Advantage Play in Blackjack

Most casino patrons know well that it is unreasonable to expect that their gambling activities could one day become a sustainable and profitable way to make a living. There are very few gamblers who honestly consider themselves professionals but those who do are nearly all advantage players, except for maybe elite poker pros. Advantage play is what most blackjack players strive to master in order to beat the game and turn the odds in their favor.

Advantage play in blackjack is often associated with card counting but there are many other techniques that could be used in real-life and online games. They could be described as methods for exploiting different weaknesses in the game and making a profit from this. Typically, the techniques used by advantage players are legal and allowed by casinos but there are also various ways to gain an advantage over the house by simply cheating. Whether employing legal or illegal methods, harmless or unethical tricks, advantage players are always looking for an edge in the game they play.

Mathematical Advantage in Casino Games

1Understanding of house edge

In order to master any advantage play technique, players first need to have a good understanding of what advantage is in gambling. Also called house edge, it is expressed as a percentage and it represents the casino’s average profit from a player’s bet. Determined by various unfavorable rules and unfair payouts, it is built within all casino games and it guarantees that casinos will always make a profit.

2Example from Roulette

The so-called even bets in roulette could be taken as a simple example for the advantage of the house over players. These bets are not even, however – the black/red, even/odd, and high-low bets seem to be offering 50/50 odds since almost all numbers are either black or red, either high or low, etc. But the wheel has one or two more pockets, depending on whether we play European or American roulette, and they are neither red nor black. This green pocket is for the zero, which is neither high nor low and neither even nor low.

If we bet on red, for instance, there will be 18 numbers that would win and 20 numbers that will lose. This means that the chances for winning will not be 50% – they will be precisely 47.37%. The payout, however, does not reflect the odds that are stacked against the player – while odds against winning are 20 to 18 (18/20), which is 1.11 to 1, the payout is even or 1 to 1. This suggests that over time, the casino will make a profit by offering this game even though some players may occasionally win substantial amounts of money.

3Example From Blackjack

In blackjack, the house edge is around 1% – 2% and with basic strategy, players can usually reduce it to around 0.50%. It shows that, on average, players could expect to lose around 0.50% of the bets they have made over a long period of time. They may win 5, 20 or 100 games but after several million games, their losses will be closer to this theoretical advantage. The game is, of course, much more complex mathematically than roulette and there is no need to explain in detail how the house edge is calculated.

In general, the casino’s advantage in blackjack comes from several things – the dealer’s hole card, which forces players to make assumptions when deciding how to play out a hand, and the fact that the dealer is the last one to act in the round. Various rules also may increase or decrease the casino’s mathematical advantage.

Card Counting

Card counting has been portrayed multiple times in books and films but it is quite different in real life. Most card counting systems for blackjack are not as complex as people would imagine, yet they are hard to practice for a long time while sitting at the blackjack table. Players do not have to be mathematical geniuses to learn how to count cards and gain an advantage – all they need to do is keep track of the ratio of high to low cards in the dealer’s shoe. The idea is that while low cards are good for the casino, high cards favor the player.

This is an oversimplified explanation, however, and those who want to gain an edge with card counting will need to first master the fundamentals of blackjack. This includes knowing the rules and playing with basic strategy perfectly. Once a player manages to act on each hand correctly without mistakes, he can start by learning the simpler counting systems.

How It Works
Counting Systems
Team Play

How It Works

There is a widely spread misconception – among those who have never played blackjack, of course, that card counters memorize all cards that have been dealt, so they know what cards will be played. This is unnecessary, however, and would only make the technique completely impractical. There are many strategies for counting in blackjack and while they may vary, they all assign certain point values to the cards. This helps players determine the approximate composition of the decks – whether the cards still left in the shoe are high or low.

But why is this important? The top payout in this game is given when the player gets blackjack (3:1), which is composed of an Ace and a 10-value card. Let us imagine that all Aces and 10s (10s plus face cards) have been removed from the deck. This means that it is impossible to get natural. If we remove all cards from 2s through 9s, on the other hand, the likelihood for a natural 21 is much greater.

So, if the shoe is rich in high cards, i.e. Aces and 10s, the odds are in favor of the player and he has to increase his bet. If more low cards are still in play, however, the player bets smaller stakes to minimize the expected losses. This is why the betting is so uneven when counting cards – the bet per hand may go from the table minimum to hundreds of dollars within a matter of ten hands or even fewer.

Counting Systems

Different counting systems have been developed for blackjack such as the Hi-Lo, the Zen Count, Hi-Opt I and II, Halves, the Knockout Counting System, and many more. In the Hi-Lo system, for example, we assign low cards (2-6) with +1, high cards (Aces and 10s) with -1, while cards 7-9 are neutral or 0. The total count of a standard deck of 52 cards will be 0, which is why this system could be described as a balanced one.

