Posts Tagged ‘card counting’

Should I play single deck blackjack games?

Friday, May 6th, 2011

If you’re relatively new to blackjack, you might be overwhelmed by the different options that are available in casinos. There are different rule variations, different payouts and a different number of decks. Most Vegas casinos use six or eight decks, but you will sometimes find blackjack tables with a single deck. So should you play at those tables?

Probably not. You see, fewer decks tilts the odds slightly toward the player. The tilt is greater if you are counting cards, because it makes it easier to keep track of the cards that have been played. If a casino offers a rule variation, it’s usually not out of the kindness of their heart so they can give you more money. It’s simply a way to get more people playing. Therefore, if they have a variation that lowers their house edge, they usually change some other rule to compensate for that.

When it comes to single-deck games, the casino usually changes the payout for a natural blackjack. In normal games, a natural blackjack – an ace and ten in your first two cards – pays out 3:2. For single-deck games, the payout for a natural blackjack is usually 6:5. That’s a big difference.

To show how much of a change it is, let’s use an example of betting $10 per hand for an hour. On average, if you played blackjack continuously for one hour, you would play 100 hands. Statistically speaking, if you play a single-deck game that pays 3:2 for a blackjack, you will lose $1.80 in one hour of play. Not bad. However, if the single-deck game pays 6:5 for a blackjack, you will lose $14 in an hour. Big difference, right?

That is why it’s so important to know the odds of the different blackjack games and know how the number of decks and the payouts affect the odds. Playing at a casino has bad enough odds as it is; don’t help the casino out by playing games that don’t have the best odds for you.

Is Card Counting Legal?

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Most people only know about counting cards because of movies like Rain Man and, more recently, The Hangover. For that reason, there are a lot of misconceptions about card counting. The most common question I get about it, aside from how to do it, is whether or not it’s legal. The short answer: yes, sort of.

Before I get into the “sort of” part, I need to point out something. Casinos hate card counters. Fair or not, if they catch you counting cards, they will escort you from the casino and may even ban you from visiting again. If it’s a casino chain, you could be banned from every casino they have. If you get kicked out of enough casinos for counting cards, you could find yourself blacklisted and unable to play anywhere in the state. All of this is despite the fact that you wouldn’t have broken any law.

There are currently several legal battles over whether the casinos have the right to do that. Players contend that if the casino offers a game involving skill, they shouldn’t penalize people who are more skilled than others. The casinos contend that, as private businesses, they have the right to refuse service to anyone. Both arguments make good points, which is why I don’t think the issue will be resolved anytime soon. So for now, the answer is that card counting is legal but can still get you banned from a casino.

There is a caveat, though. It is legal to use your mind only to count cards. No external device of any kind can be used to help you. That includes obvious things like digital counters, calculators, surveillance and other high-tech equipment, but it can also be very low-tech. If you wrap a rubber band around your finger and move it around while counting, that’s illegal. If someone else counts for you and somehow relays the information to you, that’s illegal. Writing it down is illegal (though that would also easily be caught). Any trick that you can possibly think of that requires anything other than the internal processes of your mind would make card counting illegal. And if you count cards illegally, you are going to get a much worse fate than getting tossed from a casino.

Don’t be intimidated by card counting

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

A lot of blackjack players – even people who have been playing the game for a while – are intimidated by the idea of counting cards. They think that you have to be too smart or you have to be a mathematician or something.

I blame it on Rain Man. That is the movie that introduced the concept of counting cards to most people. There are many great things about that Academy Award-winning film. However, like most Hollywood movies, it’s not terribly accurate. For one thing, it wasn’t an accurate depiction of autism. More to our point, though, it was not an accurate depiction of card counting. In the movie, Raymond Babbit was a savant, with one of his areas of expertise being counting. His brother then takes him to the casino to take advantage of his skill. The truth is that Charlie could learn to count cards himself, if he takes the time to learn.

Savantism is not required for card counting. If you use the simplest method, you only need to be able to count to one. Pretty easy, right?

