If there’s one thing everybody knows about gambling it’s that the house always wins. And while it is true that casinos always make a profit, there are a number of ways to cheat the system – some of which are actually perfectly legal.
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Half a century ago, mathematician Edward Thorp published a groundbreaking book outlining how a player could use “card counting” to get an advantage in the game Blackjack by keeping track of the cards left in a deck. Ever since, casinos have been trying to eradicate card counting while card counters are getting increasingly skilled at not getting caught. So is it possible to outplay casinos today? And what will it be like in the future?
Casinos are businesses and operate by building in a margin – often referred to as the house edge. If you play roulette and bet on a single number you will be paid at odds of 35-1 when the true odds are 36-1 in Europe and 37-1 in the US. The fact that you are receiving less than the true odds is the house edge and explains why casinos make money in the long term. Of course, some people have to win, otherwise casinos would cease to exist.
What casinos don’t like are “advantage players” – people seeking to have an edge over the house. Sometimes this involves cheating and/or illegal activities ranging from past posting (making a bet after the time when no more bets are to be taken) to collaborating at the poker table and using a computer to help make decisions.
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Card counting, however, is legal. In Blackjack, the aim of the player is to achieve a hand of cards whose points add up nearer to 21 than the dealer’s hand, but without exceeding 21. Many hands are played from the same deck of cards, so what happens in one hand will influence what happens in future hands. As an example, if a ten has been played from the pack then it cannot appear in the next hand. This is different from other games, such as roulette, where the outcome of one spin has no effect on the next spin.
Card counting is based on the fact that a large proportion of high cards (such as tens, jacks, queens and kings, which are all worth ten points) left in the unplayed deck statistically improves the player’s chances. This is because a player can decide not to draw a new card to a hand such as 16, but the casino is forced to, as it follows strict rules. If there are a high proportion of high cards left in the unplayed deck of cards, the dealer has more chance of busting (going over 21). This can be combined with “basic strategy” – developed from computer simulations of millions of blackjack hands – which tells the player the best action to take for each possible card combination.
Combining card counting and basic strategy can help a player convert the (long term) house edge from 2.7%, in favour of the casino, to about a 1% advantage to the player. Of course, once you have this advantage you can increase your bet.
To give a simple example, if you were playing basic strategy and were dealt a ten and a six, and the dealer had a three showing (one of the dealers cards is visible to the player), you would stand (not take another card) as you hope that the dealer would draw a ten and bust. If you were card counting, and you knew that more low cards had been played, you might decide to increase your stake at this point.
Casinos have introduced a number of measures to deter card counting. These include spotting those doing it and simply banning them from playing, or even from entering the casino. Another approach is to increase the number of decks from one to (typically) six, or even eight. Some casinos also shuffle the cards after only about 75% have been played or shuffle them constantly using automatic shufflers.
You might wonder why casinos don’t simply withdraw blackjack. Well, it remains a popular game, and one that is still profitable. There are also many would-be card counters who are not actually that good at it, and they provide income to the casinos.
Many blackjack players have fought back against such measures, arguing that casinos should allow gamblers to use skill when playing the game. As a card counter operating on their own is relatively easy to spot (intense concentration, increasing bets and so on), a team of students from MIT showed it could successfully be done in teams. The idea is that somebody else counts the cards – they may not even be sitting at the table. When the count reaches an agreed value, they signal to another player, who joins the table to start betting. This is a lot more difficult to detect but casinos may stop players joining the game until after a shuffle to combat such a strategy.
Other players have used shuffle tracking, where blocks of cards are tracked so that you have some idea when they will appear. If you are given the option to cut the pack, you try and cut the pack near where you think the block of cards you are tracking is so that you can bet accordingly. A variant on this is to track aces as, if you know when one is likely to appear, you have a distinct advantage over the casino.
It’s been 50 years since Thorp’s book, and it is unlikely that the war of wills between blackjack players and casinos will end any time soon. Some of our work has investigated how artificial neural networks (simple models of the human brain) could help evolve blackjack strategies. This was done by playing thousands of blackjack hands and the computer learning what to do in any given situation, getting better each time. There is a lot of scope to see if automated computer programs could learn even more sophisticated strategies.
I analyze all sorts of blackjack strategies and rank them for your fun and profit.
Can You Beat The Casino At Blackjack Free
In every single movie about Las Vegas and the gangsters that run it, some character says to another character, “The house always wins.”
Yet that doesn’t stop all of us from trying to beat the casino. Specifically blackjack. We all think we’re better than blackjack.
We’re not, of course. But we think we are. I compiled this list of 11 popular strategies for beating blackjack and ranked them here, starting with the least effective and building toward the most effective.
Any betting sites not on gamstop. I’ve seen tons of blackjack superstitions. None of these actually do anything — but either do lucky shirts, avoiding black cats, turning off the light switch three times to keep Charlie from dying, or any of the other day-to-day superstitions people swear by.
So it’s not going to change your blackjack fortunes if you violate your superstitions — even if you let new players enter during a shoe… you don’t bother saying “Nice hit” to someone who gets a six on a 15… you wish yourself good luck on your first-card ace… you tap twice instead of scratching the felt to hit… or forget your lucky cowboy hat. Gamblor is immune to superstition.
10 Gut feelings
It seems that most people who sit down at a blackjack table have a rough understanding of textbook blackjack strategy. At least on the most basic level. The “gut feelings” strategy is a mix of playing with basic blackjack strategy but also having feelings. For example: “I’m going to stay on this 16, I just know the next card is a 10.” (I’ve seen my friend Bruce almost attack people for that statement. More than once.)
