The Counter

Prologue

    Like a neon mirage, Sin City rises from the desert floor in a surrealistic shimmer. It lures tourists into a glitzy fantasy-land of pyramids and pirates, but these façades mask an ugly truth. The gigantic temples of chance only exist for one purpose—to suck money like a vacuum cleaner from fat wallets.

    While European casinos don’t let anyone through their doors without a proper coat and dress shoes, Vegas clubs will stand just about anything. Men can play bare-chested in swimming trunks—as long as they’re rich, and as long as they lose.

    The casinos love most system players and gladly welcome the hordes descending on Las Vegas hoping for easy money. These gamblers, many with visions of Rain Man dancing through their heads, come in steady streams to help pay the light bill of the city that never sleeps.

    The most popular table game is blackjack because it yields sharp players a slim advantage. However, only the best card counters succeed while the rest fill the casino coffers. In fact, the game’s colossal profits fueled the growth of the city. Yet, rather than reward the few individuals who could legitimately triumph, casinos hypocritically kick out these skilled patrons.

    Few businesses in the world could get away with such an injustice. When gifted blackjack players honestly beat the odds using only their brains, casinos treat them like convicts—a policy equivalent to McDonald’s throwing out any customers smart enough to take advantage of a free burger coupon.

    One man determined to overcome these obstacles even though the house is always supposed to win. Raven Townsend resolved to make a million dollars and become the only thing casinos feared. He’d be the predator instead of the prey.



Chapter One

    If it had not been for a single, vacant parking space, all the events that transpired that evening would have been avoided.

    As Raven Townsend slowly drove past the impressive Greco-Roman face of the Palace, he knew their garage would be jam-packed on a Friday night. He decided to let fate determine his fortune. If he could park, he would play. He wondered what Pastor Cook would say if he knew that his former protégé had begun to base his decisions on the flip of a coin or the random turn of a card.

    Raven almost hoped that no space would be available. He was somewhat hesitant to play blackjack at the Palace again after his last visit. That time he won more than $20,000 before they barred him—not for cheating, or for being drunk or rowdy—he’d simply beaten them honestly, using only his unique mental ability. It still made his blood boil thinking how unfairly casinos treated skilled players.

    He turned his red BMW convertible onto the ramp leading to the top floor. Usually he parked in valet to avoid door dings, but tonight he might need a quick escape. Much to his surprise he found an open spot and cautiously backed in next to an old, beat-up Chevy.

    As the elevator began its smooth descent to the casino level, Raven wondered if the observation had already begun. The bigger casinos had all converted to high-tech video surveillance with as many as a thousand cameras watching everyone, everywhere. Raven dismissed their threat. It had been seven months since he was eighty-sixed—a long time in a business where pit bosses see thousands of faces each day, and he remained confident they’d never detect him in this disguise. Besides, he never backed down anywhere to anyone when he thought he was right, and he still had an unfinished goal driving him through life. He wasn’t the first gambler hoping to make a million in the casinos, but he was one of the few in the world who had a realistic chance.

    His skill at the tables forced him to use many different names in order to survive. His given name was Randolph Townsend, although only his father normally used that name. Some called him Randy, but he preferred the name his mother had chosen to honor their Indian heritage and his jet-black hair—Raven.

    He hardly recognized himself in the mirrored walls of the elevator. An expensive blond wig and mustache completely changed his appearance. Stylish pants and a leather bomber jacket projected the image of a hip young executive. A classy pair of shoes would’ve finished the look, but he never compromised on footwear—he wore sneakers on all occasions, whether playing Frisbee or attending a wedding. His face easily blended into a crowd and his light olive complexion gave him the versatility to fit in with a wide range of ethnic groups.

    Only the large, dark intense eyes remained recognizable—always alert as they observed the world from under a thick set of eyebrows. A mischievous glint flickered in them now. One of the world’s best card counters was back.

    The doors of the elevator opened and abruptly the serene quiet ended. Raven walked with self-assurance into the cacophony of sights and sounds. He knew the sharper floor supervisors usually worked near the main entrance, so he instead headed for the tables near the back.

