Card Counting: Tons of Cash or a Backroom Beat Down?

| May 23, 2017 12:00 am PST
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If you’ve been within 100 miles of any form of gambling within the last 50 years, you have probably at least heard of card counting before. You may have read books about it, heard legendary stories of gamblers crushing the casino, or even seen some of the Hollywood movies telling the stories of these elusive and mysterious card counters. But what exactly is card counting? Is it legal? How do you do it? Will you end up bloody in a back room if you’re caught? If you’ve ever wondered any of these things and have struggled to find a straight answer, you’re in luck. I’m going to walk you through every one of these questions and more today.

Why listen to me? I’ve been a professional gambler (poker) for about 12 years now and have had the privilege of personally meeting card counters including some that were on the famed MIT Blackjack Team that is depicted in the movie 21. I’ve studied game theory as well as card counting and have a firm grasp on how this all goes down. I’ve also interviewed and worked with casino staff and security personnel to understand some of the ways they look to combat card counting. Did I mention I’ve seen the movie 21 at least twice now, too? Ok, maybe that last one doesn’t help much, but the point here is that I’ve done my homework so you can put some weight into the answers I give you to your questions today.

What is Card Counting?

You’d be amazed at just how many times people ask me as a professional poker player if I count cards. Apparently, a lot of people think that card counting is some sort of magical trick to beat any card game that exists. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but this is not the case. Card counting is a way of monitoring what cards have been exposed in a game of Blackjack and altering your actions and bet sizes to give you an edge over the house. Blackjack, without card counting, is a casino gambling game where no matter how well you play the house will win in the long run. No matter what anyone tries to tell you, the casino is going to make money guaranteed in the long run. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be a lifetime winner at Blackjack. It just means that if you put together all of the people playing Blackjack (or at least enough for an adequate sample size), the casino would be winning.

How Do You Count Cards?

There are a lot of different systems out there that you can use to count cards. Some work in conjunction with others and some work independently. As you might guess, some are more effective than others while each has its own benefits. A lot of times these benefits might not be statistical, but might be aimed at deceiving the casino. What we’re going to talk about today is the most popular form of card counting known as high-low card counting. Invented by Harvey Dubner in the 1960s, the method gained a lot of popularity because it was easier to learn and effective, relatively speaking.

The basis of the system is that you assign a value to each card and every card that comes out is totaled together to create what is known as the running total. You don’t just count your cards, but you count every single card that comes out on the table.

Here are the cards with their associated values.

Basically, 2 through 6 you add one, disregard 7 through 9, and subtract one for 10 through Ace. For example, let’s say the first five cards that come out are 2, A,6,2,4. You would add +1,-1,+1,+1,+1. The running count would currently be +3. The insanely simplified idea here is that you’re more likely to get Blackjacks which pay more when there are fewer low cards left in the deck. This means that every time a low card comes out, it is technically good for you, so you add a point to the count.

You then take this number and divide by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. Let’s break this down, so no one is confused. The shoe is basically the big stack of cards they use to deal Blackjack from. Most casinos will use a six deck shoe (it has six full decks in it) or an eight deck shoe (it has eight full decks in it). In our above example, let’s say they were using a six deck shoe. Since only five cards have come out, there are about all six decks left so we would divide 3 by 6 which equals .5. The True Count is 0.5.

The idea is that the higher the true count, the more money you should be betting.

Now, a few things to point out. First, you may be asking how in the hell you know how many decks are left in a shoe? This is going to take a little practice, and you’re really just looking to estimate. You do not have to be perfect. The more that you play, the more you’ll be able just to eyeball this, or you can practice at home to get better at seeing what it looks like. If you look at our equation of the running count divided by the number of decks remaining equals the true count, you’ll see that the more decks remaining  (the larger the number you are dividing by), the lower the true count is going to be and the less favorable the situation for you.

If the count is +10 and we have 5 decks remaining, the true count is 2. If the count is +10 and we have 2 decks remaining, the true count is 5. This just means that the concentration of higher “good” cards left will be higher.

You can also use the True Count to know what to do in certain marginal situations. There are charts that will tell you what to do and when to deviate from basic strategy according to the count.

This is an oversimplified version of counting cards, but it’s a good starting point for you to understand what is going on.

Is It Illegal?

The answer is and has always been NO. Card counting is NOT illegal. You are not cheating or using some crazy device to trick the casino. You are using the power of your brain and skills you have learned to try and gain an edge.

Now, that being said, any business reserves the right to refuse service to anyone. Casinos are not designed for you to make money. They are designed for you to have fun while slowly losing your money to them. They purposefully design the games this way to that they have the advantage in the long run. Short term variance will allow for some winners, but they will be the winner in the long run. For this reason, you can bet they aren’t happy when someone finds a way to turn the tables in their favor.

