Every year the casino industry in North America loses millions of dollars to card counting. However, it’s not a group of college students who are doing it. It’s not a congregation of blackjack-playing Christians. Nor is it a collection of computer nerds using concealed blackjack computers. It’s actually an assortment of individuals who work inside the casino industry. They come in a number of shapes, sizes, genders and backgrounds, and are totally overlooked by game protection professionals tasked with safeguarding the casino’s blackjack games. You may know them by other names such as table games managers, casino managers, casino operation vice presidents and a smattering of general managers as well. It happens to be most anyone who has influence regarding the establishment of game procedures that dictate the dealing process of the game of blackjack.
Why? Because it isn’t the professional-level card counter who is costing the casino money; it’s the casino executive who is hamstringing blackjack’s profit potential. A number of procedures in use today—procedures that have been established to deter loses from card counters—cost the casino industry millions every year. These procedures might prevent loss to a handful of card counters, but they limit revenue production to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of “square” or regular casino blackjack customers.
How Many Good Card Counters Are Out There?
Over the past 50 years, we casino executives have perpetuated the belief that the overall threat to the casino industry is card counting in blackjack. Why not? Almost every book you pick up on the game of blackjack goes into detail about the advantages of keeping track of the deal cards and using that information to gain an advantage over the casino. Hollywood has released a number of movies centered on educated blackjack players (the “good” guys) attacking the casinos (the “bad” guys) and walking away winning millions of dollars. Millions of people are exposed to the technique of card counting. It’s in magazines, on the Internet, in books and on TV. A search on Bing for the term “card counting” revealed more than 11.4 million hits.
When I queried “learn to invest,” I got 17.9 million hits. Based on this information, it could be assumed that there are as many people counting cards in blackjack as there are in making investments, and there might just be. However, like the novice investor, the novice card counter is likely to make mistakes and end up losing money to his or her venture. In addition, when comparing investing to card counting, you invest in a friendly marketplace with a potential upside of incremental annual gains of 5 to 20 percent. In card counting, you deal in a limited hostile market where your best case scenario is scraping out 1 to 1.5 percent returns on each investment.
An overwhelming majority of persons who make an effort to learn card counting lose money. Novice card counters lose money at the same rate as the average blackjack player. The more sophisticated “semi” professional counter plays breakeven at best. The professional-level counter, the player that knows how to count flawlessly, has mastered all the technique’s nuances and has access to a bankroll that allows him or her to place higher-limit wagers during advantageous situations, is the only type of card counter who can achieve a long-term advantage over the game of blackjack. However, the professional card counter’s presence in the casino is very limited. After discussion with several advantage players, I have been informed that the number of professional-level card counters in North America, players who make their living purely from counting cards or shuffle tracking, is probably less than 100. So based on that fact, it is only a very minute group of people in North America (about one in 2 million) who have progressed to a level where they can beat the casino through counting cards. However, casino executives find that this threat needs to be mitigated through a series of game protection measures that, for the most part, reduce blackjack game decisions. Why are we targeting the very few at the expense of the masses?
Are We Losing Money Protecting Against a Minimal Threat?
The answer is yes. We focus on the imagined threat of 100 counters and literally ignore the profit potential from the other 200 million possible casino players. Card counting game protection procedures are designed to reduce the card counters’ advantageous situations. At the same time, these opportunity minimizations reduce the number of total game decisions. Reducing game decisions per hour reduces revenue potential per hour. For example, a midsized North American casino has the potential to increase revenue by $100,000 per year if they can gain an average of one additional round of play on every open blackjack game per hour. If a midsize casino can increase the number of rounds dealt from 70 per hour to 71 per hour, the operation has the ability to produce an additional $100k in blackjack wins per year.
In the same instance, a reduction of rounds dealt per hour cost the casino the same amount of money. For example, a majority of the casinos incorporate a discard holder “plug” of the unused cards in the multiple deck shoe games. They do this regardless of whether the cards are manually or machine shuffled. What’s the cost? On average, it takes 8 seconds to complete the plug. If you shuffle four times an hour, it costs you about 0.6 rounds an hour. If you employ all multiple deck blackjack games using the same plugging procedure, it is costing you $60,000 annually. And that is if your dealers aren’t wasting more time looking around the casino and taking short breaks. Following are a list of costs in rounds per hour of different procedures used in blackjack to mitigate the threat of card counting or shuffle tracking.