Before going forward, here are two disclaimers. First, card counting doesn’t work with online blackjack. The use of a random number generator makes the strategy useless, so don’t waste your time trying to count online. Secondly, casinos do not like card counters. If you use nothing but your brain to help you, it is perfectly legal (even something as simple as a rubber band or a pen helping you would make it illegal). Still, legal or not, if a casino catches you counting cards you will be asked to leave and may be banned permanently from that resort. Make sure you understand the risks before engaging in an activity that will draw the ire of casinos.

Having said that, let’s look at the easiest way to count cards, the Hi-Lo Count. The simplest hi-lo count has only three values: -1, 0 and +1. Each card is assigned a value, with 2-6 having a +1 value, 7-9 having a value of 0 and 10-ace having a value of -1.

The object of counting cards is to determine when the deck is rich in tens. A lot of tens remaining is beneficial to the player, so in that case you would increase your bet. Start with a count of zero whenever the table begins a new deck or shoe. As each card is revealed, keep a running count, adding the point value of the card that is drawn. Remember that you are not only counting your cards, but also the cards given to every other player and the dealer. That is the only complicated thing about card counting. You have to do it fast.

Once you have a running count, you now have to find the “true count,” which takes into account the number of decks in play. All you have to do is divide the running count by the number of decks remaining. For example, if you have a true count of +8 and the dealer has used two of the six decks, you would do 8/4 to get a true count of +2. If you get a fraction, feel free to round up to make it simple. Once you have the true count, try to take advantage of a game with a lot of tens remaining. Remember, however, that the dealers are trained to pick up on the betting patters of card counters, so be discrete.

IN Supreme Court rules against card counters

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

You probably remember the case from 2006 when the Grand Victoria Casino banned Thomas Donovan because he was caught counting cards. Donovan took the case to court, suing over what he said was discrimination against players practicing a legal strategy. Eventually the case made its way to the Indiana state Supreme Court. Last week, that court made a ruling in the case that favors the state’s casinos.

Last week, in a 3-1 ruling with one justice abstaining from the case, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a casino’s right to ban card counters from its blackjack tables. As the casino’s supporters – and even me – pointed out, businesses have a common-law right to exclude customers who they feel are detrimental to their business. The Court agreed with that assessment, stating that as long as civil rights are not violated, business (including casinos) have the right to refuse service whenever they deem it necessary.

Justice Frank Sullivan, Jr. wrote that the right of exclusion for “private property owners” includes any casino “that wishes to exclude a patron for employing strategies designed to give the patron a statistical advantage over the casino.”

Not everyone agreed, though. The lone dissenting vote was by Justice Brent Dickson. He feels that casinos, because they’re so highly regulated by the government, do not have the same rights and privileges as other private businesses. In essence, he argues that casinos should have to follow the rules of government or government-sponsored enterprises, which requires them to serve the “general public.”

In Dickson’s dissenting vote, he wrote that allowing a casino to “restrict its patrons only to those customers who lack the skill and ability to play such games well intrudes upon the principles of fair and equal competition and provides unfair financial advantages” to the casinos.

Though the ruling has no direct impact on anyone outside of Indiana, it carries a message that I have been preaching to all blackjack players for some time: If you’re going to count cards, don’t get caught! The casinos frown upon it and will likely ban you. In the state of Indiana, that practice of banning has been upheld as constitutional. Meanwhile, adhering to blackjack basic strategy does not have to be a secret. You can even hold a strategy card while you play if you want.

Thank Blackjack for Charlie Mars’ Music

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Blackjack is my favorite casino game for a variety of reasons, but I just found a new reason. The game of blackjack is responsible for the career resurgence of one of my favorite musicians.

Yes, it’s true. His name is Charlie Mars and if you haven’t heard of him, I suggest you buy his new album, Like a Bird, Like a Plane. If you’re one of those people who wants to listen to some samples or download a few songs first, I recommend checking out two songs in particular, “Listen to the Darkside” and “Meet Me by the Backdoor.”

