A Short History of Blackjack Card-Counting
Casinos structure their games so that they have a small edge, which enables them to provide the entertainment services to us gamblers. However, in the past, many casinos owners and operators had little to no knowledge of how and why certain games gave them the edge over the gamblers. They just spread the games, and the gamblers generally lost, especially if they played very poorly. The game of blackjack is a perfect example of this.
For years savvy operators of saloons and casinos across the country offered blackjack to the public and players did what they usually do – they lost money as a whole, with most of the money lost coming from players that played with no idea how to play properly. Casinos
delight in offering games that actually have a very small house advantage if you play properly, as most gamblers have no desire to read and study – they simply want to gamble and usually do so without much thought into strategy and optimization of their play. For years, the operators of saloons, casinos and clubs were able to get away without knowing much about the games they offered, simply because there were no skilled players to win money off them.
This all changed for casino owners in the 1950's. A small little paper was published that analyzed the mathematically best way to play each hand in blackjack. The first 'Blackjack Card' was born.
In the early 1960's, a mathematics professor by the name of Dr. Edward Thorp realized that the game of blackjack could actually be beaten if a player had some idea of the type of cards which remained in the deck. He developed the first ever strategy for 'card-counting' and immediately went into the casino and won money.
Initially, once casino operators started realizing that players knew more about the game than they did, they panicked. Blackjack rules were quickly changed in casinos all over Las Vegas – they changed how many decks were used and put changed their cutting and shuffling techniques to make it virtually impossible for card-counters to win. The problem was that many blackjack players who weren't even card-counting or, at least, not card-counting well, got frustrated and annoyed with the new rules and left the casinos in droves. The casinos lost a great deal of potential profit as a result.
Finally, to lure the players back, casinos loosened the rules and the players came back. Millions of would-be card counters flocked to the casinos around the country after the publicity of card-counting strategy and the vast majority of them played so bad, they lost their money and the casinos were happy again. Blackjack quickly became the biggest casino game, displacing craps.
The reason so many card-counters lost money is that while it seems easy, counting is actually far too difficult for most gamblers to master. John Schiffman, a former card-counter, explained: "It's too much work. The game is not fun when you are working that hard."
The most common counting system is the hi-lo system, where players add 1 when every low card is dealt, subtract 1 when every high card is dealt. When the round is over, players must divide or multiply the number of decks remaining in the shoe into the count to get a 'true count'. Then, the player must interpret what that number means in terms of edge over the casino and ramp up their bets accordingly following quite complicated betting rules. After all this, they have to escape detection by casino and surveillance staff, who are overly paranoid about potential card counters. As you can see, it's hard work.
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And few players have ever been very good at it. On the staff here at PokerNewsCasino, we have a writer who has made a very successful living card counting over the years, and later on we'll get him to share some secrets about card-counting strategies in a series of articles.
Ed note: Find out why Blackjack is so popular at Club Dice Casino.