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We all love to hear the stories about men and women who manage to outsmart the casinos and walk away with great fortunes in their pockets, but why is it so tempting to us?
Maybe it's just because these tales tell the story of people with a lot more guts than most of us. Maybe it's because they are stories about folk who are really persistent, and able to refine basic blackjack strategy and turn it into a really profitable way of making money. Maybe it is just that we, like the rest of you out there, want to find a way to win as much as possible when gambling at a casino. Or maybe the answer is just that we really like to see someone, a no-one just like the rest of us, really sticking it to the big guys.
This article will describe some of the techniques used by some of the most successful blackjack card sharks in history, as well as some of the strategies that can be used in order to not get caught when you are messing with the big boys.
Dr. Edward O. Thorp is considered to be one of the fathers of card counting. His 1962 book, Beat the Dealer sketched out not just what became somewhat of the foundation of card counting, but also several theories on how to play strategically correct blackjack. In many ways, Thorp was ahead of his time, at the very least he was one of the first who published his theories and presented them to a wider audience.
Another famous name in the card counting business is Andy Bloch, today maybe most known as a very successful poker player. But he was also part of the M.I.T. blackjack team and released an instructional card counting DVD called Beating Blackjack. Bloch was also featured in the 2005 blackjack documentary The Hot Shoe, by David Layton. In the movie, Layton interviews card counters such as Edward Thorp and Andy Bloch. During the making of the movie, Layton used the knowledge he got from the interviews and gambled with $5,000 of the budget for the film as a case study.
We would like to stress that in by publishing this article we in no way advise our readers to try any of these card-counting techniques at a real casino. Even though card counting is no more illegal than calculating your outs at the poker table, many casinos sure like to act as if it was. Since casinos are considered as private property (at least within the US), they have the right to refuse anyone admittance to the casino (and thereby suggest that card counting should be an illegal activity). And trust us when we say it; they WILL use this right the minute they think that someone is keeping track of the cards dealt at the tables.
To us, card counting is nothing more than strategic thinking while you are playing. If you learn to combine good blackjack strategy with bullet-proof card counting strategy, you will have a great edge over the casino, and a good chance of turning your knowledge into a substantial win at the blackjack tables.
Just like a poker player who decides to move all-in when he or she has calculated the odds of winning the hand to be in his or her favor, we believe that a blackjack player has the right to increase the wagers in situations where a positive outcome of the game is to be expected.
As far as we are concerned, all types of cheating, like past-posting or base-dealing, definitely should be considered illegal. The same goes for all types of use of helping devices such as mirrors or computerized calculators on iPhones. Keith Taft and son is a classic example, becaming famous in the 1970s for constructing portable and mechanical card counting devices (see photo). Counting the cards however, is just another way of thinking strategically during your game, and most importantly, it is not prohibited by law. Therefore, we see no reason not to count cards per se, but we strongly advise inexperienced players not to try it at a casino because of the reprisals if you get caught by the casino security. Or in other words, we just don't want you to get caught.
Counting cards online is pretty much pointless because of the random number generators used at online casinos. But in live casinos, where several hands of blackjack can be played before you reach the cut-card and the dealer has to shuffle the deck, card counting can be really effective.
One of the most profitable, and maybe the simplest way to count cards, is by using the Hi-Lo strategy. The system is basically a running count technique where every card is assigned a specific value. The system is used to distinguish when the ratio of high value- and low value cards in the blackjack decks is unbalanced.
High value cards like tens and aces will not only increase the chance of blackjacks being dealt, but also hands totaling 20. A deck containing a majority of high value cards is a very profitable situation for the player, as it increases the chance of the dealer going bust. In other situations, where the majority of the remaining cards in the deck are low value cards, all cards 2-6, the dealer will have a substantial edge over the player. The fact that the dealer must draw on hard hands (12 through 16) will, in a situation where a lot of low-value cards are remaining in the deck, reduce the chances of the dealer going bust when drawing another card. If there are a lot of high-value cards (tens and aces) in the deck, the probability of the dealer going bust is significantly greater.
