Card Counting

mit blackjack

Card counting is a casino card game strategy used primarily in blackjack to determine whether the next hand is likely to give a probable advantage to the player or to the dealer. Card counters are a class of advantage players, who attempt to decrease the house edge by keeping a running tally of all high and low valued cards seen by the player.

Card counting allows players to bet more with less risk when the count gives an advantage as well as minimize losses during an unfavorable count. Card counting also provides the ability to alter playing decisions based on the composition of remaining cards. Card counting (sometimes called ‘card reading’) is also used in trick-taking games such as contract bridge or spades to optimize the winning of tricks (rounds of play).

The most common variations of card counting in blackjack are based on statistical evidence that high cards (especially aces and 10s) benefit the player more than the dealer, while the low cards, (especially 4s, 5s, and 6s) help the dealer while hurting the player. A high concentration of aces and 10s in the deck increases the player’s chances of hitting a natural Blackjack, which pays out 3:2 (unless the dealer also has blackjack). Also, when the shoe has a high concentration of 10s, players have a better chance of winning when doubling. Low cards benefit the dealer, since according to blackjack rules the dealer must hit stiff hands (12-16 total) while the player has the option to hit or stand. Thus a dealer holding (12-16) will bust every time if the next card drawn is a 10, making this card essential to track when card counting.

Contrary to the popular myth, card counters do not need unusual mental abilities to count cards, because they are not tracking and memorizing specific cards. Instead, card counters assign a point score to each card they see that estimates the value of that card, and then they track the sum of these values – a process called keeping a ‘running count.’ The myth that counters keep track of every card was portrayed in the 1988 film ‘Rain Man,’ in which the savant character Raymond Babbitt counts through six decks with ease and a casino employee erroneously comments that it is impossible to count six decks. For the average player, the disadvantage of higher-level counts is that keeping track of more information can detract from the ability to play quickly and accurately. A card-counter might earn more money by playing a simple count quickly—more hands per hour played—than by playing a complex count slowly.

‘Back-counting,’ also known as ‘Wonging’ (named for Stanford Wong, the pen name of gambling author John Ferguson) consists of standing behind a blackjack table that other players are playing on, and counting the cards as they are dealt. The player will enter or ‘Wong in’ to the game when the count reaches a point at which the player has an advantage. The player may then raise his/her bets as their advantage increases, or lower their bets as their advantage goes down. Some back-counters prefer to flat-bet, and only bet the same amount once they have entered the game to prevent casino authorities from analyzing their betting behavior. Some players will stay at the table until the game is shuffled, or they may ‘Wong out’ or leave when the count reaches a level at which they no longer have an advantage. To thwart potential Wongers, many casinos prohibit ‘mid-shoe entry’ in single or double deck games which makes Wonging impossible. Some casinos offer ‘pitch blackjack’ (single or double deck games dealt by hand), but these games are closely monitored for counting.

Back-counting is different from traditional card-counting, in that the player does not play every hand he sees. This offers several advantages. For one, the player does not play hands at which he does not have a statistical advantage. This in turn reduces variance and fluctuations, and increases the total advantage of the player. Another advantage is that the player does not have to change their bet size as much, or at all if they choose. There are several disadvantages however. One is that the player frequently does not stay at the table long enough to earn comps from the casino. Another is that others at the table can become irritated with players who enter in the middle of a game, superstitiously believing that this interrupts the ‘flow’ of the cards. Lastly, a player who hops in and out of games may attract unwanted attention from casino personnel, and may be detected as a card-counter.

While a single player can maintain their own advantage with back-counting, card counting is most often used by teams of players to maximize their advantage. In such a team, some players called ‘spotters’ will sit at a table and play the game at the table minimum, while keeping a count (basically doing the back ‘counting’). When the count is significantly high, the spotter will discreetly signal another player, known as a ‘big player,’ that the count is high (the table is ‘hot’). The big player will then ‘Wong in’ and wager vastly higher sums (up to the table maximum) while the count is high. When the count ‘cools off’ or the shoe is shuffled (resetting the count), the big player will ‘Wong out’ and look for other counters who are signaling a high count. This was the system used by the MIT Blackjack Team, whose story was in turn the inspiration for the Canadian movie ‘The Last Casino’ which was later re-made into the Hollywood version ’21.’ A simple variation removes the loss of having spotters play; the spotters simply watch the table instead of playing and signal big players to wong in as normal. The disadvantages of this variation are reduced ability of the spotter and big player to communicate, reduced comps as the spotters aren’t sitting down, and vastly increased suspicion, as blackjack is not generally considered a spectator sport in casinos except among those actually playing (unlike craps, roulette and wheels of fortune which have larger displays and so tend to attract more spectators).

