Card Counting: Is it Truly Illegal?

June 09

It was mathematician Edward Thorp who publicized the method of card counting way back in 1962 in his book entitled “Beat the Dealer.” Since that time, countless blackjack players have applied this tact to try and beat the game.

Thorp actually utilized an elementary counting system that was called the 10 Count. However, systems have since improved, which in turn, have made the process much easier. And given how easier it is now than ever before, one can’t help but wonder why don’t more players use this advantage play method? This is especially the case when considering how many people are interested in becoming professional gamblers.

In reality, much of the general tries to stay away from card counting primarily because it takes a whole lot of work to be a master at it. An even bigger reason is that the general public considers card counting to be illegal. But is this really true? Is card counting really illegal? In this article, we will find the answer to that oft-asked question as well as why casinos frown upon counters. But first, let’s take a look at how card counting works.

How Does Card Counting Work?

Before we dive into the legality of card counting, let us first talk about how it works so you can see that no cheating is involved. The overall objective of counting is to try and figure out when the shoe has an abundance of aces and 10-value cards. The reason why this is so is that more aces and 10s raise the chances of getting a natural blackjack.

Casinos pay either 3:2 or 6:5 on your initial bet when you win with a natural blackjack. Therefore, you get more value on larger bets when the shoe is rich in aces, kings, queens, jacks, and 10s. This is where card counting comes in handy because you can monitor when the shoe has more favorable cards. You want to bet more when there’s an abundance of aces and 10s. This is often called as spreading bets because you begin at the table minimum and move up to a larger wager when the count tilts in your favor.

Here’s an example on spreading wagers:

  • A common bet spread for professional card counters is 1-15.
  • The table minimum bet is $5.
  • You keep on making this wager until the count goes in your favor.
  • You then raise your bet to $75 (for example, a 1-15 spread) during favorable counts.

It was mentioned earlier how card counting systems have been augmented through the years and become more precise. But most times, picking a more-accurate counting method also raises the margin for human error. A lot of players simply use the Hi-Lo system, because it has a nice balance between being exact and convenient to learn. The primary thing you must bear in mind is that you’re counting three groups of cards, including high, low, and neutral.

Here are the various groupings:

  • Low cards (2-6) = +1
  • Neutral cards (7-9) = 0
  • High cards (A-10) = -1

You can see that card counting isn’t all too difficult to learn. But one of the toughest challenges is keeping a correct count when considering other elements, like the dealer speed, casino distractions, and trying to act like you are not counting cards. This is why many card counters practice by utilizing free online training programs or even simply dealing cards around a table like they’re at a casino table. Any blackjack player can learn to effectively count cards if they put some hard work in.

Try to also remember that the Hi-Lo system calls on you to change your “running count” into a “true count.” The goal of doing so is to account for multi-deck shoes.

Here’s an example on converting your true count:

  • Your running count is +12.
  • The shoe has four remaining four decks.
  • This makes your true count +3 (12/4).

The last step is to determine your bet spread based on the count. It was discussed earlier how to spread bets from 1-15. But you can take this a step further by utilizing your true count to get a more-accurate suggestion on bet spreading.

Here’s a simple system that was used by the legendary MIT Blackjack Team.

  • Determine your unit size (e.g. $25).
  • Determine the true count (e.g. +4).
  • Subtract 1 from the true count (4 – 1 = 3).
  • Multiply this figure by your unit size (25 x 3 = 75).
  • You should bet 3 units ($75).

The only problem with bet spreading is that this makes it easier for casinos to identify card counters. Some land-based casinos will put up with smaller bet spreads, but they become skeptical if players are quickly spreading from 1-15.

This is why many modern blackjack pros actually work in teams under the “big player” concept. First propagated by Al Francesco in the 1970s, this tactic revolves around “spotters” and a single big player. The spotters spread out to various blackjack tables and make the minimum bets each time while counting cards. If one of the spotters realizes a high positive count, they’ll give a signal to the big player, who stands off the side of the action.

The big player then comes in and instantaneously bets big. Therefore, they appear to be a high roller, rather than someone who jumps from the minimum bet to 15 times that amount. You can see that card counting doesn’t involve illegal devices or sleight of hand tricks. Rather, it’s a lawful advantage play technique that just needs the skill to beat the casino.

However, try telling that to casino operators, who have shown, time and time again, their disdain for card counters. But why is this so? Let’s find out in the section below.

Why Do Casinos Despise Card Counters?

Casinos often frown upon card counters because they hurt their bottom line. The entire reason why casinos offer gambling is so that they can make a long-term profit. They make their profit by offering games with a built-in house edge. Blackjack is no different because the average player goes up against anywhere from a 0.5% to 5.0% house edge depending on their skill level and the table rules.

