The 1990s brought about a permanent change to the gambling scene when a team of American science students eliminated the house edge at the blackjack tables of Las Vegas. This plan has altered the course of casino history, gaining plenty of fame and notoriety along the way. So, why blackjack? Unlike most casino games, such as roulette, craps and slot machines, the odds aren’t exactly the same on every hand in blackjack. Math professor Edward Thorp realized this principle nearly four decades before the famous team of MIT students took down the house in Sin City.
The question that has led to so many imitators since the successes of the MIT card counting team is a straight-forward one: Is card counting a science? To understand the answer, it’s important to take a look at the way blackjack is played.
Most casino games are like the flip of a coin. Even if a coin lands on heads 10 times in a row, the odds of the next flip are still 50-50. Blackjack, on the other hand, constantly changes the odds with each card that’s dealt. For example, consider the fact that aces are advantageous to players. They are the only cards that are irreplaceable for receiving an increased payout on the opening deal, so having them in the deck puts players in a stronger position with each passing hand. In a blackjack game with a single deck, this makes it simple to guess at the odds. If an ace comes out (either for the dealer or another player), you can safely assume that your chances of collecting on those famous 3 to 2 odds just decreased.
With similar values attached to the remainder of the deck, Thorp (and, later, the MIT team) was able to determine the odds of winning with each passing hand. Of course, it isn’t always that simple. For example, even if four aces remain in the deck, the chances of the dealer receiving the vital 11 are exactly the same as you receiving it for yourself. Counting cards doesn’t guarantee success on each hand. Conversely, it gives players a slight edge over the house in the long run. Given a large enough bank roll, perfect playing strategy and enough time, this should, statistically, lead to a win at the tables.
Clearly, card counting is a scientific procedure. Done correctly, it gives a nearly constant statistical advantage to savvy players throughout their time at the tables. The gambling industry, however, is continuing to do its part to eliminate this edge. From simple play alterations, such as playing with multiple decks or removing cards before dealing, to more advanced technological innovations, such as facial recognition technology and computerized blackjack tables, casinos are continuously working to eat away the small statistical advantage that card counting offers players.
While today’s card counters certainly have a more difficult objective on their plates than Thorp did in his day, the promise of easy money continues to lure in players with no shortage of ingenuity. Expect the prevalence of card counting to continue moving forward, as the science goes through yet another period of evolution to keep up with the times.