Princes of Darkness
Carl Sampson

The title and tag line of this book are a tad on the iffy side frankly. With Princes of Darkness one might think that they were buying into some Arthurian legend of fairytale castles, knights, ladies locked in towers, fire breathing dragons yada yada yada. But no . . . this is the story of how a disaffected casino croupier/inspector left the industry and then became involved in a a blackjack advantage play team backed by a businessman he met briefly whilst attending a training course for budding financial consultants.

The tag line "The world of high stakes Blackjack" is also certainly a degree or two off course; with something like that I had thought the action in the story would revolve around places like the Ritz, the Claremont Club, Les A or the Palm Beach (all in the West End of London), but no - all of the action in the book takes place in UK regional casinos where the maximums on the blackjack tables were just £250 or £500. OK, whilst this is more than I've ever pushed out on a hand, in the grand scheme of the telephone numbers that are regularly wagered by visitors to the upmarket houses of chance in the capital, and the action that takes place on the Las Vegas strip, places where the floor inspectors break into a sweat over bets totalling a few hundred pounds (and I've seen this first hand) isn't what the tag line suggests?

Having read the blurb on the rear cover, I can't help thinking that Ms S's publishers took the lead on this - it states that the book contains a "definitive guide" to card counting (it doesn't - Mr S provides an OK "blackjack 101" overview), how to master the complex art of shuffle tracking (are you kidding? - again an overview) and how to implement evasion techniques (more like common sense considerations for not having the welcome mat withdrawn). In addition to this misleading stuff, there are more than the odd number of proof-reading oversights (ie "I new...") which become irritating after a while - there's more to proof-reading than simply running a spell-checker over a piece of work. Didn't anybody read through the final print-ready file before it was sent off for production?

However . . . despite all of the above I quite liked this one. Having done a bit of card-counting myself (low-stakes only for the challenge), met and played BJ with other card-counters and looked into the vagueries of shuffle-tracking and other advantage play techniques, I could appreciate his explanations for the uninitiated and the complexities of putting everything together successfully. The big issues are having access to adequate levels of capital to make it all worthwhile, reducing errors and their inevitable costs that eat into the return and continually "flying-under-the-radar" to ensure unrestricted access to the tables. As Mr S points out, it doesn't matter how good you might be at all of the aspects of card-counting and advantage play, if you're clocked, and see your casino memberships suspended as a consequence, the gig's over. Having worked in the casino industry himself he was at a particular disadvantage of being identified as "ex-gaming".

I won't go into the storyline in detail (as it'll spoil it for anyone who wants to pick up a copy to read) other than to say that what Mr S recollects leaves a lot of loose ends and questions at the final page. Why did it all end after four years? Were any of the principal members of the team finally busted by the enemy (the casinos) and found they couldn't play anymore. Did he ever find out what the principal funder did for a living? What was his share of the return the team's advantage provided? Overall though, an interesting and quite absorbing read, although as this all came to an end around fifteen years ago I think there's now little scope across the UK to replicate Mr S's efforts - one of the biggest problems being finding casinos that still offer shoe dealt blackjack and not games solely dealt from continuous shuffling machines (CSMs).

And on that thought, I'd love to know what Mr S's advantage play techniques are for taking on CSMs - he states he still coaches people in how to gain an advantage when playing them. Having looked at this myself, situations do arise where the cards that are likely to come out on the next round favour the player, but due to the nature of how CSMs work, the advantage never becomes that great and is likely to dissipate within a round or two - as cards that are re-inserted become available and can be pushed onto the exit ramp to be dealt out again. Perhaps I'm missing something here? The consensus amongst blackjack advantage players in the States however (at www.blackjacktheforum.com), is that no meaningful advantage can be gained when playing against a CSM. Answers on a postcard please.

Carl Sampson now makes his living as a poker pro, and his website can be found at www.pokersharkpool.co.uk. He has written four other books since starting out as a pro poker player in 2002; Killer Roulette (2008), Crushing Single Table Online Tournaments and Destination Final Table (both e-books only), and Winning Cash Game Poker (2009) which he admits is a tad outdated as some of the material in the book has now been superceded.

March 2018.