How to Catch the Elusive North American Card Counter

You’re watching an unknown Blackjack player punish your higher-limit Blackjack game. You’re the live games manager of a medium-sized Native American casino that supports 25 gaming tables with a maximum table limit of $500 per betting square. The player you are watching has been playing in your casino for several days now. At first, he wasn’t on the winning end of the decisions, but now he’s won back every dollar he lost and is ahead of the casino by several thousand dollars.

You have a funny hunch that he might be counting cards; however, you don’t have the level of training in the science of card counting needed to make an educated decision. No one else in the operations end or the Tribal Gaming surveillance department has the ability to identify a card counter either. In addition, neither you nor Tribal Gaming has approached the tribal council about purchasing card-counter-catching software, so you can’t verify his play through the computer.

After watching the player vary his bets up to your table limits and win another thousand dollars, everyone in operations and Tribal Gaming is looking to you. Is the player actually a high-limit customer whom your operation needs to keep, or is he one of the dreaded North American Card Counters who is intent on bilking your casino for as much money as he can get away with? Have you ever been in this position before?

Adam’s Overall Plan to Correct a Bad Situation

Back in September of last year, one of my gaming seminar participants approached me regarding a similar problem. Let’s call him “Adam.” Early that year, Adam had taken over the live gaming department at a Native American casino located in the northwest part of the country. Adam quickly discovered that he had a problem with his game protection when it came to card counting. It seems that the previous management team had developed a habit of chasing away anyone who won money in Blackjack, claiming these players were card counters. The tribal council became very uncomfortable with this practice. They decided to suspend the use of play exclusion in Blackjack unless the decision came directly from the Tribal Gaming Commission-operated surveillance department. Subsequently, table games could no longer back someone off for counting cards, and surveillance was reluctant to do so because they did not possess the knowledge to make that decision.

Because of this situation, Blackjack players whom Adam thought were counting cards played without restriction, since he was helpless to do anything about it. He also knew that, since the first of the year, about a half-dozen of these players had been beating his Blackjack game on a regular basis for several thousand dollars. Adam had to do something to correct the problem. His first step was to develop a well-thought-out game plan.

His plan took shape when he signed up for my Last Resort Consulting seminar series held last summer at the Tuscany Resorts in Las Vegas. After taking the four three-hour classes on the finer points of card counting, advantage play, casino mathematics, and game protection, he approached me about conducting the same classes for his people at his casino. Even though this was a good first step, I advised Adam that it was imperative he got everyone at the casino property on the same page first. This meant he first had to cross the political abyss that had been created between his department and the Tribal Game surveillance department. Without incorporating surveillance into this game plan, he would only be wasting the casino’s money.

Knowing this, Adam returned to his casino and met with the director of surveillance. Let’s call her “Eve.” Eve was not only the director of surveillance but was also a tribal member and had reasonable political pull with the Tribal Consul. Eve also understood the problem that existed between her department and table games and agreed with Adam that something needed to be done to create a better working relationship.

Next, Adam contacted me and set up a training program for his and Eve’s staffs. Adam knew that no card-counting seminar could teach his people to count cards overnight. Adam understood that it was important that the staff learned count play characteristics, including how they should proceed from identifying to correct analysis, and then onto a well-informed player exclusion. One problem that would continue to exist was the organization’s lack of real card-counting scientific knowledge. They needed to develop some procedure that would allow them to make crucial decisions correctly as to whether a customer was knowledgeable enough to count cards profitably.

Simple Method for Recording and Analyzing a Suspected Counter’s Play

I suggested that Adam might consider using an old tried-and-true method of detecting and confirming card counters. This method required him to track a suspected customer’s play on each and every hand and to use that information to detect a correlation between the customer’s betting pattern and the true count of the remaining cards in the deck or shoe. Comparing a player’s betting pattern with the true count is centered on the fact that a player can only make money in Blackjack if he wagers more when the composition of the remaining cards in the deck are in his favor. When the casino is tracking a suspected player, his betting pattern needs to follow the condition of the card composition of the deck very closely, or about 90 percent of the time. If the observation concludes that the player’s bet correlation is below 90 percent, the chance that the player is counting cards is quite slim.

Immediately after a day of seminars, Adam, Eve and I would sit down and go over video of suspected players they had watched for the past several months who had won money in Blackjack on a consistent basis. I had Adam start by taking a legal pad of paper and drawing six columns. These columns were used to record the number of cards used per each round, the count of the cards per each round, and the amount wagered by the suspected player per each round (multiple hands were totaled). From this information, we also recorded the number of cards used for all hands and a total “running” count of the cards observed. (See Table 1.)

This information was used to calculate the “true” count of the cards at any point in the observation. The “running” count is actually a tool the card counter uses to keep track of the value of the observed cards. It’s a continuous record that constantly changes as each card of the deck or shoe is exposed. The true count is the “real” value of the running count at any time in the deck or shoe. It reflects the value of the running count information, based on the percentage of cards seen and the number of cards that are yet to be dealt. This process makes sense when you stop to think about the difference in information value you receive when glimpsing a card off the top of a single-deck game versus gaining the same information off the top of a six-deck shoe. In a single-deck game, you’re looking at one card out of 52, while in a six-deck game you’re looking at one card out of 312.

