There is a common misunderstanding among surveillance, security, and management that blackjack card counters are among the top reasons that shifts lose money (or have a reduced hold). One floor manager said to me that: “they walk out of here with $600 to $800 each time.” The primary purpose of game protection is not to catch card counters. It is to prevent significant losses due to events outside of the normal play of the games. Unfortunately, the obsession with card counters continues. We are in a new age of game vulnerability and game security is stuck in the past.

Former casino executive Bill Zender said:

“Too many people in this industry sweat the games, and that makes the players uncomfortable. These corporations get scared if one month your hold is a couple of points lower that it usually is, and they start panicking. But usually, it’s just the fluctuations of the game … if you run the game right, you’ll actually make more money than if you’re wasting all this energy on trying to stop counters.”

“Beat the Dealer,” first published by Edward Thorp in 1961, has sold over 800,000 copies. It is one of the most widely owned but least understood books of all time. Many casino executives act as though a hidden army of card counters exists and is waiting to strike. But there are not 800,000 card counters. Most who read "the book" (or any other book on card counting) have the misguided idea that blackjack is easy to beat. They head out with weakly developed skills, a limited bankroll, to poor games, and quickly lose their money.

Based on nearly a decade of advantage play, I estimate that there are fewer than 2000 competent card counters world-wide. By competent, I mean those with the skills, bankroll, and opportunity to play. Of these, most are recreational players or low-level grinders. There are under 100 full-time professional card counters working right now, world-wide, with the ability to seriously damage a casino’s hold. Anyone with the skill to beat blackjack at a professional level has no doubt found a myriad of stronger opportunities.

I am going to pursue Zender’s insightful comment further and explain the main reasons that most card counters should not be backed off.

The most important reason is that the player may not be a card counter at all. Many of those listed with services like Griffin, OSN, Biometrica and SIN are innocent bystanders who happened to be caught in the crossfire. Do not rely on these services for definitive information on a player. There is no course of appeal for those listed with these services. Incorrect information persists. Before any action is even considered, the player should be double checked on site by someone who is skilled in making such an assessment.

If a player is confirmed to be a card counter, he is still most likely a losing player. The person may appear to go through the motions of beating the game: raising his bets with the count, having some big winning bets, splitting tens or whatever. Here is a short list of reasons why most card counters lose.

  1. They believe some aspect of blackjack mythology (progression betting, etc.).
  2. They have weakly developed skills.
  3. They don’t have an adequate bankroll to support the swings.
  4. They don’t have the nerve to put out large bets when the count demands it.
  5. They play games with poor rules or penetration.

Now suppose a card counter is determined to be a winning player. What is the real damage he can do? If he is a low-level grinder (maximum bet under $150), then computer simulations show that he will earn less than $25/hour from the casino over the long run. He will have some winning and losing days, slightly more winning than losing, but the cost is very small, He will definitely not walk out of the casino with $600 to $800 each time he plays. But his presence also has value. People like to see winners and will be inspired to play by his success. His large wagers may encourage others to bet large. He may help keep a table open, or help to open a new table. He may keep others at the table longer than they might otherwise play. In short he acts as an unwitting shill for the casino.

Another reason that card counters should be allowed to play is that back-offs are bad for business. Any time a skilled player is refused service at a table it has a negative effect on the game.  The card counter may be staying at the casino with his friends and family who may not be advantage players. When you lose the counter’s play, you will most likely lose the play of all these other individuals. Moreover, the card counter may protest to the players at his table, to management, to the media and to his friends. Other players will ask questions and decide not to play. When players find management acting unpleasantly, they will not want to return. This effect grows as they relate the story to their friends and colleagues. The tangible negative effects of a back-off make it a highly undesirable course of action.

If the card counter is treated unlawfully by the casino or its security personnel during the back-off, the card counter most likely will (and should) pursue legal action. In a recent case, there was a $400,000 settlement against a major strip casino for just such a cause. Many similar cases are pending. Card counters, more than most, know their legal rights in a casino.

Finally, there must be a level, set by each casino, beyond which play must be managed. A skilled card counter, who has been re-confirmed by both surveillance and the floor, and who is wagering beyond the casino’s tolerance level, can be handled through the normal procedures the casino has in place.

When the floor supervisors, surveillance, and management are educated about the real impact of card counters, back-offs will become extremely rare. The environment in the casino will improve, patrons will play more, the hold will increase, and a few card counters might grind out small wins. But best of all, there will be one less problem to worry about.

As Bill Zender said:

“… if you run the game right, you’ll actually make more money than if you’re wasting all this energy on trying to stop counters.”

Received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Arizona in 1983. Eliot has been a Professor of both Mathematics and Computer Science. Eliot retired from academia in 2009. Eliot Jacobson