In the 1990s, a group of MIT students made hundreds of thousands of dollars in counting cards, a trick that anyone can learn.
The golden rule of every responsible gambler is that “in the long run, the dealer always wins.” It will surprise no one if we say that the entire gaming industry is exceptional at fulfilling its two main tasks. The first is to make it very unlikely that players will win. The second is to get them not to think about it too much.
Essential Casino Math
However, there are games and games. Roulette is tremendously mechanical, and there is little we can do in it except knowing when to fold.
On the other side of the spectrum is blackjack, a game where mathematics of games can help us, for once, turn the tables and beat the house edge even in the long run. The trick is to know how to add to beat the casino operations management.
This is what Robert Luketic’s film 21 Blackjack is all about. In it, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, led by Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), amass an absolute fortune by using their mathematical skills to make it big in Las Vegas.
As improbable as it may sound, the truth is that it is based on actual events. Although its characters are fictitious, the story is entirely accurate. In the 1990s, a group of MIT students teamed up to learn how to count cards professionally. During the years they were operating, they amassed an intimidating fortune, and this is how they did it.
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The Casino Math Rules
Counting cards is easier and harder than it looks. The rules can be learned in two minutes, but putting them to good use is a real art. The first key is the most obvious: know the rules of the game.
Next to video poker or some famous slot machine, blackjack is one of the most famous casino games in the world, full of gambling strategies, and many casinos make more money with it than with roulette itself.
The game is simple, get your cards added up to 21 as close as you can (without going over, of course). An English deck without jokers is the deck of choice. This means that you will have 52 cards divided into four suits: hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds.
The number written on the cards indicates their value. The two of diamonds is worth two, the three of spades three, and so on up to 10. The jack, queen, and king are worth precisely 10, and the ace can take two values according to the player’s convenience, either 1 or 11.
After making the initial bet, the dealer deals with one card face up to each player (including the dealer). The dealer then deals a second card face up to each player and a second card face down to himself. If any player has an ace and a figure, he immediately adds 21.
This means that he wins one and a half times the amount bet, withdrawing from this hand and letting the rest of the players play. The players can ask for more cards to get closer to 21 or stand in any other case. When everyone has passed or folded, the dealer reveals his hole card.
If his hand totals less than 17, he will have to draw, and if he busts, all players win double the amount bet. But if it is higher than 17 without busting, the player who is closest to 21 wins. After this, the cards are removed, and the game continues with the rest of the deck.
The game is somewhat more complicated, and if you play UK casino, there are some variants, but this is the essence. It became more complex once Edward O. Thorp published “Beat the dealer” in 1962.
In it, Edward explained how he had managed to create an almost infallible system to beat the dealer with math skills. Although the mathematical idea was straightforward, he used his vast knowledge as a computer scientist and mathematician to simulate games and demonstrate their effectiveness. That secret soon became a bestseller, and it was as easy as follows.
Adding and Subtracting Others
The best way to know when to call, check or raise is to guess the card you are about to be dealt, but Edward O. Thorp knew that was impossible. However, there was a way to know that information roughly.
If you knew what cards the dealer had already dealt, you could estimate whether there were many low or high cards in the deck. The problem is that keeping track of something like that is very complex, so Edward proposed something more elegant.
The trick was to give a value to each card and add them up as they came up. From 2 to 6 would add 1 to the count, between 7 and 9 would add zero, and 10, the face cards and the ace would add -1 (i.e., subtract one).
An ace and an 8 would be worth -1+0=-1. A 2, a 3, and a 10 would be worth 1+1-1=1. Of course, there are much more accurate and better ways to count cards, but this system is essential and works. Suppose our count gives a very high number.
In that case, it will be because we have added many cards between 2 and 9, which means that there will be few low cards left to deal with and that the probability of receiving a figure if we ask for a card will be high. The higher the count, the higher the stakes.
Due to this, the players had a reasonably objective score to make the most statistically sound decision and, in the long run, be able to beat the dealer with his odds of winning. The difficulty was to do this with lightning agility and without looking suspicious because card counting is not very well regarded by casinos. In the best case, you would be banned from continuing to play.
In fact, many try to count cards believing they are more skilled than they really are and bringing profits to the casino. In part, casinos are interested in feeding the probability theory that card counting is infallible without stressing how important it is to be a true ace of mental calculation.