Why Is Counting Cards Illegal?

By Alex Smith May 19, 2022

Card counting is probably something you’ve seen romanticized in Hollywood movies. Everyone loves to watch films about specialized gamblers who manage to beat land-based casinos for millions of dollars. However, many people don’t realize that card counting is real.

While it’s not as easy (or practical) as many movies make it out to be, card counting is a very real thing. And it poses a genuine risk to land-based casinos. Whether it’s Atlantic City casinos, Las Vegas casinos or minor, local land-based casinos, card counters can be found everywhere.

Is card counting illegal? Can you get in trouble for doing it? And, how does it actually work? We’re about to look into all of this and more. Firstly, let’s look at what counting cards is.

What is Card Counting?

Card counting, also known as card reading or counting cards, is a unique strategy used at the blackjack table. It’s used to determine whether the following cards dealt will be (potentially) profitable to the player or not. Generally speaking, a card counter will try to decrease a land-based casino’s house edge as much as possible.

To achieve this, they must keep track of every card dealt and track which high and low-value cards are dealt. We’ll look at the techniques used by card counters later in this guide.

It’s got to be said; for those playing blackjack who don’t know what card counting is or how it works, it can seem quite mysterious. Many players learn of the term, do a bit of reading, and decide it’s far too complex for them. At the same time, card counting is very technical and math-heavy once you get the hang of it.

Let’s not forget that since land-based casinos have existed, there have always been players who’ve tried to beat the house. Card counting is seen as unethical by land-based casinos (at best), but is it illegal? Will you get into legal issues if you’re caught counting cards? Can you be arrested? More on that in just a moment. Firstly, let’s take a look at the history of card counting.

The History of Card Counting and Card Counters

Card counting has a long, complex history. Most experts date it back to Edward O. Thorp, an American mathematician. He’s widely considered to be the father of counting cards. In 1962, he wrote a book called Beat the Dealer. In this book, he outlines betting and playing strategies for optimal play. While the mathematical strategies he talks about are technically sound, some of them no longer apply as land-based casinos now employ special measures to deter card counters.

Before Beat the Dealer was released, the only real card counters were in Atlantic City casinos and Las Vegas sites. One of these gamblers was called Jess Macrum. They developed the first full-fledged point-count system.

However, Al Francesco is perhaps the best-known card counter in the world. He invented blackjack team play, and he was also the man to teach Ken Uston how to count cards.

Along with Uston, Tommy Hyland, and others, he formed a group (known as MIT.) They were a group of professional card counters who earned millions of dollars from land-based casinos throughout the USA. They revealed all of their tricks in several books. This made it easier for land-based casinos to clamp down on card counters.

However, the MIT blackjack team is famed, and they’re well-known throughout the world. Many aspire to be like them. However, the reality is that this team was formed by some of the brightest mathematicians in the world. Today, all land-based casinos have state-of-the-art technology to identify card counters. It can, however, still be done, but only in specific circumstances!

Is it Illegal to Count Cards?

Contrary to popular belief, card counting is not illegal in the United States. It is not illegal under federal, state, and local laws, provided players aren’t using an external card counting device.

However, land-based casinos operate as private establishments. This means that if they catch a card counter, they can legally kick them out of the casino without needing to give any reason. You should also know that all land-based casinos in Vegas and other major cities ‘share’ information. If you’re banned from one casino for card counting, you’ll automatically be banned from all other casinos nearby.

Things have gone even further in some states like New Jersey. The Supreme Court recently ruled that players cannot be discriminated against because of their playing skills (which includes counting cards.) Even when casinos detect a card counter, they’re unable to do anything to stop the players directly!

Card counting is not illegal in the United Kingdom or Macau. However, casinos reserve the right to prevent you from playing. They do not need to give a reason as to why they’re banning a player. However, if they catch card counters, provided they haven’t been using banned electronic devices, their current winnings should be paid out.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Card Counting

As with most things in life, card counting has several advantages and disadvantages. First and foremost, the significant advantage is that you can significantly lower the casino’s house edge. This means your probability of winning dramatically increases. If you are mathematically inclined and are prepared to put the work in, it can also lead to a significant payout. The MIT blackjack team, for example, earned themselves millions of dollars!

