Blackjack Detection of card counters


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When it comes to the card counter, the opinion of most gamers is that they do, in fact, pose a threat. Not a shift goes by without at least one player being suspected of counting cards; in fact, hundreds of players are suspected every day. Some players warrant an evaluation, others remain a conscious suspicion, yet with most players the possibility of skillful play is discarded quickly. Either way, there is an ongoing awareness of these players, resulting in an omnipresent defensive mindset.

At the supervisory level, the evaluation process can vary dramatically from boss to boss. The most dangerous evaluations come from bosses who act too quickly. They see a player move his money into a rich count, or make a basic strategy deviation, and that's all it takes. Just one play, seemingly correct, and the boss has formed a dogged opinion. Some bosses are more inclined to back players off quickly when the shift is running bad, just to protect the PC. And then there are the evaluations from bosses who rely on instinct. Some will cite a gut feeling which is generally linked to stereotypes; they believe that most card counters fit a certain mold.

I remember one boss pulling a friend of mine aside to share with him the secrets of detecting card counters. He looked around the pit, and said, "There, you see that guy sitting over there, he's got the look."

Occasionally you run into an oldtimer who has an uncanny knack for picking off suspect play—called grift sense’, a term referring to someone with exceptional instinct. They might say, I don't know if he's counting, but he's definitely trying to hide something," or, "I’m not sure what he’s doing, but I wouldn't bet against him." They seem to evlauate everything but the play itself.

Then there are those who make the sincerest effort to evaluate the play, but, unfortunately, they are not qualified to do so. Many learn basic strategy and stop there, some learn to count but ignore strategy indices, and others master the fundamentals and can spot what appears to be skillful play, but they have difficulty quantifying the threat, which makes all the difference in the world. I suspect that the majority of gamers fall into this group.

Lasdy, there are those gamers who are well versed in all aspects of the game. They can assess, evaluate, and make solid decisions with confidence. They understand the game better than many players, and represent some of the sharpest and most knowledgeable industry people in the world. Accolades


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two average bets an hour can be optimistic. To win two average bets per hour would normally take excellent to exceptional conditions of speed, penetration, and good rules. We should be thinking in terms of 0.5 to 1.0 unit in most games, 1.5 to 2.0 units in great games, and 3.0 units, and occasionally higher, in exceptional games.

In summary, as an industry, we blindly accept the card counting doctrine and its surrounding hype without consideration of the practical ramifications. As a result, the typical card counter is routinely overrated in respect to his earning power and overall threat.


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aside, they also acknowledge the industry’s vulnerability. They recognize how the very talented] could play undetected. They do not overreact to the hype, but remain focused on decent gameS efficient pace, and solid procedures. They accept the futility of trying to plug all the leaks, and theya avoid wasting time and energy trying to stop a few players.' They have discovered the most elementary tenet in the business: offer a game of skill, and some may win. They all support the contention; that] professional players are few and far between, as they all seem to have one thing in common: they havq backed off very few players during their entire careers. They’re realists. These gamers are the industry’s best line of defense.

Here are the basic steps in the detection/evaluation process; they start by looking for positive indicators, betting and playing decisions consistent with the count.

Many bosses prefer to look for negative indicators, or what appears to be a significant mistake/] such as a player making his biggest bet and then not insuring against the aCe. When evaluating negative indicators, just remember that it’s difficult for the player to overcome many errors, especially those] accompanying his largest bets. In both situations, camouflage is unlikely, not impossible. In all other] situations, a mistake may be part of a camouflage strategy, and you may be looking at intentionally weak plays.

Following are the procedures to look for:

1. Strategy Deviations

When the player is skilled, deviations from basic strategy are generally motivated by either 1 the count, or camouflage. You should familiarize yourself with the scope of strategy deviations, as there are counts that can justify a deviation from almost every basic play in the -j game. Then, learn which basic strategy deviations are so close that it matters little which J way the hand is played. Look for deviations of substance.

