Student card counters try to beat odds

Students learn how to count cards in an attempt to increase their chances of making a profit.

Christopher Aadland

Student coaches on the craft of card counting meet with a group of about a dozen fellow classmates in a crammed Pioneer Hall dorm room once a week — but not for an underground gambling ring.

The new school group, Card Counting at the University of Minnesota, aims to teach rookies the fundamentals of counting cards and to help the more experienced members sharpen their skills through imitating card games, like blackjack, where counting may give players an advantage.

Card counting is a technique in which blackjack and other card game players try to keep track of cards dealt in an attempt to increase their chances of breaking even or making a profit.

The group’s president, Mark Ruprecht, a mathematics and statistics freshman and self-proclaimed avid blackjack player, said the group’s long-term goal is to attract more members and to improve its skill level to the point where it can create its own method of counting.

He said counting cards not only increases a player’s chances of turning a profit, but it also stimulates the mind.

The group tries to emphasize the mathematical aspect of counting, Ruprecht said, because sharp arithmetic and statistics skills will help players analyze odds on the spot and make smart bets.

“If you’re into stats, it’s really interesting,” he said. “It’s all based on statistics.”

Cale McElroy, one of the group’s officers, said the 2008 film “21,” which was based off a real group of card-counting students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of the inspirations for the group’s creators.

Ruprecht said there wasn’t any concern from the University when the group tried to establish itself, emphasizing that the group doesn’t advocate for gambling or wagering with money during group meetings on campus.

While the group doesn’t encourage gambling or play with money at its meetings, its members don’t deny that many of them enjoy gambling.

Some students in the group occasionally test out the counting techniques that they learn on blackjack tables in local gaming venues, Ruprecht said.

“I don’t want to have a passion that’s going to be taking money from me,” he said. “Why go [to a casino] if you know you’re going to lose, and you don’t take the time to make the odds in your favor?”

Counters vs. casinos

Although counting cards isn’t illegal, casinos try to prevent players from cheating the system. Often, casino officials will kick out or ban gamblers who they suspect are counting cards.

Counters and casinos are engaged in a constant game of trying to outwit one another, said Bill Zender, a casino consultant, former professional blackjack player and former agent on the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Casinos exist because they make money through stacking the odds against players, McElroy said, and gamblers sometimes try to counteract that by counting cards.

“I look at [counting] as part of the game,” Zender said. “The casino is there to take your money, and you’re there to take money from the casinos.”

Zender argued casinos overreact when it comes to counting in their casinos because they make most of their funds through games like slot machines.

Card counting isn’t seen as a serious threat to casinos’ business models, he said.

And while the University students attempt to reach the next level of counting by outsmarting casinos in the constant cat-and-mouse game, Vender said there’s much more to gaming the casinos out of large sums of money.

Gamblers like the MIT students were highly successful with their counting because they were well-organized and funded by outside investors, he said.

“It had nothing to do with them being a bunch of smart college kids,” he said.

Despite the University group’s desire to perfect the practice, McElroy said he hopes to provide members with a fun environment for playing cards that doesn’t carry any consequences or pressure to make money.

“The counting aspect adds a little bit more fun for me rather than just sitting there and watching [dealers] flip over cards,” he said.