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Blackjack Card Counting – Origins

It first appeared in 1957, buried in the back of a small paper book bound with a plastic comb called Playing Blackjack to Win. Improbably, the authors were four servicemen based at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a United States Army facility on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland where artillery ordnance was tested. The leader was Roger Baldwin who, before being drafted, had earned a Masters degree in mathematics from Columbia University in New York City.

Playing cards was the main pastime in an army barracks in the 1950s. As endless hands of Twenty-One were dealt night after night, Baldwin started looking at the processions of “hits” and “stands” with a mathematical eye. He began jotting down formulas on paper and as he became more intrigued with the work he received permission to use one of the very early desk calculators at the Army installation. Government issued equipment would be instrumental in developing the first mathematical-based strategy to solve the riddle of blackjack.

Baldwin would soon be joined in his number crunching by three fellow soldiers: James McDermott, Wilbert Cantey and Herbert Maisel. The foursome dedicated thousands of their off-duty hours to calculations and rudimentary algorithms. In 1956, the “Four Horsemen of Aberdeen” presented their findings in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, which was not on the reading list of most blackjack players. “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack” article was expanded into Playing Blackjack to Win by Cardoza Publishing.

The Aberdeen corpsmen were scientists and not card players. Their blackjack research was an intellectual exercise and not a mission for profit. They drifted off into private business and university work and Playing Blackjack to Win received little notice in the gambling world. But blackjack players found their way to the book, especially way back in Chapter 10 – “Using the Exposed Cards to Improve Your Chances.” It was here, using pencils and crude adding machines, that the seeds of the first card counting systems were sown.

In 1960, at UCLA a mathematics professor was working on his own blackjack algorithms. Edward O. Thorp did not recruit any Army buddies to help out with the research – he partnered with a massive main frame IBM-704 computer in preparing an abstract for the Annual Meeting of the American Mathematical Society. As Thorp later recalled, “‘Fortune’s Formula: The Game of Blackjack,’ was slated for rejection. Every year the abstract committee screened out the endless parade of cranks who could do the mathematically impossible – like finding winning gambling systems for negative expectation games.” Only because Thorp had an ally on the committee did he get to present the findings obtained from the IBM-704.

Thorp’s scientific card counting system gained enough traction that he was staked to $10,000 by some big-time gamblers to go to Nevada for a weekend tryout. On the drive home Sunday, Thorp and his associates had earned an $11,000 profit. The result was the publication in 1962 of Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. The casinos did not take Beat the Dealer seriously. Their philosophy had always been “we send limousines for system players.”

Others were not so quick to dismiss the book out of hand. Beat the Dealer became a Library of Science book selection. Sports Illustrated, LIFE, and the Atlantic Monthly all wrote feature articles on the idea of card counting. The public bought into the concept and the book topped best-seller lists. Eventually more than 700,000 copies of Beat the Dealer would be sold and it became the most requested title in the Las Vegas Public Library.

Counting cards turned out to be not just another “system.” Thorp’s book presented scientific proof that a player using the strategy could, indeed, “beat the dealer.” The casinos were actually offering a game that did not automatically favor the house. For a time, some operators feared that this card counting strategy could spell the end of the game of blackjack in casinos. Instead, the operators fought back, and casinos and card counters have been at war ever since.

Advanced Card Counting – How It Works

The incredible appeal of Edward O. Thorp’s Beat the Dealer was that all his computer calculations and mathematical wizardry could be pared down to a simple technique that was not only easy-to-understand but could be executed by an average player. No one needs to be a math whiz to count cards.

Thorp called it the Ten Count System, but is has come to be known as “Hi-Lo.” A player keeps a rough running tally of the exposed cards as they have been played, based on the premise that high cards of ten-value are good for the player (since they increase the likelihood the dealer will bust) and low-value cards are bad (they give the dealer a better chance of making a strong hand when forced by the rules of the game to hit totals of 16 and less). Each time a high card is exposed the player the player subtracts one point from the tally (-1) and whenever a low card is played one point is added to the total (+1). High cards are 10-J-Q-K-A, low cards are 2-3-4-5-6 and the 7-8-9 are assigned a zero value.

