Is Counting Cards Illegal?

Card counting is one of the most misunderstood aspects of blackjack. In fact, it’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of all casino gambling. False impressions and fallacies have been formed by everyone from TV shows and movies to the casinos themselves, all of which make it out to be something that it’s not, either because they have something to gain or because it’s more entertaining.

One of the major misunderstandings is that it’s incredibly difficult and requires a highly skilled, mathematical mind and/or photographic memory. As any card counter will tell you, it’s actually very basic and if you can add and subtract in single digits, you can count cards. The other fallacy is that card counting is highly illegal and will get you into serious trouble.

So why does this exist, is there any truth to it and what do you need to know if you plan on counting cards yourself? This is the issue we’ll address in this article as we ask, Is counting cards illegal?

Is Card Counting Illegal Anywhere?

In North America and Europe, card counting is not illegal. You cannot be arrested for counting cards and the casino has no legal right to bring a case against you. However, there are a few footnotes to this statement that need to be addressed.

Firstly, it is illegal if you use an external device to count cards. So, while you are allowed to run a continuous count in your head, you are not allowed to take a calculator into the casino with you or even to use your phone. In such cases the casino will have grounds to take action, and if you take a substantial amount of money from them, they may do just that.

Secondly, while they can’t take legal action against someone who counts cards without a external device, they can ban that person from the casino. This is a very contentious issue, but the simple fact is that a casino has the right to ban anyone they choose, and they can do that whether you’re winning, losing, counting cards, or just acting irresponsibly.

There is one exception to that rule: Atlantic City. A law passed in the 1980s changed the way that casinos operated in this city and made it illegal for them to ban players who were counting cards. Of course, to counteract this, most AC casinos use a full 8 decks and tweak the rules in their favour, but it’s still possible to count cards without any repercussion in that city, providing no eternal device is used.

The History of Card Counting

Edward O. Thorp is considered to be the father of card counting. The American mathematician first wrote about the practice in 1962 in his book Beat the Dealer, although prior to this book being published the practice was known in small gambling circles and could be traced back to the mid 1950s and to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, a group of players credited with creating basic Blackjack Strategy, among other things.

The practice of card counting was popular throughout the 60s and 70s, which became the golden age of blackjack and produced some of the best players to have ever played the game. At the time, as is the case now, card counting was not illegal, but casinos could ban players that they believed to be counting.

As mentioned above, this was changed in 1979, when Ken Uston argued that they should not be allowed to ban skilled players such as himself if they weren’t doing anything illegal. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with him, stating that only the New Jersey State Control Commission had the right to implement such rules and as they had chosen to do no such thing, bans were not allowed.

This remains the case in the state of New Jersey, but it’s not true of other states and indeed other countries.

Modern Casino Card Counting Laws

The aforementioned 1970 lawsuit was predicted to change the landscape of blackjack gambling in North America and beyond, but it did no such thing. Instead, casinos increased their technology and began to implement complicated systems that they could use to monitor tables and spot potential card counters, after which they would ban them.

In the 2000s, many casinos prescribed to complex databases that contained a list of known card counters. Those casinos could then outright ban those players and stop them from entering their casinos, which means that if a single casino discovered that someone was counting cards, that player could then find themselves banned from all casinos in the city and even the state.

However, one of these databases, Griffin Investigation, was sued by professional gamblers in 2005 and this caused another major shift in the way that card counters were handled. Such databases still exist and some casinos still try their hardest to spot and remove card counters, but there is more uncertainty on behalf of these casinos as they know the law is not on their side and that players willing to fight them will likely find themselves on the winning side.

How do Casinos Spot Card Counters

Casinos go to great lengths to stop cheating, and the methods they use also keep an eye out for card counters. Technically, a casino outside of AC doesn’t need a reason to ban a player and they can do it simply because they believe that player is winning too much money and must therefore be cheating, but rarely does this happen. Most modern casinos are only really concerned with cheaters, although if a card counter is monitored over an extended period and continues to play and win, they may receive a polite tap on the shoulder and a warning to leave the casino.

The things they look out for include:

  • Large buy-ins
  • Moving from table to table
  • Large bet variations
  • Playing several hands at once
  • Playing a select number of hands

Generally, the things that you’re taught to do in order to be successful at counting cards, are the things that casinos are taught to look out for. The only way to get around this is to either use casinos that are more lenient, or to limit your play to a few hours per casino and to move on before it gets too suspicious.

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