Debunking the Myth: Is Counting Cards in Blackjack Illegal?
This post about whether counting cards in blackjack is illegal was updated and republished on Sunday, January 15, 2023.
Is counting cards illegal? The legalities of counting cards in blackjack are often questioned, and we aim to answer that below.
Card counting in blackjack is not illegal, although. many casinos do consider it cheating. There are no federal or state laws that prohibit the practice of counting cards in your head.
Counting cards while playing blackjack requires mathematically analyzing and estimating the favorability of undealt cards within the deck based on cards that have already been dealt.
Casinos don’t like when players count cards because the tactic helps you make more statistically sound choices, which can overpower the house edge, as opposed to making purely random choices, which allows the house to win as intended.
Effective card counting can give gamblers an estimated 0.5% to 1.5% advantage over the casino.
One study found that only 2% of blackjack players can successfully count cards while playing.
You can only be arrested or charged for counting cards if you’re using external devices, apps, or team members to do so, all of which may be considered cheating and a criminal offense in the casino.
Despite what you may have heard or seen in the movies, card counting is completely legal. There are no federal or state laws that currently prohibit the act of counting cards by a single individual — without the use of devices, people, or other technology.
Card counting has also been discussed and ruled on by the New Jersey Supreme Court stating that casinos cannot bar blackjack players just because of their skill — including their ability to memorize and count cards which may give them an advantage in beating the house.
Counting cards in blackjack is a mathematical technique used by gamblers to track probability while playing blackjack. The goal of card counting is to estimate how favorable a blackjack deck is based on the cards that have already been dealt. Effective card counting can give players a marginal statistical advantage — this advantage is not cheating by any legal definition or otherwise.
There are multiple card counting systems players can use to keep track of the “count,” or the number of high cards versus low cards in a blackjack deck. Knowing whether a table’s deck is trending upward or downward can help you make more informed choices about hitting, standing, splitting, or surrendering.
Let’s settle the dispute about card counting being illegal, explore why casinos despise the practice so much, and discover what happens if you’re “caught” counting cards at your favorite New Jersey casino.
What is Card Counting?
Card counting is a technique used by gamblers when playing blackjack to help them predict how hot or cold a blackjack deck is so they can modify their betting strategy accordingly.
There are a few different card counting strategies, but in it’s simplest form — card counters assign +1 whenever low cards are dealt (less than 7) and -1 when high cards are dealt (10, face card, or Ace). The longer the rounds go before shuffling, the more accurate a card counter’s numbers are — and if they are positive, it means there are still alot of 10-value cards and Aces left.
The benefit to knowing whether a blackjack table is hot or cold is in the betting. When a deck has more Aces and face cards (10), players are more likely to hit blackjack and to receive favorable starting hands — therefore, players should wager more when the deck is hot. When a deck is cold, there are still a lot of lower cards left which are much less predicitble and carry more varience. Therefore, players should wager less when the deck is cold.
Is Counting Cards Illegal?
No, counting cards is not illegal, meaning you can’t get arrested or banned by a casino for it. While many people believe card counting constitutes cheating, the law states otherwise.
However, casinos certainly discourage card counting and may even apply pressure to believed card counters in an effort to scare and prevent blackjack players for trying to gain an advantage by card counting.
The nuances of “card counting” and it’s underlying objective is what makes it such a controversial topic. Imagine if the lottery could only pick a number once until every other number had been picked. You could improve your odds significantly if you knew what numbers were picked previously — this is the concept of card counting.
When playing blackjack — especially with fewer decks in the shoe — players can estimate the cards left by memorizing the cards that have been dealt previously. Players who have the ability to remember and calculate (in real-time) the probability of remaining cards in a blackjack deck can increase their odds of winning by roughly 0.5% to 1.5% and can approach a 50/50 split.
So, why is counting cards so controversial when it’s simply math?
There are several reasons why counting cards is frowned upon, and it mostly comes back to the fact that card counters technically jeaporadize the house edge and decrease the casino’s revenue. But, there are no laws that prohibit counting cards in your head while playing at a casino — not even at a brick-and-mortar venue or online casino in New Jersey.
On the other hand, using an external device to count cards, like a smartphone app, and calculate your advantage could fall under illegal activities per federal, state, or local laws where the casino is located. Devices that help the player win and other forms of cheatingareconsidered illegal, and you can be arrested.
In addition, card counting as a team of people could also put you in a legal mess. Think of the infamous card counting team from the movie “21” and the real-life MIT students the film is based on.
Is Card Counting Considered Cheating?