If you’ve ever wondered what the be$t camouflage plays are, just think about what decisions you would peg as the weakest, and the surest sign of an experienced play, and you’ll 1 have your answer. Some players prefer subtle weak1, such as hitting 12 versus 4, or standing •'« on 16 versus 10, while others prefer 'blatant weak', such as standing with A-6, or splitting ten-values. These plays may be considered too blatant for some pros, as they draw attention, 11 making it difficult to subsequently play half smart.

If you are counting down a game and the player makes a decision consistent with a ’ rich deck, it doesn’t have to be right according to your count, just close. The opposite is also true in poor counts. Since all counts look and play a little differently, don’t expect all players to fit your model perfectly, just walk down a similar path. If the player tends to make ] strategy deviations consistent with the count, you have confirmation #1.


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2. Bet Spread

The typical range of spreads for the various games are 1-2; 1-3, and 1-4 units spreads in single-deck, 1-4 and 1-6 unit spreads in double-deck, and from 1-8 to 1-16 unit spreads and higher in the shoe games.

Players quickly recognize that certain spreads are on the fence when it comes to the pit perceiving them as a threat. A 1-4 unit spread in single-deck, a 1-8 unit spread in double-deck, and a 1-10 or 1-12 unit spread in the shoe game may press the alert button.

I remember one boss asserting,"If a player spreads 1-10 or greater, just throw him out. Ninety-nine out of a hundred typical players wont spread that aggressively."

Although we do occasionally run into progressive winners who parlay aggressively, system players, and hunch players who will realize large bet spreads for all the wrong reasons, there is definitely a thread of truth here. But no bet spread should be evaluated in a vacuum.

If you run into a player spreading more aggressively than the typical ranges cited, and you believe him to be a skilled player, he’s either a book counter and he, doesn't know any better, or a winning player who's taking dead aim and, for whatever reason, has decided to bypass all subdety—he pro realizes that he can get thrown out for being subtle, too.

Whether the spread is typical, subtle, or openly aggressive, look for some semblance of a definable bet spread that tends to move with the count. If the player exhibits these traits, you have confirmation #2.

Always remember, the bet spread is king. It alone can beat most games. This means that its possible to eliminate the true count and all strategy deviations, and still play with an advantage, provided the spread is large enough. Even a novice or a weak strategy player can play a winning game if permitted to realize ridiculously aggressive bet spreads. Such is the power of the bet spread!

3. Win Rate

You've looked at the playing strategy and bet spread, and there are indicators, so it's time now to estimate the win rate. You have two choices. You can either use published win rates as a guide, or you plug in a frequency distribution, enter in the appropriate bet spread, and work through the methodology as presented earlier under Betting Strategies.

Don't forget to adjust for speed of the game, and be realistic. Game speed is almost always worse than quoted in the literature, due to making change, check change, credits and fills, markers, mixed color payoffs, disputes, and everything else that slows the game down.


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Win rates can double in good conditions, and they can also be cut in half under bad conditions.

I know of bosses who simply ignore nickle players, and most conservative green check players, over the weekends because the crowded conditions make for lackluster win rates.

Nickel Players

I believe a very compelling argument can be made to let them all play! Or I should say, for all but those trying to get away with ridiculous bet spreads, let them play. Between the meager expectations, extreme fluctuations, and bankroll requirements, its simply too much to overcome by betting nickels. You will not find professional level skill betting nickels. If you are not convinced of their nonthreat by now, you never will be.

Green Check Players

The green check game is the home of most amateurs. Although a quarter players earn is increased five-fold over his nickel cousin, the win rates still indicate a tough grind. Theoretical win rates are likely to be in the $20 to $40 range in most games, most conditions. To boost the win rates significandy, the player will either have to look for the very best conditions, or deal with the dangers of aggressive bet spreads. How many dubs will tolerate spreads like $25 to $150 in single-deck, $25 to $250 in double-deck, or $25 to $400 against the shoe? How do you hide a 1-16 unit bet spread playing heads-up? Any pro knows that a 1-16 bet spread is likely to get him thrown out on principle.

