The movie Rainman provided me with my first glimpse into the world of card counting. In Rain Man, Tom Cruise plays the slick, self-centered Charlie Babbit. Dustin Hoffman steals the show as Charlie’s autistic savant brother, Raymond Babbit. In a sub-plot of the movie, when Charlie realizes Raymond possesses a photographic memory and an incredible penchant for numbers, he hatches a plan to capitalize on Raymond’s abilities. This sets up a classic movie scene in which the brothers try to strike it rich at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. Before watching Rain Man, I didn’t know the first thing about card counting. As I rooted for the Babbit brothers, little did I know that one day I would be counting cards at Caesars Palace myself, playing high stakes blackjack.
Years later, I watched Rain Man again with seven of my MIT Blackjack teammates. We took special interest in the infamous card counting portion of the movie. The second time around I watched Rain Man with a much more critical eye, but I still loved the movie, even more. With a professional card counter’s perspective, I naturally picked up on a number of flaws in the movie. I also found myself wondering what it would be like to have someone like Raymond on our team.
Before they arrive in Vegas, Charlie gives Raymond a quick primer on card counting which can be described as shoddy at best:
“When there’s lots of 10’s left, 10’s and picture cards, then it’s good for us.” – Hmmm, what about the aces. They’re kinda important too.
“And you’re gonna bet one…. One if it’s bad. Two if it’s good. ” – This is far from an optimal betting strategy. You not only need to know when the count is favorable; you also need to know exactly how favorable it is.
“Now listen. Casinos have house rules. The first one is, they don’t like to lose. So you never, never show that you are counting cards. That is the cardinal sin, Ray.” – I have to give Charlie credit. He nailed that one on the head.
One of the most memorable shots in the movie is when Charlie and Raymond glide down the escalator at Caesars Palace, primed for a big score. Soon after they sit down, Raymond commits a different type of cardinal sin by hitting a hard 18, and busting with a queen. The silver lining of Raymond’s blunder is his telling Charlie that there are lots of queens left. Charlie’s eyes light up with this information and he then decides to go for it, doubling down on his 10 versus the dealer’s 4. Charlie makes this play based on Raymond’s information, but he should have doubled down regardless. Doubling down on a 10 versus dealer 4 is simple basic strategy. The number of queens left has no bearing on this decision. A perfect double down hand for the movie’s purposes would have been a player 10 versus dealer 10 (a hand most players don’t double down on). Of course when Charlie doubles down he gets a queen and the dealer flips over another queen and then busts with a third queen.
Another thing that was off about this sequence is that knowing how many queens are left is not enough information to gain an advantage. How about the 10’s, Jack’s, King’s, and Ace’s? Not to mention the low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6). The net difference between high cards and low cards divided by the number of decks remaining determines player advantage. The queens are just one piece of the puzzle. With the proper strategy and instruction, Raymond could be the ultimate card counting machine. He could memorize a basic strategy chart in a matter of minutes. The running count and the true count would be a breeze, and anyone who can count 246 toothpicks in a flash from 10 feet away would find estimating the number of decks remaining in the shoe all too easy. On the flip side, Raymond would face some challenges as far as fitting in the casino environment given his quirky mannerisms. In the movie Charlie recognizes this which is why he pawns his expensive watch in order to bankroll their play and a major makeover for Raymond. A nice suit along with new shoes and a fresh haircut go a long way toward making Raymond look like someone of consequence.
Even with their limited betting strategy – one chip bad, two chips good, Charlie and Raymond manage to go on an incredible hot streak, winning more than $80,000 despite getting shorted a black chip on a double down payoff (you have to watch carefully). Their success prompts the floor people to call up to the eye in the sky. The conversation in the surveillance room is one of my favorite parts of the movie.
“What do you see?”
“Well, he’s not catching the hole card, and he’s not past posting us.”
“I don’t see him using a computer.”
“No he’s not, but some thing’s not right. You know there’s no one in the world that can count into a 6-deck shoe.”
The last line is my favorite. My teammates and I cracked up. I was impressed that the movie’s script mentioned hole card play and past posting (a cheating move in which a player adds chips to a bet that’s already been won). These surveillance guys are well versed with hole card strategy and past posting, which most people have never even heard of, yet they believe no one in the world can count a 6-deck shoe?!? That line, followed by the camera panning in on Raymond and his computer-like mind at work, cement the legacy of “Rainman” and help perpetuate the myth that only geniuses with photographic memories can count cards. The next day the director of security informs Charlie that he and his brother are no longer welcome to play blackjack. Their play was reviewed on tape and it was concluded that Charlie and Raymond did manage to pull off the supposedly impossible feat of counting down a 6-deck shoe.
For anyone who’s ever even daydreamed about counting cards, Rain Man will forever be a part of gambling lore. Even if you have no interest in ever playing blackjack, Rain Man is a superb movie, winner of four Oscars, including best picture, actor, and director. The film captured my imagination and years later, even with all its card counting peccadilloes, I have an even greater appreciation for Rain Man. I guess it’s hard for me to take too much issue with a movie that portrays card counters as good guys and geniuses, no matter how much of an exaggeration the latter may be.