No! It’s no more illegal than using your brain to add up how much money you have in your wallet. But that doesn’t mean they won’t kick you out for trying! In most casinos in this country casino management has the right to bar players for any reason they want. Most casinos are considered private clubs and if they don’t like you they can ask you to leave. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, casinos cannot bar you but they are allowed to implement specific countermeasures that will reduce if not eliminate any profit potential you previously might have had.
If casino management suspects a player is a threat to its bankroll they will usually implement several countermeasures, which include reduced deck or shoe penetration and shuffling up. Psychological tactics are also often attempted to distract the player and to convince him or her to leave. Some less than reputable casinos may even implement cheating countermeasures — such as preferential shuffling. If all else fails, a suspected card counter may be asked to leave and/or to refrain from playing blackjack any further.
In Nevada, the courts have made it clear that card counting is legal. During a cheating case in 1983, which involved a player who was crimping cards to gain an advantage (definitely cheating), the court made an interesting statement: “By way of contrast, a card counter — one who uses a point system to keep track of the cards that have been played — does not alter any of the basic features of the game. He merely uses his mental skills to take advantage of the same information that is available to all players.” As I. Nelson Rose, author of the book Gambling and the Law*, states — “The card counter is playing by the rules of the games, as set up by the casino regulators and the casinos themselves.”
When I play blackjack I sit there and watch the cards. I use my brain to make decisions. I risk hard earned money on individual outcomes that are far from certain. If card counting were considered cheating then casinos would probably have little signs stating, “Thinking in this casino is forbidden! Players found using their brain to make decisions will be asked to leave.”
In a similar vein… if a dealer unintentionally flashes his hole card and a player sees the card, would it be considered cheating for the player to make use of this information? Of course not! The player is still playing by the rules of the house and is simply using all the information that is presented to him. Of course, if the dealer is intentionally flashing his hole card then that would definitely be considered cheating in every court in this country and both player and dealer could be charged with an illegal act. [If the dealer were intentionally flashing it to a third part confederate, an innocent bystander who didn’t know he was flashing intentionally wouldn’t be guilty of anything; but, he might have a hard time proving he wasn’t in on the caper!]
Although card counting is not illegal from a technical point of view, in some countries you still might find yourself behind bars, forced to return monies won, or worse! You are on your own in some of these third world countries where the law is often undefined.
Professional players are at the greatest risk because of the betting level they play at and because of reporting agencies such as Griffin. The Griffin Detective Agency of Las Vegas, Nevada publishes a monthly list of blacklisted players to casinos around the world. This list includes suspected cheats, con artists, card counters, and even card counting team members. If you are in a foreign country and they notice that you are on this list they may just throw you in jail… not bothering to make the distinction between being labeled a cheat and someone who uses legal card counting techniques.
*Editor note: Since this article was originally written, I. Nelson Rose and Robert A. Loeb had collaborated on the excellent book Blackjack and the Law. Also, Robert Nersesian’s book The Law for Gamblers is a must read. Another good article on whether card counting is legal or not is on Norm Wattenberger’s site IsCardCountingIllegal.com.