Casinos are designed with one purpose: to beat the player. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the risks and accept the fact that the house has the edge. There wouldn’t be an Atlantic City, Monaco, or Las Vegas if that weren’t the case.
But what if for some magical time, you as a player were in charge? What if you had the edge over the house? Sound too good to be true? Well, it almost is.
Counting cards takes patience, lots of practice, outright skill, and a chameleon’s ability to blend into the background. The downside of not playing well is the misguided belief that you will win. You won’t. Only the best players win.
And getting caught counting can be worse than losing your money. Over the years, suspected card counters have been stripped of their winnings, threatened, beaten, and arrested.
Today, most suspected card counters are simply barred from playing. That may not seem harsh compared to yesterday’s standards, but after spending hundreds of hours learning a skill, it stinks. Imagine spending a year learning to play guitar and then being told you can’t play in public and you can’t make any money at your new skill.
So Why Learn to Count Cards?
Most players learn to count cards because it sounds fun and exciting. Personally, I learned to play because I was into shortcuts. I figured I wouldn’t have to work a regular job if I could play blackjack for a living.
What I learned is that it takes an enormous amount of effort to play perfect blackjack, and it takes an emotional toll dealing with the monetary ups and downs. There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing you have an edge but not being able to win.
The card counter’s edge comes from betting more when the odds are in their favor. Unfortunately, the edge is less than 1%, meaning you’ll still lose about 49.5% of the hands when you raise your wager. That’s a lot of losing. Imagine flipping a coin and winning one more hand than you lose out of every 200 flips. That leads to some crazy streaks. Ken Uston, a famous card counter, once had 61 straight losing sessions. And he was the best! What a racket.
It All Began
Blackjack card counting isn’t a new idea. Way back in the 1950s, players were beating the game by ace-tracking and using a rudimentary system of play that gave them a tiny edge.
Aces are the most valuable card for players because when a player gets a two-card blackjack (ace and a ten-card), they are paid 3 for 2. If the dealer beats you with blackjack, you only lose your original bet, not 3 for 2.
So, dealers were instructed to shuffle the deck early after a few hands if no aces came out. That stinks. Today, dealers shuffle to a set point designated by a cut-card. So, if no aces have come out, you probably have an edge the casino can’t take away.
That edge was explained in the book “Beat the Dealer” by mathematics professor Edward O. Thorp. His early play and the bestselling book is credited for the wave of blackjack interest that changed Las Vegas casinos in the 1960s.
Thorp used Fortran to program an IBM 704 and devised a playing system he called basic strategy which allowed the player to choose when to hit, stand, double down, and split pairs that were mathematically sound.
Although basic strategy cannot overcome the house edge, it does improve the player’s odds. Thorp proved through a series of trips to Reno and Lake Tahoe that his assignment of point value to each card gave him an edge over the house. He then followed his basic strategy system and raised his wager when he held the edge.
By doing so, he and his backer, Manny Kimmel, won $11,000 in a single weekend and moved their play to Las Vegas to continue their experiment. In his book, Thorp recounted his experiences of wearing disguises, fake beards, and wraparound glasses to try and fool the Vegas bosses.
The book also introduced several count systems to track the house/player edge through the course of a deck of cards. In response, Las Vegas casinos changed their rules to improve their odds, but players hated the changes, and many stopped playing.
The bosses rethought their changes, again allowing players to split aces, and by the end of the year, blackjack tables filled with players ready to win big. Or not.
Some Famous Card Counters
While Thorp was the first and most famous card counter, he made much more from his book sales than he ever earned playing cards. That’s mostly because in the 1960s there were very few places to play blackjack. It wasn’t a popular game in the casinos of Europe, and only Nevada allowed open gaming. That’s right. There were no legal casinos in other states like today!
That was a problem for Griffith K. Owens, who used several names over the years, including Paul Mann, Leonard “Specks” Parsons, and Lawrence Revere. His simple card counting system, very similar to Thorp’s, was dubbed the Revere system. He played for a living, but like Thorp, he made more money selling his book, “Blackjack as a Business.”
Griffin ran into a host of problems while playing and may have been more paranoid than other card counters, but his system is easily learned and still used by players. Unfortunately, by the time most players had read and digested his teachings, it was difficult to get time in at Nevada casinos without being spotted as a counter. Again, the most important aspect of playing was blending into the masses. If you looked like you knew too much, you got tossed out.
Julian Braun broke down the game and designed his own count system, but ran into the same problems other players had: early shuffles, barring from play, and limited tables to get hours in. Braun wrote his own book.
In the 1970s, Ken Uston joined the ever-growing list of card counting authors. Uston was a San Francisco businessman who met gambler Al Francesco at a party and joined his team of blackjack players. Uston was very bright and adapted well to the concept of team play. Francesco managed a team of players who split the counting at blackjack tables and then surreptitiously called in another player to make large wagers when the players had the edge over the house.
