The Card-counting Conundrum

There is a terrific thread going on over at the Volohk Conspiracy, consistently one of the most erudite and thought-provoking blogs there is. Noting that a Indiana court has declared that the state’s casinos are prohibited from throwing blackjack players who count cards out of their establishment, Prof. Volokh, who has a libertarian streak, opined that casinos should be able to toss out the card counters, and that the case was wrong. Well, all hell broke out after that, and as usual for that blog (and, some golden day, for this one), there has been a flood of comments from every kind of authority from legal experts to card counters themselves.  They show what an odd and ethically topsy-turvy matter the controversy over card-counting is.If you haven’t seen the Kevin Spacey movie “21” (and if you haven’t, you don’t want to), card-counting is a way for mentally sharp gamblers to tip the odds in blackjack to their favor by carefully keeping track of which cards have already been dealt. Good card-counters win too much, so casinos  have rules banning card-counting, and watch players carefully to see if they are using the technique. If they are, out they go.

It is an outrageous rule, of course—the sense of it is that if you have the skill not to lose like everyone else, we don’t want you here. Indeed, casinos don’t bother about the card-counters who are bad at it, because they lose anyway. Still, the owners of a casino should be able to set whatever rules they want to, as long as they aren’t illegal or discriminatory. No long hair, no bare feet. Or you must have a slow loris on your head—it shouldn’t matter. If you don’t like the terms, don’t play there.

Because card-counting is explicitly banned, to do it anyway is cheating by definition, even though it would just be smart playing if it weren’t prohibited. The no card-counting rule is unfair, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to break the rules. It is an interesting case study of the sometimes awkward interactions between law, rights and ethics:

  • The casinos have (except in the view of an Indiana court) a legal right to admit or bar anyone from their establishments, as long as it isn’t based on race, age, or other “invidious” categories. They have a legal right to make any rules they please, and to enforce them, because it is their private establishment.
  • Banning card-counting is unfair, and thus unethical—but it isn’t illegal.
  • Although the card-counters are being treated unfairly be being banned by the casinos, they have no right to play.
  • Because they have no right to play by counting cards, it is unethical for them to intentionally violate a legal (though unfair) casino rule by card-counting anyway.
  • That is cheating, which is always unethical, even though the rule that makes card-counting cheating is unfair.
  • Ejecting a player who intentionally violates a rule,though an unfair one, is something a casino has a right to do, is legal, and is even ethical, since intentionally breaking a rule is a legitimate reason to eject anyone, again, even if the rule itself is unethical.

Got all that?

When people are determined to continue an unethical practice because they have a  right to do so, the remedy is usually to take away that right with a law. This is what the Indiana court seems to be doing. Laws are supposed to be  made by legislators, not judges, but the casino lobbyists have always been able to  keep the legislators in their pockets the usual way—with campaign donations. So one greed-inspired, unethical misuse of the  casinos’ property rights turns smart players into cheaters,  causes casinos t  corrupt legislators to preserve the right they abuse, and a court to overstep its  power.

And it would all be unnecessary, if the casinos would just allow the good  blackjack players to play as well as they can.

11 thoughts on “The Card-counting Conundrum

  1. The real ethical problem comes with the casino’s dodge. What casinos are doing now is offering “single-deck blackjack,” the sole purpose of which is to lure people into believing they can count into the single deck and therefore gain a significant advantage. But the casinos are too smart for that — they simply change the rules to make fewer favorable options, like splitting and doubling, available.

    But the explicit purpose of single-deck blackjack is to make amateurs believe that they can count the cards, which of course, they cannot. If they actually can, they are banned, or otherwise, they just deceive themselves and lose.

    If casinos wanted to remove the possibility of card counting, they could by using an auto-shuffler, and some do. But it’s important for them to maintain the myth (and it is mostly myth) of card-counting to increase the lure of the game.

    Any casino can, at any time, make card counting impossible and play a “fair” game of blackjack. But that would reduce the lure of the game, so they maintain the attraction by banning “card counters” with faux zeal, even though the actual improvement in their overall odds of winning counting into multi-deck shoes is probably less that that of a skilled player over an unskilled one.

    But you wouldn’t expect to find many ethics heroes as casino operators, I suppose. 🙂

    • Spot on reply. The reason the article had so many loop-arounds and conflicting logic bombs is because the real issue wasn’t mentioned. I find when you can’t make legitimate sense of a problem, you aren’t really seeing the problem. Good catch Glenn.

      I also think there are 2 types of card counters. Those that remember the information they were presented – and those that farm information in groups. The former should not be unethical while the latter should be banned.

      It is a one-on-one game of chance and if the dealer is too lazy to shuffle or the casino thinks that revenues are lost when cards are shuffled – how is that the fault of the individual player who remembers without any external aid what he’s been presented.

      If you’re playing a hand of single-deck and the guy next to you splits two 8s and you have one 8 and the dealer is showing one 8 – and you go to the next round – are you unethical to know that if you are dealt 13 you won’t hit 21 with an 8? Obviously that’s card counting – so where’s the line? I think an easy line to make is when you engage aid not born unto yourself.

      • Glenn’s assertion about the importance to casinos of the myth of card counting is exactly right. But that myth is more important than most people realize. Prior to the 1962 publication of Prof. Ed Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer” — the bestselling book (it’s still in print) that introduced counting to the public — casinos in the US were primarily craps parlors. Blackjack was a side offering, viewed widely as a sucker’s game; it was the number-three table game in terms of revenue in those days.

