Arnold Snyder Blackjack Hall of Fame Inductee

Arnold Snyder is unquestionably one of the most significant gambling authors of all time. His books have changed the way both players and casinos approach the game of blackjack and his writing style is easily one of the most engaging and entertaining in a field that's know to produce textbook dry literature. Arnold have very kindly agreed to take some time out of working on his latest projects (including a new website and a second novel) to answer some questions for us.

It’s common knowledge that you’re one of the world’s foremost experts on Blackjack. You’re one of the original members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, you revolutionised Card Counting with your work on deck penetration, you were one of the first to realise that big simplifications in counting system made relatively insignificant changes to bottom line profit and you published what has to be considered one of the best explorations of Shuffle Tracking in print today. In short, your input to the world of Blackjack has changed the game forever. What isn’t widely known is how you came to be involved in such an unusual field? What first lead you to gambling and how did you move into Advantage Play? Did you have a mentor that taught you about Advantage Play or are your skills self-taught?

I was pretty much self-taught, except that I was fortunate to have correspondence with many of the early pioneers of card counting—Stanford Wong, Peter Griffin, Julian Braun, Ken Uston, Steve Forte. To some extent all of them and more were mentors. The thought of making a living by gambling in a casino appealed to me so I studied the available literature and started playing at low stakes to train myself.

Whilst you advanced the public understanding of Card Counting substantially, my suspicion is that much of your actual play involved techniques that required a greater mastery of the game than Card Counting. Without giving anything away that would damage any currently available opportunities, could you tell us about some of the more interesting plays you’ve been involved in?

I became interested in shuffle tracking in the early 80s, probably from discussions with Steve Forte, especially after I learned about the shuffle tracking computers that Keith Taft and a few others had developed. I kept my eyes open for house shuffles that would be easy to track and I found many. There was a little casino in Stateline called the Lakeside Inn that had a trackable double-deck game. The house shuffle consisted of the dealer shuffling one deck, then the other, then stacking them without mixing them together. I had only a couple hundred bucks on me, but I sat down to play and spreading my bets from $5 to $25, I won about $1500 in a few hours. Then I got booted out. I learned from that experience that even if you don’t look like a card counter, if you just keep winning for hours on end, the casino will kick you out anyway.

You’ve no doubt had many exciting experiences at the tables. Can you tell us about some of the more unusual or memorable ones?

The most fun I ever had playing blackjack was on a table that I knew was under surveillance, but the casino didn’t know I knew. This was at the Atlantis in Reno in the late 90s. They had a very easy to track shoe game and I had beaten them on two prior trips. On this trip I was up again by a fairly substantial amount for my bet size. I was basically spreading my bets from a single black chip to a couple hands of a five or six hundred each. I was tracking the shuffle so my bets weren’t following the count and I felt pretty safe. Never felt any heat at all. I was on a full rfb comp.

On the morning I was planning to leave, I stopped at my table—and I had a reserved table that weekend for playing at that level—and the dealer was waiting for the floor man to unlock his check rack. The dealer was in a grumpy mood because the boss had just told him that he’d better make no mistakes because his table was being filmed by surveillance that morning. He thought the casino manager was trying to catch him making mistakes and he was pissed off. He’d been a dealer for 20 years and now they’re treating him like a rookie.

I quickly realized that it wasn’t him they were watching, it was me. That was my reserved table. My immediate thought was that I should just get my bags and check out. Then it struck me that I had an opportunity to put on a show with them thinking I knew nothing about the table being filmed. For the next hour, I played crazier than I’d ever played—paid no attention to the count or the shuffle, just raised and lowered my bets haphazardly and played most of my hands wrong. Inexplicably, I won a couple thousand dollars just out of pure luck. Then I left, laughing to myself at the surveillance crew trying to figure out what kind of strategy I was using.

An aspect of Advantage Play that any serious player ultimately has to get a handle on is variance – the substantial swings that can occur before a player reaches the point of guaranteed profit. Over your career as a player how did you deal with the swings? Was there a specific mind-set that you developed early on or have you always been able to cope with the ups and downs?

I was always practical when it came to sizing my bets and never played with money I couldn’t afford to lose. One of the first books I read on blackjack was Allan Wilson’s Casino Gambler’s Guide and he described what standard deviation meant to a gambler very clearly. For years, I played at the $1 and $2 minimum tables, knowing I was playing just for fun, because I knew I didn’t have the bankroll to play at higher stakes. I never had ups and downs I couldn’t afford. I’m not really much of a gambler at heart.