Once the “true” count is calculated, it is compared to the customer’s wager. Anytime the player raises his wager above his previous minimum wager, the change in betting is compared to the true count. If the true count is higher than “+1” and the player is wagering above his minimum wager, then the true count and bet are in correlation. If the wager is raised and the true count is +1 or less, the wager and true count are not in correlation. If the true count is greater than +1 and there is no raise in the wagering, this is another example of the true count and bet not in correlation.

By comparing the “true” count to a player’s wagering pattern, Adam and Eve are testing the recorded play sample to determine the likelihood that the player is counting. Any samples that fail to identify a correlation of 90 percent are thus rejected as ordinary play, while any sample above 90 percent is evidence that the observed player is using deck or shoe card composition information (i.e., card counting) to gain a long-term advantage over the casino. To guarantee this test is accurate, it is suggested that you conduct at least four full deck or shoe observations of each player, specifically those deck or shoe observations where the suspected player is noted spreading his bets up to his maximum wager, and other observations when his spread is limited. By using these two different extremes, you eliminate the chance of a false positive because of coincidence in betting patterns.

After Adam, Eve and I recorded four six-deck shoe observations of the first suspected player, we discovered his play exceeded the 90 percent correlation level. Once they got the hang of it, Adam and Eve proceeded forward with other videos and confirmed another five players as counting cards. Now that Adam and Eve have the tools to make the correct decision on a Blackjack customer’s play and are willing to work together, they stand a greater chance of identifying the players who are gaining a long-term advantage by counting cards.

[Note: I always advise that, for defensive purposes, using the “simple plus/minus” count is the best. It’s simple to learn and is easy to convert from “running” to “true” count. True count conversion can be accomplished by dividing the running count by the number of decks remaining unseen. For example, for a running count of +6 with two decks remaining unseen, the true count is +3 (+6 divided by 2).]

Further Considerations: Bet Spreads and Minimum Average Wager

Before conducting an in-depth analysis of a suspected Blackjack player, you should first consider whether or not the player could pose a long-term threat to your casino’s bankroll. It has always been my position that the only card counters a casino operation should worry about are players who play at a professional level. Amateur counter wannabes and most semi-professional counters have no real negative long-term effect on your Blackjack games’ overall performance and should be ignored. If the suspected player is not meeting a minimum bet-spread requirement or wagering only in a lower-limit area, their presence in your casino is only one step below an unpaid shill. These amateur counters will add activity to your casino’s ambiance, but won’t walk out the door as a winner at the end of the year.

Table 2 illustrates the minimum bet spreads required in order for the player counting cards to maintain an average player advantage (P/A) during their playing session in your casino. In most cases, the professional card counter will not get out of bed in the morning if he cannot gain at least a 1 percent average advantage counting cards. From the following table, you’ll note the approximate minimum bet spreads per Blackjack game and deck penetration to achieve a 0.8 percent or 1 percent average gain. Any spread less than the minimum requirements is considered a waste of time by the pro counters. Be aware though, some professional players who incorporate gains from player reinvestment programs (comps) and promotions may decrease their bet spreads. The alert casino executive or surveillance operator should be on the lookout for these “counter-lucrative” situations.

Also, understand that a counter wagering in a lower-limit situation represents a minimum long-term lost to the operation. For example, a counter spreading 1 to 16 units in a six-deck game (75 percent penetration) and wagering from $5 to $80 has an hourly expectation of approximately $6.74 from perfect count play. This amount is hardly enough to worry about for an executive with a busy casino operation to run.

Why Many Advantage Players and Cheaters are Attacking Native American Casinos
Based on the nature of their structure, Native American casinos are more attractive targets to advantage players and cheaters. This is due to the separation between the table games and slot operations, and the surveillance department. In almost all cases, the surveillance department is operated by a Tribal Gaming Commission, while the casino is operated by an outside operator or through management separate from the tribal commission. In many cases, the two separate departments actually develop an adverse attitude toward each other. Surveillance becomes more caught up in watching the operator than watching out for attacks from outside. The operators get tired of reading write-ups on employees who don’t have a straight name tag or who were chewing gum on a game. This situation breeds problems in game protection through the department’s lack of communications and cooperation.

During a seminar on game protection to casino executives from Native American casino operations, I commented on their inherent problem of separation and limited communication between the two departments. One of the attendees spoke out in defense of his casino, proclaiming he had good communications with the tribal commission and surveillance department. To drive the point home, he stated that table games operations had access to suspicious activity reports within two days of the noted observation. Two days! I explained that in most situations, you need access to this type of information within two minutes. Waiting days before operations can tap into surveillance information is almost as bad as not getting the information at all.

It is highly recommended that operations and surveillance departments in Native American casinos develop better methods for cooperation and communication. If they don’t develop a good relationship and a reasonable flow of information between the two departments, they will never be able to protect the casino’s assets adequately from threats outside of the casino.

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