Future of Blackjack

I recently attended the World Gaming Congress and Expo 2000, which is an annual trade show held in Las Vegas each year. One of the purposes for attending was to get a glimpse of the blackjack-related products that was being offered to the casinos. What I saw was not good for blackjack players, especially card counters.

The casino industry seems to be paranoid about the very small percentage of blackjack players that can gain a tiny advantage by skilled play. They have encouraged a host of companies to develop products that would either eliminate their advantage or make the task of catching and barring them more efficient.

Several exhibitors were ballyhooing their automatic continuous shuffling machines including Shuffle Master Gaming's product dubbed The King. The device is a combination shuffling machine and dealing shoe and it works like this. The dealer picks up the cards after each round and inserts them back into the continuous shuffler where an elevator type system is used to randomize the cards. An elevator moves up and down and the cards are randomly inserted into one of 19 shelves in the elevator. Then the shuffler randomly selects a shelf of cards to deliver into the shoe. The cards are therefore randomized twice - first when they are inserted into the shuffler and the second time when they are delivered into the shoe. This "random in, random out" technology results in the complete randomization of the cards and it's possible that every discard re-inserted immediately following a round has a chance to appear in the next round.

From the player perspective the shuffler looks almost like a black box that sets on the table next to the dealer's left side where the dealing shoe is normally located. The shuffler contains 4-5 decks of cards. The dealer deals the cards from the shuffler and then after every round returns the used cards back into the shuffler where they are randomized. It's like playing blackjack with a continuous shoe.

The casino managers I spoke with like the shuffler because it eliminates the down time involved in manually shuffling the cards (i.e. about 20% more hands are dealt per hour which translates into more profits per hour from all blackjack players). Of course they also like the devise because as one executive told me "it retains the advantage to the casino at all time".

What of course he was referring to is the fact that card counting and shuffling tracking are not effective with a continuous shuffler. As the promotional literature from Shuffle Master states "The King continuous shuffler is a card counter's worst nightmare".

Another device being exhibiting was a unique blackjack table, which had sensors in the dealer shoe and under the table. The sensors in the shoe tracked the value of every card being dealt to each player. The sensors under the table could track every bet made by each player (special checks with embedded microchips are used for making bets). All this information is fed to a computer that could be located in the blackjack pit. The monitoring devices make it easier for the casino to track how much a player bets for rating his play. However, the software can easily be used to determine whether or not a player is card counting (by tracking the size of a player's bet vs. the cards played).

Another exhibitor was showing off an "automatic discard rack" that is designed to stop shuffle trackers. When the dealer inserts the discards from a round into the discard rack an adjustable 5-second delay starts and then a gripper arm randomly picks up a portion of the discarded cards and holds them until the dealer inserts the next hand. This process of randomly picking up a portion of the discards continues after each round. The net result is that the device mixes up dead hands and takes away the ability of shuffle trackers to get a clear picture of how the cards will come out of the shoe after the shuffle.

If the continuous shuffler, the tracking of bets and cards, and the random mixing of the discards doesn't thwart advantage players, then the folks at Biometrica Systems have a facial recognition software program that will make it even easier for pit bosses to catch them when they play. Here's how this little gem works. If the pit boss suspects someone is card counting or shuffle tracking, he will call the folks in surveillance. They will zoom in on the player using the surveillance cameras, take a photo of the suspect's face and load it into the computer. The software will instantly compare the suspect's face with a database of known advantage players and cheats. Within seconds the computer will be able to make a match and the advantage player can be quickly escorted from the premises.

Don't think for a minute that this high tech stuff is for the future. Over 70 casinos are already using the facial recognition software and scores of casinos are field testing the continuous shufflers. The battle against advantage players is escalating but it's too soon to say who will ultimately be the winner.