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How Does Counting Cards in Blackjack Work?

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Owning a casino isn't much of a gamble. In almost every game, the casino has a statistical advantage—so for every one gambler raking it in, there are more than enough people leaving with empty pockets to net an enormous profit. But between the rolling dice and spinning roulette wheels, there’s one game—if played with the right strategy—where the odds are actually in the gambler’s favor. That game is blackjack. You just have to learn how to count cards.

Blackjack, also called twenty-one, is one of the most popular casino games in the world. In this push-your-luck card game, you attempt to beat the dealer at getting as close to 21 points worth of cards. While the dealer always has to follow a simple set of betting rules, the gambler is free to pursue the best strategy available. And despite popular belief, with enough practice, anyone can count cards in blackjack; you don’t have to be a genius, and although it’s called "counting cards," you’re not memorizing which cards have been played. Here’s why and how it works.

The Theory

In a normal game of blackjack played with a single deck of cards, the "house edge"—the statistical likelihood that the casino will come out on top—is essentially nil. That means that if you play according to the very best strategy available (by memorizing and following the optimal method), in the long-run you’ll break even. That doesn’t sound like much, but blackjack is the only table-game that can claim such advantageous odds. And it’s these odds that make blackjack ripe for card counting.

In simple terms, "counting cards" just means keeping a tally of certain cards while the dealer burns through the deck. By keeping that tally—although you still play with the same strategy as before—you know approximately which cards are more likely to come up for both you and the dealer in the next hand.

And that little bit of information can tell you when to bet big, or when to bet small. Having more low-numbered cards left in the deck is bad. It means you’re less likely to get a blackjack (21 points on your first two cards, which pays a bonus) and the dealer is less likely to "bust"—get over 21 points worth of cards—due to the dealer’s rigid betting rules. And more high-numbered cards are good for the opposite reasons.

If played correctly, counting cards improves your odds by around 1 percent. Again, that doesn’t sound like much, but over many, many hours and even more hands of cards, you can count on netting in the green.

In Practice

There are more than a few card counting strategies, but perhaps the best and easiest is a system called High-Low.

Using the High-Low strategy, the card counter only has to keep a simple mental tally of three groups of cards. Every time he or she sees a high number card played on the table (the 10s and all the face cards), the counter subtracts 1 from his or her tally. For every low number card (the twos through sixes) the counter adds 1 to his or her tally. The middle cards (the sevens, eights, and nines) are simply ignored.

If, for example, the running tally is at +3, that means the upcoming cards are more likely to be high, and thus it’s advantageous for the player to bet big. If the tally is at -2, the odds are on the dealer’s side because of the forthcoming low cards, and so it’s best to bet small. And when the deck is shuffled, the count goes back to 0.

With enough time, this straightforward tally becomes effortless. But the key to success is practice. Card counting is a long-term strategy, and keeping your 1 percent edge requires playing by the book game after game, while keeping count of what cards are rapidly being dealt and flipped on the table. And in a bustling casino brimming with coming and going players, that means staying focused.

Not Getting Caught

Despite what any casino would like you to think, card counting is not illegal. You’re not cheating—you’re simply out-thinking the house. But casinos know that card counters can and will lose them money. And they take advantage of their right to deny service to anyone they please by searching for and kicking out suspect gamblers.

From a casino’s perspective, a telltale card counter is someone who’s hyper-focused on the game, and plays for long stretches of time, and bets amounts that vary wildly and seemingly randomly (as the odds swing in or out of the card counter’s favor). But there are a few ways you can fool the casino.

First, don't look the part. Dress like a tourist, chat with the dealer, and take your time when betting—normal players don’t have a betting strategy drilled into them. This is also where your card counting practice will help, because if keeping your tally becomes truly effortless, small-talk won’t derail your work.

Second, vary your bet minimally. While this decreases your advantage, it increases your card counter camouflage. Doubling or tripling your bet suddenly is the quickest way to flag yourself, and not only will that draw unwanted attention, but the dealer will likely shuffle the deck, ruining your count. So try to fly under the radar of the pit bosses and ever-present eyes of the casino’s security.

Lastly, don’t stay at one casino or one table for too long. As a card counter, you’re now the only (legal) snag in a casino’s otherwise solid business strategy—a wandering statistical anomaly—so take your show on the road.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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