The film director and movie star Ben Affleck, soon to be featured as Hollywood’s next Batman, did the gambling world a favor last week by placing professional blackjack back in the news. He did so by counting cards at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas and getting ejected from the game.
Let’s get a few things straight about this episode, because card counting is a fascinating corner of professional gambling, as we reported. To begin with, Nevada law says that card counting is perfectly legal, and also that it’s perfectly legal for casinos to bar apparent counters from their tables. (In gambling parlance, this is known technically as having your cake and eating it too.)
Card counters don’t like to be “backed off,” but they also accept that it’s part of the cat-and-mouse aspect of professional play, and appreciate when the ejection is handled politely and professionally, as appears to have happened in this case. According to a Times source, the casino told Affleck -- who was with his wife, Jennifer Garner -- that he was welcome to play any other game.
That’s wise, because the Hard Rock is known as a celebrity hangout, and it wouldn’t pay for the house to be rude. Affleck is known around Vegas as a high-stakes gambler whose rumored big wins and losses in skill games such as blackjack, poker, and sports betting have provided gossip columns with material for years.
Card counting has two elements. One is keeping the running count -- typically, low cards (2 through 6) each are assigned a value of plus-1; 10 through king get minus-1. Seven, 8, and 9 get zero, and aces vary depending on the counter’s system. The idea is to know when the decks are rich in 10s, or “hot,” because that increases the player’s chances of hitting a blackjack or winning a doubled hand.
The second element is betting strategy: The player bets low when the deck is cold and higher when it’s hot, to capture the improved odds. Betting patterns are often what trip up the counter because that’s what dealers and casinos bosses notice first.
In fact, Vegas professionals figure that an extreme betting pattern probably is what gave Affleck away. Blackjack counting “is a game of science and art,” says Anthony Curtis, a professional player who runs Huntington Press, publisher of the authoritative newsletter Las Vegas Advisor. “The science is being able to do it; the art is being able to get away with it.”
One outcome of the Affleck affair may be that it places the spotlight back on blackjack, which is one of the few games on the casino floor that can be beaten by a skilled player but which has been overshadowed in recent years by the explosive rise of poker.
Curtis says the professional blackjack field is still strong, despite efforts by the casinos to improve their own edge by tweaking the rules or using technology -- for example, replacing multiple-deck games, which can be beaten by counters, with continuous shuffle machines, which can’t.
But many changes in the game really target the recreational player, not the pro. The most dramatic change probably has been the replacement of the traditional 3-to-2 payoff on blackjack (when the first two cards dealt are an ace and a 10-value card) by the 6-to-5 payout. This change alone increases the house edge over the player by 1.39%, which is astronomical.
The 6-to-5 rule started with single-deck games, where the house edge is smallest, but has spread rapidly to multi-deck “shoe” games. In the words of Bill Zender, a casino consultant and former professional blackjack player, the rule change reduces blackjack to “the category of carnival games like Red Dog and Casino War.” But professional players know to avoid these games like the plague; it’s only the rubes who get taken.
Vegas is still trying to regain its footing after the devastation of the Great Recession. Curtis reports that visits are breaking records, but gambling win -- that is, casino revenue -- hasn’t yet recovered to pre-recession levels, and hotels are still offering bargain rates compared with the pre-2008 boom. In the year that ended in March, casinos in Clark County (Las Vegas, mostly) recorded $9.6 billion in total winnings; in 2007, that figure was nearly $11 billion.
In some respects, Vegas can only be helped by the sort of publicity generated by backing off a big name like Ben Affleck. Average players become convinced that they can beat the Vegas casinos by learning to count, but because few of them actually do know how to count, the casinos win -- as usual.