Memoir

A Casino Card Shark’s First Time Getting Caught

As a struggling grad student, I happened upon a lucrative side hustle with an elite team of card-counters—and found the community I'd been looking for.

A Casino Card Shark’s First Time Getting Caught

I had just placed another $100 bet when the man in a dark suit, flanked by two larger men in darker suits, approached me from behind. I pretended not to see them coming, relaxing my posture against the plush back of the velvet chair. My heart raced, but I kept my breath even and my gaze focused on the ordered diagram of cards scattered across the red felt. It was my third month as a professional card counter, and I was about to be kicked out of a casino for the first time.

I could have been any young woman dressed for a Saturday night out in Las Vegas: makeup done, skin bronzed, little black dress hugging my petite frame, my grandmother’s vintage fur shrug draped around my shoulders. But at least one of the men approaching had seen something in me—beyond my appearance. He knew who I really was.

Counting cards isn’t illegal, but a casino, like any business, has the right to refuse service to anyone. I know players who have been handcuffed, searched and dragged into windowless back rooms. More often, the countermeasures are subtler. A floorman will instruct the dealer to shuffle when a certain player raises his bets, or restrict every wager to the table minimum. Whatever their methods, most casinos do their best to ensure that long-term winners at the game of blackjack are never welcome for long.

As the men drew closer, I held out hope that this could be another false alarm. About a month earlier, I’d been at the table right next to one of my teammates, Carlo, when he was pulled away by a few security guards. Carlo had been showcasing a new act as the Big Player: wearing his pink sequined blazer and top hat, sauntering around the pit as if it were a catwalk. Our Big Players naturally drew attention with their wagers in the thousands. Carlo had a unique talent for distracting the floormen from his betting strategy with an outlandish look, audacious personality quirks, or in this case, both.

When Carlo got the tap on the shoulder, I resisted the urge to turn and watch the commotion behind me.

“Sir, we need you to come with us,” a stern voice said.

“Darling, I’d love to but I do have dinner reservations, so…”

Carlo’s voice blended with the cacophony of casino noise as he moved further away, the befuddled guards trailing behind him. I stayed in my seat, clutching my club soda and mourning the absence of vodka in it. I played another ten minutes, then left to join the rest of my crew at our meeting spot. I moved at a leisurely pace toward the main entrance, pausing once to ask a stranger for directions, and glancing quickly behind me for any followers.

After the initial wave of relief subsided, I felt a twinge of disappointment. Along with Carlo, the other two players in our session had been approached and “backed off”—meaning they were informed by management that they could no longer play blackjack at this casino. I was the only one who’d gotten out clean.

“I don’t get it. I had three call-ins, and I was alone at the table for one of them. How could they miss me?” I complained.

We were in Carlo’s car, finishing our post-session meeting. Carlo looked at me as if I were speaking another language.

“You know that a Spotter is supposed to blend in, right?” he reminded me. “Staying incognito is like your superpower.”

He was right. I should have been grateful for my natural ability to be overlooked and underestimated. But as the youngest of three sisters, and the smallest among my peers, I had yet to overcome a lifetime of struggling to be seen. In high school, my sister was the captain of the cheerleaders, always surrounded by friends and admirers. I had spent my free time alone reading, or composing unsent letters to an unrequited crush. I daydreamed about a post-college future when popularity wouldn’t matter anymore. But even as an adult, I was still known in my hometown as “Traci’s little sister.”

After college, I spent two years bouncing around temporary gigs before returning to the only thing in life that made sense: school. When I started the MFA program at the University of Arizona, I was happy to slow down and retreat from the fast-paced city life I’d tried and failed to build. But my first semester didn’t go as smoothly as I’d planned. I spent hours in my favorite coffee shop, watching the sun set over the mountains and waiting for creative inspiration that never materialized. Finding my voice as a writer felt like treading through quicksand. I agonized over every word, revising and rewriting the same few stories that never felt complete.

When I wasn’t chosen for a graduate teaching assistantship, which would have provided a boost to my résumé and a nice supplement to the student loans I lived on, I thought that maybe grad school had been a mistake. But if I didn’t fit into the world of academia, I wasn’t sure where I belonged.

During winter break I went to visit my close friend, Jo, in San Jose. After a few glasses of wine, she proposed a solution for my cash-flow problems.

“I’ve been working with some people who have a system for beating blackjack,” she said.

“People don’t beat blackjack,” I insisted. “That’s not how gambling works.”

