Counting cards is the stuff of casino legends. In fact, several high-profile Hollywood movies have been made based on the idea.
Have you seen 21? It’s actually based on a true story about a legendary team of mathematicians out of MIT who went on a card counting tear and took the casinos for millions of dollars.
Yet, like most legends, the real card counting is often confused with the fantasies people project onto it. It isn’t some magical way to trick the casino out of millions overnight, but a mathematical strategy to gain a very slight edge in the long run.
In this piece, I’m going to look at what card counting is, how casinos catch card counters, and how you can do it without getting caught.
What Is Card Counting and How Does It Work?
Put simply, card counting is a mathematical strategy which involves assigning a number value to each card which comes out of the shoe during a game of blackjack. The idea is to keep track of the cards and therefore know when it’s more probable that you’ll get 21, or close to it, which increases your chances of winning.
You don’t have to be a math wizard to card count, but you’ll need a few skills:
- You’ll need to have an expert-level understanding of blackjack and the rules of the game
- You’ll have to be able to add and subtract quickly as cards are dealt
- You’ll need to be perceptive enough to keep track of every card dealt at the table, not just your own
- You should be able to act cool under pressure. Dealers and pit bosses are trained to spot and catch card counters
The following table will act as a quick reference on how to assign values to cards:
|1||2, 3, 4, 5, 6|
|0||7, 8, 9|
|-1||10, J, Q, K, A|
Naturally, the fewer low cards left in the deck, the higher your chances of getting blackjack. Thus, each time a low card comes out, that’s good for your chances of winning. That’s why you should add a point to the count.
Once you get your number, the next part involves dividing it by the number of decks left in the shoe. Some blackjack games involve six decks, while some involve eight. There are also single-deck variants.
Let’s say your count is four, and there are six decks left in the shoe. You get the final count by diving four by six, for a total of 0.66.
The higher the count, the more likely you are to win. It’s simple enough in theory, but it takes a fair degree of skill and practice to pull it off in real life where distractions are rife. One attractive person of the opposite sex walking by can distract you and cause you to lose count. There are many other potential distractions to contend with, too.
Of course, one of the toughest parts is knowing how many decks are left in the shoe. This is simple enough if you start playing at a “fresh” table which a dealer has just come to, but it can be tricky if you land up and things are already in full swing.
There’s no need to be too precise in this regard. Just estimate, and you’ll be close enough for card counting to work.
How Do Casinos Catch Card Counters and How Can You Avoid Getting Caught?
While the beat-downs and chopping off of fingers is the stuff of Hollywood fiction (thankfully), you definitely won’t get a warm reception if the casino catches you counting cards.
At best, you’ll be escorted from the premises, and the security team will be on the lookout for you in the future. At worst, they’ll scan your ID, take a photo of you, and send your image to every casino in town. They’ll also likely ban you for life. This will make it impossible for you to count cards in the future.
The key to avoiding getting caught is to understand what casino pit bosses are looking for and try your best not to display those particular patterns of behavior.
Signs of card counting include those listed below.
Making Larger Bets When the Count Turns Favorable
Casinos have figured out that the best way to counteract card counters is to count cards themselves. They have complex software which does this for them, and when the count is favorable, the dealers know.
If you suddenly start making much larger bets when the count turns favorable, you can expect a tap on the shoulder from the pit boss. This is a dead giveaway since it’s rare for players to deviate from their average bet size at the best of times, let alone when the count suddenly turns to their advantage.
The best way to avoid being detected in this way is to either increase the size of your bets slowly or don’t change them at all. You could also vary them throughout gameplay, so you’re less predictable, for example by making a few larger bets when the count isn’t as favorable to throw them off the scent.
The Sudden Arrival of Big Bettors
In the same way that the casino looks out for sudden increases in bet size, they also keep an eye out for the sudden arrival of large bettors. This could be a sign that a team is working together and a player at the table has been watching and has now sent a signal to another team member to roll in and bet big.
If you are working as part of a card counting team, it’s best to keep things subtle. If the count turns favorable, perhaps it’s best for the big bettor to hang back for a while, perhaps he or she doesn’t have to bet so big as to raise suspicions, or perhaps they could join the table earlier in anticipation of the change in count – for example, when you’re getting close to a favorable count.