Mississippi native Mars started out as your typical acoustic guitar-wielding singer/songwriter, but over the years he has evolved from a standard crooner into an artist with a fully fleshed sound that is as interested in grooves, rhythmic beats and catchy riffs as in storytelling. This evolution is most apparent on his current album, but that album almost never happened.

After touring relentlessly to support his first four albums, Mars became burned out and addicted. He then went to rehab and once he got out, was living on a houseboat in Sweden.  He assumed that his music career was over, as did everyone else. While living on the houseboat, however, he became inspired and began writing some new songs, uncertain of whether he would ever do anything with them.

As you might expect of someone living on a houseboat, Mars didn’t have any cash, so once he was finished writing the songs, he had no way of recording them. He had lost his recording contract a long time prior and no record label was willing to bankroll the album of a man who had become burned out before ever making it big or even headlining a tour of his own (Mars had only toured to support other artists).

That’s where the blackjack came in. It turns out that Mars is a bit of a gambler and blackjack has always been his game of choice. Though Mars has never – to my knowledge – said whether or not he is a card counter, it is clear that he is skilled at the game. Needing money, Mars went into a Swedish casino and won enough money to pay for sessions at a recording studio. The result of those sessions is Like a Bird, Like a Plane, Mars’ fifth album, which was subsequently released worldwide by his own label, Rockingham Records.

Thanks to his new sound and maybe a little luck, Mars is having the most success of his career, headlining a world tour and getting radio airplay for the first time. And to think, maybe none of that would have happened if Mars hadn’t been a lover of blackjack.

For that reason, I say to you, if you want to be assured of success in life, get to be good at blackjack just in case… Okay, not really. That’s terrible advice, but it worked out in Mars’ case.

Blackjack Card Counting

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Okay, I have put off writing about card counting for this long, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason is that this website is primarily geared toward online blackjack and card counting does not work online. However, I have covered other topics that are applicable only to blackjack games played in a brick and mortar casino.

Other reasons I have put off writing about card counting is that if you do it wrong, you could lose a lot of money. People often increase their bets when they think the count is in their favor and then get cleaned out because they were counting cards wrong, had the wrong number of decks, or made some other sort of mistake. For that reason, before using it in a casino – if you do it at all – then you should make sure you know what you’re doing.

The other major reason I do not advocate card counting is that casinos frown upon it. It is true that card counting is not cheating and it is not against the law. However, if a casino catches you counting cards, you will be removed from the premises and possibly banned. There are current court battles over whether or not that practice by the casinos is legal. Rest assured, though, that you do not want to get caught counting cards. For that reason, I do not advocate that strategy and instead say to use blackjack basic strategy, which reduces the house edge to a miniscule 0.5%.

Having said that, though, I know that a lot of the blackjack players who visit websites such as this one want to know about card counting, either to simply further their knowledge or so they can try it for themselves. For that reason, I have decided to cover the basics for card counting and will write a series on the subject this week. Here is some basic information just to give you a little background. Again, remember that card counting does not work in online blackjack.

The idea behind card counting is the fact that a deck that is rich in tens is beneficial for the player. Because of rules like splitting, doubling and the 3:2 payout for a natural blackjack, 10-value cards help the player more than the dealer. Therefore, when counting cards you are attempting to discern how many tens remain in play. If the deck is rich in tens then you would increase your bet but if it is low in tens you would be more conservative.

Rain Man introduced most of the world to card counting and in doing so, it perpetuated a myth about the strategy. That myth is the idea that you have to be either a mathematical genius or a savant to be a card counter. That is not true. In fact, if you can count to one, you are capable of card counting. The simplest form of card counting is a high-low count, where each card that is dealt is given either a value of +1 or -1 . You then either add or subtract one from the count whenever a card is dealt and raise or lower your bet depending on how high or low that count is.

That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? That’s because it’s not. Certainly card counting is more complex than counting to one and there are many different types of card counting techniques, though. I will cover the subject in more depth throughout the week.