A range of card counting devices are available but are deemed to be illegal in most US casinos. In 2009, the Nevada Gaming Control Board issued a warning that an iPhone card counting application was illegal in that state. Card counting with the mind is legal and usually more accurate than this application. Though it is legal to count cards mentally, most casinos are not obligated to let counters play at their establishments and blacklist known advantage players. The player’s name and photo (from surveillance cameras) may also be shared with other casinos and added to a database that includes both card counters and actual cheaters run for the benefit of casino operators. Atlantic City casinos, however, are forbidden from barring card counters as a result of a New Jersey Supreme Court decision. In 1979, Ken Uston, a Blackjack Hall of Fame inductee, filed a lawsuit against an Atlantic City casino for banning him. The court agreed, ruling that ‘the state’s control of Atlantic City’s casinos is so complete that only the New Jersey Casino Control Commission has the power to make rules to exclude skillful players.’ The Commission has made no regulation on card counting, so that Atlantic City casinos are not allowed to ban card counters. Being unable to ban counters even if detected, Atlantic City casinos increased countermeasures.

Some countermeasures have disadvantages for the casino. Frequent shuffling to speed the game and make it more difficult to keep a running count, for example, reduces the amount of playing time and consequently the house’s winnings. Some casinos use automatic shuffling machines to counter the loss of time, with some models of machines shuffling one set of cards while another is in play. Others, known as Continuous Shuffle Machines (CSMs), allow the dealer to simply return used cards to a single shoe to allow playing with no interruption. Because CSMs essentially force minimal penetration (the percentage of the cards dealt before a shuffle), they remove almost all possible advantage of traditional counting techniques. In most online casinos the deck is shuffled at the start of each new round, ensuring the house always has the advantage.

Monitoring player behavior to assist with detecting the card counters falls into the hands of the on-floor casino personnel (‘pit bosses’) and casino-surveillance personnel, who may use video surveillance (‘the eye in the sky’) as well as computer analysis, to try to spot playing behavior indicative of card counting; early counter-strategies featured the dealers learning to count the cards themselves to recognize the patterns in the players. In addition, many casinos employ the services of various agencies, such as Griffin Investigations, who claim to have a catalog of advantage players. If a player is found to be in such a database (called a ‘black book’), he will almost certainly be stopped from play and asked to leave regardless of his table play. For successful card counters, therefore, skill at ‘cover’ behavior, to hide counting and avoid ‘drawing heat’ and possibly being barred, may be just as important as playing skill.

American mathematician Dr. Edward O. Thorp is considered the father of card counting. His 1962 book, ‘Beat the Dealer,’ outlined various betting and playing strategies for optimal blackjack play. Although mathematically sound, some of the techniques described no longer apply, as casinos took counter-measures (such as no longer dealing to the last card). Also, the counting system described (10-count) is harder to use and less profitable than the point-count systems that have been developed since. A history of how counting developed can be seen in David Layton’s documentary film ‘The Hot Shoe.’ Before Thorp’s time, one of the early card counters was Jess Marcum, who is described in documents and interviews with professional gamblers as having developed the first full-fledged point-count system. Another documented pre-Thorp card counter was a professional gambler named Joe Bernstein, who is described in the 1961 book ‘I Want To Quit Winners,’ by Reno casino owner Harold Smith, as an Ace counter feared throughout the casinos of Nevada. And in the 1957 book ‘Playing Blackjack to Win,’ Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott (known among card counters as ‘The Four Horsemen’) published the first accurate blackjack basic strategy and a rudimentary card-counting system, devised solely with the aid of crude mechanical calculators—what used to be called ‘adding machines.’

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