        Thorp changed all of that. Today blackjack is the number-one table game (again, in terms of revenue or house win; poker is more popular but worth a lot less to casinos), earning in Nevada about three times the annual revenue of craps. Suckers and educated players alike regard it as the fairest bet in the casino. The myth of the game’s beatability via card counting is responsible.

        As a former full-time blackjack professional who worked both on his own and as a team player, I’m a little confused by Tim’s belief that the latter style is unethical. A spotter who points out a hot shoe to her big player doesn’t seem to be do anything different from a slot-machine enthusiast who grabs Grandma’s elbow and points to a machine and says, “This is the one!” That the spotter bases her opinion on reason and the slot sucker bases his on superstition doesn’t make the spotter a criminal, right?

        • That’s an audacious argument, Josh, but I’m not convinced. Simply put, blackjack not a team game. The slot machine tip doesn’t effect the player’s chances of success one bit. If a player wants to figure out when the cards are “hot,” he or she should watch the table. I don’t think team playing is illegal. It is unethical, unless the rules of the establishment permit it. It’s not even like having someone tip you off the players at a poker table are patsies. That’s an opinion, a judgment. The card counting is fact: if you want the benefit of it ethically, 1) do it yourself and 2) don’t do it where it violates house rules.
          Helpful background though, and its always great to get the perspective of an expert.

          • Thanks for the response, Jack. I’m not sure who should get to decide what is a one-on-one game and what’s not. I’ve never seen a casino policy anywhere saying “blackjack is offered only to individual players” (there was, long ago, a sign posted at the Stardust in Vegas saying explicitly that team slot play was forbidden; this was presumably intended for organized groups of players who went after certain positive-expectation progressive jackpot slots that have existed here and there) and I find interpreting the implicit ethos of a casino a very tricky matter. To discuss ethics at all in the context of a business devoted to the systematic exploitation of inebriated and out-of-control individuals is a fanciful undertaking, in my opinion. When you can ethically mix complimentary cocktails with financial transactions large enough to change people’s lives — transactions including the arrangement, by sober men in suits, of so-called “casino credit” for drunk customers, where the credit is not only (a) a loan extended for the purposes of gambling (ethically dubious, to begin with) but (b) technically structured in the state of Nevada as a check signed by the drunk loser, who will be prosecuted for passing bad checks and placed into what amounts to debtor’s prison if he fails to make good on the so-called loan — what exactly can’t you do? I think in an ethics-deprived environment like a casino, the only clear limits are those imposed by the law, and, as you say, team play at blackjack is legal. The matter has been explicitly adjudicated by the Nevada courts.

            • Josh—yes, debating ethics in legalized gambling is a Bizarro World exercise, like cheating in NASCAR and lying in politics. Which is undoubtedly why I’m drawn to issues like that. It all comes down to where the culture comes out on the issue, and measuring the culture is a lot like, well, measuring climate change. It’s not an exact science.

  2. In the thread over at VC, some card-counters say they PREFER playing where the technique is banned, for the reasons Glenn cites. It’s hard to be clear in a convoluted issue, but I don’t think for a second the casino’s position is defensible as an ethical matter—it isn’t—except that they have every right to make whatever limitations they please, if people agree to abide by them and still come to play. Coming to play, in fact, IS an agreement to abide by them, so no matter how unfair the rules may be, violating them in the casino is cheating. Right?

    • Absolutely right.

      When you accept the rules of a game (or even of a society, IMO), it is our ethical duty to abide by them or remove ourselves from the playing field.

      If we accept the rules and play, particularly when there is a stark choice available to either do so or not, I would say we are ethically bound to abide by those rules.

      No casino operator I know of is holding a gun to anyone’s head and forcing them to play blackjack.

      • Oh, and I agree that voluntarily entering a game where the rules are known in advance constitutes acceptance of those rules.

        If one objects to the rules, he should make his objection known to the casino, and ask to play by some other set of rules. Who knows, maybe they will let him/her play by different rules. I’m thinking that’s unlikely, though. 🙂

  3. “If you’re playing a hand of single-deck and the guy next to you splits two 8s and you have one 8 and the dealer is showing one 8 – and you go to the next round – are you unethical to know that if you are dealt 13 you won’t hit 21 with an 8?”


    Communication between players about their own cards can and should be banned, and it’s possible not to do.

    But simply using your own knowledge can never be unethical even if there is a “legal rule” against it because: it is impossible to mandate some sort of forced ignorance or compartmentalization of knowledge you already have.

    So a “rule against card counting” is meaningless, because it means something like “remain ignorant” (but you can’t stop yourself from noticing things or force yourself to forget data you’ve acquired) or else “act AS IF you are ignorant” which is just meaningless period.

    As the example above shows, if someone sees that four 8s are already in play…you can’t deliberately choose not to notice this, nor to deliberately forget the implications of it for gameplay, nor can you act “as if” you don’t know it because what would that even mean? Once you know it, there is no way, psychologically, to judge how you “would act if” you didn’t know it. And even if you try to ignore your knowledge…it WILL slip through unconsciously. How could it not? Once you know, you know.

    Rules against individual card counting are thus not only unethical, but meaningless. And regardless of the question of whether it is ethical to break an unethical (but legal) rule…it isn’t unethical to ignore a meaningless rule, because a meaningless rule simply doesn’t have any real content.

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