Also, at this level of play, there is more scrutiny, and the player knows it. Therefore, its unusual to see overly aggressive spreads from the better players, as getting backed off is too much to risk. You’re much more likely to be sorting out the puzzle created from these players introducing cover to their game. These two factors, keeping the bet spread under control and adding cover, can cut a players earn in half. Now were looking at win rates in the $10 to $20 range, and these are the theoretical win rates.

If you’re starting to see a picture of the card counter sitting somewhere in between a rock and a hard place, you're starting to get a more realistic sense of what the game is all about.

Betting the Limit

As the money gets bigger, so should our effort to scientifically evaluate the play, as we obviously have much more riding on our assessment.

Remember, even big players must realize certain bet spreads, and play a reasonably


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accurate strategy. The color of the checks may change, but the game doesn't. When you bet $1,000, $2,000, and $5,000 units, there's no place to hide and not much room left for maneuvering. At this level, the pros can handle the flux; they'll accept a very small edge to get into the long run, and they'll throw you one curve ball after another. Look for more cover and offbeat betting schemes.

Also, many gamers believe that as the average bet gets larger, so does the quality of play. They reason that any player who can afford to bet these amounts is likely to be successful in some legitimate endeavor, and, therefore, more likely to be intelligent overall.

At a minimum they would be someone who understands the basics of winning play. Some might argue just the opposite. Either way, regardless of bet size, a reasonably intelligent player is not be feared, he is to be welcomed! At the risk of belaboring the point, there are thousands of players who can count, but cannot win. They don't have the complete package. They know just enough to get into trouble, and the game is unforgiving. If any part of their game is 'lacking, they have little chance of winning in the long run.

4. Take Your Time

Take the time to confirm any suspicions you may have. Remember, it's important not to overreact. One or two additional hours of play costs little, even against a winning player, and when compared to the money lost by backing off the wrong player, it's catastrophic.

You can back off twenty players and have every one of them turn out to be a professional, and then back off one legitimate player with no chance to win, and your decision process is a big loser. Look at the theoretical win per one hour period for twenty top players betting $25 units. Assume the theoretical win is two units per hour, $50 per player, or $1,000 for all 100 players. Then look at the cost of losing one customer's business over the course of his lifetime, say ten years. Use any parameters you like, it's not even close. You will be losing tens of thousands of dollars. The key is to look at the theoretical win of suspected players in terms of minutes and hours, then look at the theoretical loss as a result of losing a legitimate player's business, with no chance to win, in terms of lifetimes.

If there is any doubt, it behooves us to watch more carefully and generally over longer periods of time. The only downside is the relatively small theoretical win, when the player proves to be a pro, but it's a small price to pay for being sure when compared to the thousands we lose by making a mistake.

5. Other Factors

Always, before making a decision, ask yourself if there is any reason to let this player


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continue to play. Is his play consistent? Does he play other games? Is his wife or girl friend a steady loser? Does he have a steam factor? Does he have a track record? Numerous questions along these lines should be addresseaffPf

Also, consider the theoretical nature of your analysis. Remember, no player reaches his theoretical potential. There are just too many obstacles.

Finally, consider the numerous intangibles and use common sense. Is the player toking, drinking, acting, does he react to heat, is he trying to hide something?

If you find confirmation in the guidelines of strategy deviations and the bet spread, if you believe the win rate poses a monetary threat, if you have observed the play over a reasonable period of time, and you cannot come up with any other compelling reason to discount your suspicions, at least temporarily, then it may be time to act.

6. Act

When a boss walks over to a dealer and whispers,"Shuffle up,” or,"Move the cutcard,” what could possibly be the benefit? Most counters will ignore your intervention. They know the party is over, but many will never give you the satisfaction of acknowledgment. They'll play the iggy for a while as if nothing happened, stay and play in an attempt to create doubt, and then eventually work their way out of the casino. Now they can avoid your shift, play on your days off, or send their friends in. What have you really gained?

What happens when the player is insulted by our actions and storms out the door; do we just take credit for spotting another counter? Does it ever enter our minds that these are the most likely actions of a legitimate player? And if the player proves to be an imitator, a square, the typical player with no chance to win, what does it cost to lose a customer in todays competitive market?