A card counter will make minimum bets during blackjack play until the deck becomes “hot” – when the tally reaches +5 more or less – depending on the preferences of the counter. At this point the player makes larger bets, at least 5X the minimum and continues to do so until the count drops and the deck “cools.”

When a player utilizes basic blackjack strategy as outlined by the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen the house edge is a slender 0.50%. By employing card counting, the edge shifts to the player by 0.50% – 1.00%, depending on the house rules and the strictness of the card counting scheme. In games that offer insurance against a dealer blackjack, this side bet also becomes a good one if the deck is rich in high cards rather than a bad one as it otherwise is.

Against a card counter, the house is dealing a game in which the player has an advantage – a concept that is at complete odds with the casino business model. Counting cards is not illegal – as the courts have declared when asked to intervene by casinos. It is simply a strategy that is employed by skilled players. By keeping a running tally of cards that have been exposed to everyone at the table card counters does not affect game play in any fashion. They are basing plays on public information.

On the other hand, casinos are private businesses that set the rules of the game. In the era before Beat the Dealer blackjack was dealt from only one deck. Multi-deck shoes were introduced that brought as many as eight decks into play. Card counting is still possible with multiple decks but the house edge increases slightly with each additional deck. Dealers shuffled more often at random intervals to thwart counters. Table minimums were raised at single-deck tables, if one could be found at all. Some imposed betting limits during a shoe. Houses started paying out blackjack at the standard 3 to 2 and dropped the payout to 6 to 5.

Casinos also have the right to refuse service to anyone they choose. If someone is suspected of counting cards he or she might be told that only minimum bets can be made or that it is time to play another game, a casino technique known as “backing off.” In extreme cases the player is asked to leave the casino. Stories of players removed to back rooms and given a beating are apocryphal; bans from playing and books of photos gathered by private surveillance companies are not.

Famous Card Counting Teams

Casinos use former card counters to help spot players counting cards on the casino floor. Variations in game play are not always a reliable tip-off. For example, in basic blackjack strategy a player would never split a 20 comprised of two ten-value cards – it is almost surely a winning hand. A card counter knowing a deck is stuffed with high cards would split that hand since there a good chance it will result in two or more good hands – with additional splits – against a dealer in a weak position. This deviation from strategy could flag a card counter to pit bosses – or it may just be a tourist who is a poor player.

Table demeanor is another card counter tell. Card counting requires paying attention to all the cards dealt to everyone at the table and a bit of concentration to keep the tally. So to keep from attracting the attention of spotters a player can not appear to be too involved in the goings-on at the table. This leads counters to don disguises, adopt “chatty” personas and otherwise do whatever is required to not look so studious.

But the biggest give-away to a card counter is the betting pattern. The only way to make card counting pay off at the blackjack table is to increase bets with the deck is “hot.” A player betting the minimum for an hour who suddenly begins pushing five times the amount of chips into the betting circle is surely going to arouse suspicion. To combat this, players may choose to engage in random betting patterns early on, making large bets even when the deck is cold just to establish a persona of the “hunch player.”

It was Al Francesco who devised the system that would best exploit the advantage card counters had over the house. And it would happen by accident. Francesco grew up in Gary, Indiana and was good enough playing cards – Greek Rummy was his game – in Lake Michigan shore towns that he was able to make a living. In the 1960s, Francesco moved to California and became a disciple of Thorp’s Ten Count System.

He was tossed from his share of Nevada casinos for counting cards. One night he was on the sidelines in Lake Tahoe watching his brother play small stakes blackjack. Whenever his brother would bet $5 instead of the usual table minimum of $1, Francesco would place a bet of $100 – a common casino practice known as “betting behind.” He just looked like any tourist playing a hunch on a hot player. That night, Al Francesco saw the future – blackjack as a team sport.

