Friday, August 16, 2002

MSNBC'S ASHLEIGH BANFIELD was in Las Vegas, reporting on the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks, in a special that TiVo recorded for me (I have TiVo set to record anything with "Vegas" in its title or description).

She and a local TV "news" guy puzzled at length over Why on Earth some of the hijackers would have been in Las Vegas. Some sort of planning mission, probably, they seemed to think. Not once did the seemingly obvious idea of these Devout Muslims seeking some casino-and-nudie-bar-style earthly pleasures come up. They were bad guys and all, right, but who could be that hypocritical?

In discussing some facial-recognition technology used both to keep undesirables out of casinos and to identify terrorists, Ashleigh kept referring to "corrupt" and "cheating" card counters. Over and over again. Now, there are plenty of corrupt people and cheaters in casinos, but paying attention to the cards dealt during a game of blackjack doesn't make you either, and in fact the techies explaining the recognition system used the word "skilled" rather than "cheating" to describe card counters. Casinos in Nevada can ban patrons for counting cards, but only because they are private establishments that can serve whom they please, not because there's any law against card counting. (There's a law against using machines to count cards, but the Thought Police remain fictional.) In Atlantic City, thanks to a counter's lawsuit, people can't be banned for counting, but the casinos compensate by adding decks and shuffling earlier to make counting more difficult and less profitable.

I'm not a card counter, except in the one-can't-help-but-count sense I'll describe later. I visit casinos for fun, and I play very low stakes. Counting is too risky and too much like work for the size of an edge it would provide a player like me. But as an otherwise knowledgeable blackjack player, I feel compelled to come to counters' defense.

"Card counting" is a misnomer. Only Rain Man remembers every card dealt from a deck or two decks or a four-, six- or eight-deck "shoe." There are many systems, but what the people known as card counters do in most cases is keep a running score of the condition of the cards left to be played. A count typically starts at zero, indicating a "neutral" deck or shoe. If counters see an ace or a 10-value card (a 10, jack, queen or king), they subtract 1. If they see a low card (two through six or maybe seven), they add 1. Skilled card counters use a cancel-out technique, pairing, say, a six and an ace rather than mentally going over the "+1 -1 =0" equation.

The more likely it is that high-value cards will be dealt, the more advantageous the game is to the player. So a "positive" deck or shoe behooves a player to bet more than with a negative or neutral count. Fluctuations in bet size are what make money for a card counter, although slight changes in the basic strategy of whether to "hit," "stand" or "double down" also come into play. And that's how casino personnel spot counters: If you're playing $5 on some hands and $500 on others, that's a suspicious "spread." Dealers or pit bosses often know how to count cards themselves, and even if they don't, they'll assume that counting is behind those bet fluctuations.

Now then: It's easy enough to refrain from actively counting and to say you're not a counter, but if you know the basics that I've related here and you see a hand where all the cards dealt are fours, fives and sixes, there you go. You counted cards! Does it make you a cheater if you bet $6 or $7 or $500 instead of $5 on the next hand? Of course not. If you're a gambler and you can afford to lose that kind of money, you'd be a fool not to increase your bet.

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