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How Much of a Threat Are Shuffle-Trackers?

26 February 2001

By John May

Casino bosses are terrified of shuffle-trackers, who employ a deadly and mysterious form of advantage play virtually no one understands. The bosses know that the countermeasures they have adopted at the blackjack tables have been successful in eliminating all but the most tenacious card counters, but shuffle-tracking -- well, they haven't had forty years to study it and they are scared. People fear the unknown. But this is all shuffle-trackers do: They look for big clumps of aces and tens and follow them through the shuffle.

Shuffle-trackers try to use the cut-card to cut those big clumps of aces and tens into play and bet big when they know those aces and tens are coming. Some shuffle-trackers are extremely sophisticated. They use computer models of each specific shuffle they play against, calculate optimal bet sizes based on the Bayesian level of certainty applied to the level of confidence in their prediction, collate data on dealer grab sizes, and so on. Others just shove out the money when they think the paint is going to hit the felt. No one really knows if the computer guys win more than the hit-and-hope variety.

How much edge can a shuffle-tracker get over the casino? Again, no one really knows. In any case, it depends on the specific shuffle and its myriad associated variables, and other factors, such as the tracker's betting patterns. Various studies estimate that the advantage obtainable is between 1-4%, though many shuffles are not worthwhile tracking at all, just as many games of blackjack do not deal out enough cards to make it worthwhile for a card counter. My own experience with shuffle-tracking suggests an advantage of about 1.5%.

Can a casino do anything about shuffle-trackers? Not really. One tracker can identify another, so they could teach their employees to recognize this skill. But casino employees usually don't even know the most rudimentary advantage play techniques. Of course, any player who wins too much will get barred eventually, but from the casino's point of view, it's too late by then. That does not mean casinos should get hysterical about shuffle-trackers. Very few are successful. Meddling in a science that is still barely understood is a dangerous thing, as science experimentation can often lead to the experiment blowing up in your face.

A thousand things can go wrong for the shuffle-tracker. Another player might cut a bunch of low cards into play. That clump of aces and tens might end up largely going to the dealer. Your estimate of the location of a high card slug might be wrong in the heat of the moment. The dealer might drop a card or two here or there. Even if you can estimate the approximate location of a high card slug, your assessment of your advantage may be inaccurate and lead to bankroll wipeout.

If I were truly unscrupulous, I'd open a casino and reserve blackjack tables with complex shuffles exclusively for shuffle-trackers. And I'd expect to make a profit.


For more information about blackjack, we recommend:

Get the Edge at Blackjack by John May
Best Blackjack by Frank Scoblete
The Morons of Blackjack and Other Monsters! by Frank Scoblete
Winning Strategies at Blackjack! Video tape hosted by Academy Award Winner James Coburn, Written by Frank Scoblete
Twenty-First Century Blackjack: New Strategies for a New Millennium by Walter Thomason
Blackjack: Take the Money and Run by Henry Tamburin
Blackjack Bluebook: The Right Stuff for the Serious Player by Fred Renzey
John May
John May is one of the most feared gamblers in the world. He has developed "advantage play" techniques for many games that are considered unbeatable.

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