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Is Card Counting at Blackjack Worth Your While?

31 January 2001

By Alan Krigman

I was coddling a cappuccino at a casino's posh high roller club a few weeks ago with some blackjack-playing cronies, Basil and Courtney. Basil is a club member. Courtney and I were his guests.

Basil follows basic strategy to the letter. He bets $100 most of the time, with rare raises to $125, $150, and $200 "on a whim." This gives the casino 0.37 percent edge. Basil's average wager is $105, so the house has a theoretical win of $0.39 per round.

Courtney counts cards. She likes to start at $50 and progress -- when she can get away with it -- to $100 at +2, $200 at +3, $300 at +4, and $600 at or above +5. This spread will give Courtney 1.8 percent edge. Considering hands at each count level, her bets would average $107.58 and she'd expect to earn $1.94 per round.

Both have good day jobs and gamble for entertainment, not for a living. However, they play frequently and pretty much epitomize what I consider serious bettors. Talk turned, as usual with this duo, to the question of whether card counting is worthwhile.

Courtney's affirmative argument was twofold. First, without counting, blackjack is a negative expectation game and solid citizens are bound to lose in the long run. Second, even during the short span of a single casino sojourn, players are throwing away money if they don't grab all the advantage they can.

Basil's contrary contention was quadripartite. One, he didn't play enough in a year to sweat "the long run." Two, during a day or so at the casino, the disparity isn't significant. Three, bankroll swings are more drastic with counting for the same average bet, and he was uncomfortable dropping too precipitously if luck ran sour. And, four, casinos not only welcome him but offer perks he considers part of the scene -- such as club memberships, hotel rooms, meals (some passing for gourmet), and invitations to special events -- while Courtney gets hassles.

When I returned home, I put numbers on both sides of the debate. I calculated profit and loss prospects during a year -- assuming 10,000 rounds, and a weekend visit -- benchmarking 500 rounds.

Here are the annualized projections. Basil has about one chance in four of winding up losing over $12,000 and the same for earning more than $4,250 with basic strategy. Moreover, he has about 16 percent probability of going as far as $20,000 in the hole before completing the 10,000 rounds. Courtney has three chances in four of finishing with a profit over $5,500 and one in four of surpassing $33,000 by card counting. Her risk of falling below $20,000 during the year is roughly 10 percent.

Purely monetarily, for a year at these levels of play, counting is far superior to basic strategy. Even with the wider bankroll swings counters can anticipate, folks who fret over fleeting yet painful setbacks will find this approach less perilous. Perks for basic strategy players but not card counters moderate the effects somewhat. Basil can figure his action will bring at least $2,000 in comps and a plethora of priceless recognition and kow-towing if not respect, which he knows is pandering but relishes anyway.

Single visit results are less pronounced. Basil has a 25 percent shot at ending worse than $2,000 down and the same for exceeding $1,600 up. The chance he'll drop below $5,000 before completing 500 rounds is only 7 percent. Courtney's swings will be wilder, giving her the same 25 percent chances of being below a $2,000 loss or above a $4,000 gain after this much play. However, she's running a 21 percent risk of $5,000 or more red ink during the trip. And, of course, Basil will get fancy quarters and food on the house; Courtney will pay her own way at the Linoleum Lodge a few leagues out of town, and fund her own all-you-can-eat buffet.

So, is card counting worth your while? Examine the pros and cons in light of your personal hopes and fears, not forgetting the time you expect to be at the tables. Then decide for yourself. Just keep in mind what the bard, Sumner A Ingmark, had to say:

The wisest sages most astutely,
Do not give answers absolutely.

Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns were focused on those interested in gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.