How Casinos Catch Card Counters And Why You Should Avoid Trying It
The math on card counting has changed over the years.
I don’t mean the raw numbers governing the true count, or the edge when you’re at +4 and doubling a 10 against a 6.
I mean that a good card counter will need to avoid detection for hundreds of hours in order to be profitable, but I only need to catch them once.
In today’s technological world, I can have a description, name, and facial scan sent to a dozen surrounding properties before a good card counter can even be escorted from the building.
Make a mistake once in some Indian casino in Oklahoma and the odds are good you won’t even make it to a table without being escorted out the next time you arrive in Las Vegas.
This ups the stakes because once you’re flagged for the first time, you will have a much harder time going unnoticed in the future. It may even bring your playing days to an end.
Casinos around the country subscribe to various databases and programs that help them manage counters and other advantage players.
That shared information means one misstep for a card counter can be extremely costly.
How Casinos Catch Counters
BOLOs (Be On The Look Out) or info sheets on players will not only have pictures, often from multiple angles, but also known associates and aliases.
It will have a detailed description and other identifying info like tattoos.
Many casinos use Car Tag Readers to let them know when certain VIP guests arrive or just to keep track of who enters and exits the garage or parking area, so don’t be surprised if some of that data is also on file.
Typically, these are sent out regionally, or to casinos that have information-sharing agreements between their surveillance departments, but the info is still widely available to be searched by name, description, or the like by any casino that subscribes to the databases.
All of this is often combined with facial recognition software which means many known counters are unlikely to even make it to a table before management intervenes and asks them to leave.
Most casinos will simply not take a chance on letting someone identified by another casino as a card counter play on their tables, though some will allow a player a little leeway so that they can make their own determination.
In the medium to large casinos I’ve worked, it’s not unusual to walk three or four counters a week off the property.
I’m sure the number is much, much higher at certain Las Vegas properties known for their advantageous rules, and deck penetration.
Literally four out of five of those I walk off the casino floor will have been identified off a BOLO. They messed up once and now we have got them again.
But the fact of the matter is, counting cards is a mathematical game. You can only change your play so much before it erodes all your profit.
Some ways of playing are unavoidable.
And that’s what we look for.
The Math That Gives Counters An Edge Is Also Used To Catch Them
Card counting is at its heart a very simple proposition.
Bet more when the remaining cards are in your favor and bet less, or sometimes don’t bet at all, when they are not.
The trick of course is that the casino also knows when the remaining cards are in your favor.
My personal favorite tell is the insurance/16 against a 10 rule. These two play deviations make up almost 40% of the advantage one can achieve through basic strategy deviation.
You can’t escape the math. If you want to make money, these are the two plays you can’t fudge.
Basic strategy says you must hit a 16 against a 10, but the index count for changing that strategy is basically zero.
If the deck is even slightly positive in 10 cards you need to stand. If you stand on 10 against a 16 with big bets out there (a high positive count), you will have my attention.
If you also then sit on 16 when you have table minimums bets out there, I’ll be reaching for the phone.
The same is true of insurance.
While most average players have learned their lesson about insurance being a terrible bet, all counters know that they must insure their hand at a +3 true count.
This leaves them in the unenviable spot of having to sometimes take insurance with a 12 and skip even money when they have a blackjack.
Both are must-make bets for a counter to be successful long term.
And both leave a counter extremely noticeable to anyone trained to look, but there are just as many other tells that will give a counter up.
The following all draw quick attention:
- Reducing your bet to your minimum bet size after the shuffle
- Pulling back all of a blackjack payoff or a tie bet
- Never tipping
- Leaving the table to take a phone call or use the bathroom when the count goes very negative.
Demeanor can also be a giveaway and get you noticed, such as:
- Watching the cards too closely
- Not drinking
- Not conversing with dealers or guests
- Nervous or furtive behavior
- Very precise with chips and/or cards.
But of course, the biggest hurdle is getting more money in the betting circle without bringing down the house.
To be truly effective, you will need to bet somewhere between 12x to 16x your lowest wager when the count goes higher in a shoe game.
That means a player who starts off betting a $100 a hand, and who will stay betting that same $100 a hand for more than 70% of their play, must sometimes be able to get a $1,000 or even $1,500 bet out on the layout.
And ideally more.
Players have come up with many ingenious methods to try and disguise this bet spread.
But no matter the story, no matter the reason, this kind of bet spread will draw attention.
And then we will have someone counting down the shoe and rating their play, whether it’s another trained counter or, more and more often, a computer program.
If players do get away with it for an extended period, it’s because the dealer or the floor didn’t do their job.
Ideally, when a dealer sees that kind of bet spread, they will say something like “checks play,” which usually means something like “this person just suddenly started betting a lot more than they were.”
That is to alert the floor to large bet spreads so that they can relay that on up the chain.
As you can see, there are many, many ways a card counter can be tripped up. They are literally constrained by the math that makes all of this work.
And as soon as they’re outed once, it becomes incrementally harder to get away unnoticed the next time.
It was exactly these constraints that made for the team play that was immortalized by Hollywood in movies like 21.