However, those who count cards do face certain risks. If they do card counting in dodgy land-based casinos, they risk real, physical harm if caught. Card counters can also be ejected from land-based casinos at any time. However, provided they haven’t been caught using a banned device.

Casinos will ban card counters automatically. No questions asked. However, neither card counting nor other skill-only methods of playing blackjack are illegal. The only other disadvantage is that there are no guarantees of winning in the short term. However, professional card counting can dramatically improve your chances of winning. This is why so many land-based casinos will do everything to detect and ban card counters.

How to Count Cards

Card counting begins when the first card is dealt from a newly-shuffled deck of cards. A low-value card will increase the count by one point, and a high-value card will reduce the count by one point. 7s, 8s, and 9s are considered neutral and do not affect the current count.

The total count after any given round should always be 1; that’s because there will have been more low-value cards dealt. This means there will be more high-value cards left in the deck. Naturally, this information is going to change very frequently. Even a couple of hands can change the outcome of the point significantly.

As a general rule of thumb, the higher the count, the more chances there are of you winning the next hand. This means you’ll want to increase your bet size for the next hand. Of course, there are no guarantees, and there’s a chance that more low cards will be dealt. However, if this is the case, you simply continue to increase the count and wager even more money on the subsequent hand.

You have to be very careful while counting cards so as not to arouse the suspicion of the blackjack dealer. The pit boss will also be on the lookout for potential card counters. If you go somewhere like Atlantic City or Las Vegas, there are special teams who work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to try and catch those who play blackjack and count cards. Remember, you can be ejected from a casino if they suspect you of counting cards.

Card Counting Techniques

Many different techniques can be used for counting cards. Below, we’re going to look at some of the different strategies that can be used. Please note that we’re only going to summarize these strategies. Learning each of them takes a significant amount of time. If you want to learn, we suggest you purchase a specific book or training guide for any techniques you are interested in.

1. Hi-Lo System

The Hi-Lo system is one of the most profitable and easy-to-learn blackjack card counting strategies. It’s pretty simple on paper, and it requires you to assign each card a specific value. The Hi-Low system is used to distinguish when the ratio of high-value and low-value cards left in the deck is ‘unbalanced.’ This means that it’s possible to predict when the player has a better chance of winning on the next hand.

For example, high-value cards like aces and tens don’t just increase the chance of the next hand being a blackjack; they also increase the chance of the following two cards forming a power hand like 19 or 20.

If you’re playing with a deck that contains a majority of high-value cards, you will want to increase the size of your bets significantly. This is because your chances of winning are significantly increased.

The same can be said the other way around; for example, if the count is very low and it appears as though many low-value cards are left in the deck, it’s worth dropping your bet size. This is because the odds of you winning the subsequent hand decrease.

2. True Count

The True Count is another technique you can use while counting cards. One of the other factors you want to consider when you’re trying to count the blackjack deck is the number of cards that remain in the deck. The closer you get to the bottom of the deck, the more accurate your total count will be.

If you divide your running count with the approximate numbers of remaining decks, you will find yourself getting a much more accurate count. Many players know this as the ‘true count.’ This is one of those things that sounds a lot more practical on paper than in reality. However, if you can successfully visualize the number of cards left in the deck, you can adjust your true count accordingly.

3. Back-Counting (Wonging)

Back-counting (also known as Wonging) is one of the most well-known techniques for counting cards. It’s named after the pseudonym Stanford Wong, used by John Ferguson when he was writing his collection of blackjack books. This technique revolves around counting cards, as we’ve already discussed. However, you only move into the game when the count favours the player.

This means that you stand a much higher chance of winning when you play blackjack. However, using this style of play also makes it much easier for casinos to catch players. Indeed, if someone is caught counting cards, they’re almost certainly caught counting cards using this method.

To help combat this technique, some land-based casinos have introduced rules that prevent players from joining the blackjack table mid-shoe. New players are required to wait until a brand new shoe is played. This helps to prevent players from being able to use this technique.

How do Casinos Prevent Card Counting?

As you may have gathered, casinos are desperate to prevent players from counting cards. This is especially true of major casinos in Vegas and Atlantic City, where high table limits could allow card counters to win millions of dollars.