Alongside variance, successful Advantage Players have to develop a talent for reading the mood of the dealers, pit bosses and floor managers in the casinos they play in (often referred to as ‘heat’). No casino wants players at their table that can consistently beat them and they will normally take restrictive action to either make their games unattractive or to physically remove the player from the casino. Can you tell us a little about your experiences at the table and how you developed coping strategies for managing heat?

I was always paranoid at the tables and always watching the floor men, bosses, and even the dealers for any signs that I was under suspicion. Suspicion always comes before heat. After a while, you learn to recognize suspicion pretty quickly. You see the boss glancing over at you when he’s talking on the house phone. You see a floor man circle around behind you to watch from over your shoulder. For some reason, pit personnel think you can’t hear them when they talk among themselves in the pit and they’ll start talking about you right out loud to each other. I rarely got heat because if I couldn’t get rid of their suspicions, I would just leave the table and go find another game, probably at another casino.

Undoubtedly you will have been asked to leave some casinos over your career, it goes with the territory of professional play. What’s the best advice you can give players for dealing with back off situations? Would you mind sharing some of your more interesting experiences? Have you ever been subjected to ‘Back Rooming’ (where a casino will detain a player for questioning, often under the bogus pretext of suspected cheating)?

I’ve been backed off a few times but not that many for all my years of play--probably because I mostly tracked shuffles and rarely used traditional counting strategies exclusively. If you don’t look like a counter you’re a lot less likely to be identified as an advantage player at blackjack. Most of my backoffs were simply from winning more money more quickly than the casino was comfortable with. All my backoffs have been polite. I’ve never been backroomed. I never argue. I just get out. My advice to most players would be to avoid confrontations. Just get out fast. Why make yourself memorable to them?

It is unquestionably becoming more difficult for new players to successfully transition to professional Advantage Play, with the casinos becoming more and more aware of the different techniques employed by professional players and table limits increasing requiring a larger bankroll to play safely. What advice would you give to any person looking to move into any of the various professional gambling fields? Where should they start? What sort of funding do you feel is required? What resources are essential to any beginner?

If you have financial obligations—a mortgage, a wife, kids, people who depend on you—then don’t depend on gambling to pay your bills if you’re just starting out. If you’re trying to gamble as a pro, keep your regular job and only play with money you have left over after you meet your financial obligations. If you’re just a young guy with no obligations, move to Vegas and pursue your dream. If you’re young you can afford to keep late hours and go broke every once in a while. Most people who try to make a living by gambling professionally—whether at blackjack, poker, sports betting, or ponies—give it up. You have to be obsessed in order to make it and you’ll make all kinds of mistakes in the beginning. Be careful who you team up with. Professional gambling’s harder work than most jobs.

Other than your live casino play, you’ve written numerous articles about playing online (previous to the UIGEA coming into place in 2006). Would you mind telling us about some of the more interesting plays you were part of online?

Most of my online play was hustling bonuses. I published the first article about hustling Internet casino bonuses In Blackjack Forum, then later published the first book on it by the same guy who wrote the book under the name Bill Haywood. Then I wrote my own book on the subject. It used to be so easy. I knew a lot of card counters who quit going into casinos at all because it was so much easier to just sit at home and collect bonuses. There were some fancy plays we did to extract maximum dollars on bonus plays, but I don’t know if I’ll ever publish them. Internet gambling may come back and if the same kinds of bonuses appear, I’ll go right back to work on them.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, you’re one of a small number of players to have been inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame which is hosted at the Barona hotel and casino. You were one of the original seven inductees in 2003. How did it feel to receive such an honour? Have you ever made use of the perks that come with the title (fully comped Room, Food and Beverage at the Barona hotel as long as the members agrees never to play in the Barona casino).

I was definitely honoured to be inducted into the BJ Hall of Fame, because the list of inductees really is the cream of the crop of the blackjack pioneers, innovators, and professional players. I have been to the Barona for a vacation quite a few times and so far, even after ten years, they make good on their offer.

