infringement of the Trade Descriptions Act, but it is not to be taken literally.

Gambling in casinos yields great pleasure, certainly, but the odds cannot be beaten in the long run. It is only when the player can deliberately turn the odds in his favour - by judgement and experience - that gambling becomes profitable.

That applies to poker, backgammon, gin rummy and similar games of skill. But as far as straight casino gambling goes, there is no such thing as easy money.