The Reduction of Table Decisions
• Diminished deck penetration (shoe and pitch games). On a manually shuffled game, the reduction in deck penetration of a half deck (26 cards) cost about six rounds per hour. On machine-shuffled games, about two rounds per hour. It’s a common belief in our industry that reducing the percent of deck penetration will increase profitability. This is absolutely not true. Limiting penetration lessens revenue. Increasing penetration increases the number of decisions and increases revenue potential. This is the biggest revenue killer in the industry. For regulatory people, this is the biggest tax potential killer as well. On the opposite side of the coin, an increase in deck penetration will increase revenue.
• The use of “No Mid-Game Entry.” Utilizing the policy of no mid-game entry after the first hand is dealt on a multiple deck shoe game costs roughly three rounds per hour across the board. This is based on 5 percent of your blackjack customers looking for a game in which to play. What no mid-game entry does is limit a customer’s ability for spontaneous play, i.e., you’re instructing them when to gamble. On double and single deck games, the effect is not as bad; however you can subtract at least one round per hour if you use this on hand-pitched games only. This becomes more expensive if you also restrict number of hands played or changed during the deck. Your best course of action is to throw the signs away and use table minimum limits to keep “ploppy” blackjack players from jumping in on game played by higher limit customers.
• Useless pre-shuffle antics (plugging the discards). This was discussed previously, but it still needs to be mentioned on this list. “Plugging” is a technique used to discourage zone shuffle tracking. First, a limited number of professional-level players use shuffle tracking to attack the casino (if any). Second, “plugging” is only a mild deterrence. This technique is especially costly in machine-shuffled games. In MD shuffled games, the optimal transfer time from when the multiple deck shoe is broken, to when the first card is burnt from the shoe, is about 30 seconds maximum. Plugging could increase the transfer time to a full 45 seconds. That translates to approximately one round lost per hour. Eliminate the plug and increase your revenue potential.
Discouraging Customer Participation
• Cutting the shoe in half to gauge the player’s reaction. This is a countermeasure that is used when an uneducated casino executive wants to view a suspected player’s reaction to severely reduced deck penetration. If the player’s reaction is to quit playing blackjack and leave, the uneducated executive claims that he or she has chased a card counter off the table. More than likely, the executive has chased a good customer away who does not like the decrease in hands played per shoe. The cost for using this tactic can’t accurately be estimated; however the cost of losing a good, higher-limit player will cost the casino thousands of dollars over the next several years. That doesn’t include the cost of diminished deck penetration on the other customers at the table who are collateral damage of this inappropriate gaming decision. Note: In New Jersey, casinos are not allowed to back off skilled players. In this situation, reducing deck penetration should only be used if the player in question has been confirmed as a professional-level card counter.
• Flat betting a specific customer. Here’s another method that is used in an attempt to discourage a suspected card counter. Although flat betting a blackjack player does not affect other players at the table, it does change the atmosphere at the game. I strongly recommend not using either of these two countermeasures (unless you’re in New Jersey). If the player has been identified as a professional-level card counter, ask them not to play. If you are not certain if the customer has a long-term advantage over the casino, allow them to play unmolested until you can confirm their professional playing level.
The number of professional-level card counters in North America is very few. In most cases, casinos lose money using hand decision killing procedures that are targeted to a minute sector of blackjack players. These procedures result in reduced game production and cost the casino industry millions of dollars each year. Card counter countermeasures, such as poor deck penetration and no mid-game entry are the primary culprits. Unnecessary pre-shuffling antics, as well as uneducated use of play discouraging countermeasures contribute greatly to this loss as well. The wise casino executive understands the gains created through increasing hand decisions in blackjack. By foregoing former costly and irrelevant game protection procedures, the educated executive will experience a substantial increase in blackjack revenue over the long-term.
Author’s Note: This article is the first of a four-part series on card counting and the best strategy for achieving the optimal outcome. This first article identifies the cost the casinos have brought on themselves through the poor understanding of the threat of card counting and the mishandling of game protection procedures. The first step is for the casino executive to understand that almost all counter measures cost the casinos far more than the cure.
The second article will discuss the act of counting cards that gives a player an advantage. Not only is the advantage very small, but not everyone who picks up a book on card counting is a threat. Only a minute portion of the public can create a long-term gain over the casino.
The third article will explain how to detect someone who is a possible card counting threat. Surveillance can’t see everything, and the floor supervisors are busy with customer service and clerical functions. This article outlines the different indicators that lead to the detection and finally the confirmation of a professional-level card counter.
The fourth and final article deals with confirming whether a player is or is not a professional-level card counter. If you don’t have a sophisticated software program for your computer that will analyze a counter’s play, there is a low-tech method for safely separating the professional counter form the average blackjack customer.