5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino

Casinos get rich off of a single, shared fantasy: that you will be the one who walks in and beats the house at their own game. That's why movies like 21 exist -- we love the idea of a bunch of smart people defying the odds, as well as the thugs waiting to beat the shit out of them if they get caught. And that movie does get one thing right: blackjack can be beaten, if you know what you're doing.

I used to be a professional blackjack card counter, and before I got sick of sucking in secondhand smoke at the tables and quit, I learned a few weird things about the art of betting on pictures of numbers and royalty to pay my rent. Namely ...

Card Counting Is 100 Percent Legal (but the Casinos Will Hate You)

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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Cheating in blackjack turns up in a bunch of movies (see: Rain Man, The Hangover, and, of course, the aforementioned 21) and it's always done using the same nefarious method: by "counting cards" under the noses of the thugs who patrol the casino floor. The movies make it clear: you have to be a genius to do it, and you have to be an even bigger genius to not get caught.

If you're not familiar with the rules of blackjack, it's probably not totally clear what they're doing. Well, the goal of blackjack is simple enough: you bet the dealer that, using the cards you're dealt one at a time, you can get a score as close to 21 as possible without going over. So the goal is to somehow guess which card you're going to get next. The movies imply that the second you use your brain to calculate the odds of getting the card you want, you are essentially committing the unlawful crime of illegalness known as card counting. And if the casino ever catches you doing that, they'll ban you and probably call your mother to tell her what a degenerate criminal she's raised.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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"He doubled-down on 6-6 when he clearly should have split them? I have no son."

However, card counting in American casinos is actually perfectly legal, because -- and this is important -- nothing that a card counter does can in any way alter the outcome of a deal. It's not like you're distracting the dealer and then reaching over to swap out his deck with one you had hidden in your sleeve. You're merely trying to calculate which cards are, for lack of a better word, destined to land on the table, and forbidding the players from doing that would be like asking them to bet on a horse race based just on the sound of the horses' names.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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"Five thousand on Bubbles von Turduckenator. I got a feeling."

So is it legal? Yes. Do the casinos like it? Hell no.

In Nevada, a casino can still technically ask card counters to kindly get the hell out and, if they don't mind, go slowly fuck themselves with a cactus. But in places like, say, Atlantic City, banning counters from casinos has been illegal since 1982. There is one exception to this rule, though. Casinos on Native American tribal grounds use a completely different legal framework, which apparently allowed them to handcuff a card counter I once knew to a radiator for 10 hours and not let him go until he forfeited all of his chips, which was between $20,000 and $40,000.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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They do the same thing to anyone who bets on the Washington Redskins.

But otherwise ...

The Casinos Can't Do Much to Stop You

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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There is a scene near the end of 21 where the main character, played by Jim Sturgess, gets caught counting cards and is escorted away from the table by the casino's security chief ... and into a dark basement where the guy proceeds to beat the crap out of him.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
Columbia Pictures

All without making a single blackjack pun, when they could've done so much with
"busts," "splits," or "hits." What a wasted opportunity.

And, holy shit, doesn't that just scare you off card counting forever? Yeah, counting cards might be legal and all, but it's easy to imagine the casinos breaking a few rules/jaws to protect their profits. It's actually so easy to imagine, that the writer of the book that 21 was based on did just that -- as in, he completely made that part up. In reality, no member of the MIT Blackjack Team, or any other card counter outside a Hollywood script, was ever beaten or threatened. Why? Because casinos are just like popular girls in high school: completely obsessed with their reputation.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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"Step right up, try your luck, and tell me I'm pretty."

