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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
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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