Hole Carding as an added skill for the APBy: BJS 2015-08-09
Of the most popular table games, the ones with the greatest potential for hole-card exploitation are Mississippi Stud Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold’em Poker. The reader may wonder why Three Card Poker is not in this premium list.
Three Card Poker has long been the easiest opportunity to find. It also has the easiest hole-card strategy to master, by far. But in practice, Three Card Poker is very tough to beat, giving only a 3.48% edge to the AP under perfect conditions. See this post for more reasons why APs avoid Three Card Poker.
There are other games where an edge seems possible, but unless the hole-card exposure is extreme, no practical edge can be gained. Among games in this category are Caribbean Stud, Crazy 4 Poker and Four Card Poker, where multiple cards must be viewed to get an edge.
Here is a list of hole-card opportunities covered, along with the edge that can be obtained using perfect hole-card strategy:
The question of opportunity usually comes down to the time intensive labor of scouting games. It used to be the case that good games could be delicately fleeced. However the competition among hole-carding teams has now made it standard policy to slaughter the best games. After a game is burned, it does not mean that a similar opportunity will not arise at the same casino. In the casino industry, hard lessons have a way of being forgotten.
There are four things that APs are looking for while pounding the pavement. These are:
- Poorly designed shufflers.
- Poorly designed layouts.
- Sloppy dealing procedure.
- The ability to create an opportunity.
The Ace shuffler has a cradle that rests about three inches above the layout. It is nearly impossible to avoid exposing the hole-card using this shuffler, though with solid technique the exposure is unexploitable. I conjecture that it is for this reason, in part, that the Ace is no longer available from SHFL (formerly Shuffle Master). However, many casinos own their own Ace shufflers and continue to use them. Opportunities to play against the Ace shuffler persist worldwide. I discuss the Ace shuffler more in this post.
The iDeal shuffler is a more reasonable and recent attempt to safeguard against hole-card play. With the ability to lift the cards to table level and no higher, the hole-card can be easily protected with correct procedure. However, the motion of the dealer’s hand is up and away from the table. Isaac Newton’s first law of motion is that an object in motion stays in motion until an external force acts on it. In other words, unless the dealer consciously stops the upward motion of his hand, his hole-card may be exposed. I discuss the iDeal shuffler more in this post.
Table layouts should be designed by management to use these shufflers in the safest possible way. Foremost, these shufflers should be placed on top of the table (Ace shuffler), or inserted into a cutout in the table (iDeal shuffler). Furthermore, no obstacles should be placed in the way of the delivery of the cards from the shuffler to the table. Placing the shuffler at first base is the most natural position for the dealers, who are used to dealing from a shoe. By putting the discard tray on the third-base side, and all other signage, ash trays, drop box, etc., on the third-base side, the shufflers are much less likely to cause issues.
For the experienced scout, it takes just a moment to look at a dealer and determine that they are not a candidate for hole-card exposure. Most dealers deliver each and every packet with precaution and precision. After one hand, these dealers can be dismissed as unreadable.
There are some dealers who expose cards when dealing to the players, but when they deliver their own cards, they have faultless procedure. As a player, there were many times I would get excited on seeing the bottom card on packets dealt to players around the table, only to be brought down to earth by how the dealer dealt her own cards. Nevertheless, such a dealer may start exposing cards towards the end of her shift when she is tired. She may also be susceptible to a more proactive method where APs encourage the dealer to flash her hole-card using diversions and distractions.
Most dealers who expose their hole-card have a consistent but small procedural issue. They may grip the cards incorrectly. They may raise their cards too high. They may turn their wrist slightly. They may separate their cards slightly, exposing a corner or edge. Whatever the issue, it may afford the opportunity to catch a glimpse of that precious card. Most of the time, this view will be from the base opposite the placement of the shuffler. For example, with the shuffler at third base, the hole-card will be visible at first base. This is not a universal rule. Dealers find ways of exposing cards that violate every expectation for where a view should be.
APs have also discovered that even if a dealer is dealing flawlessly, in some cases they can manipulate either the dealer or table conditions to encourage a procedural breakdown that can lead to hole-card exposure. This can be accomplished through the physical position that wagers are placed on the table, by filling the rack with one dollar chips from the poker room, by the use of verbal distractions and by other manipulations. For example, by engaging the dealer in a subject they are passionate about, their attention may be drawn away from correct dealing procedure, giving the AP a better chance.
Getting Away with It
The final part of hole-carding carnival games has to do with the art of getting away with it. The skilled hole-card player understands the delicate balance of optimal strategy, bet size and good cover.
Hole-card play has its own idiosyncratic tells. An uninformed pit boss watching a player who is catching a hole-card will be watching a player who is, at times, significantly violating sensible strategy. The boss may think that the player is an idiot who is getting lucky, concluding that the player’s luck is sure to change soon. This type of scenario plays out every night in most casinos. That’s one of the stereotypes the hole-card player wants to embody: the lucky idiot.
The hole-card player would rather not be noticed at all. But playing maximum bets holding 7, 2-offsuit in Mississippi Stud is going to be hard to do without being noticed. Likewise, it’s tough to fold an Ace in Three Card Poker if the cards for each hand are spread face up before being put in the discard tray.
The team will usually seat the heavy bettor as distant from the accessible information as possible. This can be accomplished by using the well-known “big-player” and “spotter” combination. The spotter’s job is to get the hole-card and relay the information to the big player. The big player’s job is to get big bets down while using the hole-card information signaled to him in an effective manner.
The spotter will typically play near the table minimum and try to blend in as much as possible. She will play the unbeatable side bets. She will play as if she does not know the hole-card information. She may arrive at the table well before the big player. She most likely will stick around after the big player leaves, to pick up any chatter about what just happened and to give distance to any questions of “relationship” between the players. She may be a young Asian woman, just barely 5-feet tall.
A strong team will have the resources to rotate in different big players and spotters, as needed, to maximize what they can take from the game. The game will soon be burned out by this team, but that doesn’t mean they want to be caught doing it.
A big part of successful hole-carding is knowing what to do in the dead time. It may be necessary for players to play on a game without the edge. They may be waiting for a certain dealer to arrive on the table. It may just be break time. It is therefore necessary that every team member have a solid understanding of basic strategy for the game being targeted. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that James Grosjean published basic strategy cards for many of the most popular novelty games:
A good book that describes the great big world of “getting away with it” is Advanced Tactics in Casino Advantage Play, by Abram Alexander. It is available as an eBook only (here is a link to it at Amazon). Get it. Read it.
APs employ expert mathematicians and programmers to determine the edges and strategies. They relentlessly scout for vulnerable games. They are members of well-funded and highly organized teams that are ready to travel at a moment’s notice.
Success is the meeting point of preparation and opportunity. With plenty of each, the current generation of APs are running the tables on the table games industry.