The addition of new members to the Blackjack Hall of Fame is now the responsibility of the current members, with new names considered each year and announced at Max Rubin’s Blackjack Ball (a secretive Professionals only, invitation only event held once a year). What does the selection process involve? Are there any names that you would like to see added in the next few years or that you feel have been passed over previously?

The current members of the BJ HoF submit names for consideration with their reasons for submitting the names and then vote on a handful to nominate. The actual voting takes place at the Blackjack Ball and all attendees who are pro players are allowed to cast ballots. The votes are counted that night and the new inductee is announced at the Ball. I would most like to see Allan Wilson inducted because his book meant so much to me when I was first learning to count. He published some of the first computer simulations comparing the results of different blackjack card counting systems.

Alongside having an exceptionally successful playing career, you’ve also been a prolific gambling author. Your first book – ‘Blackjack Formula’ – revolutionised the game by revealing the importance of penetration (the number of cards that will be dealt before the dealer shuffles). You went on to write ‘Blackbelt in Blackjack’, a book that is still widely considered to be one of the ‘must read’ books for anyone considering card counting. What first made you consider writing books about Blackjack? Which of your non-fiction books are you most proud of?

I decided to write about blackjack when I figured out the variance on the game and realized I didn’t have enough money to play at anything close to a professional level. I’d figured out solutions to a number of problems that vexed card counters and I figured they’d be happy to buy my discoveries. So I wrote and self-published The Blackjack Formula and the response was so favourable I started publishing the Blackjack Forum quarterly the following year (1981). My favourite books are the ones I feel are most unique—The Big Book of Blackjack, the Blackjack Shuffle Tracker’s Cookbook, and both Poker Tournament Formula books.

Alongside authoring books you went on to publish Blackjack Forum, a quarterly trade journal for professional players. Which articles that Blackjack Forum published do you feel made the biggest difference to the playing community?

Bill Haywood’s original articles on beating Internet casinos probably made more players more money than just about anything ever published in a gambling periodical. I love Munchkin’s interviews with the blackjack innovators—Al Francesco, Keith and Marty Taft, Tommy Hyland, Johnny C., Darryl Purpose, hole-card legend RC. Don Schlesinger penned some dynamite articles on risk and system analyses. I’m proud not only to have published this stuff but just to have my name among these guys.

Ultimately Blackjack Forum ceased hard copy publication in 2004 when you moved the journal online. What made you decide to move to a solely electronic format?

I was tired of the work. I was playing more frequently and my time was crunched by the constant deadlines. Publishing a periodical is a lot of work that has nothing to do with the writing and research that I always enjoyed. I simply didn’t want to deal with mailing lists, inventory, taxes, all the tedious business end of it.

In recent years the publication of articles on Blackjack Forum has slowed substantially and the message boards appear to have closed. Do you consider Blackjack Forum a thing of the past? If not what are your plans for the future of the site? What lead to the decision to close the message boards?

The message boards were a pain in the ass. I got tired of answering the same questions over and over. Blackjack is definitely not a thing of the past, but I doubt it will ever again be what it was in the 80s and 90s. Card counting systems made it possible for a lot of regular players—college students, working stiffs, professional people—to make decent money at the tables fairly quickly. Those days are gone. Too many shuffle machines, bad penetration, worse rules, and sharper game protection personnel have put an end to the easy money. Now, the game is still beatable by pros, often using more advanced techniques, but regular people can’t just read a book or two and start making money at the tables. The Blackjack Forum website still has one of the most comprehensive libraries of articles on professional gambling in existence, so I intend to keep it alive for that reason alone. But who knows, at some point I may get the bug again and start writing more articles for the site.

Another of the books that you’ve penned is ‘The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker’s Cookbook: How Players Win (and Why They Lose) with Shuffle Tracking’. Being well versed in this particular topic I consider this book to be the best exploration of Shuffle Tracking in print today and an invaluable resource for any player seriously considering attempting one of the most difficult Advantage Play methods. Do you feel that Shuffle Tracking is still a widely viable playing method? Was it ever? My own work in this field has lead me to believe that as good as The Cookbook is, there are areas – without breaking down step by step guides to specific shuffles – that could be expanded on. Would you ever consider expanding on this work?

