How Do Casinos Catch Card Counters
By Alex Smith Apr 26, 2022
When asking the question “how do casinos catch card counters,” you’d be surprised to learn there’s no simple answer. Today, land-based casinos invest significant amounts of money and resources into catching card counters.
While, a few years ago, card counting may have been nothing more than an underground practice, today, it’s more prevalent than ever before. Award-winning movies like 21 and books including Bringing Down the House have only amplified card counting activity. For example, almost everyone is familiar with the MIT Blackjack Team, who walked away with millions of dollars. It’s no surprise that gamblers worldwide want to mimic this success for themselves!
On this page, we’re going to be looking at how casinos catch individual card counters and card counting teams, and we’ll also look at what happens if casinos do catch a cad counter. Let’s kick off this guide with a look at what card counting is and how it works.
What Is Card Counting?
The “house edge,” or the statistical possibility that the casino would win in a standard game of blackjack dealt with a single deck of playing cards, is shockingly low. That is, if you play according to the best strategy available (by remembering and implementing the best approach), you will break even in the long term. It may not seem like much, but blackjack is really the only table game with such favourable odds. Because of these odds, blackjack lends itself to card counting.
In its most basic form, “counting cards” simply refers to keeping track of certain cards as the dealer goes through the deck. You then estimate which cards are more likely to show up for both you and the casino in the following hand by preserving that tally, even if you continue to play with the same approach as before.
And that tidbit of knowledge might tell you whether you should wager large or small. It’s undesirable if there are more low-numbered cards left in the deck. Due to the dealer’s strict betting limits, you’re less likely to obtain a blackjack (21 points on your first two cards, which provides a bonus), and the dealer is less likely to “bust” (receive more than 21 points worth of cards). On the other hand, more high-numbered cards are beneficial for the opposite reason.
You can decrease the house edge by around 1% when you count cards correctly. If you’re already playing according to the best strategy, you can tilt the game into your favour — something no casino wants.
There are several different card counting strategies and techniques. We’re not going to get into the specifics here, but that’s a rapid insight into how card counting works on blackjack games. Now, let’s look at how blackjack card counters get caught!
How Casinos Catch An Individual Card Counter
A casino stands to lose a significant amount of money if they allow card counting to go undetected in their establishment. It should come as no surprise to learn that they’re increasingly coming up with new ways to detect and prevent card counting — and deter card counters from trying in the first place.
One of the easiest ways land-based casinos try to disrupt card counters at the blackjack table is by having the dealers, waitresses, or other casino staff members simply walk up and strike up a conversation. This is often enough to cause a card counter to lose track, rendering their tactics useless. Some casinos will also shuffle the decks manually if a player significantly increases their bet size. In reality, however, this relies on the casino floor being quite empty as it’s pretty hard to notice.
One of the major ways casinos have cut down on card counters is to add more decks to the shoe at the blackjack table. For example, you’d usually find just one deck of cards in play in the past, but today most land-based casinos use 8. This makes card counting a lot more challenging — but not impossible. If a casino has strong suspicions that a player is counting cards, they may begin to limit a player to ‘flat betting.’ This means that the player cannot increase or decrease the size of their bet until the shoe is next shuffled.
Many land-based casinos, especially in Las Vegas, also use state-of-the-art facial recognition technology. While this can’t (yet) catch card counters in the act, it can pick up those blacklisted from casinos. It’s already been successfully used to catch card counting teams.
Ultimately, there’s no sure-fire way to catch or prevent players from counting cards at the table. However, casinos hope that they can at least reduce the number of card counters out there with the above measures, and they appear to work to some extent, at least.
How Card Counting Groups Are Caught
“The MIT Blackjack Team was a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and other leading colleges who used card counting techniques and more sophisticated strategies to beat casinos at blackjack worldwide. The team and its successors operated successfully from 1979 through the beginning of the 21st century. Many other blackjack teams have been formed around the world with the goal of beating the casinos.”
That’s a Wikipedia extract about the MIT Blackjack Team, former card counters who managed to win millions of dollars from land-based casinos over decades by creating ‘teams’ of card counters who worked together.
Unsurprisingly, casinos are keen to catch card-counting teams, ideally before they can win significant amounts of money from a casino. Casinos will employ many of the techniques we talked about earlier and profiling those they know are or have been involved with former card counters in the past.
One of the most important tools that land-based casinos have at their disposal is information sharing. For example, in Las Vegas, all of the big land-based casinos on the strip have an information-sharing agreement with one another. If you get banned from one casino, for example, that casino will usually send your details to all other casinos so that they can be on the lookout for you — and refuse you entry.
It’s always hard to catch card counters, especially if the group is new and doesn’t have any kind of track record. However, rest assured that casinos are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to prevent groups and teams from being able to work together on the casino floor.
What Happens if a Card Counter is Caught?
