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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Deal Me In: Card counting isn't all it's cracked up to be

5 September 2008

Dear Mark: As a hobby, and only at home, I like to count down a deck of cards. As I said, I only do this at home and have never tried it on a live blackjack game. Before I do, I was curious as to if most blackjack players who learn to count cards actually end up being successful at beating the house, or am I, and they, wasting our time? I have to believe that the casino is not too keen on us beating them. Kevin L.

Experienced card counters, theoretically, have an advantage of between .5 and 1.5% against the casino, which is accomplished by tracking the changing imbalance of big to little cards in a diminishing deck. When the cards remaining favor the player, you bet more money. When they favor the dealer, you bet less. Big cards (10s, aces) favor the player; small cards (2-6) favor the dealer. I opened with "experienced card counters" because most players are just too darn lazy to learn to count cards well in actual casino conditions. And even if they did learn to make a halfway decent countdown, they often give themselves away by ranging their bets too much or doing something else to tip off the dealers and pit bosses that they are counting.

What the casino can, and will, do to combat would-be counters, is put more decks on the game, burying more cards on the shuffle, stopping mid-entry shoe betting, having the dealer shuffle half way through the deck, and when all else fails, they can, in certain gaming jurisdictions, legally bar the counters from playing and back them off the game. Put another way; give them the heave-ho. Hey, Kevin, you're right. The casino is not too keen on blackjack players who know how to beat the house.

Oh, and where it is permissible to count, Atlantic City for instance, they impose tougher blackjack rules, multi-deck games, and they limit deck penetration to keep the skilled counter at bay. Now, add to the mix that most budding card counters make more than their fair share of basic strategy mistakes, and yes, miscount, which then puts the edge firmly back in the casino's favor.

Sure, Kevin, I've met counters that have brought the casino to its knees, but to the many who think they are the sharpest knife in the drawer, Mike Goodman in his book, Guide to Casino Gambling, Your Best Bet, put it neatly when he said, "Many so-called experienced 21 players don't know their ace from a hole in the ground."

Dear Mark: What should you do with an ace/7 against a deuce; double down or stand? Kevin T.

I recommend staying pat with your ace/7, and here's why. Usually soft doubling against a small card is a good move, but it can be lethal against a deuce. Staying pat, you have a 56% chance of winning, but if you double down and catch a bad card, you better plan on the dealer only breaking 35% of the time.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "When male gamblers come with their buddies, they behave differently than when they come with their girlfriends. And when they come with their girlfriends, they behave differently then when they come with their wives." --Deke Castleman, Whale Hunt in the Desert

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.