ATLANTIC CITY – It’s a gray Wednesday afternoon in the city. Five men and a woman are seated around a corner table at Tony’s Baltimore Grill. Their pockets and her purse are stuffed with hundred-dollar bills.
“Everybody ready?” Tommy Hyland asks.
They file out the restaurant door and walk up Iowa Avenue, their target straight ahead.
“Wow … looks like you brought the whole team,” a Tropicana supervisor says with an uneasy smile as Hyland takes a seat at a $100-minimum blackjack table.
She’s on a house phone faster than Hyland can buy $1,500 in chips. Men in dark suits soon appear. “My alarm went off,” one says.
Bob Ferri, the casino manager, knows all about Hyland and his crew. So do most casino bosses in North America.
Hyland & Co. are card counters, professional blackjack UFABet players who use their brains to gain an undisputed mathematical advantage over the house. They’re here on a rare team outing to illustrate why their profession is on the wane.
Ferri knows they can quickly beat Tropicana for tens of thousands of dollars. Over the next 45 minutes, he’ll reach into his bag of regulator-approved tricks to foil and frustrate them.
“Shuffle,” a supervisor commands Hyland’s dealer after he has played just four hands.
“Why are you reshuffling?” Hyland asks, as if he doesn’t know the answer.
“Management decision,” the supervisor replies.
Ferri walks pit to pit, his steely eyes trained on Hyland and colleagues Richard Dougherty, Michelle Gross, Bill Coburn, Andy Anderson and son Andrew Anderson.
Unable to “get a game,” as the counters say, Hyland leaves his table to check on the others. He returns 10 minutes later, finding “reserved” signs at each of the three empty $100 tables.
“They might be coming back,” a supervisor says, referring to patrons that Hyland knows do not exist.
In another pit, Dougherty, Gross and Andy Anderson are seated at a high-limit table. They can’t get a game. Ferri, whispering in the dealer’s ear, orders a shuffle after every hand.
The dealer shuffles slowly. V-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. “Hey! What’s going on here?” an unaware gambler asks. He walks away in disgust.
Three times Dougherty inserts the cut card. Three times Ferri invalidates the move, ruling that “the integrity of the game is jeopardized.”
“We’ve been regulated out of business,” Andy Anderson laments.
But for those new to card counting, Tropicana is actually helpful.
It sells books teaching the practice in its gift shop.
* * *
Tommy Hyland was a political science major at Wittenberg University in Ohio when he picked up a copy of Lawrence Revere’s “Playing Blackjack As A Business.” It was 1978, the same year casino gambling became legal in Atlantic City.
“My roommate and I were fooling around and practicing at it. He was from Ohio so I brought him home and we went down to Atlantic City and practiced it, and gradually I got into it,” Hyland recalls.
Hyland, a 46-year-old Marlton resident, would never get his college degree, instead earning a Ph.D. in card counting. On his own at first, Hyland quickly became a blackjack CEO, overseeing a team of 38 card counters.
“At first anyone who came up and asked, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll teach you. You can play for me,'” Hyland recalls. “But I got a bunch of bad apples. Then I had to look for people who were honest. I figured I could teach anybody who was reasonably intelligent.”
As the clubhouse bartender, Andy Anderson got to know the regulars at Little Mill Country Club in Marlton. One stood out, both for his prowess on the links and for his unusual occupation.
It wasn’t long into his conversations with Hyland that Anderson was hooked on the idea of changing professions.
“I had shot some pool, but I knew the casinos could beat you so you never mess with the casinos,” says Anderson, who lives in Barnegat. “I liked the idea of beating the casinos. I like beating the big guys.”
Richard Dougherty was 18 when Resorts International opened in 1978. Of legal gambling age back then, he took an instant liking to blackjack.
“My uncle heard about it. He was pissed off. He said, ‘If you’re going to do it, talk to this guy at the golf course,'” Dougherty recalls.
Hyland, though, told the boyish Dougherty that he looked too young. A few years later, Dougherty worked his way onto the Hyland team.
It was another Hyland, card-counting sister Sue August, who 12 years ago approached a young law-firm reference librarian named Michelle Gross while in the same church.
“I was kind of looking for something to do and she said, ‘You might like this,'” says Gross, now 34 and living in Medford. “I liked it because it was kind of unusual. It’s pretty exciting. … The great thing is, you can work when you want to and, potentially, make huge amounts of money.”
* * *
“I’m stuck $100,000,” Dougherty says from the road, traveling between Indian casinos in New Mexico and Arizona. “I got most of it back but then they kicked me out. He said, ‘You’re just too good.’
“Indian reservations, we’ve never had any luck with because they’re sovereign nations, so they make their own rules,” he says.
Time and money are the oxygen of card counters, and Dougherty doubts he’ll have enough of either to make up his deficit. Hyland, as he does every six months, will be settling with the team’s many four- and five-figure investors in just three weeks.
Then it’s time to round up new investment dollars and distribute them to the players, who will be dispatched to casinos across North America and the Caribbean.
“A common misconception about a team is (we) all play in the same casino at the same table. We don’t do that,” Hyland says, pointing to the Tropicana visit as the reason.