Thankfully, despite what land-based casinos may try to have you believe, card counting isn’t illegal, and no states in the USA have made it a crime. However, as private establishments, casinos (usually) have the right to refuse service to anyone they want without needing any reason. This is likely to be the most likely cause of action if you do get caught.
However, as you’ve probably seen from this guide so far, those caught counting cards aren’t simply caught in just a few moments; it takes casino staff quite a long time to even begin noticing. For example, not only does a casino have to notice that a player is winning more than usual at a blackjack table. Usually, they’re going to have to do this over multiple nights.
Even if you are caught, the first thing that the casino is likely to do is simply ask you to stop playing blackjack. Or, if they think you’re winning far too much, they may ask you to leave the casino altogether.
However, if they subsequently discover that you’ve been frequenting their casino for a while — and winning a lot of money — they may simply ban you outright from entering their premises.
If they do this, you CAN get in trouble with the law if you head back to that casino because you’d technically be trespassing. And don’t even think about trying to sneak in; all of the major land-based casinos use state-of-the-art facial recognition technology to prevent people they’ve banned from re-entering their premises.
How to Avoid Getting Caught
Successful card counters employ several methods and techniques to reduce their chances of getting caught. While there’s no sure-fire way of ensuring land-based casinos don’t ever catch on to what you’re doing, below, we’re going to look at some tips and techniques you can use to minimize the chances of the staff cottoning on.
1. Make Deliberate Mistakes
One of the most effective ways of reducing your chances of getting caught is to make mistakes deliberately. It’s something almost all successful card counters do that makes it really difficult for the casinos to cotton on in the first place. Land-based casinos looking out for card counters are looking for players who consistently play basic strategy.
Suppose you occasionally deviate from basic strategy (for example, splitting a pair of 10s or doubling down when you shouldn’t). You show the dealer that you’re not all that clued up on the game, after all. You’ll also be far less likely to be assumed to be a card counter.
2. Change Locations
It should come as a given that if you want to be a successful card counter, you will need to change your location — frequently. This goes both for the land-based casinos you’re playing at as well as the specific tables within the casino. A croupier or pit boss will catch on very quickly if you only play one or two tables and always walk away as a winner.
For example, some of the best card counters will visit a casino once a week or maybe once every two weeks. They’ll then rest a day or two before heading to a completely different casino, trying not to head back to the first casino for as long as possible.
Varying up your locations (and the casino table game tables you play at) is a good way to minimize the chances of you being caught, and if you fail to do this, you’re massively increasing the chances that you ARE caught.
3. Tip the Dealer
Dealers and croupiers don’t make the best money in the world. While you’re not going to be able to ‘buy them off if you’re committing large-scale fraud at a land-based casino, they may be more prone to turn a blind eye to potential card counters if you tip them well.
However, there’s one caveat to this; don’t go overboard. You may end up actually drawing more suspicion if you end up giving the dealer tips that are much larger than they would usually expect to receive. While the croupier may appreciate them, their bosses and the land-based casino’s floor managers may cotton on and start watching your gameplay with a little bit more interest.
4. Know When to Walk Away
When you become a successful card counter and begin earning significant amounts of money, it can be all too easy to start getting cocky. While it’s a great feeling to be winning (especially when you know that you’re legally beating the casino), don’t let your ego get the better of you.
If you continually sit at a table and don’t stop winning, you’re going to get unwanted attention. Sometimes it’s best just to take a smaller profit and come back another time rather than ride your luck and risk getting kicked out of the casino or banned.
Is it illegal to count cards?
No. It’s not illegal to count cards. As you’re not physically cheating, you’re simply using your brain to calculate the likelihood of your next hand beating the dealer’s; there’s nothing even remotely illegal about it. Some land-based casinos will try to scare you if they suspect you of being a card counter by telling you they’ll call the police unless you confess, for example. However, this is nothing more than a scare tactic. It’s not illegal to be counting cards, provided you’re only using your brain and no electronic devices.
Do people really make a living as a card counter?
Yes. However, as with anything in life, it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Learning to be a successful card counter takes hours of work. Some experts say you need around 200 hours of practice to begin doing it successfully. However, it can prove to be a lucrative choice for those who stick with it.
How much money do you need to start?
That depends entirely on the stakes you’re planning on betting at and what kind of table limits your local land-based casino enforces. However, you should have enough at the table to cover around 100 bet units. So, if you’re playing $1 bets, you should have, at a minimum, $100 in front of you.
How can I avoid getting caught?
If you want to avoid getting caught, you should try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Make deliberate mistakes every now and again, tip the dealer well, and don’t stay at the same table (or in the same casino) for too long.
Edge sorting has become quite popular in the media in recent years. For example, the world’s most well-known and well-respected poker professional, Phil Ivey, underwent a year-long legal battle with a London casino that refused to pay him more than $8 million he won while playing Baccarat.