We start the game at a full shoe with a count of 0 and add and subtract numbers as different cards are being dealt. If the first three cards dealt on the table are Ace-2 to the player and a Jack to the dealer, our running count will be -1 (0-1+1-1), which means the player should stick bet the minimum. When we have a positive count, the bet should be increased.

Another simple counting system is the Ace/5 Count, which assigns +1 to all 5s and -1 to all Aces. If the count is equal or less than 1, the player sticks to his minimum bet and when the count becomes 2 or more, he increases his bet. With any of these counting methods, however, players should always use basic strategy – otherwise, any attempts to track the composition of the decks and count the cards would be useless.

Team Play

The idea of blackjack counting teams and partners seems very appealing, especially after it has been depicted in movies and TV. The famous MIT Blackjack Team, for example, is known to have won huge amounts of money but there have been many groups playing in different casinos and winning millions of dollars over the years. Team play, as described for the first time in the 1970s by Ken Uston, typically includes several players that work together in order to gain an advantage over the casino.

In these teams, there are several skilled card counters who sit at different tables in the casino and keep track of the cards. They are called “spotters” as their job is to spot a table with a favorable count. Once they notice a good count, they signal the main player or the big player who sits at the table and starts betting large sums of money. When the count drops, the big player switches to another table with favorable odds. Of course, team members may use other strategies, as well, and if they are careful, they could avoid detection by the casinos for some time.

Other Techniques for Advantage Play in Blackjack

Wonging Technique
Edge Sorting and Hole Carding
Camouflage Betting
Playing with Comps and Bonuses
Cheating and Collusion

Wonging Technique

There is one interesting method for gaining an edge when playing blackjack and this is the technique of back-counting or “wonging”. It has been practiced for decades but it was most notably propagated by gambling author and researcher John Ferguson, better known by his pen name Stanford Wong.

The method of back-counting or wonging, as it is usually called by players, is very similar to the scheme used by blackjack counting teams. Wongers simply sit close to a blackjack table and count the cards that are dealt. These players may sit on the table, or “wong in” once the count becomes favorable. When the count is no longer at their advantage, they will wong out or leave the table.

Most casinos are aware of this technique, which is why some of them do not allow mid-shoe entry. In order to get around this restriction, some wongers prefer to remain at the table until the cards are shuffled.

Edge Sorting and Hole Carding

Edge sorting is a technique advantage players have been using for centuries in various card games. It is simply observing the cards and identifying low and high cards by small irregularities on their backs. Edge sorters typically distinguish asymmetrical edges, hence the name of the technique. In many decks, the two long edges and the pattern around them are not symmetrical.

This can be noticed when the cards are rotated so edge sorters may often request that the dealer rotates certain cards out of superstition. Most dealers would indulge the player, although they are not obligated to do so, of course. Recently, the technique made the headlines when famous poker player Phil Ivey and a partner of his used edge sorting to beat casinos in the UK and the US. It turned out that they had earned millions of dollars on baccarat tables and were later ordered by the court to return the money.

Hole carding is another technique that is widely spread among advantage players. It refers to the action of looking at the dealer’s face-down card, also known as the hole card. In this case, players simply take advantage of the poor skills of the dealer who is unable to protect the card from being seen. Some players would look at the card while the dealer checks for blackjack (this is called “first-basing”), while others would have a partner with a better view at the hole card (“spooking”).

Some players are also able to peek at the hole card as it is being dealt or as it is being slid under the upcard (“front loading”). In no-hole card games such as European blackjack, players also look at the next card that would be dealt and by having more information for their decision, they gain a substantial advantage over the casino. Some advantage players may also use peeking devices and mirrors, which is certainly not allowed.

When performed without partners or electronic devices, edge sorting and hole carding techniques are typically legal ways to take advantage of imperfections in the design of the cards, dealer mistakes, etc. In Phil Ivey’s case, however, these actions were deemed illegal by the court, so players should be very careful, especially if they have a partner – this could be seen as collusion by casinos.

Camouflage Betting

Camouflage betting is one of the essentials every blackjack card counter should know in order to succeed in the long term. It is exactly what the name implies – learning to place bets in such a way so that the card counter can avoid detection from casino staff. Note that this is extremely difficult since one of the basic steps in all card counting systems is to adjust your bet size based on the cards you expect to be dealt next.

Card counters always increase their bets to the table maximum when they calculate that they have the advantage – i.e. when the count is high. When the odds are against them or when the count is low, they keep their stakes as low as possible. This is why casinos can easily spot card counters who are not careful with their betting – they would keep their bets at the minimum and all of a sudden, they would raise the stakes.

