Irish mathematician creates new method to catch card counters

In Ireland, a PhD student in mathematics has developed a combined video camera and stats analysis package that he claims will give land casino operators a potent weapon against card counting blackjack players, at the same time reducing the need for current labour intensive detection methods.

Wesley Cooper, of Trinity College's Graphics, Vision and Visualisation research department in Dublin, has created Clear Deal, an automated surveillance system which can identify a player who is “counting” cards, building up a player profile and noting anomalies during a game.

Players who count cards gain an advantage in Blackjack by keeping track of what cards have already been played from a deck. Knowing what cards are left allows a player to decide how much to bet and gives them a slight but potentially valuable advantage over the casino, typically between 0.5 and 2 percent. Although not specifically illegal in most casinos, managements usually reserve the right to ban players for counting cards.

“Blackjack is beatable if you have a good maths brain,” Cooper told the TimesOnline this week. “At the moment, casino surveillance staff have to watch the tables and try to identify suspicious play using their experience and instincts. This system does the same job automatically using computer-vision techniques and algorithms.”

The Clear Deal project, which was funded by the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, is being tested with an as yet unidentified international casino operator. “The feedback has been good and I’m hoping that other casinos will adopt the technology once the trial is over,” Cooper said.

He told the TimesOnline that as part of his research he had worked as a croupier in Las Vegas. “I learnt that one of the most important things in a casino is to build up a profile of each serious player, so they can identify the ‘profitable’ patrons and target them with complimentary drinks and food to keep them at the table,” he said.

Cooper’s system compares each decision a player makes to that of a “perfect” simulated player to determine a gambler’s skill.

“It can determine if someone is proficient or just lucky. A skilled player with a good mathematical mind can count cards, giving them a statistical edge over the casino. Blackjack is 3 000 years old and people have been counting cards as long as it has been around,” he said.

Savings in surveillance staff could result from the use of the system once it has been optimised and fully developed; an executive at Dublin's FitzWilliam Card Club commented that monitoring games such as Blackjack is labour intensive. “We spend a huge amount of money ensuring that it’s nigh-on impossible to cheat by monitoring betting patterns and keeping a close eye on players. At the moment, the dealer watches the players and an inspector watches the dealer.

“A pit boss watches everything and, on average, we have between two and four cameras on each table,” he said. “If a system could be found to streamline the monitoring, it would be hugely popular with casinos but my instinct is that it would be difficult to replace human intuition.”

Cooper remains bullish on his project, telling the newspaper: “I saw 21 [the film] and the automated system we’ve developed would have identified what was going on and alerted the casino that it was being targeted.” The film tells the true story of how a group of maths students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) won more than Euro 500 000 from Las Vegas casinos by counting cards.

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