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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Deal Me In: Card counting isn't cheating, but . . .

1 April 2016

Dear Mark: When it comes to blackjack, why is counting cards considered a form of cheating? I look at it as someone who is very good at the game and no different from someone playing poker, like players who are very skilled at bluffing and reading the body language and facial expressions of the others at the table. Gary

When it comes to counting cards, Gary, you don’t need to be a math whiz. All card counting does is establish mathematically the degree to which the as-yet-undealt deck favors the dealer or favors the player. Counting does this by tracking the changing imbalance of big and little cards in a diminishing deck.

Card counters, theoretically, have an advantage of anywhere from 0.5% to 1.5% over the casino. A deck rich with high cards (10, jack, queen, king, ace) favors the player, whereas, an excess of low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), favors the dealer. When that ratio favors the counting player, he/she bets more money; when it favors the dealer, the counter bets less.

Your assertion, Gary, “why is counting cards considered a form of cheating?” is erroneous in that card counting is NOT illegal under federal, state or local laws in the United States; just so long as the player does not use any external card counting device, or persons, to assist them in counting cards.

In their pursuit to identify card counters, casinos can ban players believed to be counters, sort of. It depends, Gary, on where you are playing.

For instance, in Atlantic City, they will let you take a whack at counting cards, again, sort of. The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that players can not be discriminated against because of their playing skills (counting), even if detected. Instead, the casino will employ countermeasures to hinder card counters on the Jersey shore.

They “lawfully” impede a skilled card counting blackjack player by using eight-deck shoes, shuffling at will to thwart bet variance, and instruct the dealers to move the cut card near the top of the shoe on suspected counters.

In Nevada, before you sit down at a blackjack table, you will need to check your brain at the door. There, laws allow casinos to operate sort-of like a private club, so plan on being asked to leave for using your cerebral matter.

So, Gary, though not technically illegal, or cheating for that matter, what a casino in Nevada can do is bar the counter from playing blackjack by backing them off the game. Those who want to play this cat-and-mouse game to gain a 1%-plus advantage should expect a pit boss to come up to them and unsympathetically say, “we appreciate your business, but we are going to ask you to stop playing blackjack here. Feel free to play any of the other table games that we offer.” Translated, that means go play any other game that has a much higher house edge.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “Today is Halloween, which would be every card counter's favorite holiday if you could get away with wearing a mask. Oh, what a joy it would be to hear a floor man muttering into a phone, 'I think Batman is counting.'” – Barry Meadow
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.