Even when a blackjack player makes use of a perfect basic strategy, they can only reduce the house advantage to around 0.5% or 2.0%, depending upon the rules. Card counters differ, though, because they gain an edge over the house. And this player advantage goes from 0.5% to 1.5%. Although not crucial in the short run, a small edge results in big profits over large sample size.

Even when accounting for advantage players, land-based casinos still make plenty of money with blackjack. Nevertheless, they still want to root out card counters by any means necessary since they are often labeled as “bad customers.”

So we have established that card counting isn’t a casino’s favorite tact. Now let’s move on to a more significant query: is it illegal though? Let’s find out.

So, Is Card Counting Illegal?

The answer is no, card counting isn’t illegal in most countries. As a matter of fact, lawsuits over the years have proven that card counters are completely fine from a legal standpoint.

But casinos in most jurisdictions have the right to refuse service to any person. Casinos are private businesses that can, at times, ask customers to leave for violating rules — written or otherwise.

The only time that a card counter can be apprehended in the United States or the United Kingdom is when they use an illegal cheating device. An example would be if you used a computerized gadget to track the count. But other than this, card counting is wholly legal in a lot of gambling jurisdictions. The only thing that casinos can do is request you to leave and prohibit you from their establishment.

The one exception is Atlantic City casinos, which haven’t been able to ban advantage players since 1982. Ken Uston, who was part of Francesco’s big player team, waged a lawsuit Uston v. Resorts International Hotel, Inc. against Atlantic City casinos. The judge ruled that anybody has reasonable access to casinos as long as they’re not threatening the establishment security or meddling with other players.

Another exception that bears mentioning is Native American casinos. Tribal casinos are located on sovereign land and can deal with card counters as they see fit. Some gamblers claim that tribal casinos have commandeered their funds without recourse. One account even said that unidentified tribal authorities forced them into a back room and took whatever they could after the gamblers won too much money.

This isn’t to say that you’re automatically going to be ganged up on for winning too much. But you might not be treated as warmly at tribal casinos if you’re caught counting cards.

Why Does the General Public Think That Card Counting Is Illegal?

So we have already established that card counting isn’t illegal, outside of maybe a number of sovereign tribal lands. Yet, there is still a good portion of people who believe that card counters can be apprehended. The two main sources at fault are movies and how old Vegas casinos were operated back then.

Hollywood movies that involve card counting, like 21 and Rain Man, make it appear like people are in for beating if they’re caught. 21 is exceptionally bad because Lawrence Fishburne’s character who goes by the name of Cole Williams takes counters into back rooms and roughs them up. Meanwhile, Vegas casinos used to be operated by the infamous mob. And they would sometimes use physical “persuasion” to convince card counters to never set foot on their casinos ever again.

This is largely the inspiration that was drawn for Fishburne’s character in the aforementioned movie. One of the film’s final scenes shows Kevin Spacey’s character, who goes by the name of Micky Rosa, facing an imminent beating for all the money that he won off of Williams’ casino. Card counters could potentially face physical violence up until the 1980s when companies started taking over Las Vegas. However, this isn’t anything like the scene today.

Security might handle a suspected card counter a little crudely. But the counter will simply be walked out the front door and be requested to not to come back again. As for card counting’s legality; nobody will be detained for using skill-based play to beat the casino.

I’m sure that gambling venues enjoy the myth of card counting being illegal. But again, you can walk into any non-tribal casinos and count without fear of any legal troubles whatsoever.

Should You Count Cards in Casinos?

So we have already established that you’re legally cleared to count cards at gambling venues in a lot of countries. But there are also restrictions to be cautious of, namely the fact that you could be kicked out and banned if caught.

In spite of these, some players relish the challenge of card counting so much that they’re willing to take these risks. And you can make a good living if you become proficient enough at counting cards.

Blackjack legend James Grosjean shared that he once made $225,000 in an eight-hour span. The average card counter doesn’t earn anywhere near this amount in one whole year. But they can still make anywhere between $60,000 and $100,000 when collaborating with a good team.

However, good and dedicated team members are expressly difficult to come by. Many aspiring blackjack pros begin with their friends, but soon realize that they need a more-dedicated team instead of hobbyists. You also have to consider the bankroll requirements that are required to survive the variance of card counting. Considering that the best you can do in many cases is a 1.5% advantage over casinos, you’ll have many nights where you actually lose money.

This is why you need a large bankroll to overcome flat nights. Ideally, your card counting team will have at least a $25,000 bankroll to start with. Even when you have the resources and are willing to face the risk of getting kicked out, you need the skills to keep a precise count. Learning card counting is stress-free, but keeping an accurate count amid a lot of variances inside the casino is a different story altogether.

And you need to take all these factors into account before making a decision on whether or not card counting is justly worth your time and effort.