The team-play system hoodwinked the bosses in Reno, Lake Tahoe, and even Las Vegas, and the teams made big money. When Atlantic City legalized gaming in the late ‘70s, several teams made serious money there, too. His book “Million Dollar Blackjack” is a classic about playing the game of cat and mouse with the casino bosses.
More recently, teams of players have exploited card counting with large bankrolls to extract serious money from casinos all over the world. Hollywood’s blockbuster movie “21” loosely told the story of Ben Mezrich’s exploits on a team of players who met at MIT.
The team approach with J.P. Massar, Bill Kaplan, and John Chang recruiting players made hundreds of thousands of dollars for team members. They started with small forays to Atlantic City, paid teammates, and then bankrolled an $89,000 group in Atlantic City.
Both Kaplan and Massar served as big players, placing large wagers while their teammates counted down shoe after shoe at various tables. Their play improved, as did their profits as new casinos opened across the US. Eventually, the team is said to have cleared more than $3 million before the barring of their big players became commonplace. That’s a lot of cash.
My favorite story is about John Chang, who cleaned his apartment with his wife before moving. In doing so, they found more than $165,000 in cash and traveler’s checks (and some chips) that he had forgotten about. Wow, must be nice!
How Card Counting Works
The average player at a blackjack table is bucking house odds of about 2%. If the player learns basic strategy and employs the correct decisions for each hit, double down, and split hand, the house edge is closer to .5%.
That’s a tiny advantage for the casino – just 50 cents for every $100 wagered. But a player can get as many as 100 hands in an hour, so that’s fifty bucks an hour if they play $100 a hand.
But what about card counters? Can they really win money regularly? Yes, they can!
Card counting works because the casino has set rules the dealer must follow, such as standing on a 17 but hitting any hand that totals less than 17. The player has the option to vary their play.
Players are allowed to stand on any two-card hand. They can split, double down, surrender if the club allows it, and change their wagers. They can vary their play at the right time and raise their wagers when the deck is favorable.
They know when the house has the edge and when it changes by using a count that assigns a point value to each card and keeping a running total in their head, plus or minus, of that count. Is it easy? Hardly.
On average, a counter will play to an overall edge of less than 1%. That means that they win 1% of their average bet per hour. Think it’s worth it? If you bet between $10 and $100, you’ll win about $50 an hour.
Card Counting Happens
Card counting happens at any casino where the player options at blackjack are favorable. The more favorable, the more likely the games will entice counters to try their skills. Most card counters are self-taught from books they have read, and they play alone.
However, team play has several advantages, such as combining bankrolls to increase average bets, getting in more hours with more players, and smoothing out the bumps along the way by increasing the number of hands played.
And the good news is that casinos don’t go to the extremes they used to in fighting back (literally) against counters. Players have been threatened and had their winnings confiscated (Ron Johnson – “True Blackjack”), were beaten (Ken Uston – “Million Dollar Blackjack”), and were arrested under trumped-up charges by casinos.
Some charges weren’t exaggerated at all, as players have used cameras in their belt buckles, cigarette lighters, and shirt buttons to peek at the dealer’s hole card. When caught, they were arrested and charged with using devices to cheat. That could be a felony charge, so not a good idea.
Other players have used tiny computers stored in their shoes or purses. Think those stories are all made up? Then check out the Blackjack Hall of Fame inside the Barona Casino in San Diego, CA. They’ve got the “magic shoes” and other devices on display!
Also included in the Blackjack Hall of Fame are influential blackjack writers and players, including some I mentioned, plus big-name, big winners like Tommy Hyland, Stanford Wong, and others.
Ideally, players who only used their mental skills would be allowed to play at any casino and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Many card counters practice for hundreds of hours before becoming proficient with actual casino play.
Still, I understand why the casinos don’t want to allow excellent players access to their blackjack tables, even if the amount won is only a tiny fraction of the casinos’ overall win. The managers see any drain on their profits as a serious problem. That’s their job.
A Few Thoughts to Ponder
Card counting isn’t for everyone. It’s a tough go and can be a real grind. A card counter’s job is to learn basic strategy, learn a counting system, practice, get a bankroll, blend into the crowd, and play enough hours to get into the long run.
If they can do that while chatting with the dealers and tipping a bit, they have a good start. Then they have to vary their play based on the count, get as wide a bet spread as possible (at least 7 to 1), play perfectly, and enjoy the ride.
Contrary to some people’s beliefs, it’s not illegal to skillfully play blackjack and use a card counting system. You must dedicate your time and keep your emotions in check when the cards run bad. And they will. Keep your head, treat your bankroll like your best friend, and card counting can be a lot of fun. It’s worth the effort if you have the time and money.