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Dealing With Card-Counters

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» Back to Professor I. Nelson Rose

Casinos are the only businesses which make money by beating their own customers at games of chance. The operators of lotteries and parimutuel betting do not care who wins or loses. With casinos, however, the house cares very much who wins. The casino participates as a player covering the bets of the other players in every hand.

Under the rules of every game the casino has a built-in advantage over every other player. Blackjack is a percentage game because the player goes first: The house wins, even if both the player and the casino dealer bust.

It is easy to understand why casinos want to make the game of blackjack difficult for card-counters, or to ban card-counters completely. When the rules are liberal enough, and the player is skillful enough, the casino will actually have a small statistical disadvantage, for short periods of time.

A large cottage industry has developed over the last three decades whose principal goal is to beat the casinos' percentage advantage in the game of blackjack. No other casino game has received this much attention: A host of scholarly and popular books, professional conferences, newsletters, magazines and mechanical devices have been made available to players who want to try and get the percentage in their favor.

Casinos spend an enormous amount of time and money attempting to foil card-counters. Some of these counter-measures are aimed not only at card-counters, but are part of the industry's continuous attempt to speed up the velocity of money. Among the many tactics casinos have used:
  • Identifying known counters through photo books and face recognition computer technology.
  • Linking computers with imbedded scanners in blackjack tables. The most sophisticated of these systems can even recognize which system a player is using.
  • Dealing out only a few hands before shuffling. Dealers sometimes shuffle whenever players greatly increases the size of their wagers.
  • Changing the rules, often in the middle of a game. These include lowering the stakes, and limiting the right to double-down, split or play more than one hand at a time. Sometimes the restrictions are imposed on the entire table and sometimes only on the card-counter.
  • Harassing skilled players. Skilled players have been subjected to such crude tactics as having drinks spilled on them. One was even arrested in Atlantic City on trumped up charges, leading to a civil suit and a large jury verdict against the casino.
  • Bringing social pressure against the card-counter. Casinos are social settings. Slowing up a game to measure where the cut card is can turn the other players at the table against the card-counter.
Casino executives are sometimes so emotionally tied up with their battles against card-counters, that their actions are often self-destructive. Slowing up a game to shuffle may hurt the skilled player, but it prevents the other players at the table from playing. Government's role in the on-going war between casinos and card-counters usually fall into one of two categories:

In jurisdictions like Nevada, casinos are free to take any counter-measures they wish. State law prohibits discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or disability. But Nevada casinos may exclude players for counting cards, or even just for winning.

Nevada regulators have gone so far as to informally allow casino dealers to count cards and shuffle whenever the remainder of a shoe favors the players. Preferential shuffling has not been challenged, but a court might declare this to be cheating. The house is manipulating the odds as if it were removing tens and aces from shoe.

On the other end of the spectrum are jurisdictions which by statute and regulation make all decisions on how casino games are played. In New Jersey, at one stage, casinos did not even have discretion as to the color of the felt covering the gaming tables. The state Supreme Court held, in Uston v. Resorts International Hotel Inc., 445 A.2d 370 (1982), that government control of blackjack was so complete that casinos in Atlantic City did not have the authority to decide whether skilled players could be barred.

A casino in Australia imposed special rules on one player only, restricting his bets to A$25 (US$13) a hand, no more, no less. But a court in New Zealand prohibited a casino from putting in continuous shuffling machines or taking any other counter-measures against a card-counter.

[In the spirit of full-disclosure, I have been an expert witness or consultant in some of these cases, including on behalf of the successful player in the on-going case in Auckland.]

Lawmakers often feel they have to protect players from themselves. But regulation can go too far. In England in 1970 players could only double-down if their first two cards totaled ten or eleven. This rule was designed to protect players from doubling down on whims; although computer simulations later showed that there are many times when it is to the players' advantage to double down on other two-card combinations, such as an ace-six when the dealer has a six face up.

Lawmakers also have to protect casinos. In recent years, casinos have been able to convince the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to permit counter-measures.

It is highly doubtful that any well-run operation has been bankrupted by card-counters. But regulators and legislators do not talk to players; players are not organized, they have no spokespersons. They do hear regularly from casino executives and their lawyers. Government decision-makers thus tend to over-estimate the fiscal impact skilled players can have on a casino.

The result is that casinos have sometimes been able to win by lobbying what they had initially lost through regulation.


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