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Blackjack Insider Newsletter, July 2004, #54



JPB has been playing blackjack and counting cards part-time since 1996. He plays throughout the country but primarily in Missouri. He has been a Green Chip member of for four years and one-time winner of the Post-of-the-Month. JPB is a professional engineer with three engineering degrees and works as a consulting engineer.


Blackjack cover is generally described as disguising one’s blackjack skills by play (bet size and decisions) rather than appearance (which is generally described as act). Much has been written about cover strategies, including entire chapters and even entire books.

Cover is easy and it works-at disguising your blackjack skills. The problem is that cover is not cheap because it reduces your advantage over the house. In this day and age, with penetration deteriorating and more and more casinos switching to "Dealer Hits Soft 17", the games are getting more difficult to beat. Use too much cover, and you will not need it because you will be playing at a disadvantage (and the casino will be happy to let you play). For the vast majority of players, cover strategy is not cost-effective.

In my early years of blackjack, I refused to even consider using cover. As I played more hours, I started getting "made" as a counter quickly and got backed off more and more frequently. As I have started to find it more and more difficult to find decent blackjack games (due to being backed off and countermeasures being taken), I have been reevaluating the pros and cons of cover.

Factors in Evaluating Cover

The value of cover depends primarily on two factors: your style of play and the blackjack game being evaluated.

In order to provide meaningful guidance, I made the following three classifications of players (note: these are just classifications I made for the purposes of this article).

Player Style/ Classifications

Style A This is the player that generally meets the following criteria:

    • Never bets more than about $100 on a single hand
    • Plays less than 100 hours/yr
    • Cannot afford to lose more than $10,000 (note if your maximum bet is much over $100 but say you cannot afford to lose $10,000, you are over-betting.)
    • Has a full-time job and/or activities to consume time other than blackjack.
    • Has been backed off by fewer than 2 real casinos (Barbary Coast does not count as a real casino)

Style B This is the player that generally meets the following criteria:

    • Plays less than 250 hours/yr
    • Would not be discouraged at a $10,000 or more negative fluctuation in bankroll
    • Have a full-time job but have won money at blackjack for several or more years.

Style C- This is a player that generally meets the following criteria:

    • Plays more than 500 hours/yr
    • Makes a living playing or derives a large percentage of annual income from playing blackjack.
    • Average getting backed-off or have countermeasures taken at least once per every 50 hours of blackjack play.

The other factor is the blackjack game. Cover is most necessary at single deck and double deck. It is substantially less important at the 6 and 8 deck games because it is so much easier at a single and double deck for a pit boss to notice a few low cards come out, an increase in bet size, and conclude you are counting cards. It takes more patience and ability than most pit bosses have to count through a 6 or 8 decker.

The importance of cover also depends on the quality of the game. If it is a mediocre game (say H17 double deck with 50% penetration) why worry about cover? It is not worth the cost. If you get asked to leave, play somewhere else.

Cover Strategies

I have listed the five most common cover strategies that I am aware of.

  1. Making Bad Plays – Some of the top bad plays are: taking insurance on 20, taking even money on blackjack, standing on the soft doubles (such as A7) vs. 6, standing on the 12 vs. 2 and 3 (when the count warrants hitting). The theory is that the pit will evaluate your play and determine you must not be counting cards because of the bad play and, therefore, gives you the long-term free pass.
  2. With all due respect to Don Schlesinger, who devotes a whole chapter on evaluating the cost of these cover plays, this is one of my least favorite cover strategies. For the cover play to work, it requires a pit person to: 1) be watching closely, 2) know basic strategy, 3) know what the running count is (to evaluate some plays like insurance), 4) know what the correct index number is to vary the play, and 5) think the plays were significant enough to conclude you are not an advantage player and then record the evaluation on your players card. That is just too much happenstance for me. This is a bad idea.

  3. Schmoozing with the pit/tipping. The theory is that if you are big better and establish a good rapport with the pit crew, that they will not suspect you of counting or give you the benefit of the doubt. Do you think that schmoozing is going to do any good when surveillance calls and says they have confirmed you are an advantage player? Do not count it. Worse yet, you will be much less memorable than if you play and make no attempt to be buddies with the dealers and pit crews. Not only is schmoozing not effective, but it will make it harder for you to go back to the scene of the crime 6-12 months after being backed off the first time. This is a bad idea, actually a terrible idea.
  4. Playing slot machines, craps or other games that an advantage player would not play. This may help your longevity. The problem is how much this cover play costs you in expected value. Say you plan a 3 day trip to Vegas and plan 25 hours of blackjack with an expected value of $50.00/hour. Your expected win is $1,500. On the other hand, say you log in 24 hours of blackjack but also put in 6 hours of slot machine play (that would be torture to me), craps, or other game with a house advantage as cover. Assuming your expected loss rate on the non-BJ game is a modest $50/hour, your expected win rate has been reduced to $900. The cover cuts the win rate almost in half.
  5. What do you get in return for this cover? In my opinion, not much. When they replay the tapes and verify your bet sizing coincided with the count, do you really think they are going to let you keep playing? Sure, they will let you keep playing - slots and craps - but do not expect any leniency on the blackjack game. This strategy is not cost-effective.