Francesco assembled a team of card counters who spread out at many different blackjack tables. Whenever a deck became “hot,” the card counter would signal a team member – known as a “Big Player” – who would casually approach the table and either make large bet behind wagers or buy-in to the game. The card counter would continue making innocuous minimum bets while the Big Player made nothing but large plays until the deck became exhausted of ten-value cards. Then the Big Player would scoop up the chips and wait for another signal and try his “luck” again.

Francesco’s teams operated with impunity until the late 1970s when a one-time team member named Ken Uston outed the tactic in a book called Big Player. In addition to the multiple decks and random shuffles some casinos started posting signs on busy nights that players could not buy in to a blackjack game except at the beginning of a shoe.

But casino awareness hardly put an end to team blackjack play, it just required a bit more finesse. The most notorious of the card-counting teams, in fact, started at about the same time Uston was publishing his book and making a splash at the newly minted blackjack tables in Atlantic City, where casino gambling was newly legalized.

Team leaders recruited players from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with flyers posted around campus for what came to be known at the MIT Blackjack Team. The team would operate for most of the period between 1980 and 2000, at times with more than 80 players working casinos in multiple states. After the team dispersed, its story was spread in magazine articles, books, and eventually the Hollywood movie 21, starring Kevin Spacey. The MIT Blackjack Team was estimated to have won several million dollars in 20 years. The movie of their exploits pulled in more than $150 million after it was released in 2008 so you know where the real money is.

21 was followed into the movie theaters in 2011 by Holy Roller: The True Story of Card Counting Christians, a documentary that told the tale of the Church Team. Two former Bible camp friends raised money from around the Seattle area and recruited players across the country. In five years, beginning in 2005, the Church Team reported winning $3.2 million on a $1.2 million investment.

How Much Do Casinos Really Hate Card Counting ?

After the Church Team disbanded voluntarily in 2010 the reasons cited included boredom and the desire to spend time in more lucrative pursuits. While winning $3 million from casinos over five years sounds impressive, it required travel, long hours of sitting at casino blackjack tables and splitting the booty among 40 fellow teams players. Making $1,000 a week for a part-time job might sound appealing but while it is fun to beat a casino it is not always fun to do the mind-numbing work necessary to win that money.

And counting cards is no guarantee of winning money. All card counting does mathematically is tilt a game that is basically even odds with basic strategy from slightly in favor of the house to odds that are slightly in favor of the player. At one point the team of card-counting Christians suffered through a losing streak that resulted in $465,000 in losses. Making money counting cards at blackjack requires a long-term view and a large stake. Winning at blackjack is better than losing at blackjack but going to a casino with $200 and expecting to turn it into $2,000 is not living in reality.

A card counting team spends five years working around the country to beat casinos out of $3 million. That is scarcely a rounding error on the books of most casinos. So really, how much do casinos hate card counting?

In the big picture, it is easy to argue that card counting has been a boon to casinos. Anything that makes people want to gamble more is a benefit to casinos. As the public began to become aware of card counting it became synonymous with the only proven mathematical way that players could beat the casino. The greatest marketing gambit a casino can make is to promote the idea that “I think that I can beat blackjack, too.” Would it be a surprise to learn that many of the “systems” books published are backed by casino interests?

The fact is, not every player who tries to count cards is good at it. Most are not good at all. It requires discipline, focus and money management skills. That is a lot to ask of players in a casino that is filled with distractions. While trying to count cards even basic strategy plays may be missed that lose hands that should be won. On balance, in the half-century since card counting has been around it is safe to assume that casinos have won more money from botched counting than has been lost to deft practitioners.

Card counting brought attention to blackjack and as a result millions of additional players have probably sat down at casino card room tables because of it through the years. These people are in the casino buying food, shopping, staying in hotel rooms and shoveling money into property coffers that otherwise would not have been generated.

