Don’t count on it

Should gamblers be allowed to use a tech toy to beat the house?

Don’t count on it

Travis Yates is suddenly the stuff of Las Vegas legend (even though he’s never stepped foot in Sin City, and probably never should). Back in October, the Australian Web designer invented a cloak-and-dagger iPhone application that allows blackjack players to secretly count cards using their thumbs instead of their brains. Card counting, of course, is the cardinal sin of casinos, and now every joint on the strip is keeping an eye out for iCheaters.

Yates, though, has already hit the jackpot—in free advertising. Before his “app”—known simply as “A Blackjack Card Counter”—made headlines around the world, it was selling a mere 10 copies a week on the iTunes store. Not anymore. During one five-day span in February, it tallied more than 4,000 downloads, including 140 in Canada. “I’ve unwittingly unleashed an army of card counters on the casinos,” he jokes.

Nevada isn’t laughing. After being tipped off by casino operators in California, the state’s Gaming Control Board issued a written warning to all gambling dens, including a stern reminder that anyone caught using an electronic aid could face six years in jail.

If you’ve seen any of the movies—21, Rain Man, Casino—you know that the goal of blackjack is to score closest to 21 without going over. Cards are dealt from a “shoe” (typically four to eight decks shuffled together) and a player either hits or stays, depending on his hand. Simply put, counters have taught themselves to keep track of which types of cards—high or low—are left in the shoe as it dwindles. The advantage? If a player knows that lots of tens and aces are lurking, he ups his bet.

Most counters use a basic formula, assigning a standard value to each card dealt: “+1” for everything between two and six, “-1” for all tens, face cards and aces, and “0” for everything in between. Near the end of a shoe, if the count equals, say, +4, the player knows that the big cards are about to appear. “Then you have to be merciless,” says Vas Spanos, a legendary counter. “You have to bet big and hit them hard!”

The iPhone application does all the counting for you. No math. No thinking. Just click the appropriate icons—0, -1 or +1—and the gizmo vibrates when the odds are ripe.

Not surprisingly, Yates is playing the innocent card. “If you’re playing against your friends at home for a bit of fun, and you’ve got this in your pocket, you can beat them,” the 35-year-old explains. “As I say in my promotional material, I wouldn’t recommend using this to cheat a casino. It’s meant for fun with your friends.” Sure. Just like the casinos “encourage you to play responsibly” as opposed to blowing all your cash.

When asked if his infamous invention should be allowed at real-life tables—and not just his friend’s house—Yates pauses for a few seconds to ponder his answer. “I don’t think I should comment on that,” he says, finally. “I don’t really want to upset the casinos.”

Don’t worry, Travis. Anyone who knows anything about card counting is well aware that your little device isn’t going to bankrupt the house any time soon. Even with the gadget, a wannabe cheat would need months of practice and a massive wad of bills to put even a tiny dent in the Bellagio safe. “The thought that somebody could take an iPhone and start beating a casino is no different than somebody buying a $20 book on how to count cards and thinking they’re going to make a living at this,” says card shark Arnold Snyder, an original member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. “It’s not that easy.”

Useless or not, all the buzz about this new piece of technology has reignited a very old debate: why is traditional card counting—the kind that doesn’t require covert keypads—also not allowed? If a person is smart enough to beat the game, why can’t he play beside the pushovers? “I apply mathematics in real life, which is a celebration of science,” Spanos says. “But the casinos prosecute intelligence.”

Despite popular myth, card counting is actually completely legal. As long as a player isn’t holding an electronic aid, the law can’t stop him from using his head. But here’s the catch: because casinos don’t like to lose, pit bosses simply eject every card counter they spot. After all, it takes two to wager, and if a casino doesn’t like its chances, it doesn’t have to play. “It’s discriminatory,” says Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter. “The casinos only want the fools to sit down and play—the people they can beat. And I guess if I owned a casino, I would want that, too.”

Which means that in the end—iPhone or no iPhone—the house always wins. In this case, at least, so does Travis Yates. He pockets a 70 per cent profit every time someone downloads his app, and at US$2.99 a pop, that’s a pretty decent take. “I was making enough to get by before,” he says. “But my income is now 10 times what it was.” And yes, he is keeping count.

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