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The Blackjack Life

By Henry Tamburin

Nathaniel Tilton was a regular guy with a regular job when he read the book Bringing Down the House. Tilton was in awe of the idea that a group of MIT students was able to beat Vegas for millions. He decided that he wanted to do what the players in that book did. This decision changed his life as he dove headfirst into the life of an elite professional card counter, playing for high stakes on weekends in casinos in Connecticut, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas, while he worked a “regular” 9–5 job during the week. He chronicled his five-year journey into the world of card counting in his new book, The Blackjack Life. Here is an interview I conducted with Nathaniel.


When did you first make the decision to be a card counter?
In November 2005, I attended a card-counting seminar that was taught by Semyon Dukach, a former MIT blackjack team member. Afterwards, a few students agreed to get together to practice the techniques. Initially, we all struggled and most of the students didn’t return for the second practice session. However, I kept trying and eventually my skills improved. It was at that point that I fell in love with the game and wanted to become elite with the craft.


How did you learn blackjack strategies and how long did it take?
I dedicated my free time over 3–4 months to master the individual skills, and it took a few more months to feel comfortable putting them all together. For example, I spent a whole week memorizing the basic playing strategy using flash cards. Eventually, I was able to write down the correct basic strategy decision for 80 random hands, without error, within two minutes. I practiced keeping the running count with a deck of cards daily. Even driving to work, I’d look at the license plate of the car in front of me and keep the count (A36 873 was plus 2, in the Hi-Lo system). I even memorized 100-plus index plays, which are deviations to the basic strategy based on the count. The world became my blackjack table because I was determined to become an expert at the game.


How and when did you first meet your playing partner D. A.?
At Semyon’s seminar. There were about eight students, but he and I connected right away. After others stopped coming to practice, it was just the two of us. We spent hours talking about blackjack, sports, investing, and life.


Were you nervous the first time you and D. A. played blackjack as a card counting team?
No, excited. We had worked very hard at perfecting our skills, and we knew that we were prepared. Back then, we were red-chippers ($5 minimum), playing full tables, and the action moved slower than we expected. It was actually a little anticlimactic.


You were working a regular job during the week and playing blackjack professionally on the weekends without anyone knowing it. How did you manage to keep your clandestine avocation a secret?
My friends were all married with children and I was a bachelor, so my weekends were free. I told some close friends about my blackjack avocation, but I always worried about others thinking that I was just talking a big game. Therefore, I just decided to keep that part of my life to myself. 


What was the reason you formed a two-man team rather than playing solo?
It happened organically, really. It was not my intent to attend Semyon’s seminar to find a teammate and turn pro. However, with a partner, we pushed each other to get better, and I don’t think I would’ve gotten to where I did if I played solo. We also found creative ways to attack the game as a team, rather than individually. Besides, you need someone to high-five after a big win!


Can you briefly describe a few of the playing techniques that you and your partner used when you played?
One technique we used was to strategically position ourselves behind two tables and simultaneously keep the count at both tables as spectators. When the count became favorable, we would enter the game with big bets or signal our partner, who would enter the game with big bets (known as call-ins and wonging). We also signaled at the table while playing and used balanced betting (i.e., wagering different amounts, but having the correct combined wager based on our advantage on the hand). By shifting in and out of these and other strategies that we perfected, we were able to stay under the casino radar and put us over the top. Our goal was to not only master the science of the game but also to master the art of the game. 


How did you communicate with your partner while you were playing?
Hand signals were used for signaling bets and strategy to each other (where one of us was the “gorilla big player,” the one making the big bets). For example, a scratch on the head would be a signal for my partner to enter the game. Code words were used to pass the running count to him for call-ins (e.g., if the running count was 12, the code word was “Drink”). Other phrases were used for everything else. We had our own language and could play for hours, appearing to talk about sports, but really be discussing the entire blackjack game. 


How did you manage to stay under the casino radar for so long?
We were effective in shifting in and out of camouflage strategies. For example, if we were at the same table and the count got high, we would start balancing our bets, rather than chipping up in unison. Then, if a floor supervisor was nearby, we’d make a point that one of us would start a conversation with him while the other began signaling (and that table may have begun with a call-in). We realized that the more variety we employed in disguising our skills, the greater our playing longevity would be.


What was your betting level at the height of your playing career?
Often I would have $20,000 in cash in my pockets and we’d be playing with a $200 unit bet and a $1,200 top bet; however, sometimes we bet higher than that when we felt the risk/reward environment warranted it. On some hands, we would have to double down or pair split and have even more money on the layout riding on the outcome of the hand. We also used the technique of Kelly betting to minimize the risk of losing everything.

What advice would you give someone who is considering playing blackjack professionally?
In order to be elite in anything, you have to dedicate a tremendous amount of your life to it. I was a sponge for everything about blackjack, and I practiced a lot. I mean a lot. It wasn’t enough to be good. Good doesn’t bullet proof you from mistakes, and the edge in blackjack is too small. To play professionally, you need a burning desire to be great.


Why did you decide to write a book about your “blackjack life”?
There were a number of reasons, which is probably why the subtitle of my book is so long*. Most blackjack books are either about big teams or individual play. Finding a team isn’t easy, and solo play seems like a lonely proposition, but I think there are people who want to explore the game with a friend or two. I’m hoping my book can be a resource for that audience. In addition, while I had a public life that many knew, I also led the great secret life that I didn’t share with others. After I stopped playing, I felt like it was time to do so. I also wanted to share with players the virtually undetectable small-team system we created, something that has never before been documented.


*Subtitle of the book is: “A journey through the inner world of card counting, the   lessons of teamwork, and the clandestine pursuit of beating the odds.”

Note: Tilton is writing for my monthly Blackjack Insider Newsletter. You can read more of his playing advice by going to