Some people use their powers for good. Some for destruction. Vivek Desai is caught somewhere in between.
Desai is a mentalist and illusionist trained in the art of blowing your mind away or at least making you believe he can. Not only can this 22-year-old glorified magician from Pune guess the playing card you randomly picked out in a bunch or know the exact sentence you just read from a book he’s never heard of before, but he’s also got a few more tricks up his sleeve. He is also the dude that catches people trying to cheat their way to win big at casinos by indulging in an age-old trick of the trade: counting cards (and if you need a starter kit for this because you haven’t watched 21, check out the video below).
So, we decided to get into the mind of this mentalist and ask him about everything—from why he would rather not count cards and win big himself to the underground cash game scene.
VICE: How did you get into this to begin with?
Vivek Desai: I grew up in Fremont, California, which was a seven-hour journey to Las Vegas, where my mom and dad frequently went to play recreationally at casinos. And since I wasn’t allowed, they used to leave me at these kid casinos, which are sort of like the arcade areas in a mall but bigger. Here, they also had workshops for kids. I walked into a magic workshop once and from there, my interest started spiking. I enjoyed magic; it was getting me popularity and friends. But then I learnt that there’s something even better: money. So I started getting into the gambling aspect of it and began playing card games at the age of 12 or 13. It started out as a way to gain social clout. I also started doing magic gigs when I was 16. Eventually, I started consulting with casinos to catch card cheaters, train their security staff on how to do it, and also working with casino insurance companies to verify their claims if someone had cheated and caused a loss to the casino.
What exactly does card counting involve?
Card counting is a combination of mathematical skills and good memory. In blackjack, you have cards from ace to king, and each card has a different value. The goal is to get a total of 21 or the closest possible number that is lower than 21, in the least amount of cards possible. So if you get a king and a 10, that’s 20; if you get an ace and a king, that’s 21, because the ace is like someone who’s stuck in the friend zone and will be whatever it needs to be depending on the situation, but is also the most useful. You have four or six decks depending on how and where you’re playing and what the situation is. Counting comes into the picture when you start eliminating cards because blackjack is a game where the past directly influences the future, unlike poker or teen patti, where the cards are shuffled back into the deck. In blackjack, every time you use a hand, it’s thrown away, so that means you have lesser cards in the deck. So if a 10 is out, then there’s one less 10 in the deck. Counting is basically that—a series of calculations and permutations that help you estimate what the value of the next card could be in all probability.
How do you identify a card counter?
Card counters generally work in teams. They are almost always focusing on the game, they don’t make conversation or consume liquor during the game, and you’ll always see them looking intently at not just their own cards but others’ too. This is important because in blackjack, the other person’s cards are actually immaterial to you. The only thing that matters normally is what you have and what the dealer has since that’s the only person you’re supposed to be playing against. But a card counter will be equally interested in knowing what others have because the deck is the same.
So, what is the key to catching them?
You need to know how to count yourself. Firstly, card counting helps you estimate what the value of the deck is and predict what the next card could be. Secondly, it helps you in understanding the deck’s construction since you know what’s inside and what’s not. So generally speaking, if you and me are counting on the same table, then our betting patterns will be very similar. So people who work as security in the casino also have to count cards, so they are counting cards as each hand is being played, and when they see someone matching the exact pattern that they would be playing, they know it’s a red light.
What happens to card counters once they get caught?
If the casino is in a good mood, they just throw them out. But if they’re in a bad mood, they might break a finger or two. The problem is that counting is not illegal, but it’s in bad faith, so there’s a thin line and you can’t really do much. If you could put someone in jail for what they were thinking, then half of Delhi would be in prison. But while the act of counting is not illegal in itself, casinos are private properties and hold the rights of admission, so they can throw them out under different pretences. They hold certain other rights like not letting you walk out with the money because you enter a sort of a contract with them when you exchange your cash for money chips. Plus they’ll rough you up a bit. Movies exaggerate and no one really gets killed but there are definitely consequences. You get blacklisted because most casinos share the list of those having been caught with other casinos and across databases. We’re not at that level of sophistication where they can track your face so you can still enter, but if you win big again, you can be in trouble.
Have you ever been threatened for catching a counter?
No, it’s international waters, so it doesn’t matter who your dad is. I’m not physically catching them; I’m in a room with a camera so there is protection in that way. Most people who get caught get scared. Most are students, like engineering students who are bored and want to buy a new bike or a leather jacket so they think they will make some money—the sorts that think they own the world because they just got placed at Google with a hefty salary so ‘why can’t I fool a small casino?’. Then they go to the casinos and are horrible actors, so they get caught real fast.
Has there ever been an instance when someone managed to almost get away?
The closest I’ve probably come to that was this one time when we weren’t sure if those guys were counting, but ended up catching them because they seemed too young. The guy who was counting was only 17 and had come in through a fake ID, and that was shocking because of the kind of mental acuity and pace you need to actually pull off something like card counting—it’s basically like juggling knives without anyone being able to see the knives. And at the same time, you have to maintain a good rapport. He was talking as well, which is usually a sign that you’re not counting because you have a lot of complex equations going on in your head and each time a card is dealt, you have to add and subtract to that. So he was an extremely good counter. We caught him because I was counting as well so we noticed the patterns, plus the person sitting next to him on the table was giving some pretty standard signals of counting, so we had the experience to catch him.
So if you know how to count cards, why did you decide to catch cheaters instead of just cheating and make a shitton of money yourself?
Oh, I’d like to stay alive actually! A teenager walking out with a million in his pockets may work once or twice, but do it the third time and you might get your hands chopped off. It’s the fear of getting caught and let’s say ethics as well. I have cheated, but only in underground cash games, never at a casino.
What is the underground cash game scene like?
Let’s say you are a rich businessman. You invite ten other rich businessmen to play a game at your house and each of them brings their people so you end up having 35-40 people there. These guys usually have four to five poker tables set up with a minimum bet so the amount of money being played per hand is anywhere between a lakh to two, and somehow, professional poker cheaters will sneak in, so you need to have that infrastructure in place. You’re basically setting up a casino for one day and you need to have the backend security to support that. This is actually more comfortable for cheaters than an actual casino that has the infrastructure set up already but again, these are not commercially advertised. It’s a very private affair, usually word-of-mouth, and people won’t even WhatsApp it. Also, because people are drinking here, it’s easier for the cheaters, coupled with the fact that for some of those guys, playing at the table for a lakh or two is nothing.
So how has this profession affected your personal life?
Oh, I don’t get to be in relationships! I’m a good poker player so I can usually tell when someone is lying or bluffing. But there’s also something known as confirmation bias which happens when you know someone very well and your own biases about them start setting in, so it’s difficult to be objective about their behaviour. Over a period of time, it becomes difficult to read people. I haven’t dated someone in ten years, but if I had, I imagine that being able to unlock someone’s phone will affect the relationship, right?
I don’t play at Diwali parties because anyone who knows me doesn’t allow me to play. I have a group of friends in Mumbai and they play Cards Against Humanity and strip poker but they never allow me to play because I can rig the whole game. But they allow me to stay in the room which is better because I can be fully clothed and still see the entire enjoyment around me. But anyone who knows me would never allow me to play a card game with them.
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