If it got out that a local gambling establishment used hired goons to beat the players up as soon as they won big, everyone would simply stop going there, costing the casino millions. After all, couldn't anyone get accused of it, since it's a crime committed entirely inside your head? The non-cheaters would be just as scared of the place. In fact, casinos are so afraid of even a single person causing a scene that when I was caught counting at the Sahara in Las Vegas (where I had taken a whopping $40 off the table) all the pit boss did was come up to me and very politely say: "You're welcome to play any other game in the casino, but you can't play blackjack." This usually happens only in small casinos that have a tiny profit margin, but even they aren't willing to protect those profits with impromptu kidney massages in a locked, dark room.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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They'll just melt your kidneys with unlimited free alcohol instead.

In my experience, outside of high-stakes games, the majority of pit bosses tend to be surprisingly lackadaisical about the threat of card counters. Sometimes, I would see a dealer signal a suspicion to his supervisor who would then just shrug and do nothing. My theory is that it takes a lot of effort to try to really figure out if someone is counting. And besides, if a guy like me wins for a while, it will make the table appear "hot," luring in the inexperienced players who will proceed to dump way more money into the place than anything I've taken from them (which probably amounts to 1 percent of the kidnapping and assault settlement that Sturgess' character would've gotten in real life).

But getting caught can still end your cash flow in a hurry, so ...

Card Counting Does Require a Bit of Acting ... and the Occasional False Mustache

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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For all its legality, sometimes an overzealous pit boss will kick out a card counter or decide to fuck with them by ordering the dealer to cut the deck in half (which nullifies a counter's strategy). That's why you should always try to convince the casino that the only reason you're winning is because earlier today you sucked off a blonde leprechaun in the middle of a field of four-leaf clovers, and you're just dripping with pure, dumb luck. And that requires misdirection.

When I played blackjack, I was a nerdy, slightly balding grad student, and not a great dresser either. So I already fit a certain profile that the casinos are keeping an eye out for. However, I didn't have the time or energy to dress like some single businessman with money to burn, nor did I desire to wear the false mustaches some of my colleagues donned (no, really). So, I adopted other masks, like "the drunk," making myself look as if I could barely count how many fingers I had, least of all keep a running total in blackjack. I never actually drank on the job (alcohol does not improve your math skills, it turns out) but who says you can't fill a beer bottle with water and then slur some words?

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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Or just stick to Coors Light. Same thing.

Then there is the time-tested "I'm new to blackjack" shtick. Whenever I would make an apparently risky move at the tables, I would try to act as if I was waaay out of my depth, biting my nails and saying stuff like: "Oh, I know I shouldn't, but I really want to!"

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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"Fuck it, you only live once! I'd like to buy a vowel!"

And then, when I won, the pit bosses would see a dumb bastard who's just gotten lucky and walk away thinking: "We'll get him for 10 times that later." Some guys that I knew had a lot of fun with the acting thing and put on some pretty hilarious disguises, especially if they were going back to the same places where they'd been caught before.

Now, if you're asking why an advanced math genius would get into card counting instead of a career in rocket science or something, that brings up another myth ...

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino

It Doesn't Require Advanced Math Skills

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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Let me step away from hating on 21 for a while and instead hate on The Hangover. Remember the scene where Zach Galifianakis' character is counting cards and there are all these equations and calculus variables floating around his head? It's played for laughs, but for the wrong reason -- the joke is that this random silly dude turns out to be a math genius. But in reality he could have counted cards as just a random silly dude.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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I'm guessing Galifianakis doesn't need physics to count his millions every single night.

Simply put, counting cards is little more than high-speed, basic arithmetic that almost anyone can master. Contrary to what you might think, it's not a matter of using your giant brain to calculate the exact odds that the next card out of the deck is going to be an ace -- it's just a matter of keeping a simple score in your head. You start off with 0, and for each 2 through 6 card that comes on the table, you add a point to the count. You deduct a point for cards 10 through ace. For 7, 8, and 9, you don't add or subtract anything. As the number in your head grows, you can start betting more.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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If the dealer gets drunk and declares 52 Pickup, count to 10 and walk away
before you punch him in the face.

