We’ll Send a Car for You

I remember watching some television show, so many years ago that I cannot hope to remember the details or even the name of the show, that had one line of dialog that has stuck with me.

A man has gone to Las Vegas ready to become wealthy by using a secret betting system he’s devised. Things go badly. He’s broke and broken, and the casino has cut off his credit – it’s time for him to quit. He’s granted an interview with the casino manager, and complains that they’re kicking him out they’re afraid of him, because he’s got a system! Then comes the line I remember:

If we’d known you had a system, we’d have sent a car for you.

This post builds on yesterday’s post, Card Sense, by discussing gambling systems: the ones that will, indeed, get you kicked out of a casino, and the ones that may inspire them to send a car for you.

One of the greatest strengths of the human mind is its ability to recognize patterns – some tasks that challenge the best artificially-intelligent computers, like speech recognition, are routinely done by toddlers. But this strength can also be a weakness, in that it tends to find patterns that aren’t really there. We strive so hard to find meaning in the world that we’re sometimes inclined to see things like the image of the virgin Mary in a weathered stone.

Some gamblers try to find patterns in the spins of a roulette wheel. Even gamblers who should know better like to think that there’s some non-random narrative to an evening’s play. So some players carefully record the winning numbers of the wheel, scrutinizing results for patterns to be exploited.

This is just ducky in most casinos. They’ll give you paper and pencils if you need them. They might even send a car for you next time. Heck, they’ll even do the work for you if you’re too lazy to do it yourself – these days, it seems to be a casino best practice to have a big display showing the last several winning numbers on the wheel.

But if you take your pencil and paper over to a blackjack table, you’ll likely be shown immediately shown to the door.

Casinos thrive on gamblers who have illusions about their ability to outsmart table games. They’re confident that there is no discernible bias in their well-balanced roulette wheels, but they’re only too glad that many of their patrons don’t share that opinion.

But it’s quite another thing when the casino suspects that a player actually can bend the odds in the player’s favor. So, even if you’re keeping track of your Labouchere System bets – something that will gladden the casino manager’s heart when you do it at the roulette wheel, at the blackjack table you’ll be suspected of using it as a cover of counting cards. Because the casino knows that, unlike the roulette wheel, a deck of cards has a memory.

The rules of blackjack have been formulated to ensure a comfortable house advantage when the deck is newly shuffled. That advantage waxes and wanes as cards are dealt, and the distribution of the remaining cards in the deck is altered. Casinos can, by frequent reshuffles (or even by automatic continuous shuffling) ensure that that advantage never wanes too much.

All in all, I suspect that the casinos actually benefit from the situation. They do, of course, lose a certain amount of money to undetected skillful card counters. But they make money from the unskillful ones. And the fact that blackjack is known to be a game that is, in some sense, beatable probably attracts some players who would otherwise never do anything so foolish as gambling in a casino. Some players, perhaps, are attracted by the glamor and excitement of casino gambling, but don’t want to identify themselves as being too clueless to realize that, in the long run, they can’t possibly win. The mere possibility of card counting, together with the clandestine status of the art, gives these gamblers cover, even when they’re not counting cards.

It’s just a theory. But if it’s not true, how do you account for the fact that blackjack is still widely offered in casinos? I suspect it’s been kept alive, to a large extent, by players who don’t actually count cards, but find it useful to hint that they do.

The species of card sense that assists blackjack players is, in many ways, much less effective that that possessed by first-class players in some other card games. The next post will turn it’s attention to such games.

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