What’s going on with blackjack?

This American Life just did a whole show on blackjack, including a story about a team of devout Christian card counters (they were also featured in the documentary Holy Rollers). This is just the latest in a long string of media accounts of people making money at blackjack, the most famous of which is probably still Bringing down the House, the book about MIT card counters that was adapted into the movie 21. In every case it seems like the media members doing the story have been completely credulous of their subjects’ claims. But…well, I’m confused.

Casino games are designed so that the house wins. Craps, roulette, whatever — if you play long enough you’ll go broke. As table games go, blackjack is one of the better ones, meaning that if you play perfectly you’ll go broke slower than you would at some of the other games. The idea of counting cards is that, depending on which cards get dealt, situations can arise in which it’s possible to make a favorable bet. So you sit there counting cards until a situation like that comes up, then you jack the stakes way up.

There are some problems with that as a way to make a living. You’re sitting around in a break-even or losing situation for a long time to get the opportunity to make a good bet, and even then it’s not a great bet. At best you’re looking for a small edge. To make that profitable you need your good bets to be many times bigger than your bad bets, and to make it more profitable than flipping burgers you need to be betting a huge amount in absolute terms. And finally, to avoid a substantial risk of going broke, you need a bankroll that’s many times that huge amount. Plus your edges are small, so if you fuck up, ever, it’s likely to be disastrous to your bottom line.

Then there’s the fact that that the casinos continue to offer blackjack, and we know they’re not in the business of giving away money. In fact, you can find a book on counting cards in the gift shop of any casino. They don’t seem too concerned. And yeah, I’ve heard about people getting kicked out of the casino for counting cards, but I’ve also heard about people getting kicked out for having a “hot hand.”

So I’m very confused about what’s going on with blackjack.

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2 thoughts on “What’s going on with blackjack?

  1. jeff says:

    Nate, I think there is story that explains everything. First, I believe the math that suggests a very small edge for extreme card counters. Second, to be able to practically benefit from that very small edge you must be extremely disciplined and have a very large bankroll–and not many folks are going to be able or willing to meet those qualifications. Third, the media will obviously highlight the relatively small number of examples where the card counters won big (obviously, luck will also play a role, so we hear about the card counters who also had a run of good luck on top of the very small edge), but will never cover the greater number of card counters who went broke due to lack of discipline, small bankroll, and/or bad luck. Finally, the casinos will tolerate the occasional successful card counter in order to capture the much larger of card counters who fail for the above reasons. This seems to be a plausible explanation to me.

    Did you play any WSOP events in Vegas? If so, I would love to read about it.

  2. grindrewind says:

    I agree, that story does make sense. I didn’t end up playing any tournaments, just cash games.

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