Pro: Counting Cards Isn't Illegal, It's Smart

Blackjack students

hide captionBlackjack students in Blackpool, England.

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Dave Stann, author of Hollywood Blackjack and someone with keen insight on the M.I.T. whiz kids — subject of the new movie 21 — offers a former dealer's perspective on the world of blackjack and card-counting.

Stann, a second-generation Mensa member who hit it big in Las Vegas, says you actually need only a second-grade education to count cards.

"You have to be exact," he says. "You can't be off by a little. We're talking about an edge of 2 percent, which doesn't sound like a lot. ... Half of it is doing the math, half of it is getting away with it."

Most movies romanticize the practice, but Stann says 21 gives a pretty accurate picture of how much work it is. He says the movie faithfully shows that in card-counting, you assign a point value to every type of card: Cards two through six get a plus one; sevens to nines get no points; and 10s, aces and face cards are minus one. As these cards appear during a hand, you adjust a running total. At any given point, you refer to this number, which is called "the count." Depending on how high the count is, he says, you bet more, you bet less or not at all.

"Card-counting doesn't help you win every hand," Stann say. "It just helps you identify when it's more likely you might win."

What's interesting to Stann is how much misinformation there is about card-counting's legality. There was a landmark case in Atlantic City in the early 1980s, he says, in which a card player won a case against a casino. As a result, he says, you can't be "backed off" or told to leave an Atlantic City casino because of what Stann calls "skilled play" — card-counting.

But in Nevada, Stann says, everyone in a public capacity is a lot more influenced by the power of casinos, so what played in Atlantic City, well, stayed in Atlantic City. In Las Vegas especially, Stann says, casinos are seen as private property. As such, a card-counter can be asked to leave for any reason whatsoever and arrested for trespassing if he or she returns.

Stann doesn't think the harshness is merited.

"They spend probably 10 times as much on surveillance and deterrence methods than we could ever possibly take," he says. To combat the so-called skilled players, Stann says, casinos use facial-recognition software and cameras at all the tables. He says computer programs follow along on bets and individual player decisions. If accounting skill is detected, he says, guards are notified electronically.

"They may have no idea what card counting is," he says. "But they say, hey, the computer says so ... It almost rivals what the CIA uses to catch terrorists."

Does Stann ever feel guilty about all his winning and smarts?

"To me, it's just the right way to play," he says. "Once you know how to use it, why turn it off?"

>> Learn more about Dave Stann at

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