Card Counting: Failing To Correctly Analyze the Threat
Everyone talks about card counters and their ability to beat casino blackjack, but few casino operations have the ability to accurately confirm a customer is counting cards on a level where he or she would be considered a long-term threat to the casino. The following are several examples of how poorly our industry is equipped to make this crucial decision.
During a recent presentation of my Table Game Tactics seminar, I asked participants, who represented various casino operations throughout the West and Midwest, if any of their properties had “backed” a customer off blackjack for card counting during the past calendar year. Practically all the hands went up. I then asked how many used a card counter-catcher software program, such as Blackjack Survey, Blood Hound or Protec 21. Only a small number of hands went up. This is a standard response since many operations are too small for the big dollar outlay for this software.
Next, I asked how many of the properties who backed off players at blackjack had someone at the casino, either in floor operations or in surveillance, who would be considered at a “semi-professional” card counting level, i.e., if he or she possessed the complete toolbox of skills required to beat the game. These abilities are the perfect knowledge of basic strategy, the ability to convert from running count to true count, the immediate recall of the top 18 deviations from basic strategy based on the true count, the necessary bet spread need to gain at least a 1 percent average advantage over the offered games and specific table/bankroll requirements for the blackjack game in question. In other words, a semi-professional is someone who is equipped with all the tools to beat the game, but because they lack a bankroll (or the nerve), they don’t count cards for a living (professionally). Only a couple hands went up. This is also a normal response since it takes many hours of training and practice to reach this level.
What about charting, I asked? Does anyone chart the betting levels of the suspected card counter and compare those levels to the true count? A few more hands went up, but by now I’ve only seen about half the participants represented by one of the three methods for identifying card counters. What do the remaining participants’ casino operations use to confirm a player is a professional card counter? Do they use “the force”? Perhaps a card counter catcher “8-Ball” or an Ouija board? How do they know they are not backing off some lucky player who doesn’t know plus from minus?
Several years ago I was conducting a presentation for surveillance operators and managers. When the topic of card counting and backing off players was tabled, I asked the group what the criteria was for deciding when to back off a customer for card counting. The group consensus was (1) if the player was varying his bets and (2) if the player was winning. When I explained it was a lot more complicated than that, one attendee stated that his surveillance department intended to err on the side of the casino, and if there was any doubt, they would back the player off the game. It was his organization’s belief that if a blackjack player was winning and varying his bet size, it was better to eject the customer instead of taking the chance of allowing a counter to play. My comment was different than what he had expected: If his organization wanted to err on the side of the casino, it should allow the customer to continue play until they were certain that he was a professional-level card counter. The look of confusion on his face shouldn’t have surprised me. Most people in our industry believe that card counters are constantly ravishing the blackjack games, and when it comes to counting cards, “skeptical belief” is not that far from “confirmed fact.” Based on the fact that there are less than 100 professional-level card counters in North America, the chances of a “false positive” are much greater to occur than an “accurate guess.”
In the 1980s I was employed as a pit manager at Bally’s Las Vegas. I had survived one change of management and wasn’t faring well through the second change. The new management team was less than well-versed in the mathematics of casino games and established a new procedure in which anyone who was betting a substantial amount of money and was winning at blackjack would be looking to play through all future shoes that were cut in half. When I explained this was a bad policy and compared this procedure to the Salem Witch Trials, I was looked upon with a jaundice eye. My reason for that comment: If the casino cut a shoe in half on a person who was counting cards, he would get up from the table and leave the casino; however, if the same “witch hunting” procedure was used on a desirable blackjack customer, there was a strong chance he, too, would get up from the table and leave as well. Even good, non-card counting players understand that the change in deck penetration is done to discourage a person’s play. When the shoe is cut in half, and the player leaves the game, the uneducated casino executive says to himself, “I chased off a professional card counter.” Without analyzing the blackjack play first, the executive probably “scared” away a valuable customer. For my astute comments on this situation, I was from then on labeled “not a team player.”
How Can a Casino Executive be Sure a Person is Actually Counting?
Before backing anyone off a game, changing deck penetration or limiting the player’s bet spread, one needs a reasonable tool to determine that the suspected person is a professional-level card counter. The executive or surveillance professional conducting the evaluation needs to use some type of analytical tool that will accurately determine the possibility the suspected player is in fact a card counter and also provide the evaluator with a printout or hard copy of these results. This hard copy can be used to back up the evaluation and later can serve as proof that the suspect was in fact counting cards. How many times has your department taken action against a player for counting cards, only to have the legitimacy of the “back off” questioned by a host or casino marketing afterward? In addition, this evaluation tool can serve as evidence why a player wasn’t backed off even though the customer is a big winner.