So, imagine you and I are playing a hand, and you end up with, say, a 7 and a 10, and I have 3, 8, and 9. The dealer has a 3, a 4, and a queen. We deduct two points for your 10 and the dealer's queen, add three points for my 3 and the dealer's 4-3, so the score in your head stands at 1. This is good news for you, because a positive count means that there are more big cards remaining in the deck. If the count grows in later hands, you can start betting more, because a higher ratio of big cards increases the player's chances of beating the house and even hitting those tasty blackjacks.

Admittedly, you have to do some other calculations and memorize some tables before you'll be ready to make intelligent increases in your bets, to say nothing of having to learn how to do it under pressure. But you do not need to be an MIT graduate or an autistic savant, like in Rain Man.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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I swear this article wasn't just an excuse to rant against some of the movies I don't like.

This method is called the Hi-Lo system, and though it isn't the only method out there, it does accurately represent the essence of most card counting systems: simple, rapid-fire adding and subtracting. It might all seem overwhelming in the beginning, but trust me, anyone can flip through a deck of cards and learn to keep a count, and rote memorization of a deviation chart is no more complicated than memorizing multiplication tables in second grade. Besides, isn't learning a little math totally worth it for the chance to take casinos for millions of dollars and retire at age 20 to a private island in the Pacific?

Yeah, about that ...

It's Still Just a Job

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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Don't get me wrong -- counting cards in blackjack can earn you anywhere from $80,000 like in The Hangover or Rain Man, up to half a million like in 21 ... provided you start with a gigantic bankroll. Even if you have a solid system, it's still a gambling game and you won't win every session, so a suitable bankroll protects you from the inevitable swings.

That's the thing -- you can't just show up at the casino with $5 in your pocket and breed it with some basic math on top of the casino table in the hopes that it will give birth to $100,000 in chips. It doesn't work like that. You can get a lot out of blackjack only if you first put a lot into it. It's surprisingly similar to taking a shit in that regard.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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"Another day, another dingleberry."

By counting cards, I usually gave myself a 1 percent advantage over the house. Even with a bankroll of roughly $10,000, which definitely wasn't peanuts, I could conservatively make about $50 an hour. Not bad, but I doubt Hollywood will be breaking down my door anytime soon for the film rights to my story. Ah, but wait: what about the rare but still possible big-time win? I love this question, because I know this is the sexy part people want to know about. Here it is: I think the most I won at one time was $1,400. That's it.

But you have to understand that this is all about the long run. So the question you also have to ask is: what was the most money I ever lost, which was actually $1,700, and the worst part is that it happened at the fucking Sahara, the only place that ever kicked me off a table.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino

It's almost like you guys don't want me to take your money!

If you really want to make bank, you have to do what the MIT Blackjack Team did: start out with a small fortune and work in groups. But for average Joes and Josephines to make around, say, $500 an hour, you'd need a bankroll of maybe $500,000, and then to play conservatively in a smoke-filled, dimly lit casino for as long as you think the money is worth all that time and effort. The reality of blackjack is decidedly unsexy. You can get rich from it only in the same way that opening a carpet store may one day make you a millionaire. Blackjack can be beaten -- but you have to be willing to grind it out.

So, wait, am I saying that counting cards at blackjack is ... a job?! Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying. It's a job that starts out all super fun but soon becomes a tedious monotony consisting mostly of staring at cigarette burns in green felt and dealing with tiresome casino patrons and dealers. That's why I quit -- not because I cashed out and bought my island or because casino thugs dragged me into a back room and took a hammer to my finger bones. When you take a thrilling game of chance and turn it into a running series of calculations, well ... it kind of takes the fun out of it.

5 Things I Learned Cheating (and Getting Caught) in a Casino
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"I got 21! ... years to retirement ..."

Dr. John Oakes is the author of the comedic novel The Right Kind of Stupid. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist and editor. Contact him at c.j.strusiewicz@gmail.com.

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