From the moment the first card is being dealt from the newly shuffled deck the card counter starts to count the value of the cards. A low-value card will add to your count by one point, and a high-value card subtracts one point from your running count. All cards from 7 through 9 are considered as neutrals and will not be counted in the Hi-Lo system. Here is how your counting would look during a random blackjack round:
|Cards:||A, 5||6,2||7,8||Q,Q||3,8||9 |
|Count:||-1, +1||+1, +1||0, 0||-1, -1||+1, 0||0 |
Your total count after this specific round should be +1. There have been more low-value cards dealt, and consequently there are more high-value cards left in the remaining deck. As you might understand, the count will not be very accurate after only a couple of hands. The more information you have gathered, the more precise will your count be and consequently the higher the edge for the player. The first time you try to count on your own, you can use just one deck of cards and count through all the cards. If your count is right it should end up at 0.
It won't be easy the first couple of times, but the more you practice, the faster and the more accurate your count will become. After a while, you can try counting two cards at the time, dealing the cards just as a regular blackjack hand. If you train long enough, you will recognize different card combinations, and the count will come almost automatically to you. And this is the brilliance of the simple Hi-Lo Count. More complex count systems will be explained later on, but most card counting experts agree that the advantages of a quick and simple technique far surpasses a more accurate but complex counting system.
It will not take you too long to learn how to use this simple system and play blackjack at regular speed at the same time. You will have the count in the back of your head, and even though you focus on the game, you will not draw any attention to the way you play. If you do not totally manage the counting system you are using, it will take you way too long to figure out your count and the dealers, pit bosses and floor managers are trained to take notice of this kind of behavior.
To practice your blackjack counting skills, we strongly recommend our Card Counting Coach, the single best way to learn how to count cards in blackjack. You should never set foot inside a live casino with plans on giving card counting a go without having spent a considerable amount of hours in front of this tremendous trainer.
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A second factor to consider when you are trying to determine the balance of the blackjack deck is the number of remaining cards in the deck. As we stated earlier, the closer you get to the bottom of the deck, the more accurate will your count be. By dividing your running count with the approximate numbers of remaining decks you will get a more correct count - or the "true count".
Converting your running count into a true count will make your count a lot more accurate. Now, this can be a bit tricky, but if you practice using several decks you will soon be able to visually estimate how many decks are left in the shoe.
Let's say that your running count is +4, and you estimate the remaining decks in the shoe to be 2, then your true count should be +4 / 2 =+ 2.
If your count still shows a positive result after you have implemented the true count system to your running count, you'll have a good chance of making a good profit by increasing your bet size. The true count number is a more accurate indicator on how favorable/unfavorable the deck really is.
As long as card counting has been around, there have always been people trying to improve and refine different card counting techniques. However, we have learned from experience that the simpler your system is, the easier it will be to practice. Even if you think that you fully master a complex, and very accurate counting system, it will not make you any more money in the long run.
The disadvantages of more complex systems like side-counts and multi-level systems are that when you are trying to keep track of a lot more information it will detract from your ability to play fast and count accurately. You will earn more money by playing a straightforward count faster than by playing a more complex one slowly. The less effort you put in to counting, the more you can spend on steering clear of the casino security radar.
One of the most famous card counting techniques is called "Wonging", named after the pseudonym Stanford Wong, used by John Ferguson, when writing his series of blackjack books. The name "Wonging" referrers to his technique of observing blackjack tables, counting the deck pretty much as described above, but moving in to the game only when the card count was in favor of the player. Using this technique will reduce your "operating cost" i.e. you don't pay anything until when you sit down at a "hot" table. This technique however, is well known today and a floor manager will have no trouble detecting such behavior around the tables. Furthermore, many casinos no longer allow "mid-shoe entry" in blackjack games.
The obvious advantage of back-counting systems like for example wonging, is that the player does not have to play every hand that he or she counts. This will reduce fluctuations in your bankroll and therefore increase the player's edge even more.
For reasons already mentioned, multifaceted counting systems are obviously a lot more detectable for casino employees than simple, straightforward systems. A group of counters playing together as a team are easily noticeable for "eye-in-the-sky" personnel. Signs and codes are, even if you think that they will go by unnoticed, most of the time picked up by the surveillance cameras - if not at once, then surely afterwards when security people review the tapes.
In contrast, cameras will never be able to pick up what goes on inside the mind of a player, and that is probably the best reason for why the high-tech casinos of today still have trouble spotting the most successful card counters. The minute you take your system outside your head and include outside assistance that can leave tracks for the casino to pick up is when you risk detection. Most casinos try to spot card counters by observing irregularity in betting patterns, both manually and with the help of technology. If you are using a simple counting system, you can concentrate on covering up your tracks, by for example communicating with people around the table, and adjusting your betting pattern so that it won't be of any reason for suspicion.
