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The Truth About... Card Counting

Gamblers have long been fascinated with the idea of card counting during blackjack games. Robert Blincoe explains how it works and why the casinos are happy for you to give it your best shot

Blackjack, played by a successful card-counter, is the only casino game that guarantees long-term profit for the player. You can apply the knowledge of what cards have been dealt to make predictions about future cards and give yourself an edge over the house.

It's still being done by individuals and teams, and the theory was mathematically proven at the start of the 1960s. In fact the man who did the proof, on a very early IBM computer, then in practical experiments in the casinos of Reno and Las Vegas, became a multimillionaire – he just didn't achieve it by card counting.

That man was Professor Ed Thorp and in November 1962 he published the book Beat The Dealer. It was the first card-counting manual and became a best seller. It kick-started the card-counting industry and gave the casinos the shock of their lives. They even tried changing the rules of the game, but were forced into a U-turn by regular players who felt they were being ripped off by the management.

The basic idea of card counting is simple and doesn't require a photographic memory to record every card that's been dealt (see boxed text). But it does require effort, a lot of practice and concentration, and has to be backed up by perfect strategy play and bankroll management to be truly effective. Most people don't bother and poorly played blackjack is one of the casino’s biggest income generators.

This leads to an interesting situation, and a funny fall-out from Thorp's work. Casinos don't want skilful card-counters playing blackjack, but they love the idea of encouraging the concept that the game can be beaten. That's why the red carpet was rolled out in Las Vegas when the film crews of the Kevin Spacey movie 21, and the recent hit The Hangover came to town. Both show people winning at blackjack and were a great advert for the casinos. Even casino hotel bookshops stock books on card counting.

To be successful requires a lot of effort, and because the edge against the house is so slight you need a very large bankroll to make a decent return, and outlast the inevitable bad runs. People think they can do it, and have fun trying it and losing.

And if you're good the casinos do all they can to stop you winning. Thorp published his book because he had realised that it was easier to make money writing a book about it than doing it. He'd been drugged, barred from casinos, had his betting limits restricted and endured cheating mechanic dealers manipulating the decks. He eventually stopped doing it, even though he estimated he could make $300,000 a year (around $2-$3 million in today's money) and made his millions becoming a stock market investor, applying the money management strategies he'd developed during his card counting research.

Knowing when you've got a big blackjack advantage when a single deck is dealt to the bottom is simple. These days six or eight decks combined are common, and it is never dealt anywhere near to the end before its reshuffled. This is where it takes very real skill to maintain an edge.

But casinos are still paranoid. Andy Bloch, one of the poker pros on Full Tilt, was once part of one of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) card-counting crews in the early 1990s. He's made $100,000 in one session. It was an MIT squad’s endeavours that were portrayed in the 21 movie and the book Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich. Private investigators tracked the players down, and all were barred.

Famed card-counter Ken Uston filed a lawsuit against Atlantic City casinos after being barred and the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled that Atlantic City casinos did not have the authority to decide whether skilled players could be barred. They now just add decks, shuffle often or restrict betting to destroy a counter’s edge.

Bloch has been arrested entering casinos, is barred from playing blackjack at the major casinos, and still can have trouble attending poker tournaments. This happened at the first World Series of Poker Europe event in London in 2008 where his past caused a problem with security, and he had to get special clearance to play in the tournament. He's made good money at card counting, produced DVDs on it, and if he can get away with it, he'll still sit down at a blackjack table.

He recommends you do too if you've done your homework. But Thorpe’s card-counting strategy gives the player the tiniest of edges, in fact less than 1 percent. This means that over the long term, after betting $10,000 dollars, the player can expect to earn less than $100. And in the short term, his bank balance will fluctuate by several hundred dollars in both directions. Thorpe declared that it was possible to consistently beat the casino, but players had to be prepared for a long, hard slog.

HOW IS IT DONE?

You need to learn basic strategy – when to stick, when to draw more cards depending on your total, and what the dealer has. When Professor Ed Thorp first analysed basic blackjack strategy he discovered that with favourable table rules (insurance, splitting pairs, doubling down) the player had an edge of about 0.1 percent. With unfavourable rules, the disadvantage is 0.5 percent, which is still fantastic for a casino game. Naturally, as Thorp revealed this, it is nigh on impossible to find favourable conditions.

But rule one is understand the table rules and adopt the correct strategy – you can find details online, in Thorp's Beat the Dealer, or any number of manuals. The variations, and options, make it impossible to list here.

The basic count method, known as high-low, is you count +1 for every low card you see played (2,3,4,5, or 6) and -1 for every high card (10 or ace), with 7,8,9 not affecting the count. Low cards favour the dealer and high cards favour the player as a dealer will bust when drawing them. The higher the count the bigger the advantage to the player. If decks are dealt to the bottom, you can be sure what's coming, so they never are.

But between 70 percent and 90 percent of the player edge, when counting cards, comes from placing larger bets when the count is favourable to the player. Bet increases should be proportional to the player advantage and scaled to their bankroll. Players suddenly betting heavily alert the casino that a counter is at work, so sophisticated counters try and hide their betting patterns. Team play allows the counter and better to be different people.

Advanced players have sophisticated counting systems, and shuffle-track, where they follow favourable cards through a shuffle. They can even try and cut aces to favourable positions.

CASE STUDY: CASH, CARD COUNTING AND A CAT HOUSE IN COSTA RICA

A key part of having a chance at making money card counting is choosing the right casino and the right table to play. This is nicely illustrated by the success of Australian video game marketer Mat Bettinson.

He'd learned to play blackjack and card count at his local casino as a teenager, but hadn't bothered doing it for years until he walked into the Hotel & Casino Del Rey, in the heart of San José, Costa Rica's capital, about five years ago.

Though pleasantly drunk, he relieved it of $7,000 in around two hours by card counting.

The reason Bettinson made out like a bandit is that, at the time, The Del Rey wasn't concentrating as fully on it's casino business as maybe it should. As well as sports betting and blackjack, slot machines, roulette, tute (a popular card game in Spain and some Latin American countries), rummy, and free drinks for players, the real attraction of the place is all the hookers who hang out there.

In Costa Rica prostitution is legal, and The Del Rey is hooker HQ. It is still highly recommended for the single male traveller in the online hotel guides.

"The place was not frequented by the high rollers,” said Bettinson. "It was the type of establishment where the casino wasn't the main attraction. They didn't have craps there because the customers wouldn't know how to play.”

To Bettinson, the blackjack dealer didn't know how to play either. "They were dealing with two decks, and they weren't shuffling them,” he says. “I thought 'what the hell!' It was child's play. And they were dealing the decks down to the bottom.

“I didn't do anything to vary my betting and I expected at anytime they'd go 'Oi!', but they never did. It was good fun. I don't mind not winning, but I don't want my legs broken. I did feel a little bit nervous in there.

"I was playing predominantly with Americans who didn't know how to play, which was great. No one else was counting. I stopped when they told me I couldn't play anymore. But they were polite about it. I think they don't necessarily know who people are and they can't afford to annoy anybody.”
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