Even a winning streak by a card counter is not a bad thing for the house. A table that is suddenly “on fire” and doling out big wins makes the game look attractive to weaker players and brings more of them to the table. This will be a win for the casino in the long run.

There are many more profitable ways for a casino to spend resources than ferreting out a blackjack card counter. So there might be a healthy dose of Kabuki theater in the ejection of card counters from the casino floor. The casino wants to be seen protecting its house advantage against any perceived chicanery but as that counter is escorted to the cashier with stacks of chips it does signal to other players that they too just might win enough to be booted out as well. And that way of thinking is not a bad thing for casinos.

Advanced Card Counting Methods

Even though the hourly return rate for card counters is a far sight shy of that depicted in popular culture and even though the pain inflicted by counters on casinos rarely rises above the nuisance level, the dance between the two sides trundles on. Both sides continue to spar over that 1% difference between the house edge and the player edge.

Card counting systems have become more sophisticated since Edward O. Thorp’s Ten Count System. These new systems usually appear in book form so the authors are either driven by the spirit to share the wealth or realize there are more profits in royalties than endless hours at the blackjack tables. These systems are increasingly complicated and geared towards those who have already mastered the basic “Hi-Lo” counting method. The advanced systems assign increasingly more complex numbers to the cards in the quest for an even more accurate counting system.

Card counters also pay attention to deck penetration – the number of cards that have already been dealt and exposed. For instance, if 36 cards have been dealt in a single-deck game the deck penetration is 70%. The higher the deck penetration percentage is, the more accurate the running tally will be with regard to the remaining cards in the deck.

Most card counting systems are known as “balanced” systems where the total of a 52-card deck adds up to zero. Some unbalanced systems have been devised that assign sevens or only the red sevens a positive value so that beginners can play more favorable hands with a slightly smaller overall advantage. The KISS system even takes 50% of the cards out of play so the arithmetic is simpler.

Card counting is not the only way for advantage players to gain an edge in blackjack. Shuffle tracking is a method where clusters of cards can be followed from shuffle to shuffle and bets can be adjusted as anticipated cards are reached in the shoe. A close cousin is ace sequencing where players note the cards dealt before an ace and use them as triggers in the next shuffle. The principle is that the cards in a deck cluster from shuffle to shuffle and if a player knows an ace is more likely to be dealt soon, the bet can be raised in anticipation.

These techniques will most likely find success with inexperienced dealers. Well-trained dealers can employ a riffle shuffle or take cards off the top of the deck that will stymie shuffle trackers. Some houses may even shuffle twice which will render all that learning and tracking practice useless. These are some of the efforts blackjack players go to gain an edge on the house – the only game on offer in a casino that can yield an advantage to the player. All are legal, but some tactics players have been known to try are decidedly not…

Devices

Any external devices used for card counting are illegal. That goes for electronic devices and smartphones, too. Brainpower only.

Bending Cards

One of the oldest cheating tactics is to put a small bend in the corner of an ace and keep an eye out for it as the shoe is played. Dealers are trained to look for bent cards and to remove them from the deck. If detected, this ploy will not only lead to banishment from the premises but a possible jail term.

Switching Cards

Manipulating cards when the dealer is distracted at a busy table may have worked in the days before video surveillance but modern casinos do not even permit players to touch cards.

Spooking

This is an accomplice-aided gambit whereby one player keeps an eye on a careless dealer to pick up the value of the hole card and relay it to a player in the game. In addition to being highly unlikely, it only benefits the player after cards have been dealt so there will be no way to make large bets unless there is a chance to split or double. And games like Double Exposure, where both dealer cards are revealed, and European blackjack where the dealer does not check the hole card at all provide no benefit to spooking.

These techniques are antiquated in today’s casinos. It is only card counting that prevails, an advantage gained by skill. The hours are long, the work can be tedious, the pay is just OK, the casinos will be paying way more heed to your presence than is warranted – are you ready to sit down and count cards?

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