Mathematician Edward Thorp opened the public’s eyes to card counting in 1962, when he detailed his strategies in the book Beat the Dealer. Ever since then, many blackjack players have tried winning money off the casino through advantage play.
Thorp actually used a rudimentary counting system called the 10 Count. But improved systems have made the process easier.
Given how card counting is easier than ever before, you’d think that more players would be using this advantage play method. This is especially the case when considering how many people are interested in becoming professional gamblers.
Yet much of the general public shies away from counting. One obvious reason why is because it takes work to become a successful card counter.
Perhaps an even bigger reason why is that the general public believes that card counting is illegal. Is this really the case, though?
Find out as I cover the process of counting cards, why casinos hate counters, and if this technique is truly illegal. You may be shocked to find that card counting can actually be illegal in certain circumstances.
How Does Card Counting Work?
Before I dive into the legality of card counting, I want to discuss how it works so you can see that no cheating is involved.
The overall goal of counting is to figure out when the shoe has an abundance of aces and 10-value cards. The reason why is because more aces and 10s increase the chances of getting a natural blackjack.
Casinos pay either 3:2 or 6:5 on your original bet when you win with a natural blackjack. Therefore, you gain more value on larger bets when the shoe the is rich in aces, kings, queens, jacks, and 10s.
This is where card counting comes in, because you can track when the shoe has more favorable cards. You want to bet more when there’s an abundance of aces and 10s.
This is referred to as spreading bets, because you start at the table minimum and move up to a larger wager when the count is in your favor.
Here’s an example on spreading wagers:
- A common bet spread for professional card counters is 1-15.
- The table minimum bet is $5.
- You continue making this wager until the count goes in your favor.
- You then increase your bet to $75 (i.e. 1-15 spread) during favorable counts.
Earlier I mentioned how card counting systems have improved over the years and become more accurate. But oftentimes, choosing a more-accurate counting method increases the margin for human error.
Many players simply use the Hi-Lo system, because it has a nice balance between being accurate and easy to learn. The main thing you must realize is that you’re counting three groups of cards, including high, low, and neutral.
Here are the differentgroupings:
- Low cards (2-6) = +1
- Neutral cards (7-9) = 0
- High cards (A-10) = -1
You can see that card counting isn’t difficult to learn. But one of the biggest challenges is keeping an accurate count when weighing other factors, like the dealer speed, casino distractions, and trying to act like a normal player.
This is why many card counters practice by using free online training programs or even simply dealing cards around a table like they’reat a casino table. Any blackjack player can learn to successfully count cards if they put some work into matter.
Also keep in mind that the Hi-Lo system calls on you to convert your “running count” into a “true count.” The purpose of doing so is to account for multi-deck shoes.
Here’s an example on converting your true count:
- Your running count is +12.
- The shoe has four remaining four decks.
- This makes your true count +3 (12/4).
The final step is to determine your bet spread based on the count. Earlier, I offered a simple discussion on how to spread bets from 1-15.
But you can take this further by using your true count to get a more-accurate recommendation on bet spreading. Here’s a sample system that was used by the famed MIT Blackjack Team.
- Determine your unit size (e.g. $25).
- Determine the true count (e.g. +4).
- Subtract 1 from the true count (4 – 1 = 3).
- Multiply this figure by your unit size (25 x 3 = 75).
- You should bet 3 units ($75).
The only problem withbet spreading is that this makes it easier for casinos to detect card counters. Some land-based casinos will put up with smaller bet spreads, but they become suspicious if players are suddenly spreading from 1-15.
This is why many modern blackjack pros work in teams under the “big player” concept. First popularized by Al Francesco in the 1970s, this strategy revolves around “spotters” and a single big player.
The spotters spread out to different blackjack tables and make the minimum bets every time while counting cards. If one of the spotters sees a high positive count, they’ll signal the big player, who stands off the side of the action.
The big player then comes in and immediately bets big. Therefore, they appear to be a high roller, rather than somebody who jumps from the minimum bet to 15 times that amount.
You can see that card counting doesn’t involve illegal devices or sleight of hand tricks. Instead, it’s a legitimate advantage play technique that requires skill to beat the casino.
Why Do Casinos Hate Card Counters?
Casinos dislike card counters because they hurt their bottom line. The entire reason why casinos offer gambling is so that they make a long-term profit.
They earn their profit by offering games with a built-in house edge. Blackjack is no different, because the average player faces anywhere from a 0.5% to 5.0% house edge based on their skill level and the table rules.
Even when a blackjack player uses perfect basic strategy, they can only lower the house advantage to around 0.5% or 2.0%, depending upon the rules.
Card counters differ, though, because they actually gain an edge over the house. And this player advantage ranges from 0.5% to 1.5%.
Although not significant in the short run, a small edge leads to big profits over a large sample size.
Even when accounting for advantage players, land-based casinos still make plenty of money with blackjack. Nevertheless, they still want to root out card counters by any means necessary since they are bad “customers.”
Is Card Counting Illegal?
No, card counting isn’t illegal in most countries. In fact, lawsuits over the years have proven that card counters are perfectly fine from a legal standpoint.
But casinos in most jurisdictions have the right to refuse service to anybody. Casinos are private businesses that can ask customers to leave for violating written or unwritten rules.
The only time that a card counter canbe arrested in the United States or United Kingdom is when they use an illegal cheating device. For example, you’d be arrested for using a computerized device to track the count.
