PAUL'S POINTERS: TELL TALE SIGNS OF A CARD COUNTER
by Paul Wilson
BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November 2014 issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.
With the World Series of Poker (WSOP) on full tilt in Las Vegas this month, I thought I'd borrow a term from the world of poker for this month's column. If any of you are poker players or know anything about the game, you're probably familiar with the term tell. It's generally an unconscious action that is thought to betray an attempted deception. Tells aren't just for the poker table or unsuccessfully trying to convince your wife you had a good reason for not taking out the trash. Tells are part of the blackjack card counting world too and they can give you away. This month we're going to discuss some common, recognizable counter tells.
SPREADS AREN'T JUST FOR THE SPORTS BOOK
One obvious sign that gives away card counters is their bet spreads. By bet spread I mean the difference in the amount bet from hand to hand. For those of you that don't know much about card counting basics or need a quick review, remember the goal is to bet more when the count is positive (the deck favors the player because more large cards - Aces and 10-count cards remain) and less or not at all when the count is negative (the deck favors the dealer because there are more small count cards remaining - 2's thru 6's).
If you are betting $10 a hand consistently in a six-deck shoe and suddenly decide to increase your bet to $100 that just looks suspicious. It looks even more so when you are betting $100 and increase your bet to $1,000 or $5,000 per hand. This type of betting behavior got the actor Ben Affleck backed off the blackjack tables at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas a few years back. Based on his acting, I question if Affleck has the moxie to actually count cards, but that's beside the point. His betting behavior sure made it look like he was up to something and the casino bosses took action. There is not a hard and fast rule on what kind of spreads will get you noticed. That varies from casino to casino; possibly even shift to shift, but spreading 10 times or greater your minimum bet will probably do the trick. Four or five times your minimum bet is pretty manageable. Don't get greedy.
CAN I SPLIT THOSE? SIR, YOU'VE GOT 20
Another way to get pegged as a counter is to split face cards or tens when the count is very positive. Nobody splits 20. It's a winning hand, right? Basic strategy tells us to never split tens. However, basic strategy provides us with the best way to play every hand, all things being even. I'm a firm believer in basic strategy, but also realize that "all things" aren't always "even." Deck composition matters. Let's face it, if you are playing a double-deck game and eight Aces are on the table or have been since the last shuffle, no one is getting a blackjack until those cards are shuffled.
Card counting allows us to find situations where deviating from basic strategy might actually be the better long-term strategy decision allowing us to win more or lose less often. If the true count is +5 or higher and the dealer has a 6 showing as their up-card, then you wouldn't be wrong to splits your tens. The same holds true if the true count is +6 or higher and the dealer's up-card is a 5. With true counts that high, there are significantly more 10-count cards remaining in the deck and the dealer's chance of busting increases enough to give you the chance to win twice instead of only once had you not split the tens.
(Note: True count (TC) is derived by dividing the running count (RC) by the number of decks remaining. Example: If the RC = +6 and there are 3 decks remaining in the shoe, the TC = +2)
I've seen players split tens more times than I care too. Rarely did it work out well for them and rarely was it in a positive count. Splitting tens labels you as a slick card counter or the village idiot. There's not much middle ground on this one. Either way, it will turn some heads.
I HAVE INSURANCE ON MY HOUSE AND CAR, WHY NOT ON MY 14?
Basic strategy says to never take insurance. When the dealer has an Ace up-card showing, you'll be asked if you want to take insurance. Remember insurance pays 2:1 and you can make this separate bet for up to half your original bet. If the dealer has blackjack you lose your original bet, but win the insurance bet at 2:1. Most people that take insurance do it for the wrong reason and are often rewarded for doing so. Most recreational players take insurance when they have a good hand such as 20. However, they aren't really insuring their 20; they are betting that the dealer has a blackjack. Except for card counting purposes, the player's hand is irrelevant. In fact, if you are holding a pair of face cards, the dealer's chance of having a blackjack is decreased (-2 towards the RC).
Taking insurance is pretty common among the great unwashed of the blackjack playing world. However, when coupled with a very large bet that has been increasing, it's probably the most obvious play that is outside the realm of normal plays that card counters will make. It may give off red flags, but a counter will still take insurance. After all, why is he/she making that large bet to begin with? Chances are the count is positive. In case you are interested, consider taking insurance in a double-deck game if the TC = +2.5 or higher. For a six-deck game the TC should be +3 or higher. I play primarily double-deck and probably take insurance five times a year or less. It's a flaw in my game perhaps, but the "NO" is 69% against the dealer having that blackjack all things being even. Dang that basic strategy thinking!
SURRENDER: A CHEAP TRICK OR JUST ANOTHER VEGAS CLUB?
Surrender has gotten rather hard to find on most blackjack tables the past decade or so. Chances are most players don't understand it; much less know how to use it properly. When a player surrenders they essentially exchange their first two cards for half their original wager and are no longer involved in the round. Another way to view it is they forfeit half their bet to get out of the hand and avoid the risk of losing the entire amount of the original bet. It is a favorable player option when used properly.
I grew up surrendering 16 against dealer up-cards of 9, 10, or Ace; 15 against dealer 10-count up-cards too. Just because it's offered, I've found few players take advantage of the surrender option. If you do, and do it correctly, you are identifying yourself as a smart player. If you are a smart player, you might be a card counter. So be it. Late surrender (after the dealer checks for blackjack) is actually making a small comeback and offered on the six-deck shoes at some Las Vegas casinos such as Station-owned properties and Tuscany off the top of my head.
BE COOL FOOL, THEY AIN'T GONNA ROLL UP
One of the easiest ways to be identified as a card counter is to be too uptight or to act paranoid. Learn to keep the RC and carry on a simple conversation. I don't blame you if you can't do TC conversions mid-conversation, but that's ok. You don't have to talk much, but say "hello" and make the occasional comment. The game is supposed to be fun. There's nothing wrong with smiling after a winning hand or congratulating the table when the dealer busts and everyone wins.
Learn to talk to the dealer and pit boss. Don't be surprised if they ask you where you're from or what you do for a living. Chances are they are just making small talk. Tell them the truth if you like. They probably could care less. After all, you probably aren't a professional blackjack player and you're certainly not a card counter, right? I find it best to get the other party talking by turning the tables and getting them to do the talking. But hey, I'm a good listener, allegedly.
Be cool at the tables and never let them see you sweat. Would Elvis not be cool if he were a card counter and playing on your blackjack table? You should be aware of your surroundings and what is going on in the pit area as well as if your table is being watched closely. However, you aren't doing anything wrong if you are card counting, but its best to not have to go that route. Avoid suspicious behavior and blend in like any other "dumb gambler." After all, you want to continue to play your favorite game and for the stakes you are comfortable playing, not to mention you want your ratings slip to get into the computer so you can claim whatever comps your play has entitled you too. Also, DO NOT move your lips or mouth the words when you are counting. For the record it happens, especially when starting out. Practice at home by listening to loud music or watching television while you silently count down a deck of cards with a smile on your face while singing along or talking to the TV. Remember everything in the casino is pretty much there to distract you. Don't let it. If you lose the count, there's no shame in flat betting until the shuffle.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
This month we examined some common actions that might identify you as a card counter. Card counting isn't illegal, but is probably the post-modern casino manager's biggest fear. Casinos are incredibly paranoid about card counters. That (and pure corporate greed related to margins and ROI) is the biggest reason blackjack conditions have eroded so much in the past 10-15 years. You have to go about your business, but don't make it easy for them to identify you as a counter.
To summarize (and with much respect to Redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy):
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