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Casino Surveillance Detection of Card Counters: Safe Jack and BJ Tracker

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Casino Surveillance: Here Comes the High-Tech Future

By Arnold Snyder
(From Card Player, May 1993
© 1993 Arnold Snyder

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Card Player’s May 21, 1993 issue, some 2½ years prior to the first published announcement of Mikohn Gaming’s “Safe Jack” casino surveillance system for detecting card counters. Did I “invent” Safe Jack? No . . . I later learned that the original patent for the Safe Jack idea had been filed in December, 1992, five months prior to this article. —Arnold Snyder]

For some months now, readers have been sending me an advertisement, clipped from the pages of Gaming & Wagering Business (the industry’s leading trade mag), for “BJ Tracker,” a software package designed to aid casino surveillance departments in identifying card counters. The ad claims that a casino surveillance user will be able to identify a card counter “. . . in five minutes.”

“Is this possible, Arnold?” asks one reader.

“Sounds frightening . . . ” says another.

But let’s analyze the problem of identifying the card counter(s) among the masses of blackjack players, on the basis of observation of a short sequence of consecutively dealt hands. How many hands? Five minutes play at a full table would be about five hands per player in a shoe game; four hands per player at a one-decker (shuffle every other round). A solitary player at a table (a rarity these days) might play 12-16 hands in five minutes.

Why Safe Jack and BJ Tracker Won't Work as Advertised

In a deeply dealt single-deck game, a card counter using a full set of strategy indices will vary his bet from basic on about 20% of his hands, or about one out of five. Depending on his betting strategy, he would likely raise his bet on one out of five hands also.

These variations from basic strategy and/or flat betting, as functions of the count, are not evenly distributed. In many sequences of 5-10 hands, there would be no variations from basic strategy, and no raised bets. In other sequences, there might be as many variations as basic strategy plays. So, it is conceivable that a card counter’s strategy might be identified (or, at least, suspected), from observation of five minutes play at a deeply dealt, head-to-head, single-deck blackjack game. Conceivable, but not likely. The ad claim is a bit far-fetched.

In multiple-deck blackjack games, these “count indicators” occur with less frequency. Depending on the number of decks in play, the shuffle-point, the number of players at the table, and the playing styles of the specific players being analyzed, the possibility of identifying any card counter(s) on any given short sequence of consecutively dealt blackjack hands is remote. In fact, in your standard six-deck blackjack shoe game, the likelihood that the ratio of low cards to high cards would change enough in five minutes to warrant any betting or strategy changes is slim at best.

What it Takes to Detect a Card Counter

Most non-card counters play fairly close to basic strategy with occasional variations. Many card counters do not play perfect basic strategy. Most counters use abbreviated strategy charts for the sake of simplicity and/or camouflage.

Any casino surveillance observation/analysis program would probably be able to determine which players in the general public were not card counters sooner than it could identify which players were. In fact, I’m tempted to develop and market my own software (“BJ Hacker?”), designed to identify the real idiots at the table, so that the casino/user could loosen up the comps based on real value.

In blackjack shoe games, picking out the card counters from the non-counters with any degree of accuracy, purely on the basis of observation/analysis of hands played, would probably require a data collection period of at least 45-60 minutes, depending on the speed of the game and the penetration. The deeper the penetration, the more accurate the analysis will be. (I hope the folks at BJ Tracker are advising the casinos who use their software to deal deeply in their shoe games — 85+% is best! — in order for the program to work optimally.)

Even more, I sincerely hope casino surveillance departments don’t start using this software to identify (and back off) suspected card counters “. . . in five minutes.” A lot of amateur card counters who don’t play a winning game, to say nothing of good customers who know nothing at all about card counting, might find themselves on the pavement.

This is not good. The most sophisticated of card counters — those who employ both playing and betting camouflage to violate card counting “logic” — would be unlikely to be identified by software that compares their play to the recommendations of popular published systems.

The introduction of “BJ Tracker” into the casinos’ arsenal of surveillance weapons, however, portends a future of increasingly sophisticated computer/electronic devices for protecting the games. This product may be overrating its abilities, but I suspect this to be the first of many such products we’re likely to see in the coming years.

Cards with magnetic strips could count themselves as they were removed from a wired shoe. An LED could signal the dealer to shuffle. An electronic credit/betting system could not only do away with chips, but electronically track the table performance, each individual player’s performance, and each player’s betting strategy. The totally electronic blackjack game, already a reality in the slot department, could become far more sophisticated and realistic than today’s prototypes. [Does this sound like Safe Jack, or what?]

Would such devices be accepted as fair by the various gaming regulatory agencies throughout the country? Would the public accept such controls on the game?

As the popularity of video/electronic games increases, the public acceptance of video/electronic control of table games might also increase. The big money players, however, are unlikely to embrace such drastic changes to their game. We haven’t yet seen an electronic variation of any casino table game that has become popular with money players. Players who bet $25 and up feel entitled to that human touch.

So, I don’t think casino blackjack will become an elite game for the few high rollers who can afford it. And I don’t think video blackjack will ever do away with human dealers. But you can be sure that the lower stakes games will continue to be testing grounds for electronic devices and controls, as casinos continue their never-ending battle with card counters. And you can be sure that more and more surveillance software will be developed as the security industry continues to computerize.

I wouldn’t worry too much about BJ Tracker or any of the other high-tech casino surveillance measures that are coming. Good card counters who understand casino comportment and basic camouflage probably have little to fear. Some less sophisticated card counters may find their potential careers cut short. But BJ Tracker is just the first product of its type.You can bet on it.

Send photos of Griffin agents, to be included in “The Card Counters’ Black Book," to the Bishop at Blackjack Forum Online.   ♠

[For a book with more information on casino personnel and procedures, see The Card Counter's Guide to Casino Surveillance by D.V. Cellini, an Arnold Snyder Professional Gambling Report.]

For more information on card counting camouflage and casino surveillance, see the Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library

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  Casino Surveillance Director Reports on New Gambling System Seen at the Tables
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