Adventures in card counting, part one

In the heart of downtown Las Vegas
Golden Nugget, spring 2000
Photo by H2Oman via Flickr

Welcome to downtown Las Vegas, spring of 2000.

In a happy accident, you’re staying in the Sinatra Suite at the Golden Nugget. It seems they’ve screwed up your reservation and they want to make amends. Since Mr. Sinatra is out of town (actually, he’s way out of town: he’s dead) this is your first taste of Vegas: a suite large enough to house your own personal Rat Pack, if you had such a thing.

You’re in town to see Cirque du Soleil’s O and, at the suggestion of your “friend” Evil George Taylor (EGT), to try your hand at blackjack. It’s your first time. You, my friend, are a blackjack virgin. Your heart is all aflutter as you head downstairs to the casino.

Hey! Where are the blackjack tables?

You’ll need to find your way through the ringing, flashing maze of slot and video poker machines, side-stepping the occasional walker or oxygen tank. You’re a bit disoriented, but then your patience is rewarded, because ahead of you there’s a clearing.

There it is! A green oasis! Blackjack Island!

You look for a five-dollar table. You step on over to it. Go ahead, take a seat. You hand over a hundred bucks in denominations of twenty to the dealer and watch him count it out. “Floor!” he shouts. “Changing one hundred!” He counts out your chips, slides them over to you with a “Good luck!” then stuffs your cash into the money slot. Ready to play? Let’s do it!

Before you get your first two cards, I need to tell you two things.

#1. Blackjack is an easy game to play well. Insanely easy. But…

#2.You’re going to lose.

Your path to success at the BJ table starts here. Kind of.
A blackjack basic strategy chart, as found on
Click to enlarge.

Even if you have followed EGT’s advice and memorized the columns and rows of numbers on the basic strategy chart, you are going to lose. It’s a simple fact.

Why? Because the house is a heartless son of a bitch. The house has a relentless edge, even when you use all those numbers you’ve memorized. True, the edge is only .4% which is better than all of the other games on the casino floor. But even this small edge is an iron-clad guarantee that – even if luck is a lady tonight and tomorrow night and the night after that – eventually you are going to lose.

Here’s something else: In blackjack, unlike in poker, there are no stone-cold nuts. There is not one hand that is a guaranteed winner. In poker, a royal flush will take the pot every time. In blackjack? The name of the game is Blackjack, so blackjack (a ten and an ace) is an automatic winner, right? I mean, that’s a reasonable assumption, isn’t it? Nope. If the dealer also has blackjack – and this happens with some regularity – it’s a “push,” a tie.

Not the worst thing

So that first night downstairs at the Golden Nugget, you lose. Not much. Maybe forty bucks. And that’s not a bad thing, because they say that the worst thing that can happen to a player is to win his first time out. But there’s got to be a way to win this game, right?

There is. It’s called card counting. Card counting works.

When I (notice how I seamlessly transitioned from second person to first?) tell non-gamblers that I count cards they are unduly impressed, as if this is a genius-level activity.

It is not.

Or that it requires mathematical skills beyond simple adding and subtracting.

It does not.

But getting there – from a novice blindly following the advice of Evil George Taylor to a skilled card counter – takes many hours and thousands of hands at the blackjack table. It also takes, God help me, four trips to Reno.

Factoid of the week

From The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King by Michael Craig:

“I sheepishly turned over my winning king-king. Morosely stacking my chips, I broke protocol and asked the cowboy, ‘How did you put me on kings?’

“‘When the suicide king came on the turn, I thought I saw your Adam’s apple move a little.’

“It wasn’t until years later that I learned the king of hearts was known as the suicide king. If you look at him, he holds his broadsword behind his head (or, perhaps, pointed at it).”

Is the sword behind his head or pointed right at it?
All hail the Suicide King!



  1. Judy Straalsund

    Do you count cards the same way Ira Glass and Robyn Semien did in the “This American Life” episode about blackjack?

    • Doug Baldwin

      To answer your question: basically yes. All card-counting techniques are based on the concept of how many high cards are left in the deck. The differences are based on formulas on how to work them into some sort of equation; the formulas can get kind of complex. I think that for the purposes of the show they simplified Andy’s technique; the MIT team, as you might imagine, chose a not-so-simple technique. I chose the simplest I could find and experienced Robyn’s dilemma: it was/is difficult to carry on a conversation while simultaneously keeping track of the count AND employing shifts in basic strategy. Have I put you to sleep yet?

      Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode. It was fun (and kind of scary) to listen to on my trip to Eugene today.

      • Judy Straalsund

        Before I heard that story, and read your blogs, I didn’t understand how you can count cards in the big decks the casinos use. Now I sorta get it, but it still boggles my mind!
        Thanks for putting me on your blog list – I’m enjoying these posts :-)

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