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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Counters, markers and the occasional check

4 April 2005

Dear Mark,
I'm not a gambler, so please excuse the ignorance of this question — but assuming card counting is a mental exercise, how do the casinos know someone is doing it? Janet C.

All card-counting systems, Janet, keep track of the ratio of small cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6) to big cards (10, jack, queen, king, ace) remaining in the deck. When that ratio favors the counting player (there being an excess of big cards left, making it easier for the dealer to bust), you bet more money; when it favors the dealer, you bet less.

The card counter continually varies the bets, from one hand to the next, guided by the constantly updated imbalance figure, which predicts that the next hand will favor the bettor or favor the dealer. It's the varying of the counter's bets that is the telltale sign that a player is possibly counting cards. If the bets continue to fluctuate, a pit boss, who probably is already monitoring your action, would make a call upstairs to the eye-in-the-sky: "Hey, Jimbo, stalk this gal's action against your own card count." And eye-in-the-sky will do just that.

If they figure you for using an independent cerebrum, the end is in sight. Casinos do not favor a cat and mouse game which affords the mouse — you — an advantage of 0.5% to 1.5% over the house. A pit bull (boss, on the cat's payroll) will approach you and say, ever so pleasantly, "Janet, we appreciate your patronage, but we're going to ask you to stop playing blackjack. Feel free to play any of the other table games we offer."

Of course, not all mice get caught and backed off the game, nor can all casinos bar counters. If you happen to be playing in a gaming jurisdiction that can't bar counters, Atlantic City for example, you'll find tougher blackjack rules, multi-deck games and limited deck penetration to keep the skilled counter at bay.


Dear Mark,
What is the difference between a marker and a check? K.D.

The casino cashier's cage normally handles the writing of a check or marker play. The "cage" is the central depository for money, gaming chips, and the paperwork necessary to support casino play. Because the gaming industry is highly scrutinized, the cage cashier (an employee who performs a variety of financial transactions and handles all the paperwork) must follow a number of rules and regulations when determining when to extend credit or even cash a check.

To cash a personal check of any significant amount at a casino, you'll first need to see a casino credit manager at the cashier's cage and establish credit by filling out a form similar to a credit card application. The credit manager then performs the necessary credit checks and verifies credit references for people who want to open a house credit account.

A marker, used to buy chips in a table game, is essentially a sight draft, written against a sum of money deposited by a patron in a casino cage account, or against an established line of credit if there is one when asked for an X-dollar marker, the pit boss takes the requester's name, calls the casino cage to confirm the account status, and then writes out a marker for the X dollars. The patron signs the marker, gets his X dollars' worth of chips, and the cashier then deducts the X dollars from the patron's account, establishing a new and lower remaining balance.

If sufficient cash is not on hand in the cage at settling-up time, a player can write a check to cover the outstanding markers. Casinos may also allow you to redeem markers for cash or a check during a specified grace period, usually around seven to 10 days. If the grace period comes and goes, the casino will deposit the markers, which are treated by the bank like ordinary checks.

Gambling quote of the week: "Winning is just a temporary loan from Lady Luck. Continue to gamble and she will call in her marker." —VP Pappy

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.