To combat players counting cards, casinos utilize several house rules and tricks to prevent and catch card counters. Below, we’re going to be looking at some of these. Remember, casinos reserve the right to eject a player at any time if caught card counting (provided they’re not in New Jersey for reasons we covered earlier in this post.)

Cutting Cards

While this doesn’t apply to online casinos, many land-based casinos choose to cut the cards. This was one of the first actions taken to prevent card counting. The reason for cutting the deck is so that you never play through an entire deck of cards. This makes it much harder to determine the actual count accurately.

It also decreases the chance of a card counter managing to narrow down what cards are left to be dealt. Many casinos allow the players at the table to cut the deck. However, the casino decides whether the player has cut enough of the cards. If they haven’t, they will be asked to re-cut the deck. Casino employees also have the right to cut the deck themselves if they feel players are trying to count cards.

Use Multiple Decks

While single deck blackjack can be found, it’s pretty rare. Generally, most land-based casinos don’t single-deck blackjack. However, most online casinos do, as it’s impossible to count cards online.

Land-based casinos don’t offer single-deck blackjack because it makes it easier for a player to keep a running count. When there are more decks in play, the probabilities change. However, provided a player knows how many decks are in play, it doesn’t have a significant impact. For example, if you use the Hi-Lo strategy we covered earlier, the number of decks in play doesn’t affect anything.

Inhouse Card Counting

One of the most unusual methods land-based casinos use to catch card counters is in-house card counting machines. The casino uses these state-of-the-art, automated systems to detect when players might be potentially card counting. For example, some land-based casinos automatically scan all cards from the blackjack show and do their own card count.

They can then tell when a player has a significant advantage. If players choose to increase their wager significantly for the next hand, the casino will have a good idea that card counting is happening.

However, it’s unlikely that a casino will kick out a player simply for increasing the wager on one or two hands. If the casino’s software detects irregular gameplay, it will begin to monitor the player in question. They will look at the minimum bet the player is placing on the casino game, whether they’re alone, and what changes in bet size they’re making.

Facial Recognition Technology

One of the most state-of-the-art systems in land-based casinos is facial recognition technology. This is found in many major casinos in Vegas and Atlantic City. Facial recognition allows casinos to identify cheaters who have been banned in the past quickly. The casinos can then refuse service or alert authorities.

Most of the major land-based casinos have state-of-the-art facial recognition technology that automatically scans all patrons who walk into the venue. Thanks to this technology, many casinos can prevent known card counters from being able even to enter a venue!

While card counting isn’t illegal, you should be aware that if a casino catches you, they can ban you from their casino. If you then try to get into their establishment in the future, they can call the police for criminal trespassing. This is something you should be aware of.

Casino Chip Microchips

Another standard method land-based casinos use to detect irregular betting is to use micro-chips. These are planted within high-value casino chips. The main benefit of these chips is that casinos can easily collect information on how much money is in play at various tables.

While some players may find this a bit intrusive, you should remember that these are establishments dealing with millions of dollars. It is also private property, so they can do what they want. If you don’t agree to these terms and conditions, you are free to leave and play elsewhere.

Group Card Counting

Single players can count cards reasonably effectively. However, group counting is significantly more effective. Below, we look at some of the common people involved with group card counting.

#1 Back-Spotter

The back-spotter is someone who doesn’t necessarily need to be seated at the table. They simply watch the action from a distance. They are used mainly to signal when The Gorilla should move to the table and begin betting. (We’ll explain who The Gorilla is in a moment.)

#2 The Spotter

The Spotter is active at the blackjack table. Their main job is to keep an accurate count. The Spotter only stakes the minimum bet to reduce suspicion.

#3 The Gorilla

The Gorilla does not need to be good at math, and they don’t need to be able to keep count of cards. They simply move from table to table, waiting for The Spotter to tell them when to jump in and make a big bet. The gorillas will try to make themselves look like rich, drunk fools. They want to distract casinos from thinking they’re ‘clever.’

#4 The Big Player

The role of the Big Player is to prevent the rest of the team from being caught. They utilize several different strategies to ensure the rest of the team doesn’t get caught. They vary their betting sizes significantly.

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