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Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Card Counters?8 October 2001
Twelve years ago when Merik learned to count cards, he unknowingly played in a casino that had a reputation for precipitously barring card counters. "I was playing one hand of $10 but when the count warranted it, I bet two hands of $25. I had been playing for about 15 minutes on the first day of a five-day trip."
At the table with Merik was another player, Chou, who bet $1,000 per hand. Both men played Basic Strategy.
Merik continues: "A truly high count developed and I pushed my two $25 bets into the betting circles. Chou bet $1,000. The pit boss leaped into action and pushed my two bets back to me saying: 'No more blackjack for you, buddy!'"
From the cage Merik could watch the table he had left. Chou was playing heads up against the dealer in a very high count and he was winning his hands. In fact, his last two rounds were blackjacks.
Did that pit boss help or hurt his casino?
Without question, the pit boss had actually hurt his casino even though he thought he had helped it. Stopping Merik from playing two $25 hands in that high count allowed Chou to have more rounds with $1,000 bets up. Had Merik played his two hands, the number of rounds would have been decreased dramatically as would the total action during a time when the casino was particularly vulnerable. Chou played six rounds at $1,000 each; he put into action $6,000. The count gave him approximately a three-percent edge during that stretch -- a winning expectation of $180 for Chou and an expected loss of $180 for the casino. Had Merik been allowed to play, approximately three rounds would have been played with the action totaling $3,150 -- by contrast a $94.50 expectation for the "table" and a $94.50 loss for the casino.
But that pit boss hurt his casino even more. Merik states: "When I got back to my room I informed my wife and the two couples we were with that I was going to another hotel." So the six of them moved to a different hotel -- Merik and his wife; Morty, the craps player and his wife, Rachel, the Megabucks player; John, the roulette player, and his wife, Anne, the $5 slot machine player. "We have never gone back to that casino-hotel."
By Merik's estimates, in the 12 years since they left the "unfriendly casino" Morty has lost over $60,000; his wife the same; John has gone into the tank for some $18,000 and his $5 slot-playing wife has refused to tell Merik how much she has lost but Merik believes that it's "staggering." (Don't fear, these folks have plenty of money.) When that pit boss bounced Merik, a potential small winner, he also unknowingly bounced four definite mega-losers.
Just as slot players have dozens of myths surrounding those alluring machines, casino executives have built up a body of irrational, illogical, and wrong assumptions concerning the "problem" of card counters playing blackjack in their casinos.
Do card counters win money in the long run from casinos? Some do, most definitely. Do they hurt the casino's bottom line? Overwhelmingly most definitely do not.
The overwhelming majority of card counters are recreational players who go to casinos several times a year. More importantly, recreational card counters often play other games in addition to blackjack, games that completely wipe out whatever small edge they enjoyed over the house.
Expert card counter Barry Meadow writes in his excellent book, Blackjack Autumn [TR Publishing, 1999]: "...after escaping with a small loss [at a blackjack session] I spy a Megabucks machine. The jackpot has reached $26 million, so why not go for it? I can give you 669 reasons, which is the number of dollars I waste...." He laments: "I've thrown away all the day's blackjack profits...."
Often recreational players have spouses who do not play blackjack but prefer slots or other table games. Quite often they come to the casinos with friends or relatives who also play all the other negative-expectation games. When a casino executive makes a decision to bar such card counters, they are -- in effect -- telling all the people with that recreational counter to beat it as well. Who wins in that situation? Certainly not the casino.
An expert card counter -- and most counters are decidedly not expert -- has an approximately one percent edge over the casino in real-life play. While the math of blackjack tells us that card counting can get around a 1.5 percent edge on certain games, the ledgers of expert players show us quite clearly that for various reasons the very best counters realize between 50 and 75 percent of their mathematical expectation. So a card counter playing a double-deck game with good rules might have a 1.5 percent mathematical edge but will probably realize one percent or less.
If the above counter is a green and black chip player spreading from 1-5, 6, 7 or 8 and averaging about $100 per decision, he can expect to make approximately $60 per hour in the long run. If he plays four hours, his expectation is about $240.
Now, before you take "game-protection" actions against him or, worse, panic and jettison him, ask the following questions and consider my answers. Since most counters tend to play for the average stakes of a given table, we'll assume that our counter is putting into action what any player at a given table would play -- albeit in a different way (by spreading bets).
Question #1: Should you place the cut card so as to cut off more of the decks?