If a high roller is playing and betting big at another table and then switches, this might be enough to muddy the waters. That way, casino security won’t find anything suspicious about them betting big, as it will have been their behavioral pattern throughout the night.
However, this comes with its own risks. Can your bankroll support them betting big at a less favorable table for long enough? Can you then make back enough to cover those potential losses? These things must be considered before using a “big bettor” as part of your team.
Suspicious Communicating and Signaling
For any card counting team to be successful, there has to be a way to communicate with other team members. Any messages sent between parties, no matter how subtle, present a chance for the casino to catch you card counting.
You might cough, roll up your left sleeve, or use some sort of device to communicate with a team member at another table to signal that the count has turned.
Casino security crews are far from stupid. They didn’t get to be in charge of safeguarding millions of dollars by being vacant between the ears. They are trained and know every move in the book. Even the most subtle things will be picked up on, and they won’t wait around to find out if they’re right.
If you must communicate, keep it to a minimum. Also, pick responsible team members who know how to be subtle, stay sober, and play their part just like they would on a set.
Tips for Evading Detection While Counting Cards
While the above behaviors should be avoided as they are dead giveaways to casino pit bosses, there are also some things which you should proactively do to increase your chances of staying under the radar.
Follow these card counting tips to avoid being escorted out and having your name/photo spread all over town:
- Keep it secret. During World War II, there was a famous poster which read “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” This was incredibly effective and easy to remember. It applies to card counting, too. Word spreads fast, especially in our web-connected world. If you tell someone about your card counting activities, you can be sure they know someone who knows someone who works in casino security. Expect the word to get out quickly.
- Don’t be greedy. Greed has brought down kings and empires, and it can bring down your card counting gig, too. The more money you win, the more suspicious the casino will become, and the closer they’ll watch you. If you start showing up often and win every time, you can be sure you’ll soon have your card marked.
- Camouflage is key. One of the best ways to avoid detection is to deliberately lose a few hands when the count is favorable. In fact, it’s best to visit the same casino you’ve won at sometimes and lose altogether. If you win every time, you’ll soon be caught. Walk away from favorable counts, lose a few hands here and there, and sometimes play without counting. All of this makes it harder for the casino security to spot suspicious patterns in your behavior.
- Pocket your chips. There’s nothing that will draw suspicion quicker than an ever-growing mountain of casino chips on the table. Casino workers know the odds and will grow suspicious when you keep beating them. While they’ll take note if you’re winning anyway, the pile of chips is an extra visual reminder that might prompt the dealer to alert security.
- Practice makes perfect. Card counting is extremely hard work mentally. Try it and see for yourself. It’s not easy to keep track of the cards, let alone pay attention to your own behavior, too. Like everything, practice makes perfect. The more you do this, the better you’ll get. Eventually, these counter-tracking behaviors will become subconscious, and you can focus on the cards.
- Pick casinos carefully. You’re much less likely to get caught at a mom-and-pop casino in the country than you are at the Bellagio in Vegas. Why? Resources! You can be sure that world-famous casinos have cutting-edge security gear, larger teams, and better access to information. While I’m on this point, I’d also advise you to play at different casinos each time. Don’t show up at the same place more than a few times a year.
- Spread the wealth. Everybody loves a tip, and casino workers are no exception. Tip the dealer, tip staff who bring you drink, and spread some of the money you’re winning back into the casino. In fact, if you just want to count cards to bankroll a high-rolling night at the tables and a private suite afterwards, the casino might care a lot less about what you’re doing, since you’re giving most of it back anyway!
Card Counting – Your Questions Answered
Q. Is card counting illegal?
However, you could be tossed out onto the street and banned from gambling at that casino (or any other gambling establishments by the same owner).
Q. Should I wear a disguise when card counting?
If you do decide to wear a disguise, you should keep it subtle. Hair dye, a change of hairstyle, and false facial hair should be more than enough.
Q. Can I count cards at online casinos?
If these machines are used, it will render your attempts to count cards ineffective.