Shuffle tracking is still viable in casinos with hand-shuffled games. I purposely didn’t put everything I knew about tracking into that book. I figured any player smart enough to read and comprehend the methods I published would start to notice some of the important things I left out and get up to speed in a short time. For example, it’s often important in a stepladder shuffle whether the dealer starts building his stack from the right or left side. I’ve written quite a bit more on the subject that has never been published. I almost completed a book in 2011 titled Radical Blackjack, but decided before it went to press to put the whole project on hold. It’s never been finished and is still on hold. There’s quite a bit of material on shuffle tracking in that book, and a lot on loss rebate strategies and internet gambling strategies. Right now, I have no immediate plans to complete that book. Too many of the things I wanted to write about are still too sensitive to release. I know too many players who might still be using some of the strategies I wanted to discuss.

Your most recent published work was a departure from your previous catalogue that the gambling community would be familiar with, a work of fiction (though you have written an extensive amount of fiction before you started writing about Blackjack). Called ‘Risk of Ruin’ it follows the story of a Hole Carding biker and his relationship with a young stripper. You can read Arnold’s blog, short stories and reviews of recent fiction releases at How do the rewards of writing fiction compare to those of non-fiction? How’s the reaction to Risk of Ruin been? I’ve heard that you’re putting together a second novel – could you give us any hints as to the storyline of this new book?

Writing fiction is simply more fun than writing nonfiction. I’ve completed two other novels that haven’t been published, though hopefully they will both see print someday.

In 2010 you published ‘Topless Vegas’ a guide to topless bars and strip clubs in Las Vegas. Since then you’ve put together an online equivalent with Huntington Press and Las Vegas Advisor owner Anthony Curtis. Other than the basic pleasure of viewing naked women, what drove you down this path? Given the number of venues in Las Vegas that require reviewing and the fact that you update your reviews every 90 days, you must spend a substantial amount of your life in and around these bars and clubs. How many hours a month does this work involve? What does your wife think of this aspect of your work?

As with gambling, I spend a lot more time researching and writing about strip clubs than I do actually enjoying the shows as a customer. Back in the early 90s, when I first learned that dancers were not employees but had to pay the clubs to work there, I realized that they were, in fact, advantage players. They had to risk their own money to work the crowd and there was no guarantee that they’d finish their shift in the black. This fascinated me. They were very similar to card counters in that they were a secret subculture. They danced under assumed names and had to devise personal strategies for getting the money out of customers. In the same way that counters are con artists that make their money by fooling the casinos into thinking they’re suckers like everyone else, dancers are con artists that fool men into thinking they’re attracted to them. Many have developed this con-artistry into a highly developed art form. Now that the website has been launched, I spend a few hours many nights a week in strip clubs looking for good stories or interesting angles. My wife sometimes comes with me to the clubs and enjoys them. Many of the Vegas strip clubs now have female customers. Twenty years ago this was almost unheard of. The art of erotic dance has developed tremendously since the old days of striptease in burlesque shows and both women and men appreciate it.

What is involved in the ratings of strip clubs and topless bars? What factors do you take into consideration when reviewing the various locations? What do you feel the average punter is looking for?

Rating strip clubs is fairly complex because different clubs cater to different clientele, much in the same way that casinos differ from each other. There are radical price differences between the clubs. Some are topless only; others are full nude. Some have dynamite stage shows; others are more lap dance oriented. The quality of the dancers also differs greatly. On the website I try to explain my criteria pretty comprehensively.

Given your diversification into fields other than gambling since you were dubbed the ‘Bishop of Blackjack’, I – with some help from my wife - have come up with some alternative titles for your new role that I’d like to pitch to you; Bishop of Boobies, Cardinal of Cleavage, Cannon of Cans, Deacon of Devil’s Dumplings, Minister of Mammaries or Monk of Melons. Which of these fantastic titles would you wish to be anointed with?

How about the Lama of Lap Dancing?

Finally, I used to do some work in the music journalism field and I’m always interested to hear about people’s tastes in music. Could you give us your top 5 albums?

I’m too old for that question. My tastes go way back and I like too many different types of music. The artists I’ve enjoyed the most over the years (in no particular order as they pop into my head): Frank Zappa, Rolling Stones, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Thelonius Monk, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Eminem, Tom Waits, the Fugs, Fred Neil, Maria Muldaur, Jim Kweskin, Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, Harry Connick Jr, Leon Redbone, Paul Butterfield … I could easily add fifty more.