The players hopscotch over the land for days or weeks, playing alone but playing for the mother team. More players equals more time and a bigger bankroll, the two factors that computers have determined ensures a 1 percent advantage over the casino in the long run.
“If I have $10,000 I can’t afford to bet very much, and if I have a bad streak I could lose my bankroll,” Hyland explains. “But if I have 10 people I could play a $100,000 bankroll.”
Independent players have little margin for a run of bad luck: “I did play on my own for a while – me and another person worked together for about three years,” Gross recalls. “I won a lot, he lost a lot and we quit. I went back to work for the team.”
Every day on the road, teammates whip out their cellular phones to report the daily plus or minus either to Hyland, his wife, Debbie, or to another central location. Trust and honor run deep.
“Tommy Hyland? He’s right at the top,” says Anthony Curtis, a former counter who publishes the Las Vegas Advisor gambling newsletter.
“There are probably three or four really well-known groups out there and Hyland’s group is one of them. They play big money and they’re extremely organized, very successful.”
* * *
Michelle Gross considers herself a good mother, good wife and good citizen with an honorable profession. The job’s a bitch, though.
“I don’t like how you’re treated like a thief,” she says.
Gross and her teammates are featured in the Griffin Book, the worldwide Griffin Investigations database of known casino cheats, scammers, criminals and card counters.
“Obviously it’s not any kind of cheating,” Hyland says of his livelihood. “I’m just using math in my head and information that is freely available.”
If casino bosses don’t recognize Hyland immediately, perhaps their facial-recognition systems will. He and his colleagues are unwelcome wherever they go.
They travel alone to lessen their visibility, spending solitary days hundreds or thousands of miles from home.
“You’re by yourself all the time. You’re always afraid because you’re carrying a huge amount of money,” Anderson says. “If I go into the cocktail lounge to get something to eat, somebody may have seen you in the casino. You’ve always got to watch. Nobody’s been robbed, but I’ve been followed.
“It’s hard to make friends,” Anderson continues. “You can’t say to people, ‘Hey, I’m a card counter.'”
Michelle Gross travels every other week. Only her husband, William Cuff, stays behind, to take care of his seafood business.
“I take my kids on all my trips,” Gross says of Deirdre, 3, and Olivia, 7 months. “We have a nanny who comes with me. She takes them to the pool and plays with them. They like it very much, but my 3-year old is always asking, ‘Did you win?’ and ‘Did they let you play?'”
The money is a daily worry. Hyland’s partners are assured a small base rate if they win, sums reduced by hefty travel expenses. Any substantial income comes from a percentage of their winnings over the six-month investment period.
Hyland doesn’t like to talk money, but allows that he has won between $200,000 and $300,000 in some years. Gross considers $30,000 in income “a bad year.”
“This trip my ex-wife is yelling for me to come home because I haven’t been home to see my son,” Dougherty says from the road in the Southwest. “A 10-day trip turned into 17. I’m now losing but Tommy says, ‘Hang in there.’ I lost $90,000 in one day. If I get stuck at the end, I feel bad.”
Despite the financial uncertainty of his job, Anderson says, “You’re able to live comfortably.”
* * *
Attaching wigs or gluing on mustaches was part of the thrill in their younger days. Today, disguising oneself is a grind. Besides, it’s only marginally effective.
“All the casinos have such high-end facial-recognition technology, and then you have the Griffin agency. Anywhere I go it seems I’m recognized, even small casinos,” Gross laments.
“I know which places I can’t go. I can’t go to Atlantic City, obviously. I can’t go to a Mirage property because for some reason they’re very quick,” she says.
Casinos can share information at lightning speed. More casinos in the hands of fewer companies compounds the problem for counters. The fusion of technology, industry consolidation and regulation is driving them out of the business.
“The only savior for blackjack for me is the expansion – the Indian casinos and Canada,” Dougherty says. “I still have some places to play. A few years ago I had zero – I had to go to places where I’d get thrown out in an hour.”
Nevada casinos can eject card counters at will. It’s the same with most, if not all, Indian casinos. The Atlantic City casinos cannot eject counters, thanks to a 1983 state Supreme Court ruling.
Instead, casinos here frustrate them to death. The casinos can reshuffle at will. They can limit counters to one hand of blackjack while allowing another patron to play two hands. They can limit counters to maximum wager while allowing another patron to exceed it. They can put phony “reserved” signs on chosen seats.
“I think the golden days of blackjack are over,” Hyland says.
Hyland and his colleagues soberly ponder a job in the real world.
“I don’t know what I’d do. In college I thought I would be a teacher,” he says.
Anderson, 55, says his days of playing blackjack for a living are “numbered.” He’s taking the summer off to sell palm trees and produce; a job he says could become full-time.
His son Andrew, 33, recently moved from Voorhees to Breckenridge, Colo., and entered the window-cleaning business. He counts cards maybe once a month these days. “I don’t see it being full-time,” he says.
“I’m a tired player,” Gross says. She works part time for a University of Pennsylvania biostatistician, work that could become her profession.
Dougherty, 42, once had a stint in the car-detailing business but has done little else except play cards in his adult life.
“I’ve made some money betting on football,” he said. “Right now this is a tough thing to do, but I don’t know much else to do, so I’m sticking with it for a while.”