The problem here, from a mathematical perspective — aka my favorite perspective — is that blackjack strategy is constructed to give you an edge if you adhere to it without deviation and play for a long, long time. It’s like a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters — eventually they’re going to write A Tale of Two Cities. But as soon as you deviate from the strategy for a gut feeling, that’s like telling your monkeys that they’re now trying to accidentally write Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life.
9 Easy card counting
I have three different levels of card counting on this list, because not all card counting is created equal. Some methods are so basic that you can learn them in 15 minutes. Some take months or years of practice.
Easy card counting might give you a small bump. One strategy like this is called ace/five — that’s where you start with the number zero, add one for every five dealt and subtract one for every ace. If the count is more than two, you double your previous bet. If the count is less than two, you bet the minimum. It’s simple, and marginally effective across a large data set.
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Another easy card counting style is the famed “I feel like I’ve seen a lot of big cards” strategy. This is the one where you’re paying like 80 percent attention, but you feel like you’ve seen a lot of big cards come out already so you scale back your bets. This somewhat resembles wearing shorts outside in February because you feel like there have been so many snowy days that some sun is due.
8 Avoiding elderly female Korean dealers
This isn’t necessarily a winning strategy but more of an “avoid losing” strategy. Simply put: If you stand up and walk away every time there’s a dealer switch and an elderly female Korean assassin takes over your table, it will probably save you thousands of dollars in your lifetime.
7 Bet incrementing
Bet incrementing is like card counting without the card counting. It’s more like streak counting. There are different systems but they all basically come down to this: If you’re winning, keep increasing your bet; if you’re losing, don’t increase your bet.
This certainly helps avoid the break-even rut that blackjack can fall into — where you sit there for hours and never swing more than 25 percent or so from your buy-in. With incrementing, you’re either blowing money quickly or raking it in quickly.
But it’s not really a system to beat the house… just one to help you channel your luck. Incrementing coupled with counting can actually increase your winning percentage (or, more accurately, shave a small amount off the house edge). But incrementing without counting is like having sexual relations with multiple people and eschewing condoms until you catch an STD, then going back to condoms again.
I put this in the middle of the list because it can go either way. If you spend hours going from casino to casino searching for a rookie dealer who might occasionally expose the very bottom burn card, that’s ineffective and inefficient cheating.
If you hide cards in your sleeve or try to subtlety double your bet when you get a good hand, those are more effective cheating strategies. Sure, you’ll end up getting dragged into a windowless room in the bowels of the casino and getting beat — fittingly — with a blackjack. But you’ll win some serious cash in the process.
5 Shuffle Tracking
In most of the big Vegas casinos you can’t do this anymore — the dealer doesn’t shuffle, he just puts the cards in a machine that automatically shuffles them. (Or, if you’re more of a conspiracy theorist, that sequences them to make sure you all get screwed.)
But if you’re playing blackjack and the dealer is manually shuffling, this actually can be moderately effective. You have to pay detailed attention to the sequence that the cards come out, because you’re looking for clusters. Maybe you try to remember the number and suit of the two cards that lead up to every ace. You expect that, during a human shuffle, some of those clusters will stay together — and you might have a little edge in knowing when the aces are coming.
It requires a lot of concentration, but might actually help you make a better decision on one or two hands every two or three shoes. It’s a long-term play. Continuing the analogy motif of this list, it’s like getting three green shells on the first lap in Mario Kart 64 and holding them indefinitely, hoping that you’ll be in a situation eventually where they’ll benefit you.
4 Basic strategy and time
Basic strategy is the calling card of blackjack — if you play with proper strategy, blackjack gives you the best odds in the casino over time. (People forget the “over time” aspect. We’re a culture that freaks out over small sample sizes. They’re the only thing keeping Around the Horn on the air.)
And over time, basic strategy really can make a difference — infinite computer simulations have proven it. But you need to have the discipline to hit 12 and 13 against a 2… hit soft 18 against a 9, 10 or ace… split 8s against a 10 even if you’re on a cold streak… and refuse to take even money for blackjacks. Every single time you play, with no exceptions, for your entire life.
3 Medium-difficulty card counting
This is the kind of card counting that the common man can learn and try to employ. You don’t need an entire team of MIT-educated math geniuses to work as spotters and helpers and trainers to make it work. (It’d be hard to get that team together anyway, what with them knowing they’d be whitewashed if a movie was made about your adventures.)
These medium strategies are more advanced than the counting strategies I talked about earlier. Here you might try something like the current “hot” counting style, called the Zen Count. (You subtract one for an ace; add one for a 2, 3 or 7; add two for a 4, 5 or 6; and subtract two for a ten.) This requires practice and concentration, *might* get you kicked out of a casino but probably not, and will give you more of an advantage than you’re used to.
Of course, if you’re doing this, you can’t really drink — so that’s a $6-$32 per hour loss, depending on the efficiency of your waitress and your willingness to consume Long Island iced teas in the middle of the afternoon. So make sure to factor that in.
2 Hard card counting team effort
These are the card counting systems you would see in movies like 21 and others. (No, I can’t actually name others, I just assume there are others.) Basically, you and your genius friends develop an advanced card counting strategy. Then you all watch and card count different tables and signal each other when a table is about to start paying off. The money guy goes to that table, bets a ton, then gets the hell out as soon as the pit bosses start whispering to each other and casting furtive glances in your direction.
On the downside, this is the kind of thing that casinos are on the lookout for and that might only exist in fantasy at this point. On the upside, if you do choose this method, you get to wear cool disguises and play different characters at the table! So if you and your friends from differential calculus class started an improv troupe, you were born for this.
(Side note: I bet that improv troupe would have a kitschy name like “RDRR” or “Nothing Derivative” or “Kristen Cavalieri’s Principle.”)
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