Shuffle Tracking Online

Monday, April 26th, 2010

A lot of blackjack players use shuffle tracking in addition to card counting in order to gain an advantage when playing at a brick and mortar casino. Shuffle trackers look for slugs, which are an unshuffled group of cards, tack them throughout the deck, and alter their bets when the dealer gets to those slugs, since they will know what cards are coming.

However, neither card counting nor shuffle tracking works when playing online blackjack. The reason for that is simple: There is no real deck. Sometimes the online blackjack games will show a deck on screen and other times they won’t and you will only see the cards in play. Even if you see a deck on screen, though, it’s impossible to track cards in the deck because the deck you see is only a representation and not a real deck. Also, the cards that are dealt are randomized by a computer program called a random number generator rather than an actual shuffle.

The random number generator can be set different ways. Sometimes it has the effect of shuffling a deck every few hands and sometimes after every hand. Sometimes the online casinos tell you when the deck is being shuffled while other times they don’t. Whatever the case, counting cards and shuffle tracking are impossible when playing online blackjack.

In fact, no strategy that players have devised to gain an advantage at blackjack will work at an online casino. All of the techniques are thwarted by the technology. Instead, the best you can do is play with perfect basic strategy and lower the house edge to 0.5%.

Indiana Supreme Court to Hear Card Counting Case

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Remember Thomas Donovan? Last year we reported on his efforts to challenge casinos’ policy of banning card counters. In 2006, he was banned from the Grand Victoria casino in Indiana for counting cards, which is a fairly common practice for casinos. Even though counting cards isn’t illegal, the casinos really don’t like it. Donovan admits that he’s a card counter but says that the casino has no right to ban him for doing something that is legal.

Donovan then filed a lawsuit against the casino in a Marion County court. That court ruled in favor of the casino. Then in October of 2009, Donovan filed an appeal in the Indiana Court of Appeals, saying that his ban is unlawful. In November, the Court of Appeals upheld Donovan’s appeal, stating that the casino had no right to ban him for counting cards. The casino then responded, as you might expect, by appealing the appellate court’s decision. They filed an appeal with the Indiana Supreme Court, which is set to hear the case tomorrow.

This is an interesting case and its outcome will send reverberations across the blackjack community. Do casinos have the right to ban people for counting cards if they are not breaking the law? Both sides admittedly seem to have a good argument, so let’s look at both sides.

Donovan points out that counting cards is not illegal in the state of Indiana (which is true) and that neither the state nor that casino has any rules against counting cards while playing blackjack (which may be true; more on that later). In essence, he is arguing that the casino banned him because he was winning, which he says is not a lawful reason for the ban.

The casino points out that they are a privately-run business and therefore they have the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. That is somewhat true.  I don’t know a whole lot about Indiana’s laws on the subject, but I do know about the federal laws on this matter. The Civil Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against certain protected groups. Specifically, it guarantees “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Clearly, card counters do not fall into any of those protected groups. Courts have generally ruled that a business refusing service is legal if they had a specific interest in refusing that service, but it is unlawful if it is random or arbitrary. For instance, courts have ruled that businesses can refuse service to people who are not in the proper attire, who are unruly or are intoxicated, for example, because banning them could be beneficial to the business. Someone who does not follow the dress code detracts from the atmosphere of the establishment, someone who is unruly can make other customers decide to leave, and intoxicated people can cause all sorts of problems. Therefore, in those examples, those bans are not arbitrary, because the business has a vested interest in refusing their service.

So the question seems to be whether or not the casino has a specific reason for wanting to refuse service to card counters. The answer seems to be yes, because card counters cost them more money than non-counters. But is the fact that a person is costing the business money a legal reason to refuse their service? Courts have ruled that buffet-style restaurants can refuse service to customers who eat too much or waste food. It seems that the casino’s ban on card counters could be an extension of that same principle. So in this way it seems like the law is on the side of the casino.

