Why Card Counters Won't Sink Casinos

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Their mathematical brilliance and big payouts may actually help gambling halls due to the less skilled imitators that follow in their tracks

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Reuters/Vivek Prakash


The house always wins? A huge payout in New Jersey is animating gambling's academic gurus, according to the Newark Star-Ledger:

The Tropicana lost more than $1.86 million at its blackjack tables, while the Borgata narrowly avoided a loss, collecting less than $1 million on nearly $75 million in chips purchased, just over a 1 percent take. ...

"A casino can have a losing day, but it's maybe once or twice a year. Anything that is longstanding where the (winning) percentage goes down for a month, or two months straight, and I'm looking at other things," said Jim Wortman, director of gaming education and research at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.

Wortman, who worked for more than a decade at Atlantic City casinos and once trained dealers at the Tropicana, said the numbers should make casino managers suspicious.

"I just want to make sure the guy who made $6 million is that good, and not that he's cheating or our dealers are that bad," Wortman said. "Generally, I would have more eyes on this guy than if he's sitting there naked."

But William Eadington, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the threat of surveillance would stop most cheaters in their tracks.

"I'd be very surprised if this were a cheat of one kind or another because it's too high visibility," Eadington said.

Probability theorists are familiar with the wild short-term results of games of chance, even when one side or another has an advantage. The card counters celebrated in books and on cable TV have often worked in teams not only to foil surveillance but also to assemble the big bankrolls needed to absorb likely bad runs. Casinos do everything they can to lengthen time at the tables. Even a skilled card counter may simply run out of money.

Casinos have a strange relationship with card counters. If every gambler were as good as the best of them, casinos would be out of business. But big counting wins also help the casinos by suggesting it's possible to beat the house. They're followed by less skilled, and generally profitable, imitators.

What really keeps the numbers of top blackjack players down may be another paradox. If you have the mathematical skills, memory, emotional discipline, financial resources, and acting ability to beat the house, you can make even more money running a hedge fund. Even top-tier academia is more advantageous. As the Stanford mathematics professor Persi Diaconis has pointed out, "you make much more money proving theorems than you do counting cards in a casino."

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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