That depends on who you ask. If you were to ask an experienced blackjack player who uses card counting, they would say they’re simply using math to make more statistically sound decisions. Which is true!
Now if you ask the same question to a casino, they may try to pass it off as cheating because they believe the tactic helps the player better overcome the random odds of the game. Casinos will say that when blackjack players count cards, they are gaining a competitive advantage that the average player doesn’t havt. But does that actually mean card counting is a form of cheating?
No, because card counting in blackjack doesn’t actually change the outcome — it just helps players understand the likelihood of winning based on their options to split, hit, stand, double down, or surrender. This additional context can manipulate how gamblers actually play their blackjack hands, but it doesn’t influence the result.
The traditional form of counting cards shouldn’t be considered cheating, but instead “an edge.”
However, when you throw card-counting apps or other team members into the mix, then the line between cheating and legitimate tactics becomes blurred. That’s also when the legalities of counting cards comes into question.
What Happens if You Get Caught Counting Cards at the Blackjack Table?
A casino’s response to catching a player counting cards while gambling at a blackjack table can vary depending on the state and casino within which you are caught.
Some states — like Nevada — allow casinos to stop players whom they believe are counting cards in blackjack, while other states — like New Jersey — prevent casinos from discriminating against players based on presumed card counting skills, even if tell-tale signs of card counting are detected.
If you’re accused of card counting at a Las Vegas casino, you may be asked to leave, and the casino staff is likely to claim that, since the casino is private property, they can ask you to leave the table (or the casino) for any reason they deem appropriate. If they suspect you of counting cards, you may be barred from cashing in your chips, too. In this case, it’s best to comply to avoid making a scene and incurring any actual arrestable offenses, like trespassing or disorderly conduct.
If you’re accused of card counting at a New Jersey casino, like one in Atlantic City, you cannot be banned from the blackjack tables. The same is true if you’re actually “caught” using this blackjack strategy. That’s because there are state laws that prohibit casinos from “discriminating” against players based on skill or a lucky streak.
There have even been reports of casinos attempting to detain players they’re accusing of card counting, which the casino is not allowed to do unless there is evidence of actual cheating per the state’s legal definition. Some casinos may try to ask for your ID or take your photo so as to enforce a ban or communicate the existence of a card counter to other area casinos. If this happens to you, you may want to consult a legal professional.
How Do Casinos Prevent and Catch Card Counting?
Many casinos around the world employ high-tech surveillance systems that pay close attention to players on a lucky streak, especially at blackjack tables due to the likelihood of card counting. In addition, they may have casino cheating experts on staff to identify signs of actual cheating and discourage tactics they’d like to consider cheating (i.e. counting cards).
New Jersey casinos are known to shuffle together four decks at a single blackjack table, which makes tracking the count from hand to hand — which is the whole point of counting cards — really hard to do. This massive deck option is even in the state’s administrative code for the rules of blackjack.
All of this is to say that the practice isn’t really encouraged in many places, and there may be venues looking to stop counters in their tracks to protect the casino’s financial interests.
Yes, you can count cards while playing online blackjack at an online casino, but it won’t give you an advantage because online casinos use random number generators (RNG) to shuffle the deck after every hand — which means your count would reset every round giving you no advantage. Counting cards in online blackjack is not a good strategy for winning, but it can be good training for in-person gamblers.
There are other ways to gain an edge while playing blackjack online. You can use a blackjack strategy chart to give you an accurate probability based on the hand along with direction as to which move is best statistically. You can also use casino bonuses and promotionswhich are usually more favorable at online casinos to find opportunities to bet with house money or get cash back.
Is Card Counting Allowed at Tribal Casinos?
There are multiple Native American tribes in the U.S. that own and run casinos, including those located on reservations. It’s important to note that some states leave the regulation of cheating or advantage gambling — under which counting cards would fall — to the tribal casino’s management.
That means card counting and cheating at a tribal casino may not be handled the same way as in other casinos. In fact, you may be met with more severe punishment, such as a ban from the casino or withheld winnings. How this situation is handled can vary from casino to casino and tribe to tribe. What’s more, outside police are often not involved, and players’ legal protections aren’t the same due to tribal sovereignty laws.
Because of this, it may be best to practice your card-counting strategy in a casino that’s more open to this kind of blackjack play.
Now that you know that card counting in blackjack isn’t illegal, you might consider learning how to count cards and start mastering this advantageous strategy. Then, try your new strategy while playing online blackjack at your favorite online New Jersey casino to increase your bankroll and refine your skills.