As she explained the basics of card counting, Jo’s green eyes sparked with a familiar, contagious energy that inspired me to believe her.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I think you could be really good at this,” she said.

She told me that the team would provide the funds to gamble with, as well as room and board for a weekend in Vegas. They invited new recruits based on two main criteria: “You just need to know someone on the team, and you have to pass their tests,” she said.

I was intrigued by the idea of meeting this mysterious group, and excited by the challenge of learning something new. Over the next few months I memorized the strategy charts Jo had given me, and practiced counting down six decks of cards in less than three minutes. When I got the call to book my flight, I didn’t feel as confident or prepared as I thought I should be, but I wasn’t concerned. If this doesn’t work out, I thought, at least I’ll have a good story to tell.

A gruff, bearded man who introduced himself as Henry picked me up from the airport and took me straight to the team’s headquarters: a grey house on a suburban cul-de-sac nowhere near the Strip. From the entryway, I heard a low murmur of voices mixed with a soft, continuous clicking that I would soon recognize as the sound of casino chips shuffling and stacking together. There wasn’t a single TV in the house, but every room had a blackjack table with three to five players hovered around it, practicing.

Due to the intense level of secrecy in the business, the team called Nemesis provided no printed training manuals or handouts. Jo hadn’t even told me the team’s name (which I’ve changed, along with all names of people mentioned in this story, to protect their privacy). She had given me a brief explanation of the role I would play and their main strategy for winning money from casinos.

As a Spotter, I’d keep a low profile, betting the table minimum while counting cards until I pinpointed the moment when the deck became favorable, and then I’d signal for the Big Player (BP) to join my game and he would vary his bets from a few hundred to a few thousand per hand. The BP was always betting big and switching tables, which made his action more difficult for surveillance teams to track.

But before I could join the action in the casinos, I had to prove my skills in a controlled setting. Rayna, one of the team’s managers, audited my first table test, while Henry dealt the cards.

“You need to be focused without seeming focused,” Rayna said, her lips curled up in her signature half-smile.

My face remained calm, but my legs jiggled beneath the casino-quality blackjack table in the family room. Henry slapped cards down one at a time in a blur across the felt, pausing only for my hand signals.

“You have to do so many things, right?” Rayna continued. “I mean, you’re playing perfect basic strategy on every hand, watching for any dealer errors, and of course, keeping an accurate count the whole time.”

All available players provided a stream of random distractions for every test, trying to replicate the noise and chaos of the casino.

As I played a hand, a lanky, dark-haired guy wearing only jeans sidled up to take my drink order.

“Um…” I knew I had to answer, but I couldn’t speak.

“Miss, hit or stand?”

Henry tapped the felt with one finger. If I gave a hand signal, he’d whip out more cards and I could miss key information. I took a breath and locked the count in my head: thirteen, thirteen, thirteen.

I ordered my drink, then a few seconds later, Carlo introduced himself as a casino host, asking if I’d like to book a dinner reservation.

The distractions kept coming, and the count kept moving, seventeen, eighteen, twenty, eighteen. Henry kept blurting out random numbers, and Rayna never stopped talking.

I failed the test about halfway through. And the one after that, and the one after that. I lost track of how many times and different ways I failed. But I wouldn’t be able to join the team until I passed this test. So I kept trying.

I met a rotation of characters who breezed through the house at all hours, trying on various disguises, telling animated stories from the trenches: how much they’d won or lost, which players had been backed off, who was still in action. Most players for Nemesis weren’t full-time gamblers. They were professors, accountants, actors, musicians and a few other students like me. They were misfits living double lives, and succeeding at both. I didn’t know these people yet, but I wanted to be one of them.

When I finally passed the test, I barely had time to celebrate the milestone—it was time to play for real.

My first live session was in a small, off-strip casino where the table max was only $500. I settled in among the calm crowd of elderly locals, confident that I knew what to do, but unsure exactly how it would happen. Henry approached my table moments after I sent the call-in signal. As the BP, his smooth swagger and goofy grin projected the easy confidence of a man who is used to trading money for attention. The floormen saw him as the whale they expected him to be. They humored him and shook his hand while he emptied the dealer’s rack and I sat back, happy to be invisible.

That weekend I gained some solid experience at the tables, and made my first profit as a professional gambler. I came home with a touch of residual culture shock, but my mind felt clear and energized from the mental marathon I’d been through. When I sat down to write, I was no longer paralyzed with self-doubt. I wasn’t thinking of failure, I just wanted to keep trying.

