Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Mathletes’ Revenge

December 9th, 2009 · 8 Comments

We’re eternally fascinated by athletes whose skills are so spectacular, the powers-that-be of their respective sports feel compelled to change the ground rules in order to preserve some modicum of fairness. (See: Wilt Chamberlain and the widening of the lane, the recent “Tiger Proofing” of golf courses.) Now something similar is going on in the world of low-brow blackjack, and we must say we sympathize with the small fry on this one:

Grand Victoria Casino and Resort in Rising Sun, supported by the association that represents 11 of the state’s 12 casinos, last week asked the Indiana Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that forces them to allow Thomas Donovan to play blackjack, even though the Indianapolis man admits he is counting cards…

Donovan’s case stems from a blackjack game at the Grand Victoria in June 2006. Casino staff spotted him counting cards and barred him from playing.

Donovan filed suit in September 2007, and Marion Superior Court Judge Robyn Moberly ruled in favor of the casino.

But on Oct. 30, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Moberly’s decision, allowing Donovan and other card counters access to the state’s casinos.

The three-judge panel said Indiana has no law, rule or regulation that prohibits card counting at the state’s casinos. Until the laws or regulations change, the court ruled, card counters have the right to play.

This strikes us as a slam-dunk win for the plaintiff, a retired programmer who clams his math wizardry nets him a relatively paltry $6,000 each yeat at Indiana’s gaming tables. Casinos shouldn’t enjoy the same rule-changing latitude as professional sports leagues, since the nature of their contract with players is quite different—they take money, rather than pay out regular salaries. Plus they’re in the business of providing entertainment to the players themselves, not to spectators, which means they’re under no obligation to make their games more watchable.

By the way, we once tried counting cards at a blackjack table. Though Donovan claims the feat is so easy a seventh grader could do it, we got completely lost. The four Long Island Iced Teas we consumed during our session probably didn’t aid our concentration.


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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    To say it’s that easy Donovan must be using the Hi-Lo method. This method from Derren Brown works pretty well (With a little practice you can memorize a deck of cards in about 7-8 minutes).

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I don’t think I have the mental faculties to pull off such a casino stunt–even if I was stone-cold sober. While I understand the principles and can sort them out given enough time, the blackjack pace is just so frenetic–I feel like I’d flail in real time.

    In other words, I wish I was much smarter–something I often feel upon realizing that I suck at chess, too.

  • Jordan

    Some people seem to be good at math, some people aren’t so good. Thankfully, much like the ability to spell,The doesn’t seem to be any correlation between overall intelligence and specific abilities. A very few people can be very good at a lot of things, but even smart people usually only shine in a few.

    Speaking of math, after listening to a Radiolab episode about numbers in which they talked about how our brains are originally wired to think about numbers in a logarithmic (in terms of ratios) fasion rather than a linear fashion (the space between 1 and 2 is the same as between 2 and 3), I’m wondering if it might not be better to teach math more like a foreign language. You’re basically talking about two different ways of expressing the same ideas (though the latter is more useful than the former), so it seems like that might be a more effective strategy than rote memorization.

  • Gramsci

    That approach would make a lot of sense, especially for the people I’ve met who are able to talk brilliantly about intricate music theory (with all its harmonics, chords, octaves, ratios, etc.) but who think math is too technical for them. I think the problem institutionally is that the people who are teaching math are the ones who thrived with the old pedagogy, and the ones that could create a new pedagogy are still convinced they suck at math. We need more “Godel, Escher, Bach” kinds of thinking.

  • J.D. Connor

    While it may be a slam-dunk legally, part of the beauty of the gaming industry is its ready access to, ahem, extra-legal means of persuasion that can be deployed against patrons who upset what they regard as the natural order. The entertainment you are entitled to is the pleasure of losing your money slowly.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @J.D. Connor: Indeed, I believe the gaming industry’s willingness to limit losses at all costs is best summed up by a line from Casino: “You can either have the money and the hammer, or you can walk out of here.”

    How I wish that scene was available on The Tubes…

  • Josh Axelrad

    Brendan – I found your blog because of this post (I was searching for stuff on the Donovan case) and I’m glad I did. It’s great.

    You nailed the whole issue in observing that casinos take money rather than pay it out. That is indeed their function. Card counting contributes to that function, which is why it still exists. While counting is legitimate and does work, on the whole it represents a net benefit to the casino industry because it’s pumped up blackjack revenues (from wannabe counters, whose numbers greatly exceed those of competent counters) since 1962. It lures suckers to the game and makes blackjack more profitable than it would be otherwise. The beatability of blackjack is central to its appeal. That’s what makes casinos’ habit of 86ing people who can actually win so outrageous. It’s pure bait and switch.

    On the other hand, did we honestly expect any better from the industry that brought us the complimentary cocktail?

    I’m a counter myself who has composed an overly long screed on the Donovan situation here, in case you’re interested:


  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Josh Axelrad: Thanks for checking out Microkhan, and for the great comment.

    Good point re: long-terms benefits of counting to the gaming industry. Agreed, there are certainly far more folks who flub these counting systems, and thus end up losing gobs of money. The folks like Donovan are a tiny minority, and not a particularly deleterious one at that–$6k a year in winnings is absolute peanuts.

    I actually have a close relative who is a professional gambler (tho blackjack isn’t one of his games). He told me something a while back that stuck with me–“There’s a big difference between a professional and a degenerate.” How true.

    Added your blog to my roll. Looking forward to checking in on it regularly.