One single player can obviously only play a certain number of hands at the time. Therefore, to play in a team might seem to be a smart way to increase your hourly earnings.
Team-play has successfully been practiced by groups like the M.I.T. blackjack team; a number of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later became the inspiration for the Kevin Spacey movie "21". The most well-known type of team-counting strategies are ones where members of the team play one table each, and by signaling the rest of the team, telling them when to move in with the big money at the table. An advantage with team play is that you can decide to only move in with a large stack when you know that a table is really favorable for the player.
The downsides are that group play is quite a large operation, and besides the immediate risk of getting caught, there are many people involved, who all want a piece of the profit. Plus, a floor manager will surely keep an extra eye on a high roller jumping between tables, so yet again the risk of getting caught is quite evident.
Nevertheless, if you feel like giving a team play a go, or just want to know how it could work, here's a classic structure of how a team play lineup might look like:
This is a member of the team who necessarily doesn't have to be seated at any of the tables. By watching the tables from a distance, the Back-Spotter can signal the rest of the team when the Gorilla should move in at the table.
This team member is an active player at the table, but his or her main job is to keep an accurate count of the deck at this particular table. The casinos are steadily checking for betting irregularities at the tables, therefore the spotter keeps wagering the minimum bet and instead signaling the Gorilla or a team manager when the deck is hot.
Gorillas are not famous for their math skills, and therefore the gorilla doesn't have to keep a count. Instead, this team member moves around from table to table, playing for the maximum wagers only when the table is really hot.
A classic gorilla character is the one of a drunken millionaire, moving from table to table, throwing his big money around in what might seem like a reckless manner.
The Big Player
The Big Player role in the team is to keep the rest of the team from getting detected. A high-roller with a competent blackjack play will certainly attract attention from the casino personnel. Remember, it is not illegal to play perfect strategy at the blackjack tables, and a skillful player with the same bankroll as the gorilla will surely catch the eyes of the casino before the rest of the team does.
Card counting systems have been around for ages and some of the first books on the subject were published in the early sixties - and so have the people working for the casinos trying to stop these activities. Listed below are some of the most common, and also failed attempt by the casinos to put a stop to card counting:
The Cutting Card
Some of the first actions taken by the casinos were to put the cutting card into practice, so that you never played the whole deck through.
They also started to use more card decks in the games, even though the number of decks doesn't really matter when you are using, for example, the Hi-Lo count explained above.
Inhouse Card Counting
Today there are several automated systems that the casinos use to detect, what they consider, dishonest play. Some casinos scan all cards dealt from the blackjack shoes, i.e. doing their own card count. When they know that the deck is unbalanced in the favor of the players, they run this information together with betting irregularity information collected from the table. If a player systematically raises his or her stakes at points where the computer finds the deck to be hot, the player might be suspected of card counting, and probably asked to leave the casino or try their luck at other, non-skill based games within the casino premises.
Microchips Inside Gambling Chips
Furthermore, one common way of detecting betting irregularity at the tables is the use of micro-chips planted in the gambling chips at the casino. This makes it really easy for the casino to collect and track information on betting amounts at the tables. This might sound a bit "Orwell-esque" to some, but bear in mind that we are dealing with establishments who have been using surveillance cameras for decades, and their main goal is to make money, not giving it away to people who are really good at outsmarting them.
One of the latest casino surveillance technologies is facial recognition programs. Facial recognition cameras can identify known cheaters assembled in a database. The cameras scan all casino visitors when entering the casino. Because of these new cameras, a well-known card counter might be asked to leave the casino before he or she even made it to the blackjack tables.
We strongly believe that keeping your technique as simple as possible, and really learn how to master it, is the best way of not getting detected at the casinos. It is highly possible that the best card counters are not the math-genius, Rainman-type of players, but the ones that know how to count and really know how to blend in the casino environment.
Practicing by using our Card Counting Coach will definitely make you a better card counter, but the job on how to blend in at a live casino is something you have to learn to excel on your own. One thing is for sure though, the better your count is, and the more natural it comes to you in your head, the easier it will be for you to work on your stealth skills at the casino. And hopefully one day we will be hearing about your legendary winnings at the blackjack tables - or better yet, we'll never hear of them!
To finish off this guide to card counting we will leave you with this list of some additional online resources.
If you know of any other card counting resources, worthy to be listed above, simply comment about it or email me at sven[at]casinotop10[dot]net. The same goes for any other type of feedback as well.
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