I booked a full schedule of blackjack trips for my summer break. I met up with teammates in Lake Tahoe, Atlantic City, Chicago, then back in Vegas. With each trip my counting skills grew stronger, but I wanted to master the art of “getting down,” or winning consistently without arousing suspicion.

On a team like Nemesis, being barred from a game or eighty-sixed from a casino wasn’t a remote possibility; it was inevitable. When you win enough at high stakes, no matter how great your act is, most casinos will stop taking your action. Still, the best players managed to get down for years, despite dozens of prior back-offs. I wanted to become one of them.

According to Carlo, the key to getting down for as long as possible is to tell a convincing story. Carlo’s rotation of disguises weren’t just frivolous costume changes. He would build a whole persona around a fake beard or French accent. He knew infinite details about their career, their childhood, even their favorite foods. Most importantly, he knew what drove them to gamble. Some people play to release bottled emotions. Others just want to relieve their boredom. Then there are the addicts, driven by the promise of some indescribable rush.

“You have to really believe in who you are and where you’re coming from,” Carlo told me. Because the best surveillance teams look out for the one quality that separates card counters from other gamblers: we play to win.

I started creating my own persona for every trip. Having an arsenal of prepared responses helped me deal with the constant barrage of small talk from randoms who loved chatting up the young woman gambling alone. An honest answer to, “Where are you from?” would often lead down a rabbit hole of follow-ups. It’s unusual for someone from Arizona to vacation in Atlantic City, for instance. So I became Sheri, from New York, who was there for a bachelorette party, but had somehow lost track of my friends.

The more I played, the more invincible I was. I knew it was probably due more to luck than my innate talent for getting down, but by the end of the summer I was the only player on the team who had never been backed off. Toasting plastic cups of Dom Perignon in a crowded hotel room somewhere outside Chicago, I laughed and gloated about my powers of invisibility. But part of me worried that I wasn’t seen as enough of a threat to warrant intervention from casino management. Maybe it meant that I wasn’t as good at this as I thought. Maybe I didn’t belong with the team after all.

Labor Day weekend would be my last trip of the summer, back to Las Vegas. I played my last session of the weekend in a quiet high limit room, tucked away from the endless stream of tourists, bachelor parties, honeymooners and wanderers who come to Vegas for the shopping, the shows, or the all-you-can-eat buffet.

I was wearing my fake engagement ring, pouting my way through every hand. My fiancé and I had gotten into an argument over dinner, and I’d escaped before he started to make a scene. The dealer had given up on his attempts at friendly banter after I shot back a few snappy remarks and a pointed glare.

Carlo was betting stacks of orange chips we called “pumpkins,” up to $10,000 per hand. He wore thick glasses and a thin mustache, and his businesslike demeanor didn’t quite match his erratic behavior, bouncing from table to table every few minutes. At mine he had lost, pulling wads of cash out of many hidden pockets, but his luck finally seemed to be turning around.

There were no warning signs, no discernable heat. I looked up between hands and saw a dark-suited trio of men surrounding Carlo’s table, as a matching set barreled towards me. Carlo caught my eye and scratched his nose, the signal for EOS, or “end of session.”

But it was too late.

The suit stopped a few inches from my shoulder and spoke into my ear. He introduced himself as the assistant shift manager and handed me a business card. I squinted down at the card, not sure what to do with it. The man’s relaxed demeanor and the civility of this whole interaction were all wrong.

He said, “We can’t allow you to play anymore blackjack.”

I don’t know what I expected out of this confrontation, but it wasn’t professionalism and politeness. Maybe this was a ploy to get me to let my guard down before grilling me for information. I remembered my training instructions: Admit nothing. Don’t argue. Don’t make any sudden movements.

“OK,” I said, as I reached down to gather my chips. “May I ask why?”

His next statement came slowly, as if he were making it up as he went along.

“Your…style of play is…unprofitable…to the casino.”

I kept eye contact, furrowing my brow. “It’s a business decision, you understand.” He finished with a smirk and a slight nod.

The accusation was left unspoken, but I heard it loud and clear. I’d worked so hard to become a chameleon, a forgettable face in the crowd, but at this moment, I knew I could drop the façade and be myself. My nervousness dissolved like the bubbles in my club soda. I was surrounded by several large men, two of them possibly armed, yet I didn’t feel vulnerable or afraid anymore. I felt powerful, as if I was the one in control. A sense of calm settled over me, despite my quickening heartbeat. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I knew exactly what I was doing.