But other than this, card counting is perfectly legal in many gambling jurisdictions. The only thing that casinos can do is ask you to leave and ban you from their establishment.
The one exception is Atlantic City casinos, which haven’t been able to ban advantage players since 1982.
Ken Uston, who was part of Francesco’s big player team, waged a lawsuit Uston v. Resorts International Hotel, Inc against Atlantic City casinos. The judge determined that anybody has reasonable access to casinos as long as they’re not threatening the establishment security or other interfering with other players.
Another exception worth mentioning is Native American casinos. Tribal casinos are located on sovereign land and can deal with card counters as they see fit (within reason).
Some gamblers claim that tribal casinos have confiscated their funds without recourse. One account even claimed that unidentified tribal authorizes forced them into a back room and stole whatever they could after the gamblers won too much money.
This isn’t to say that you’re automatically going to be roughed up for winning too much. But you might not be treated nicely at tribal casinos if you’re caught counting cards.
Why Does the General Public Think That Card Counting Is Illegal?
I’ve established that card counting isn’t illegal, outside of maybe a few sovereign tribal lands. Nevertheless, there are still a good portion people who believe that card counters can be arrested.
The two main sources at fault include movies and how old Vegas casinos were run.
Hollywood movies that involve card counting, such as 21 and Rain Man, make it seem like people are in for beating if they’re caught. 21 is especially bad, because Lawrence Fishburne’s character (Cole Williams) takes counters into back rooms and roughs them up.
This rolls into my next point in that Vegas casinos used to be run by the mob. And they would sometimes use physical persuasion to convince card counters never to return.
This is largely the inspiration for Fishburne’s character in 21. One of the film’s final scenes shows Kevin Spacey’s character (Micky Rosa) facing an imminent beating for allthe money that he won off Williams’ casino.
Card counters could potentially face physical violence up until the 1980s, when corporations started taking over Las Vegas. However, this isn’t anything like the scene today.
Security might handle a suspected card counter a little roughly. But the counter will simply be walked out the front door and asked not to come back again.
As for card counting’s legality; nobody will be arrested for using skill-based play to beat the casino.
I’m sure that gambling venues enjoy the myth of card counting being illegal. But again, you can walk into any non-tribal casinos and count without fear of legal repercussion.
Famous Incidents of People Being Thrown Out of Casinos for Card Counting
While card counting might not be legal, it’s still embarrassing to be thrown out when caught. And there are publicized instances of famous counters and even celebrities being kicked off a blackjack table.
Actor Ben Affleck is the most famous person to be banned from the blackjack tables. Hard Rock Las Vegas casino officials told Affleck that he was “too good at blackjack.”
Kicking an A-list celebrity out of the casino wouldn’t go over well in the press. This is probably why Hard Rock officials invited him to play any of their other non-blackjack games.
Of course, things aren’t so cordial when it comes to professional card counters. The MIT Blackjack Team was notoriously hunted by casinos and blacklisted.
Casinos went as far as to hire a private investigating firm called Griffin Investigations to find info on the team. Griffin worked with casinos to identify each member of the MIT Blackjack Team and blacklist them.
Ed Thorp became so good at blackjack that he had to wear various disguises to fool casinos. For example, he’d go to the casino dressed as a Hoover Dam worker to blend in.
Some card counters are so good at bet spreading and blending in that they’ve never been caught. But the average blackjack pro is going to be made at some point.
In fact, a big reason why many pros get out of the game is because they run out of casinos to play at.
Should You Count Cards in Casinos?
You’re legally cleared to count cards at gambling venues in many countries. But there are also deterrents to worry about, namely the fact that you could be kicked out and banned if caught.
Some people enjoy the challenge of card counting so much that they’re willing to take these risks. And you can make a good living if you become good enough at counting cards.
Blackjack legend James Grosjean said that he once made $225,000 in an eight-hour span.
The average card counter doesn’t earn anywhere near this amount in an entire year. But they can still make between $60,000 and $100,000 when playing with a good team.
This brings me to another point in that it’s difficult to find dedicated team members. Many aspiring blackjack pros start out with their friends, but eventually realize that they need a more-dedicated team instead of hobbyists.
You also have to consider the bankroll requirements needed to survive the variance of card counting. Considering that the best you can do in many cases is a 1.5% advantage over casinos, you’ll have many nights were you lose money.
This is why you need a large bankroll to overcome bad nights. Ideally, your card counting team will have at least a $25,000 bankroll to start with.
Even when you have the money and are willing to risk getting kicked out, you need the skills to keep an accurate count. Learning card counting is easy, but maintaining an accurate count amid casino distractions is tough.
And you need to take all these factors into account before deciding whether or not card counting is truly worth your time.
Card counting comes with many challenges. But the legality of the game isn’t one of them.
If you ever come across anybody who thinks that counting cards is illegal, then kindly correct them. The only place where it’s potentially illegal is in tribal casinos, which are unlikely to do anything besides confiscate the money you’ve won.
Part of the reason why so many advantage gamblers are drawn to card counting is because it is legal. You don’t have to hide cards in your sleeve or use illegal devices to win.
Another good thing about card counting is that it’s challenging — yet still very possible for the average gambler.
Anybody can learn how to count cards within an hour or less. From here, the big task is being able to keep an accurate account with everything that goes on in the casino.
One more piece to the puzzle is making sure that you have the bankroll to count cards without succumbing to the short-term variance. Serious teams should start with around $25,000.
Assuming you can do all of this and avoid casino detection, then you have a realistic chance of becoming a card counter.