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Is Card Counting Legal?

1 June 2001

By Henry Tamburin

This is one of the questions most often asked of me by casino players. But before I give the answer, let me briefly explain what card counting is all about for readers who may not be familiar with it.

Card counting is a system that allows players to keep track of certain cards played. You are not memorizing every card like Rain Man; rather you count only certain cards. The way you count cards is this way. You assign a tag to specific cards, such as +1 for small cards like 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, and -1 for the high cards like 10, picture cards and aces. Then it's just a matter of counting the tags of each of these cards as they are played. For example, if player #1 has a 6, 5 and decides to double down and draws a queen, the count of her hand would be +1 (if you add the tags of each card in her hand, you arrive at the sum of +1). Card counters look at each card and continue the process of adding the tags to arrive at a sum, which is known as the running count.

The basic concept behind card counting is this -- high cards tend to favor the player and small cards favor the dealer. Why? If there is a large concentration of high cards in the undealt cards, there is a higher chance of getting a blackjack, which favors the player because of the 3 to 2 payout. Also, players will most likely draw a high card when the undealt cards are rich in high cards. If there are a lot of small cards left, the dealer is more likely going to draw to a standing hand and beat the players. So, as a general rule, if the undealt cards are rich in large cards, this is a player favorable situation. Likewise, if the undealt cards are rich in small cards, the edge swings to the dealer.

The correlation between the running count and the condition of the undealt cards is as follows. When a card counter has a positive running, this means there is an excess of small cards over large cards played, therefore the reverse has to be true in the undealt cards (i.e., in a positive running count the undealt cards contain more large cards). With a negative running count, the opposite is true; namely, the undealt cards are rich in small cards.

The bottom line is this. When a card counter has a positive running count, the edge is in his favor and therefore he increases the amount of his wager. When the running count is negative, the dealer has the edge and the counter bets the minimum amount. By only making large bets when the counter has the advantage (i.e., when the running count is positive) and small bets when he doesn't have the better of it, the counter gains the upper hand over the casino.

The issue of the legality of card counting is a complicated one. Historically most of the known cases have come from Nevada and Atlantic City. Most other gaming jurisdictions are still grappling with this issue. Since I am not a lawyer, I will say up front much of the response you are about to read was gleaned from the excellent book Blackjack and the Law by I. Nelson Rose and Robert Loeb. I highly recommend it.

"Is blackjack card counting illegal"?

As long as a card counter is only using his brains to decide how to play his hand, then the act of card counting is not illegal.

"How do casinos get away with excluding card counters from playing blackjack"? "Isn't this discrimination"?

The Nevada courts have allowed casinos to exclude card counters because technically they are private property, and under the ancient common law right a property owner could kick off his property anyone for any reason, or even without a reason. Many players and lawyers believe that barring skillful players from playing blackjack is an unconstitutional form of discrimination. However, the Supreme Court prohibits discrimination only against persons who are members of "suspect classifications" based on race, creed, sex, national origin, age, or physical disability (i.e., card counters are not listed in the "suspect classifications"). Therefore, until a law is passed or blackjack players bring a challenge, casinos will continue the practice of barring card counters.

In Atlantic City casinos, the late Ken Uston (blackjack author and professional card counter), won the right in the N.J. courts for card counters to count cards there. Essentially the N.J. Supreme Court told the AC casinos that they could not bar card counters unless the N.J. Casino Control Commission issued a rule saying counters could be barred. So far they have not made this ruling, however, they have allowed the casinos to make the game of blackjack much harder for counters to beat.

"Can the casinos legally 'backroom" a card counter"?

"Backrooming" is a word that has come to denote the practice of detaining or harassing a player who is barred. Usually the casino will ask to see some form of identification and take the player's picture. Under common law and the laws of most states, it is illegal for a business establishment to detain a person, unless the customer has committed a crime and the business is holding the person while awaiting the arrival of police. Therefore, when a casino security agent asks if a player will accompany him to the office, the player has the right to refuse, unless he is being held for a crime. In Nevada, a casino has the right to question and detain any person suspected of cheating. New Jersey, however, made the point that card counting is not a crime and therefore it is not permissible for a casino to detain and question a person suspected of being a card counter. The casino also does not have the right to demand identification because it is ejecting someone for card counting. A player should not have to provide his name upon request of the casino, but it could conceivably be considered obstruction of justice to refuse to provide one's name upon the request of the police. A player also cannot be forced to pose for a photograph.

If the casino is barring you:

  1. Don't admit that you are a card counter.
  2. Don't wait long enough for your picture to taken.
  3. Don't start an argument or make a loud fuss.
  4. Don't go to a bar and have a drink.
  5. Don't show your identification
  6. Don't touch any casino employee.

"Can a casino have a card counter arrested for trespassing if he returns and plays blackjack in a casino in which he was previously barred from playing"?

Most states have trespassing statutes that makes it a misdemeanor for a person to remain on or return to a property after receiving notice from the owner that the person is not allowed on the premises. Most casinos in barring a card counting will tell them "not to return," however it is not usually followed by arrest and prosecution if they do return.

One final tip based on my playing experiences. The best way to avoid getting barred is to play for short periods of time (no more than one hour), increase your bets incrementally by parlaying your wins, and give the appearance that you are just another gambler out for a good time. Your best source for learning how to get away with getting the money is the book Burning the Tables in Las Vegas by Ian Andersen. Its must reading for all "wannabe" card counters.


For more information about blackjack:

Blackjack: Take the Money and Run by Henry Tamburin
Blackjack and the Law by I. Nelson Rose and Robert A. Loeb
Burning the Tables in Las Vegas by Ian Andersen
Best Blackjack by Frank Scoblete
The Morons of Blackjack and Other Monsters! by Frank Scoblete
Winning Strategies at Blackjack! Video tape hosted by Academy Award Winner James Coburn, Written by Frank Scoblete
Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit www.bjinsider.com/free. For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit www.goldentouchblackjack.com or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at www.smartgaming.com.

Henry Tamburin Websites:

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