Most blackjack players know that casinos frown on counting cards. They’ll ask you to stay away from their blackjack games if they think you’re too skilled. Sometimes they’ll even ask you to leave their casino and never return.
Obviously, you can’t make a profit if you’re no longer allowed at the blackjack tables or at the casino.
So how do you avoid getting caught counting cards?
After all, it’s not that hard to count cards. And the casino has plenty of surveillance, including the eye in the sky — which is the camera located above the blackjack tables.
I can offer you some suggestions and ideas based on what other card counters have told me, but I think the reality is that if you’re too good at counting cards, you’ll eventually get caught. I’m not even that great at card counting, but I’ve been caught at least once.
In my case, though, they didn’t ask me to leave. They just started shuffling the cards on every hand, negating any advantage I might have gained. Neophyte that I was, I didn’t even notice they were shuffling on every hand at first.
Get Really Good at Counting Cards
The eye in the sky isn’t going to spot you moving your lips while you’re counting cards. It’s also not going to see how furrowed your brow gets when you’re concentrating. And it won’t see how closely you’re watching the cards as they come off the deck.
But the dealer will notice.
And if the dealer doesn’t notice, the pit boss might.
You should practice counting enough at home that you’re able to maintain an accurate count without doing any of those things. You should, in fact, look like you’re completely relaxed and enjoying the game. It’s better if you look like you’re only half paying attention.
The advice I always give new card counters is to practice at the kitchen table until you can count through an entire deck accurately, one card at a time. Then move up to 2 cards at a time.
Time yourself, and keep practicing until you’re really fast.
Once you get really fast, turn the radio on while you’re counting. Then turn both the radio and the television on while you’re counting. Give the kids some toys to play with, preferably ones that make noise, and encourage them to play on the kitchen floor while you count through a deck.
Focus on maintaining a relaxed, calm exterior.
The only way to count cards without looking like you’re counting cards is to practice and over-practice until it really is effortless.
Vary When and Where You Play
In Sklansky Talks Blackjack, the author suggests limiting your play at any given casino to a one-hour session at most. (He might have said 45 minutes. I haven’t read it in a while.)
But there’s more to covering your tracks than that. You should also never play at the same casino 2 days in a row. You should preferably keep a gap of 2 days or so between your visits at a specific casino.
When you do visit the same casino more than once in a single week, you should hit the casino during a different shift.
Most casinos are open 24 hours. There’s a day shift, a night shift, and a graveyard shift. If you go to that casino 3 times, you should go there during each of those shifts at least once.
This alone will go a long way toward avoiding detection because you won’t be there long enough to be noticed.
Watch Your Bet Sizes
You’ll find plenty of advice about how to range your bets from 1 to 4 units or from 1 to 6 units based on the count, and that’s great.
But that’s also one of the easiest ways to get caught.
The dealers often know how to count cards. The pit bosses almost always know how to count cards. They’ll recognize when a player raises his bet according to the count.
How do you avoid detection?
Play the role of a superstitious gambler who increases the size of his bet when he’s feeling hot. This means doubling the size of your bet after a win. You can even double it again after a second win — if the count makes it a smart move.
If the count is positive, but you just lost a hand, don’t raise the size of your bet. And don’t be so accurate about raising the size of your bet based on the count.
You can even mention that you want to capitalize on your hot streak.
Most card counters aren’t superstitious, and the casinos know this.
Tip Dealers and Waitresses
Most card counters don’t tip because it interferes with their already low edge. But if you can remain profitable by occasionally placing a bet on behalf of the dealer, you can look like less of a card counter.
Here’s how I suggest you do it.
Never just throw the dealer a tip. Always wait until the deck is positive, then place a second bet on behalf of the dealer.
Not only will the dealer make more money if you win, but he’ll also benefit from the count being positive — a blackjack pays off 3 to 2 on a bet you’ve made on his behalf, too.
You might also enjoy a cocktail or two from the cocktail waitress. Not everyone can handle their liquor well enough to count cards while they’ve been drinking, but for most people, this is a matter of practicing and over-practicing.
When you enjoy the cocktails, be sure to tip the waitress.
I like to start off with a large tip for the dealer and a large tip for the waitress. Then I scale back on future tips. For example, I might give a cocktail waitress a $5 tip the first time she brings me a drink. Then I’ll scale back to the usual dollar or two.
Combined with the other tips on this list, you can expect some camouflage for your advantage play based on this.
Don’t Sit at Third Base and Don’t Wear a Cap
Casinos know that card counters are more likely to sit at third base and also that they’re more likely to wear a ballcap. Both reasons are probably obvious, but I’ll explain them anyway.
If you’re sitting at third base, you get to see more cards before playing your hand. If you’re one of those card counters who adjusts his basic strategy decisions based on the count, you’ll have more information with which to make your decisions.