Card counting is NOT illegal, but casinos will kick you out and ban you if they catch you doing it.

In the old days, there were a lot of stories about people being taken into back rooms and beat up for card counting. These stories may be true and are more a sign of rougher times where the casinos were the wild wild west. Today, the worst that is going to happen to you is they will sternly ask you to leave and might take a copy of your ID or picture and ban you from their property. They may also share your information with other casino properties to prevent you from playing there as well. While this may be awkward and no fun, it’s a lot better than getting beat up or arrested.

How Do They Catch You?

To understand how they catch card counters, let’s look back at how card counting works. Basically, you are keeping count to figure out the more favorable times for you to play where you are going to want to bet more money. So when the count is low and not favorable, you might be betting $5 or $10. When the count gets high and is very favorable, you might start betting $500 or more per hand. As you can probably see, this is going to look really fishy. How often do you see someone varying their bets that greatly? The answer is not at all. Most people bet the same amount and maybe a little more on some hands but never this big of a disparity and seemingly for no reason.

This is usually a tip off to the casino. Remember, they have read all the books too and know about card counting. Some casinos even have software that keeps the count and lets them know when it is favorable so they can be on the lookout for increased bets. It’s amazing what technology can do.

To counteract this, people started having a counter at the table that would signal to a big bettor who would come in and start playing as soon as the count was great. This worked for a while and is still somewhat effective, but casinos are coming up with ways to combat it. Some casinos won’t let players enter mid shoe while some will be on guard for big bettors coming in mid-shoe as well. While this can stop some, it can’t stop all. Casinos train their security and pit staff to be on the lookout for strange behavior and for signaling or anything like that. I’d imagine they’ve seen every trick in the book and are lightyears better at catching card counters and signalers now.

Do People Still Card Count Today?

I can’t say with complete certainty, but I’m pretty sure that people are still card counting today and have found new and innovative ways to trick the casino.  By limiting the amount they play (not being too greedy and only booking smaller wins), it makes it tougher for the casinos to catch the players. In the old days, counters would work a casino for long stretches because the casino wasn’t really on the lookout for them or didn’t know what they were looking for. Today, I would assume, they spend shorter stretches and probably make smaller “big bets.”

Card counters also have the luxury of traveling the world and going to smaller casinos that might not have as extensive of training or methods for catching counters. This also allows card counters to continue “working” if they’ve been banned from properties in certain cities. I imagine this gets a bit tougher with the easier spread of information thanks to the internet, but there are plenty of small casinos that a simple disguise might go a long way in.

Overview – Should You Count?

It’s probably safe to assume that most people are reading this article to see if maybe they should start counting cards or if it’s something they should do on their next trip to Vegas. I’ll give you a few of my thoughts and ultimately leave the decision to you. First, it takes a lot of time to learn how to count and practice to be good enough to do it in the casino. Second, it takes a lot of ingenuity and creativity to come up with a scheme to not get caught. Third, are you planning on betting with enough money that it’s actually going to be worth your while to go through all of this effort? Remember, you can count cards and still lose in the short term just the way that casinos can lose to you in the short term even though they have the advantage.

Honestly, I wouldn’t bother with it unless you ‘re planning on putting together some new high stakes team of math geniuses and even then, I might still advise against it because you have a big uphill battle against the casinos. They already know all the tricks of the trade, and you’ll have to be really creative to find a way around what they know. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer, but just being realistic.

If you’re still dead set on giving it a go, do your research first. Learn more than just how to count, but learn how to get away with it. Learn what has worked in the past and what hasn’t and try and learn how the casinos combat card counting. Knowing how to card count is only half the battle. Getting away with it without having your money confiscated and you kicked out of the casino and banned is a whole different story. If you do come up with a foolproof scheme, though, give me a buzz 🙂

One additional thought I’d like to add is that card counting is perfectly accepted during Blackjack tournaments. Casinos will hold tournaments, sometimes for big money, where professional and amateur Blackjack players will come together to test their skills against each other. You are not playing for house money but are playing in a tournament style format. For example, let’s say it’s a $100 buy-in Blackjack tournament and it gets 50 entrants. The prize pool will be $5,000, and that will be the money you will be playing for. Everyone will start with a certain amount of “money” that they will play with for a certain amount of rounds to try and get it as high as possible. No matter how high you get that chip amount, the prize money is all you are eligible to win.

Blackjack tournaments are fairly popular and are a great way for you to make some money. A lot of times, too, these tournaments are filled with only amateurs who don’t even know basic strategy and will be easy to beat.

Card Rank Value
2 +1
3 +1
4 +1
5 +1
6 +1
7 0
8 0
9 0
10 -1
J -1
Q -1
K -1
A -1