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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

iPhone technology under casinos' skin

23 February 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- More than a decade after the seminal blackjack strategy book "Beat the Dealer" brought the shadowy art of card counting to the masses, opportunistic blackjack players in the 1970s and 1980s began wearing miniature computers that tracked the value of cards through slight movements of fingers and toes.

These devices, placed in modified shoes or keypads attached at the thigh, transformed average players into blackjack experts with photographic memories.

That's why such aids are illegal in Nevada — and why, more than two decades after these contraptions emerged, a new card-counting program has Nevada regulators on high alert.

Unlike the expensive homemade computers of years past, Blackjack Card Counter is an online application of the Apple iPhone or iPod touch and available for download at the company's iTunes online store for $1.99.

The application assigns values to high and low cards and has a "stealth" mode, in which the device vibrates when the unplayed cards have a high ratio of high-value cards, which are more favorable for players. Gamblers betting big with more high-value cards in the deck and small when the ratio favors low-value cards could take away the casino's house edge or gain an edge — a potential disaster for a bottom line fed by players losing a predictable percentage of bets over time.

In 1985 casinos fought the spread of electronic aids by successfully lobbying the use of such "devices" to be made a felony.

Using one's brain to count cards is legal in Nevada. But gamblers using counting aids are treated much like cheaters who bend cards or use magnets to trigger slot jackpots: They can be imprisoned for up to six years, fined up to $10,000, or both. That's on top of being hauled away in handcuffs and banned from casinos.

The threat of prison time had virtually stamped out the use of card-counting devices.

Tipped off by regulators in California, where customers had used the iPhone application, Nevada regulators issued a public notice to the state's casinos Feb. 5. The announcement also served to educate an unknowing public that a seemingly innocent activity is a crime in Nevada.

"The unsuspecting public needs to be put on notice that you run a great risk of finding yourself in more trouble than it's worth," Gaming Control Board member Randy Sayre said.

"No longer are iPods or cell phones sitting out in the open assumed to be innocent devices," he said.

This riles up gamblers upset by the measures casinos use to banish skilled blackjack players. Casinos could win more than they lose by allowing the masses a chance to count cards, they say.

It's a valid point, because most players aren't as good as they claim or think. But that reasoning doesn't hold up in the case of "perfect play" computers, which would truly give gamblers an edge over the house. That fantasy simply can't exist in a state where gambling revenue funds half of the state budget.

It would be difficult for players to use the devices undetected by hiding them in their clothing and blindly pressing keys at the right time, said Anthony Curtis, blackjack player and publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter. Moreover, big casinos are skilled at detecting and banning card counters, regardless of how it's done.

Casinos would be foolish to arrest wannabes using iPhones. More likely, gamblers will be asked to leave — with apologetic bosses saying they have no choice but to uphold the law, Curtis said.

Concerned that players could be texting betting information, talking to a conspirator in code or using a calculator, many casinos bar cell phones at blackjack tables.

The device law also prohibits the use of strategy tools, which could theoretically mean a pencil and paper or the strategy cards sold in casino gift shops.

But those aren't much danger to the crucial house edge.