With a lot of players at the table, this can make a significant difference in your edge.
But it’s not worth it if you get caught.
Card counters often wear ballcaps as part of their disguises, but since it’s such a common thing, it’s more of a tell than anything else. Try going bare-headed.
If you do want a disguise, experiment by growing your beard or a mustache or by shaving your beard or mustache. You can also try shaving your head or letting your hair grow long. Dyeing your hair is also an option.
If you have recognizable tattoos on your arms, wear long sleeves. If you don’t have tattoos, consider getting temporary tattoos as part of your disguise.
Try different color schemes with your clothes. Dress up or dress down. Consider wearing cowboy clothes or dressing like a biker. You can disguise your looks in any of a hundred different ways.
Just avoid the common one of wearing a ballcap. You look a lot better in a fedora or a cowboy hat anyway.
Make Some Basic Strategy Mistakes
This is probably the only time you’ll hear me suggest that you not follow basic strategy. I read in Play Blackjack Like the Pros a suggestion from Ian Andersen that you pick certain hands where you’ll make specific basic strategy mistakes repeatedly.
Some of the suggestions were very specific. Here are some examples.
- Stand anytime you have a 16 versus a dealer 10
- Never hit a soft 18 when the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing
- Always take insurance
Not only do these not cost you much in terms of expectation, but if the count is positive, these plays actually make better sense than the standard basic strategy.
Keep in mind, though, that deviations from basic strategy that aren’t related to the count hurt your expectation. This has two effects.
- It increases your volatility, making it more likely that you’ll lose money in a given session, week, month, or season.
- It reduces your return on investment. To count cards, you need a bankroll. If you can’t see a return on investment better than you’d get through most investment vehicles, you’re better off investing your money.
Work with a Team
If you’ve seen the movie 21 or read the book on which it was based, Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, you’re probably at least superficially aware of how a blackjack team works. You share a common bankroll, but you also share in the profits.
One way they avoid detection is to have several players sit down at several different tables — one per table. These players play perfect basic strategy and flat-bet the minimum at each table, but they count cards while they’re playing.
When the count is really high at one of the tables, they signal the “big player.” That player comes in during the shoe while the count is high and places a large bet or a series of large bets.
Other blackjack teams might use spotters who watch the action from behind the table. Since they have no money in action, they don’t lose any money while they’re counting. (They even have a word for it — since they’re standing behind the players’ backs, they call this “back counting.”)
How you signal the big player is, of course, up to you and your team, but Kevin Blackwood suggests verbal signals rather than hand gestures for one simple reason.
The eye in the sky can’t pick up on verbal signals.
Gestures ARE recorded, though. With enough attention, even the most subtle gestures can eventually be detected. In the long run, that’s bad news for a card counting team.
You have multiple choices for how to handle the financing of such a team. You might have one big investor who also plays as the big player. You might have several investors, each of whom contributes to the team’s overall bankroll. These investors might or might not actually play on the team.
It’s customary when dealing with a gambling team that has an investor to split the profits 50/50 between the players and the investors.
The biggest advantage of forming a blackjack team isn’t subterfuge, though — it’s the ability to increase the amount of money you can put into action. With a positive expectation, this corresponds to an increase in the amount of winnings during a given session or series of sessions.
It’s also probably a lot more fun to be part of a team. Some people are introverts and enjoy spending a lot of time alone, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Craps is a big draw for a reason — the camaraderie.
When you’re part of a blackjack team, you get to enjoy some of that camaraderie along with an edge over the house — which is an intoxicating combination, for sure.
If you go this route, it’s important to meet with your team and write down the expectations of the team and its members. Someone needs to manage the team and the accounts. The roles that each member is to play should be clearly spelled out.
The handling of the money should also be clearly spelled out in advance — IN WRITING.
You also need to decide as a group on some of the playing decisions that face you in the casino. How long will sessions last? Does the team ever tip the dealer?
The best approach to managing a blackjack team is to treat it as a business. If you have no stomach for operating a small business, a blackjack team probably isn’t the way to go.
A major concern for every card counter in the blackjack world is avoiding getting caught. If you get barred from enough casinos, you can’t make any money playing blackjack. This requires some careful weighing of the costs and benefits related to subterfuge.
For example, tipping is one way to camouflage your advantage play, but tipping also subtracts from your expected value. Making basic strategy mistakes on purpose is another way to provide cover, but that has a cost also.
Perhaps the best way to avoid detection is to adopt a simple hit-and-run strategy where you just don’t play blackjack at any one table at any one casino long enough to be detected. Can you get away with 45 minutes of play at a single casino 3 times a week?
That might be the best way to avoid detection as a card counter.