To avoid detection and stay hidden, good card counters should practice camouflage betting and the best way to do that is to learn how recreational players tend to bet on the blackjack table. They would often change the bet size, double their bet after a win, and rely on things like luck or a hunch. There are many things card counters can do to make their betting system look random and not part of a pattern – they can double their bet after two or three losing hands, reduce their bet after three wins, etc.

Playing with Comps and Bonuses

Most advantage players try to exploit casinos’ comp programs, bonuses and offers for promotional chips as much as they can. The majority of good casinos, land-based and online, have some type of a loyalty scheme that awards the most active players, i.e. those who wager the most or lose the most. Comp points can be collected when playing blackjack, poker, slot machines, or any other type of a casino game. Then, they can be used for accommodation, dining, or some other benefits.

Bonuses, on the other hand, are usually offered by online casinos but players should be aware of all conditions and requirements associated with them, most importantly the so-called wagering or playthrough process. If, for instance, a player receives a $100 in bonus funds with a playthrough of 30 times, he will be required to wager a total of $3,000 to unlock the winnings and the bonus funds themselves.

If he plays a blackjack variation with a house edge of 0.50%, the expected loss from the total wager would be $15, hence a profit of $85 after claiming the bonus. There are, of course, various restrictions when wagering bonuses – some casinos may increase the playthrough amount when patrons play card games and other operators restrict bonuses to slot play only.

Another method for gaining an advantage over the casino is exploiting casinos’ offers to give a rebate on the losses or granting free chips of up to $100,000. Such special offers never target the average player, however – they are designed to attract high-rollers who are willing to spend millions of dollars on a single night. Still, it is a great way to earn money in the long run, considering the player plays a good variation of blackjack and uses the proper strategy.

Cheating and Collusion

When discussing advantage play techniques, we cannot but mention cheating – although unethical, certainly not permitted by casinos, and expectedly illegal, this is still a valid way to sway the odds in favor of players. Often, cheating requires players to work together with the dealer as in blackjack, players are not allowed to touch the cards – dealers can peek at the top card in the shoe, feel bumps and other irregularities previously placed on certain cards, and more. With the increased surveillance today, however, it is extremely difficult for blackjack players to pull off a cheat like this.

Another option for those who want to cheat is to use various devices and computers. This is also absolutely illegal and almost impossible to do at an actual brick-and-mortar casino. Some players try cheating at online blackjack using special software – various programs have been developed and used for a range of virtual casino games, including poker, blackjack, and roulette.

The most notable cases of mass use of cheating software were probably the Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker cheating scandals in 2005-2008. It is believed that former employees of the company, operating the poker platform, were using unauthorized software to transfer information about players’ hole cards to other players during games. As a result, numerous users of the online cardroom lost tens of millions of dollars, several people were fined and sent to prison (only one individual was handed jail time), and the two websites are no longer operational.

Overall, cheating with the help of special software is equally unreliable as the various cheating techniques that can be used in land-based casinos. Many players, however, may still try to gain an advantage over casinos in an illegal way by partnering up with other players. This practice is forbidden in both land-based and online casinos and is referred to as “collusion”.

Team play or collusion helps players as they share information with each other and are able to make more accurate decisions about each hand. This type of cheating, however, is practically useless in virtual blackjack and could be used only in live dealer games in online or brick-and-mortar casinos.

The Risks of Advantage Play

How Operators Prevent the Advantage Play

The potential risks of card counting

There are multiple risks advantage players need to consider, especially if they are planning to use dishonest and illegal tactics like cheating against the casinos. Operators spend millions of dollars to prevent this and nowadays, the vast majority of land-based casinos have 24/7 surveillance with security cameras and well-trained staff.

They also use special devices for detecting phones, miniature cameras, and microphones that could be potential weapons for cheaters. There are also signal blockers and alert systems in use. Still, blackjack players have multiple options when they want to gain possibly unfair advantage over the house. The two most common ways for improving players’ odds include bonus abuse and card counting, both linked with considerable risk.

Most casino players believe that once they are offered an online casino bonus, they can claim it and withdraw their winnings immediately after completing the wagering requirements. According to them, they are not abusing the bonus as long as they follow all rules described in the terms and Conditions of the casino site. Unfortunately, casinos often do not share this opinion. Operators usually consider the practice of claiming bonus funds only for withdrawal purposes bonus abuse. Besides, only a small portion of online casinos actually allow blackjack to be played with bonus funds and most of them will count only a percentage of your bets to the wagering requirements if these bets are on blackjack or other card games.

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