Answer: No. Even if the counter is playing alone for a while, as soon as another player enters the game the "table-edge" reverts back to the casino. The more players playing, the more the casino will make from the table -- even with the counter present. A shallow cut means fewer rounds, more shuffles and less money won per hour. You stop the counter from having his one percent edge with a shallow shufflepoint but you prevent the casino from enjoying its 2-4 percent edge on all the other players during the downtime shuffling. You lose more than you win from this strategy. Making your entire casino have shallow shuffle points, you just create more downtime for all the players who are playing against those 2-4 percent house edges.
Question #2: Should you tell the counter that he can't spread to two or three hands if he's been playing one?
Answer: No. The fact that he spreads from one to two or three hands can often be the difference between an earlier shuffle in a high count and an extra round for all the players when they have the best of it. Yes, the counter knowingly enjoys an edge during these moments of spreading but the other players are also playing with an edge, although they don't realize it. One fewer round because the counter spread to two or three hands is actually marginally good for the casino. In cases where the counter is the small-stakes player at a table, the casino is truly benefited by his spreading to two or three hands since he's eating up high cards and shortening the number of rounds that the big-stakes players will experience -- decreasing the "total table action" in these situations.
Question #3: Should I preferential shuffle on the counter who increases his bets?
Answer: No. Aside from the moral question of whether such an act constitutes cheating, it is largely a waste of time. You shuffle up and the counter leaves. The other players wait for the shuffle to be finished and you've lost playing time. If you make it a policy to shuffle away high counts, even the dimmest player will eventually get tired of the erratic nature of the shuffle-timing and depart for casinos with more routine procedures. Players like routine.
Question #4: Should you kick his ugly carcass out the door?
Answer: No. First, you don't know whether he's the type of counter who plays other games, thereby giving back his edge to the casino. Second, you don't know whether he has a spouse, friends and relatives who will be joining his exodus from your establishment, thereby taking away a good "aggregate" revenue source. After all, a $1 three-coin slot player facing the Strip's typical 95 percent return on machines will lose on average $360 for four hours of play. If that slot player plays progressives, he or she can be expected to lose two to three times that figure! Boot out Mr. $240 per-four-hour card counter and you might just be losing profits between $120 and $840 or more every four hours from all his $ignificant other$.
Question #5: Should I limit the options my casino offers such as surrender?
Answer: No. The more "good" options you offer, the more poorly bad players play them. The card counter will certainly take advantage of all the good options, as will Basic Strategy players, but my research indicates that more than 90 percent of the blackjack players playing in Vegas do not play Basic Strategy and definitely do not know how to use such options as surrender properly. This is one case where you can give a sucker an even break and still make money!
Are there any occasions where card counters are threats to a casino's bottom line? Yes.
If everyone at every table is a competent, well-financed card counter, an unlikely occurrence, the casino will lose money to them in the long run. Or if well-financed teams come into an establishment and their betting significantly skews the action of the casino, then this can have a negative impact. However, this "skewing phenomenon" is no different from a baccarat whale whose large bets can hurt the casino when he has a hot streak. If the team's betting is not so great as to skew the "average action" of the casino on a given night, the impact will be marginal at most, negligible at least.
Casino executives should look at the action in their casinos as a gestalt. A certain percentage of blackjack hands will be played in player-favorable moments no matter who is playing those hands. This will happen all over the casino, all day, all night. The card counter's impact on the totality of the money bet is only of interest when it takes the player-favorable moments and injects significant amounts of money over and above the standard range of action. It rarely does. If you were to have a card counter making $60 an hour at every seat of every blackjack table but each had a spouse who was playing Megabucks or other progressives for that hour -- would it be in the interests of the casino to toss the counters if the spouses would leave as well? Only if you want your casino to lose money.
Casinos looking to protect their games should actually be looking to protect their "profits." There's a big difference between "game protection" and "profit protection."
Game protection tries to eliminate card counters, period. Casino executives are being frightened into buying expensive equipment and hiring special personnel to catch those big, bad card counters and, indeed, many casinos have bagged some counters at their tables with such personnel and equipment. But do these actions actually protect the casino's profits? I doubt it. The personnel and equipment cost more than the counters could possibly win! In fact, a good case can be made that the more aggressive a casino is in "game protection" against counters the more it loses in overall profits.
So here's the bottom line. Your casino will win more money in the long run if you recognize that actions taken to protect your blackjack games against card counters often hurt your profits. In short, you have nothing to fear from the big, bad card counters but fear itself.
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 email@example.com.
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