    A stunning redhead in a skintight dress walked by, reminding him of the culture shock he experienced on his first visit here. Despite new clubs rising up around her, the Palace always remained the hot place to be and to be seen in Las Vegas. Tonight he hoped the slow parade of bronzed goddesses might help to distract the enemy.

    Raven circled the blackjack tables like a wolf might scout for a weak or crippled animal. He studied the pit bosses searching for anyone who might identify him. Most dealers were too busy to detect card counting. The floor supervisors and the dreaded sharp eyes manning the overhead cameras were the foremost threats to him.

    He watched a $100 minimum table, counting the cards from the six-deck shoe. A loud cowboy, with a ten-gallon hat and thin hairy arms, sat next to a cute, young brunette who looked half his age. She wore a silver sequined dress with a high slit exposing a shapely tanned leg that brushed against the older man’s thigh. Each time he won a big bet she’d bounce up and down and move in closer, as if she preferred the cowboy’s lap to her chair.

    A bunch of small cards came out; Raven scanned the pit once more, recognized no one, and slipped into the middle seat.

    “Howdy,” the cowboy said.

    “Howdy yourself,” Raven replied as he pulled a thick wad of bills from his brown fanny pack.

    “Where you from, partner?”

    Raven pretended to be busy counting out $3,000 in fresh Ben Franklins to buy his chips. He was here to make money, not conversation.

    “I’m from Dallas. Oil business. You live around these parts?” The cowboy wasn’t going away, so Raven decided to change the subject to something safer.

    “So how are the cards running here, any luck?”

    The Texan let out a good-natured chuckle, his deeply lined leather face amiable. “Yep—all of it bad luck. I’m down about two grand. We need another player to change the run of cards. Let’s gang up and beat these jackals.”

    “It’s us against the house,” said the brunette, “so maybe we can all work together.”

    “That’s the idea,” the dealer chimed in. “Now if this were poker and you were a new player, you’d be fresh meat. That’s why I like dealing blackjack—it’s friendlier, more camaraderie. Good odds, too, especially if you count cards.”

    The dealer, an athletic-looking man with a full head of thick curly hair, slid thirty black $100 chips across the felt to Raven. “Good luck to you.”

    “Thanks.” Raven stacked his chips and shot a furtive glance at the dealer. The man’s unbuttoned white shirt revealed a gold chain and he exuded confidence. But how sharp was he? I certainly don’t need extra scrutiny tonight.

    The brunette asked the dealer, “Does card counting really work?”

    “Sure it does, lady.”

    “How?”

    “Future odds change depending on what cards have been previously played,” the dealer explained.

    “How could anyone keep track of that?”

    “It’s possible to count the high cards to determine the probability for the next hand.”

    The brunette remained unconvinced. “But doesn’t the dealer have the same chance to get the good cards?”

    “Yes, the house actually wins more hands than the players, but an expert changes his bet and plays at the right times and comes out ahead.”

    The conversation unnerved Raven slightly, and he made a quick visual sweep around him to see if he was already being watched. He assumed the dealer was just trying to show off and would be oblivious to the fact that one of the world’s best card counters sat right under his nose. The dealer’s chitchat slowed the game to a crawl, and Raven considered moving to another table, but just then the count shot up. He felt an adrenaline rush—pushing out big money would attract attention, but Raven didn’t hesitate and jumped his bet to $500, won several hands, and then raised it again to $1000. He won the first two thousand-dollar bets, lost a nineteen against a dealer’s twenty, then was dealt two sevens.

    “You shouldn’t split those cards,” the cowboy advised. “Best you can do is make seventeen. I only split aces and eights, just like Wild Bill Hickock.”

    Raven had memorized the correct play for every situation depending on the count. He never went by a hunch and often the best play was the opposite of other players’ advice. He split the sevens.

    “Unbelievable,” the Texan groaned.

    Raven caught a three on the first seven, doubled down on his $1,000 bet, then caught a two on his second hand. He hesitated, winked at the oilman from the Longhorn State and slid another thousand on the felt. The dealer busted. Raven used both arms to pull in all the chips and chuckled to himself. Blondes do have more fun.


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