The Old Bait And Switch
The premise of the “big player” attack was simple. Skilled counters could watch games, and continue to flat bet, but call big players in when the count was high enough.
These players would bounce from table to table, only playing when the count was high.
This meant it was hard for casinos to spot the real counters; they remained camouflaged on their games, and since the big player was only betting large amounts of money each hand, it didn’t call into question the bet spread.
Often the big player would assume a theatrical role to lend some credence to their often odd and erratic behavior to lessen suspicion even more.
While it seems unlikely 30 years later, these teams would take Las Vegas and other casino jurisdictions for millions.
The solution was simple yet costly.
Casinos would only allow new players on a table to bet a maximum of $100 until the new shoe.
It stopped this attack in its tracks, but at the cost of casinos telling millions of guests that they couldn’t place large bets until after the shuffle.
Some argued that the remedy was worse than the malady, but it did put an immediate end to that particular loophole in the casino’s counter defenses.
Many of these rules have been relaxed now as casinos have gotten better at knowing what to look for and mining databases of players to find connections between seemingly unrelated players has become exponentially easier.
Working In Teams
One of the best team plays I’ve seen involved a group of five or six players who at first seemed unrelated, who often bet erratically and didn’t seem to pay close attention to the count.
They would position sometimes two but mainly three players on a table and take turns keeping the count while the others engaged in conversation.
They would signal the count using chip stacks, and while each member’s bets might not follow the count, the team’s as a whole would.
They would also disguise play this way, with smaller bets on larger counts not always matching the index deviations.
They were eventually only discovered when some of our dealers noticed them on multiple occasions playing at other casinos in the same cohesive groups which caused us to reevaluate their play.
Once we knew they were a team, we could see the bets and play move with the count in total, instead of through one individual’s actions.
While team play can slow down a casino’s efforts to identify counters, it is still constrained by the need to put large bets out only when the count is high.
And ideally, the ability to play that hand in a very defined way, though large enough bet spreads can make up for some of that.
As a long-ago shift manager once told me about game protection, “The money will always tell the story.”
And that’s as true today as it was 30 years ago.
The math that makes blackjack beatable and card counters successful is exactly the hook that we use to catch them.
What To Bear In Mind If You Plan To Count Cards
For those still intent on card counting, there are a few important considerations. The first thing is to remember that the age of the MIT teams or the Hyland Group are gone.
The money laundering laws and know-your-customer regulations post 9/11 did more to end counters and count teams than all of the casinos’ efforts combined.
Big money bets now mean filling out W-9s and tax paperwork. Identification, and even sometimes occupation, are verified through databases.
The same types of databases that casinos and the government look for to fight money laundering can be used to look for counters and count teams.
They often uncover relationships that might not have been visible to the human eye.
This means you need to manage expectations; the big bets won’t be as big, and the payouts will need to be smaller.
If you’re a lone player, it’s going to be more of a grind. Teams will need to adapt to the new rules on the ground.
Asymmetrical team play – where individual bets and even index plays may not match the count, but the overall money at risk and play does – can be very effective. The trick is not to overuse the same players at any one property.
Another way some teams have adjusted is by finding players with long histories with casinos, especially losing histories, and recruiting them. The casinos will have done their due diligence and won’t be as alert to the high action.
Others have recruited wealthy business owners or tech execs that might look like the exact type of player that the casinos are marketing to and can withstand a quick background check.
Counters will also want to pay close attention to the many other various advantage plays that are possible in casinos, from excess free play on electronic table games and badly designed promotions, to tournaments and giveaways – and many others.
EV (expected value) can be gained in many different ways to help offset lower betting spreads.
Using all of the possible ways to extract value has a long and sometimes hilarious history in the tales of counters.
From rummage sales of merchandise bought with comp points, to using porn stars to induce dealer errors, many players have gone the extra mile when attempting to gain the advantage.
Don Johnson is one of those. He beat Atlantic City and Vegas for millions not just due to his superb counting skills, but by scaping the battlefield before he ever sat down to play.
By using counting, confusion, and badly designed casino cashback, he won against casinos that should have known better by being better prepared and having a mathematically sound plan – a plan that just happened to include porn stars.
A New Day
One slip-up or one mistake that draws attention to your play or your team’s play can be disastrous with the speed of information and depth of data available now.
Players must be more cautious, measured, and smart.
Situational awareness is very important. Watch pit personnel (especially when they go to a phone) and pay attention to furtive glances or whispered conversations in your area. Don’t panic, just flat bet.
If I come over and move the cut card up, or tell the dealer to shuffle and you run, surveillance will be rewinding your play.
Counting cards for fun and profit hasn’t come to an end just yet. Though truly, technology will probably bring about its demise in the next five or 10 years.
I’m sure there are individuals and teams out there making lots of money. But I’m also sure they would tell you that it’s just not as simple and fun as it used to be.
That being said, there’s something about pitting your wits and imagination against a determined foe, that will always probably draw the hustlers and the dreamers to take their shot at bringing down the house.
And that’s just fine. It keeps me employed.