If after exhausting all evaluation processes, you are still 100% sure that you have spotted a winning player, bar him, and, if at all possible, bar him professionally. No security guards, no guerilla warfare. The best players will graciously respect the barring when treated like a human being. Some may still play the iggy, but they're unlikly to come back. When it’s called for, and only as a last resort, barring is the only professional response to skillful play.


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S Don't pass over the brief history of the game. Its important to understand what blackjack has done for the industry so you can better protect its future. In a decision making capacity, you will likely be faced with the increasingly prevalent question, "Should blackjacks skill factor be eliminated?” To answer this question, you will have to quantify the enormous profits derirved from offering attractive games to a gambling public that is generally just smart enough to know the difference, but not smart enough to pose a real threat.

"S Get to know some of the game's personalities and their contributions, Learn which books are considered the classics, which experts are to be trusted. Paradoxically, in their efforts to educate the player, they have also educated the industry and remain our best source of information.

p The process of counting cards is often pitched as a sublime skill—it is not. The'technical fundamentals are easy to learn, and they form the foundation for a better and deeper ^^understanding of the game.

S Take a couple of hours to learn basic strategy,'how it was developed, why it works, and the real cost of making mistakes. Also think about the basic strategy player and how he * . impacts the industry. He will do more to affect your hold percentages than almost any other factor, aside from whales and major scams:

•S Next, learn to count with the Hi-Low, its, fun and easy. Try to understand why most count systems are pretty much all the same.

S Work out the true count conversion factors for your game. You'll end up with a handful of numbers that will not only make the adjustment child's play, but you’ll use them throughout your career.

S Memorize a few strategy indices, if you wish. At a minimum, look over the strategy table and familiarize yourself with the most important plays. Then, glance over the dated tables for the scope of strategy. You'll discover many unusual plays that may still exist in the repertoires of the best players. Pay particular attention to the close plays, those which can be played either way.


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•S Finally, learn to work with betting strategies and frequency distributions. The math is

simple, yet the process is paramount. If you want to avoid the math altogether, fine, look up the relevant win rates for your games, and use these as your guidelines for evaluating the earning potential of card counters.

S Think about the different kinds of players. The clubs are packed with card watchers, which is okay, its not against the law to play with your eyes open. When dealing to the imitators, let them live the illusion. Understand why its easy for the player to familiarize himself with a few of the basics, but hugely difficult to advance his skill to any serious level. It takes dedication and discipline far beyond that of the recreational player; it takes constant research, refinement, innovation, a coolness and confidence to deal with the enormous fluctuation, and the ability to act, mix it up, and play the role of the sucker in a way worthy of an Oscar nomination.

■S As to perspective, consider the opinions expressed. The complexities of the game force analysis via computer simulation, and with this process comes a theoretical precision and expectation impossible for the player to attain. Get a sense of the tough grind, the frequency of advantage, the size of advantage, and some of the primary issues with risk.

■/ Consider the deterioration of the game.

S Learn why, historically, our evaluation process is akin to trying to shoot the moving ducks at the carnival with a crooked gun. Recognize the difficulties of evaluating players, and why just looking for consistency of action is not enough. Learn the importance of working with win rates in units.

S Do you see how costly it is to back off the typical casino player?

S In regard to the evaluation process, its important to be methodical and to take your time.

In most situations, good old'fashioned common sense is your strongest asset.

■/ Finally, this chapter, perhaps more than any other, warrants further study. The literature available is huge. Objective research is the key; don't be overwhelmed by the hype.

In conclusion, I can't think of a better way to wrap up this chapter on card counting than to

revisit a most frequently pondered question:


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Does anyone really know if card counters truly present a threat to the industry?*'

This is what we know for sure. The facts are irrefutable. After four decades of players and experts pitching the card counting doctrine, the only hardship the industry has ever suffered is a worldwide proliferation of legalized gaming featuring casino 21, the worlds most popular casino card game.


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There's more I will add about card counting later. My own personal experience is they don't do big damage to casinos unless the stakes are big and surveillance is lazy. A small edge with small stakes is usually ignored unless the player is very obvious. But what serious player bets with small stakes and spends days in the casino?