Note: In earlier articles I have established that novice and semi-professional players do not pose a long-term threat to the casino’s bankroll through the ability to count cards. It is my supported opinion that novice and semi-professional card counters present no long-term threat to the profitability of game of blackjack; they can largely be ignored. In most cases, these amateur counters contribute the same amount of revenue to the casino as would an average or basic strategy player.
There are two tools that I recommend a casino executive utilize. The first tool is a blackjack software package that analyzes a blackjack player’s skill and betting level. There are two very effective software packages available to the casino executive.
1. Blackjack Survey Voice, developed by Oliver Schubert, is available through his company, Casino Software and Services www.casinosoftware.com. This same product was at one time sold through Shuffle Master Entertainment, known by the name of Bloodhound.
2. Protec 21 Blackjack Security, which is produced and sold by TCSJOHNHUXLEY: www.tcsjohnhuxley.com/en/gaming-systems-and-security/protec-21-blackjack....
Both systems accomplish a variety of game analysis and protection tasks, but they are used primarily to detect if a player is counting cards. Information regarding the person’s actual play is entered into the program manually or through a voice recognition program. After enough hands are entered into the program, it is queried by the analyst. The program will indicate to what degree the information of the betting and hand decision patterns indicate the suspected player is counting cards. It’s important when using any type of card counter verification method that several decks or shoes are analyzed in order to calculate the best possible decision outcome. Primary drawbacks to the software are in its inability to take into consideration other influence to the game and the hefty price tag that comes with the software.
The second card counting analytical tool is a much lower-tech, less expensive system that accomplishes the same goal just as accurately. This is known as “charting.” A number of surveillance departments already use some form of charting a customer’s plays as a means to better understand the person’s play characteristics. Charting is most effective as a card counter catch tool when the evaluator uses it to determine the breadth of the suspect’s betting spread, and the suspect’s betting correlation with the true count of the cards. In order to win money counting cards, the counter must wager significantly more money when he has the advantage and as little as possible when the casino has the advantage. If the charted observations of a suspected player indicate that he is using a large enough bet spread and increasing their wagers to the larger bet level when he has a mathematical advantage of 90 percent or greater, then the evaluator has enough information to safely rule that the suspected player is counting cards. As noted when using a software package to evaluate a suspected card counting play, it’s prudent to watch no less than four decks or shoe before making the final decision about the player. For more information on charting, please see my Casino Enterprise Management magazine article, in the March 2008 issue titled, “How to Catch the Elusive North American Card Counter.”
The following are points that need to be followed to ensure the casino executive or surveillance professional is making the correct analysis regarding a suspected blackjack player’s long-term ability to be a card counting threat to the casino’s bankroll.
• Don’t automatically assume that a winning blackjack player is counting cards. There’s a greater chance he’s a desirable player who is running luck. Assuming a winning person is a card counter will also cloud one’s ability to look for other more costly problems, such as advantage play techniques and cheating.
• It’s a must for a successful card counter to have an effective bet spread, especially in the six-deck and eight-deck games (don’t forget the 6:5 single decks). Without the necessary bet spread range, the player cannot gain an advantage counting cards.
• Never cut the shoe in half on a player to look for a reaction. You need to analyze the play before taking any action. If you cut the shoe in half on a desirable blackjack customer, he could get upset and never play at your property again.
• Don’t rely on a decision that is made by one of your floor executives or surveillance operator who is not at least on a semi-professional card counting level. I’ve known a number of executives who claim to know card counting inside and out, but when asked, can’t answer simple questions such as the mechanics of true count conversion and hand strategy deviations. Take the Ouija board out of the equation.
• Whether your organization uses a counter catcher software package or elects to chart the play, always look at several shoes or decks before making a decision about a player. I prefer looking at several examples in which the count is mostly minus throughout the shoe, as well as several examples in which the count is mostly plus. Taking your time to compare the extremes will help eliminate the chance of getting “false positives.”
• Do not take action against a suspected player until you are 100 percent sure the player is counting cards. If you wish to err on the side of the casino, take your time and make sure you correctly identify a customer as a long-term card-counting threat before disrupting their play.
Bill Zender is a former Nevada Gaming Control agent, casino operator, professional card counter and present gaming consultant. He has been involved in various areas of gaming and hospitality since 1976. He can be reached at wzender[at]billzender.com.