In early May, as news spread of Ben Affleck being banned from playing blackjack at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, I had inquiries on a number of fronts. Readers e-mailed, friends phoned, and I was asked to chime in on radio stations in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Affleck, who played online gambling tycoon Ivan Block in his most recent film, “Runner, Runner,” was told he was too good a player, and the casino said it would welcome his business at other games, but not at blackjack.
Naturally, that raised curiosity about card counting and banning, with these being the questions raised most often:
Q. How can card counting be cheating? Aren’t card counters just doing what’s accepted in poker, using information everyone can see?
A. Card counting is not cheating, nor did the Hard Rock hold it to be cheating. Courts have ruled repeatedly that card counting is legal.
However, in many jurisdictions, courts have ruled that casinos are private clubs and can bar any customer. If the powers that be don’t like your shirt, they could bar you. That’s not done. Affleck was barred for one reason: He was good enough to get an edge and beat the casino.
Q. How is card counting done, anyway? Isn’t it impossible when they’re playing with six decks?
A. Most card counters use a plus/minus system to keep track of the relative concentration of high cards and low cards. In the common Hi-Lo system, every time the player sees a low card, 2 through 6, he counts plus-one, and every time he sees a 10 value or Ace he counts minus-one.
When the count is in positive territory, it means the concentration of high cards is higher than in a fresh deck. When that positive count gets high enough, the player raises his bets. Positive counts favor players because there are more blackjacks when there’s a greater concentration of high cards, and because you’re more likely to draw a 10 on a double down.
You’re not trying to track every card, just the pluses and minuses. That can be done with six decks as easily as with one, though there are complicating factors such as estimating about how many decks are left in the shoe.
Q. What happens when the casino bans you? Do they beat you up?
A. No, not in the United States in current times. Usually, the player will be told, “Hey, you’re too tough for us. You can’t play blackjack here anymore.” Sometimes the player will be told he’s welcome to play any other games in the casino. Less often, and especially for customers who have been caught more than once, they’ll be walked to the door and banned from the property outright.
Q. How large an edge can a card counter get?
A. About a percent to a percent and a half, depending on the accuracy of the count system and house rules on the game itself. It’s a narrow edge, but casinos understand that they turn narrow edges into profits every day. So can counters.
For players with small bankrolls, it’s more about the pleasure of beating the house at its own game. A player who spreads his bets from a $5 minimum to $40 maximum isn’t making big bucks. He’s making about enough for a buffet. It’s the players who already have big bankrolls and can bet $20,000 at a time – players like Affleck – who make serious money.
Q. What about the MIT guys in the movie “21” and the book “Bringing Down the House”?
A. They were able to get a much larger edge via team play. A card counter would bet table minimum, never raising nor lowering his bets. Without that bet fluctuation, there was no clue to the casino that the game was being counted.
When the count was positive, the counter would signal the team’s big player. His role was to play the amiable high roller, having a few drinks and hopping from table to table with piles of chips and cash. He’d bet big in good counts, and when the count turned bad, he’d get a signal to leave the table. Big money was never at risk in bad counts, giving the team a much larger edge than any one player could get.
Q. How likely is it that a counter will be caught?
A. That depends on the individual casino. Nearly all take counting very seriously at high-limit tables, and watch carefully. At low limits, some take it more seriously than others. Winners are good for business, and if someone spreading from $5-$40 wins a few bucks, goes home and tells people he was a winner, that’s a good thing. It’s especially good if the winner’s spouse is spending money on the slots.
However, some casinos don’t look at it that way. A friend’s wife was once backed off a game while essentially playing a breakeven game, spreading from $5 to $15. That gets into silly policy time, in my opinion, but there are operators who begrudge every dime.
[Editor's note: Frank Scoblete's new book "I Am a Card Counter" explains the real story of what it is like to be a card counter for 25 years.]
Look for John Grochowski at www.casinoanswerman.com, on Facebook (http://tinyurl.com/7lzdt44) and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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