Richard Worth 14th November 2017
“House edge” is the reason why the house always wins. Edge is the average percent over time that the casino will make on each bet. Different games have different edges, the bigger the edge, the bigger the payout and the smaller your chances of winning. The National Lottery has an edge of around 50%, slot machines 17%, roulette 5.5%. Blackjack has an edge of 0.5%, if you’re good and if you have a strategy. But if you can count cards, you can gain the edge.
Card counting or card reading is a technique players can use predict the cards that will be dealt during a game of blackjack to place bets to the biggest advantage. Though not illegal and technically not cheating – it’s referred to as “advantage play” – it is frowned upon by casinos as it undermines their house advantage. Back in the golden age of Vegas – for the casinos, not the players – card counting could result in a visit from hired mob goons. These days your knees will remain intact but you will be escorted from the premises and possibly banned for life from that casino and any other casino they’d care to share your information with, which if you hadn’t already guessed, would be all of them.
Still, card counting remains popular, the Hollywood glitz and glamour of movies like 21 and the dream of hitting the big time fuels a cottage industry of forums, websites, courses and how-to books promising the secrets and rewards of the technique.
Casinos don’t really like to lose money and invest millions in security. Even before you enter the casino, security cameras check license plates to make sure they know exactly who is coming to play. Once you’re in, the casino’s first line of defence are the croupiers and pit bosses, who’ll watch your every move and monitor unusual behaviour, in this case, failing to lose as much as you should be. On top of that, you’re under the scrutiny of hundreds of cameras – the “Eyes in the Sky”, manned by trained security teams backed up by former professionals who know exactly which patterns and plays to watch out for. If that’s not enough, there are also radio frequency identification (RFID) playing chips that the casino can monitor as well as programs like TableEye21 that watches and analyses player, card and chip movement to determine if someone is simply too good to be playing.
At least that’s how it is in the US, a country that’s a little obsessed with the blackjack table. Outside the States the focus is on Roulette and Baccarat, meaning all that technology is aimed at actual cheats rather than advantage players. Could the next card counting Hollywood blockbuster be based in Birmingham, Milton-Keynes or Salford? It’s unlikely but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t try to count in a UK casino. You might even be welcomed in.
Most card counters still lose out
Former Chairman of the International Association of Casino Security and Crown Prosecution expert witness David Mills says: “In terms of a serious risk to game integrity, card counting is marginal at best by comparison to the other scams and techniques. On the plus side, it is also one of the very few ‘skills’ that can be legitimately deployed within the casino environment and thus has an enduring appeal and added interest for many players.”
There has been far more lost by would-be card counters than they have ever won
Casinos can still make money from people practising counting and love counters who think they’re much better than they actually are. On top of which small stakes and a lack of counters mean that a lot of casinos don’t care about counting unless actual cheating is taking place. David adds: “Even in the States, there has been far more lost by would-be card counters than they have ever won! In fact, even the grandfather of card counting, Prof Edwin Thorpe, wonders why it is still treated as such a big issue in casinos.”
In the counter community, there are newsletters and forums that let players know which casinos are currently lax on their anti-counter policies. Even if your target casino is on the lookout for counters, the community regularly discusses “cover plays” – intentionally poor or irregular plays that disguise you counting technique.
How to count cards
So we’ve found a suitable casino for our scheme, we have an opportunity and a motive – making truckloads of cash – so what about the means. How does one become a card counter?
David Shi, former professional card counter banned from five casinos – that he knows of – says: “A lot of people want to learn counting, and attempt to, but get tripped up at the first stage which is memorizing what is known as basic strategy. This is pretty much knowing the best move to make at any time. Some of it is intuitive, but not entirely. Basic strategy needs to be fully memorized before any counting can be learned because most of the time the proper play is simply also basic strategy. Making the wrong move will also get rid of any advantage counting would give… it really doesn’t take that much time to learn basic strategy – probably only a few days of practice. There are about 10-20 less intuitive cases, but most of it makes sense and most regular casino players play about 90% correctly.”
With a little practice and some savvy research, you could be rolling in cash in no time. The rub is that you are going to need a good deal of cash to even start. Financial administration may be dull but it’s also incredibly important to counters. David told me that to count professionally it’s best to have a bankroll of 500 to 1,000 maximum bets. That means if you want to play at a casino where the maximum bet is only £10, you’re still going to need £5,000 to £10,000. Add to that the fact that, as one anonymous player who claims to have trained with the infamous MIT Blackjack Team says: “To make money at blackjack as a solo player you need to basically make it your full-time job to overcome the variance. You can easily be negative in the first 500 hours.”
Alternatively, you could work in a team and pool your resources. Of course, the downside is that while you could be counting cards a lot sooner, you’re winnings are also split. Add to that the same mystery counter also tells me: “There’s a major trust factor you have to overcome. When you hand someone $15K in cash, they can easily skim $100 here and there from their win/loss reports and you would never know.” So you better make sure your partner is on the level.
Even with all this, card counting is still a viable but extremely unlikely career option. You’ll need dedication, intelligence and some savings but you could make a living counting cards. But if it is possible, it begs the question why would anyone quit? Well, it turns out that counting cards doesn’t provide a stable income or the outlaw, playboy lifestyle you might imagine.
David, who now works as a software engineer for Google says: “People stop playing because they lose interest, at least in my case – or when they get something more stable, or when they’re tired of grinding out a boring lifestyle. Counting really isn’t that fun. Counting is pretty much like operating as a robot, making bets according to math, and playing according to math. The swings are also something people don’t really like. One day there can be a positive swing and you go up $500 at a $5 table in an hour, and the next day you’re down that much in a mere hour and a half.”
In gambling slang “the grind” is how much cash a casino whittles away, however slowly, at players. For most normal people, the grind is the day in, day out chore of working hard, and though card counting might allow you to chip away slowly at the casino, and prove that perhaps the house doesn’t always win, like any full time job there’s really no avoiding the grind.
Richard Worth 14th November 2017