Or is it? There is another argument in play here and that is that casinos aren’t the same as other private businesses. They are heavily taxed, regulated and supervised by the state. Some argue that because of that, they should be treated more like government-run businesses, which have fewer rights regarding the ability to refuse service. However, though they are taxed and regulated by the government, the casinos in Indiana are not subsidized by the government. They give money to the government, like any other business, but do not take any. Still, because of the heavy state regulation, the courts could choose to see the casinos as only partially private businesses. If they are seen as a public enterprise, then the rules regarding rights to refuse service are different.

I don’t know which side of the argument the state Supreme Court will favor, but they are expected to make a decision later this week. Legal arguments aside, wouldn’t it be nice to use common sense? Blackjack is a game of skill, so if the casinos are willing to offer that game, shouldn’t they accept that some players will be more skilled than others?

And that brings me back to something else that could impact the entire blackjack community. Donovan says that the casino has no rules against counting cards, but what if they did? Putting aside the above “public enterprise” argument for a moment, casinos are private businesses that can make up their own rules, as long as those rules don’t conflict with any existing laws. If you enter a business you have to obey their rules or the business has every right to refuse service to you. Therfore, if the casinos simply came out and clearly stated that, though there is no law against it, they do not allow card counting, couldn’t they legally ban anyone who does it? It seems like it to me, but then again, I majored in psychology, not law.

Blackjack Mistakes: Counting Cards Online

Monday, March 8th, 2010

As time goes on, the technology advances exponentially. Some people adapt to these advances quickly, while others are left behind. I still buy CDs and am happy to do so (for one thing, they sound better), but a lot of the kids download all of their music today. On occasion, they even pay for those songs!

Casino gambling is another thing that has changed over time. It’s most evident in electronic games like the slot machines and video poker. However, even the game of blackjack, which in its standard table version is virtually unchanged from its original version, has adapted over time. Thanks to the internet, many people now play their blackjack online, which is great because it’s convenient and cheaper than visiting a brick and mortar casino. However, you can get into trouble if you are a card counter and try to apply the same techniques online.

It’s common for experienced blackjack players to try to count cards when they first start playing online blackjack. After a while, the smartest players figure out on their own that it isn’t working. To save those players some time and to clue in some players who might not have figured it out, let me tell you a secret. This is so important that the sentence gets its own paragraph:

Counting cards does not work for online blackjack.

Notice that the above is an absolute, definitive statement. There is no “usually,” “sometimes” or “maybe.” It will never work. Why? Because the outcome of drawing a card is not dependent on the shuffling of a deck of cards. It is dependent on a random number generator.

A random number generator (RNG) is a computer program that uses a complex algorithm to select a sequence of numbers hundreds of times every second. Depending on when you hit a button to take a card or when the computerized “dealer” takes a card, the RNG selects what card it will be. Unlike in casino blackjack, the outcome of that card is totally random and completely independent of every other card that is dealt.

Once a card is dealt, the RNG goes back to work and selects the next card. It does not take into account the last card that was dealt or the card before that. Therefore, in essence it’s the same as re-shuffling the deck after each card is dealt. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer a Hi Lo Count, a KO Count, shuffle-tracking or whatever. There is no card counting strategy in existence that can predict the outcome in online blackjack. You can never tell when the deck is rich in tens because it is never rich in tens and, strictly speaking, there isn’t really a deck at all.

The good news, however, is that blackjack basic strategy works just as well online as in brick and mortar casinos. So memorize your basic strategy, forget about card counting, and have some fun online.

Cheating in Blackjack

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

I recently read an article online about the training of special agents in casinos who are tasked with identifying cheaters. The methodology in their training was very interesting, but my mind kept going back to the basic questions of why do people cheat and is it immoral to cheat?

Both questions are so intertwined that it’s impossible to fully discuss one without the other. First of all, I’ll point out that counting cards is not cheating if you do so using nothing but your mind. Using any sort of outside help, which can range from a digital counter to a rubber band, is cheating.

