Beat the Casino

January 11, 2013

There are those who say you can easily beat the casino with some easy system--and the ones who say this are usually selling such systems--and then there are those who will claim that the casino will always win. The truth is that there are ways to get the statistical edge as a player of several different gambling games. However, they are generally not easy systems to implement.

I worked as a blackjack and roulette dealer earlier in my life, and I saw many hopeful schemes and ideas tried at my tables. Some of these systems worked, meaning some players (but not many) consistently came out ahead over the long run. In blackjack, for example, card counting has a proven track-record of making money for those who can do it properly. This technique can make you more money than you lose in the long run, but not necessarily on any given day--you'll still have losing days. You just have the odds in your favor, and so beat the house over time.

Note: The rules of blackjack or "21" can be found easily online and in many books, and will not be explained here.

To be a good card counter you have to first know the game of blackjack well enough to play "basic strategy" pretty much flawlessly. This means that you should know at a glance when to "take a hit" (another card), and when to "stand," or stay with what you have, based on your total card count and the dealer's "up card" (the visible one). There are plenty of books that will teach you basic strategy, but practice is important. You will not be able to keep track of everything you need to keep track of if you have to concentrate to decide if you should split a pair of sevens when the dealers is showing a six. All basic plays have to become automatic before you are ready for counting cards. Otherwise the odds may not be in your favor.

Card counting requires patience. The basic idea is to monitor the cards as they come out, while you are playing, and when the deck has more high-value cards (10,J,Q,K,A) than normal in it, you bet more. You bet less when the house has the edge, which is most of the time. For example, if you are at a table with a $5 minimum, that minimum is all you bet most of the time. Only when the deck is "rich" enough in high-value cards do you start betting, say, $25 per hand. Because you are more likely to get blackjack, which pays one-and-a-half times what you bet, and because you are more likely to get two face cards, which add up to twenty (which will only be beat by a dealer's blackjack), you have a slight edge over the dealer.

That the odds tilt slightly in favor of the player with proper counting has been proven statistically. However, how much the odds favor you depends on the "house rules," meaning the exact rules of the game as played in that particular casino. The odds also depend on the number of decks that the dealer deals from, and how far into the "card shoe" (the holder that the cards are dealt from) the dealer deals before shuffling. If you are playing at a table with a five-deck shoe this will still work if the dealer is playing through four decks, for example, because there is enough time for imbalances to develop and be taken advantage of. On the other hand, if the cards are reshuffled after only half of the five decks are dealt out, card counting probably won't work.

The counting part is essentially assigning a value to the cards and tracking them. This is done more easily at tables where all the cards are dealt face up (except the dealer's "hole card"). In one variation of the system, aces and face cards are given a value of -1, two through six are valued at +1, and seven, eight and nine are considered neutral. As you watch the cards you add and subtract their values, betting the table minimum all the while. When you arrive at a predetermined count, let's say +7, you raise your bet. The high count means that there is a higher percentage of high-value cards left in the deck than normal, so the odds are now in your favor.

This is a limited explanation, and you need to study a good counting book if you want to give this strategy a try. You also need to practice, probably at home for many hours, because your play has to be precise to have the edge. It is difficult to keep track of all those cards flying out of that shoe while the other players talk and waitresses interrupt you.

One card counter I dealt to for years would sit at the table for most of an evening, betting the $2 minimum (it helps to have such a low minimum bet). He shifted chips from one hand to another, his own way of tracking the "plus or minus count." When the shoe (five decks of cards in this case) was rich enough in high-value cards, he would suddenly start betting two hands at $20 each.

He made money, but not much (which is why the casino management left him alone). Do this well, and you may get a 1.5% edge on the casino. If, between your minimum bets and the others you average $8 per hand, and 75 hands per hour are dealt at your table, you'll make about $9 per hour. This assumes you can tolerate alternating losing and winning days and hours of concentration.

Betting more brings that hourly rate up, of course, along with the risk of bigger losing days. If you are at a $5 minimum table and betting $50 when the count is right, you can still have days when you lose a thousand dollars, even if you make a profit over the course of a month. Card counting is definitely not for everyone.

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