Is Card Counting Legal?
(From The Intelligent Gambler , April 1997)
(Or, Is it Legal to Think in Casinos?)
By Arnold Snyder
© Arnold Snyder 1997
If you’re the type of person who lets the word out among your friends and acquaintances that you are a serious blackjack player — one of those notorious “card counters” — you may have noticed that quite a number of people, upon discovering this character flaw of yours, will cock their heads and say, with a disapproving grimace, “Oh . . . Is that legal?”
In the twenty years that I’ve been a professional gambler — writing about the game of blackjack for seventeen of them — I have been asked this question at least a hundred times. It still flusters me.
My immediate response, which is always something on the line of, “Of course, it’s legal! Card counting is just thinking while you’re playing. How can it be illegal to think?” is usually met with something on the line of, “Oh . . . The casinos let you do that?”
This always steams me, the suggestion that I must first get “permission” from the casinos to think while I play. But I usually say something like, “Well, if they know you’re counting the cards while you play, they’ll throw you out . . . But it’s not illegal to count cards.”
“I see . . . ” they say, obviously seeing nothing.
With most people, this is the end of the conversation. But a handful of intrepid souls will want to probe deeper into this curious avocation of mine. At this point, I’ll find myself knowledgeably discussing the innkeepers’ right to refuse service to anyone. I’ll expound upon how the trespassing laws are utilized in Nevada to eliminate card counters from the blackjack tables, as opposed to New Jersey — where innkeepers’ rights don’t extend to the blackjack tables. The Atlantic City casinos generally use more frequent shuffling, and various methods of restricting bets, to foil card counters.
I’ve also received disturbing reports that truly persistent card counters are sometimes arrested for “creating disturbances,” so that the local trespassing laws may then be applied. Some blackjack players have gone to court over these issues.
From here, the conversation inevitably turns to the extraordinary surveillance methods the casinos typically use to identify players as card counters, and the extraordinary methods card counters resort to in order to hide their identities, and their level of skill, from the casinos.
Recently, an hour or so into such a conversation, the woman I was talking with said in an exasperated voice, “Why didn’t you just admit it in the first place: Card counting is illegal!”
“It’s not illegal,” I insisted. “This is America! They can’t make it illegal to think!”
“Who are you kidding?” she asked in all seriousness. “You admit that you have to hide it from the casinos, and that once they know you can do it, they put your picture in a ‘mug book’ that gets circulated to the other casinos, so that you have to wear a disguise and get fake I.D. if you want to keep playing. But, if they see through your disguise, they can have you arrested for trespassing. So, obviously, the police are on the casinos’ side, as are the courts. And you’re saying it’s not illegal? You’re like a cat burglar trying to convince someone it’s not illegal to break-and-enter, provided you don’t get caught.”
“It’s not the same thing at all!” I protested. “A burglar is stealing someone’s property. A card counter is following all the rules of the game, as set by the casino, just like any other player at the table. He’s just thinking, that’s all. He’s not stealing anything.”
She thought about this for a moment, then said, “Obviously, there’s one rule you’re breaking.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You’re not allowed to think while you play,” she said matter-of-factly.
Unfortunately, matter-of-factly, she’s right.
When I was a kid, my father worked for IBM. He was a computer salesman back in the 1950’s when the only computers were garage-sized mainframes used by the few huge businesses that could afford them. On his desk at home, he always had a small wooden placard that read: “Think.” It was the motto of Thomas J. Watson, president and founder of IBM. On the few occasions I accompanied my father to his office in downtown Detroit, I saw these placards all over. Think. Think. Think.
Perhaps the casinos should adopt a similar placard they could set on each blackjack table, right next to the betting limit sign, a placard that says: “Don’t Think.” Or, maybe they could just append these words to the rules sign: “Double down on any two original cards. Split and resplit any pair, except aces. Split aces receive only one card each. No thinking.”
Or, as Descartes once said: “I think, therefore I can’t play blackjack.” ♠
[Note from Arnold Snyder: For anyone who didn't get the joke, of course it's legal to count cards! It's legal to count cards, because counting cards is merely a way of thinking about your hand, and it's legal to think, even in casinos. This right has been firmly established by the courts. See the articles linked to at the left of this page.]
For more information on the law regarding card counting and other professional gambling techniques, see Arnold Snyder's Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library
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