  6. Losing - Losing is good cover. This is particularly true at the less sophisticated casinos. You are perceived as much less a threat when you are losing than winning. The more sophisticated casinos like Mirage are the ones that have computers to evaluate blackjack skill.
  7. The problem with losing is that it is the opposite of winning. So losing as trying to establish cover is a bad idea. If you do inadvertently lose big, take full advantage of it. There is one casino in Vegas that no matter what spread I use, they seem to shrug their shoulders. I also seem to lose big nearly every session, and the session losses are recorded on my player profile. I would suspect the profile says something like: "Must be counting cards but making big mistakes, big lifetime loser. Let him play until he proves otherwise".

    Losing is good cover, but it is not something you can intentionally take advantage of. If you are in this unfortunate position at a particular casino, take advantage.

  8. Bet Sizing Cover

This is the one strategy at least worth looking at and in some cases worth implementing. Bet sizing cover can include the following:

    • Using a tighter bet spread than one’s bankroll would normally allow
    • Only increasing bets after wins and increasing by no more than twice the previous bet.
    • Not reducing bets after a push even after the count plummets.
    • Random betting off the top of the shoe.

Using a Tight Bet Spread

The primary factor in evaluating your blackjack skill is bet sizing and whether it correlates to the count. Obviously, the casino is less likely to be concerned about a 4 to 1 spread at double deck than 12 to 1. Once again, the cost of cover is high. For most players, using a tight bet spread is not cost effective. The exception is the Type C player that cannot afford to get backed off too may times.

Only Increasing Bets After a Win and by No More than twice the previous bet size

This strategy does not carry as much a penalty as a tight spread. You try to achieve your desired spread (say 8 or 12 to 1) but only within the constraints that you increase your bet by no more than double the previous amount or four times after winning a double down. There will be times that you want to bet 8 or more units but you have to restrain yourself and bet 2. The 8 to 1 bet spread looks less conspicuous when you are doubling up after a win or quadrupling the bet after winning a double down hand. The goal is to make it look like you are parlaying your wins. You will look more like a typical player. The cover strategy costs are not as much as using a tight bet spread, because your spread can still approach a healthy spread. The problem is that some of the big counts will occur after a loss. You get stuck betting a smaller amount than the optimal bet size.

For most players, I recommend using this strategy sparingly unless you are Type C player or a Type B player and have identified a truly outstanding game (good rules and excellent penetration).

Not reducing bets after a push.

This is an easy way to avoid unwanted attention from the pit boss. You are spreading $25-$300 at double deck, have a $200 bet on a + 4 running count, you get a 20, the dealer gets a 20, the player next to you gets a 19. The running count drops to –1. The optimal strategy is to reduce the bet to $25. The problem is that this is not what the typical player does. In addition, the pit boss can have very limited knowledge of card counting and put two and two together. This is a cost effective play for all Type C players and some Type B players. It does not cost that much as it does not occur that frequently, and the consequences of not using the cover play can be a premature back-off.

Random off-the-top Betting

This is the most cost-effective cover available. The no-cover counter bets the same amount off–the–top of the shoe because the count is always zero. Usually the bet size is table minimum or some small multiple of the table minimum. When the pit boss sees the off-the-top bet always the same amount and then a few cycles where bets increase and then decrease, it may raise suspicion. But if you randomly bet 2x, 4x, and 8x off-top when the count is neutral, the pit boss will be less likely to think counter.

The cost of this play is negligible because it occurs fairly infrequently (1 out of 5-10 hands at a typical double deck) and the cost per hand is negligible. The house advantage on a $100 bet at a zero count with favorable rules (DD, S17, DAS) is only $0.19. I can live with that when I am trying to achieve a win rate of $50-100 per hour.


Cover strategies work great at disguising your skills from casino personnel. The problem is that they come with a great cost- reduced theoretical win rate. Use enough cover and you do not have to worry about heat, because your advantage will be negligible.

Whether it is cost-effective use cover strategies will depend on your playing style (how many hours a year, bet spread, maximum bet, and the quality of the game being played). For the mast majority of players, cover should be used sparingly if at all, and the cover should be restricted to bet sizing. Play to win- worry about cover later. For the small number of professional and semi-professional players that play high stakes and find high quality blackjack games, cover strategies can be warranted. These recommendations are summarized below.

Cover Strategy

Player Style

Bad Plays

Schmoozing with the Pit

Playing non-Advantage Play Games


Bet Sizing Cover

Player A

Don’t Even Think About It!

Very little benefit

Not Worth the Cost

Player B

Not worth the cost

A bad idea under any circumstances

Not Worth the Cost

Take advantage of the Situation if This Happens

Worth Consideration- Especially Random Off-the Top Betting and Leaving bets out after pushes

Player C

Necessary to Survive- Best strategy is Random Off-the Top Betting and Leaving bets out after pushes

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