I often hear from readers studying my Blackjack School lessons who are concerned about the legality of counting cards. Well, I've said this many times before, but I'll say it again: Were this card counting stuff against the law, I wouldn't be teaching it, plain and simple. Most of us here in the U.S. (and other countries, too) have an amazing propensity for thinking if something is fun, it's probably illegal or at least immoral. I'm not sure why we feel that way, but we do and it's silly. If you are counting the cards at a Blackjack game you're using the same information that everyone else at the table has available to them, but just processing it in a different way.
A few years ago, a pit boss or some other casino employee was asked why he had a problem with card counters and his reply was something along the lines of: "Counters alter the 'natural odds' of the game." What a ridiculous statement! What are the "natural odds" of Blackjack? To this person I think it means, "We have a God-given edge in this game and we don't want anyone messing with it." Well, I can understand why he might feel that way, but if they want only losers to play the game they ought to just say so. Of course they never will because they want it both ways. They want the general public to know the game can be beaten, thus making it appealing, but they don't want anyone to actually beat it.
Okay, enough speeches. The purpose of this article is to let you know that it's okay to win at Blackjack; I've been doing it since 1978 but a lot of counters have a tendency to bar themselves and hopefully I can stop that. By "bar" I mean being excluded from the casino. That can happen in two ways: the casino personnel can ask you to leave or you can get so scared about it happening that you bar yourself. No, I'm not talking about tossing yourself out of a casino like a Three Stooges stunt, but there are some things that card counters, especially new card counters, do that basically amount to the same thing.
I point out in my in my lessons that, as a beginning counter on your first trip to a casino, you don't really have a big, red "C" on your forehead that is going to tip off the casino supervisory personnel ("pit critters", as they're affectionately called here) to what you're doing. It only seems that way, but you'll get over the feeling as you gain experience at your craft. In the beginning, you'll interpret every little bit of attention you get as "heat", but unless you're really screwing up, it's nothing more than the normal attention that any player gets, especially if you're playing at the green chip ($25) or lower level. At the $100+ level, everyone gets attention but at the red chip ($5) level, there's really no reason to be concerned unless you're spreading your bets from $5 on one hand to $75 on the next.
If you follow the betting schedule for a six-deck game that I recommend in my lessons ($5-$60), there are darn few places where your action is going to attract any undue attention. Even at single-deck games, a 1-6 spread in red ($5-$30) done with a certain amount of style isn't going to cause much of a stir, except in the most famous of "sweat shops", like the Barbary Coast on the Vegas Strip or the El Cortez downtown. A decent single-deck game can be defeated with a 1-4 spread, but that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't push the envelope a bit. It's like everything else in life, you just need to pick your spots. And keep in mind that if you're not attracting any attention whatsoever, you're probably not winning very much. Losing is the 2nd best defense against getting barred from a casino; not playing there in the first place is number 1.
The casino industry has put such a spin on their ideas about whether or not card counting is legal that it has spilled over to even some of the counters. As I said earlier, it's definitely legal in every jurisdiction in the U.S. and probably in most other casinos outside the States, but I won't swear to that last part. Anyway, many casino personnel are selectively ignorant about the legality of card counting but you shouldn't be. However, keep in mind that while it may be legal, it's not necessarily tolerated, so we still have to disguise our skill. But we don't want to disguise it to the point where we cause ourselves to lose.
What I mean is that new counters (I was one once myself, don't forget) sometimes have difficulty in making the bet that the count calls for. Oh, I know we can't jump our bets from $5 to $40 when the count suddenly elevates, but what I mean is that there's a tendency to under-bet the hands if a pit critter is nearby. Narrowing your bet spread of 1-12 down to, say, 1-6 is the mathematical equivalent of being barred. In fact, it's actually worse because with such a small spread you'll give up much of your edge over the house. At least if they toss you out, you won't lose any $$$ - can't make any either, but that's beside the point. If you habitually play the six-deck game I use as the "base" game for my lessons (dealer stands on A-6, double on any first two cards, double after split and surrender is not allowed) with a 1-6 bet spread, instead of a 1.2% to 1.5% advantage (depending upon the penetration offered), you'll be lucky to get a 0.80% edge. That may not seem to be a bad alternative to being barred, but the reality is that any game where your edge is less than 1% is a tough game to beat. You could go literally for months without winning and that's very frustrating to say the least.
The other "trick" to beating the game, that of leaving the table when the True Count drops below -1, is something else that newcomers would rather not do because they feel it attracts too much attention. I agree that's true if you play in small casinos that have only a handfull of tables, but "wonging out" is a crucial part of winning, so there's just no getting around it. If you're concerned about how it looks to be leaving the table after playing only a few hands, watch the non-counting (99% of them) customers at a casino sometime. They aren't shy about leaving and they have a lot of reasons for doing it: they just lost their third hand in a row, their "significant other" is waiting to meet them, they have to go to the bathroom, they don't like the way the guy on third base was playing, etc., etc.
Sitting down and playing through both good and bad counts at a game is another form of barring yourself. Unless the game you're playing has exceptional penetration - 85% or more - you're just going to have to resign yourself to leaving the table as often as possible when the count drops. If you play a game with the same base rules as the one in my lessons and it offers 75% penetration, your overall edge while using a 1-12 bet spread is at least 1.2% if you make no bets when the count drops below -1 (either by sitting out, if the casino allows that or by getting up and leaving the table). Should you play all counts - high and low - at the same game, your overall edge is a miserable 0.50% at best. Sure, you're still better off than the average gambler but that's not why you went to all the trouble to learn this stuff. I would imagine you learned it so you could win. Winning is my business and I hope to make it yours, too. Hopefully this little "pep rally" will help.
I'll see you here next time.