So why do some people cheat at blackjack and other casino games? First, let’s concede the fact that most people think of themselves as good people. Short of someone with a severe mental disorder, such as antisocial personality disorder, it’s virtually impossible to continue doing bad things, realize that they are bad, know that it makes you a bad person, and be okay with it.

People are not okay with thinking they’re a bad person. A person’s self-concept is formed at an early age and with the exception of extreme circumstances of abuse, as children we come to think of ourselves as good people. Doing bad things contradicts that positive self-image, forming cognitive dissonance, which is when someone holds onto two contradictory ideas simultaneously. One of the ways of resolving that dissonance is by rationalizing the bad behavior.

Yes, I had an affair, but my husband is never home and doesn’t love me anymore. Yes, I spent too much money on this house, but it’s an investment for the future. I would never abuse a child, but it’s the only way to keep him in line.

People invent justifications for their bad behavior that allow them to think of that behavior as okay. This allows them to see what they did not as something bad, but as something that was necessary or acceptable due to the circumstances. In this form of rationalization, they no longer see the bad behavior as being bad. In blackjack, it can take an “ends justifies the means” form, where the player is hurting for money and has bills that they can’t pay. They rationalize that I am only cheating because I need the money. I would never do it just to have extra money to spend on trivial things, but I have a family to support. That rationalization makes cheating not seem bad because not being able to support the family would be worse.

People also rationalize by comparing themselves to others with whom they match up favorably. This is done all of the time in the constructing and reinforcement of our self-image as a good person. We see ourselves as being good by recognizing that we are “better” than people we consider to be bad. After being accused of stealing, football player Peter Warrick protected his self-image by saying “it’s not like I shot the president.” Sure, being a thief is bad, but not as bad as being a murderer. People rationalize buying an expensive TV that they can’t afford by pointing out the average debt of American households. Sure, I might have spent too much, but not compared to those other people! Have you seen the size of our neighbor’s boat?

In this way, players can justify stealing from a casino because, compared to murder, rape, child abuse and countless other crimes, what they’re doing isn’t really that bad. Also, it’s not like the casino can’t afford it!

And that is probably the most common rationalization behind cheating at blackjack. Another way in which people resolve cognitive dissonance and preserve their self-image of a good person is by making the victim out to be the villain. That way they deserved it. Yes, I killed my wife, but she was having an affair. Yes, I lied on the witness stand, but I know that man was guilty.

Casinos are easy targets for this. Sure, they provide basically any amenity you can ask for, are a great place to have fun, and will willingly pay you when you win fair and square, but let’s face it, they’re greedy and like taking my money! People rationalize that since the casino takes everyone’s money and the games have odds unfairly tilted in the house’s favor, there’s nothing wrong with cheating them out of money. I’m like Robin Hood. I’m stealing from the rich and giving to..well, not the poor, but me! Since the games all have a house edge, people can see cheating as simply evening things out to make them fairer, ignoring the fact that anyone who gambles in a casino accepts the fact that a casino is a business that needs the revenue from gamblers to make money and stay in operation.

Though stealing something from another person is always equally bad, people are able to justify it so that it’s bad if you steal from someone poor but okay if you steal from the rich. It is much easier to rationalize stealing from a millionaire CEO than from a homeless person. Why? Because the rich person can afford it!  Look, it’s not like the casino will even miss this money. They have billions! In this weak economy, though, many casinos are losing money and some have even had to close. That doesn’t matter to the cheaters, though, who justify their actions by looking at the glitz and glamor of the casino and assume that they’re making money hand over fist. They can afford to lose this money. They have plenty of it and I’m barely scraping by.

The mind is a powerful thing. Through rationalization of bad behavior, people can resolve their cognitive dissonance and still see themselves as a good person. Sometimes they do so by justifying the bad behavior so it is no longer seen as bad, while other times they recognize that it was bad, but necessary. They hold onto their self-concept as a good person by admitting that sometimes a good person does bad things.