Regarding Ben Affleck and his supposed card counting at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas: How smart do you have to be to count cards? What do you need to keep in your head? How common is it?
First, a quick recap. Last week, while getting some R&R in Vegas before starting work on "Batman vs. Superman," Affleck got into a kerfuffle at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for trying to bring down the house.
"Security said, 'We have to stop you because you are too good,'" a source close to Affleck recounts. "The hotel was really nice. They told him he could play other games and ended up getting him and [wife] Jennifer [Garner] a car back to their hotel."
As a casino rep assured Yahoo, "Mr. Affleck, a valued guest of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, is not banned from our property and is welcome back any time." Just not at the blackjack tables. So what's his secret... and is it illegal?
Put it this way: Affleck, 41, may have made some dunderheaded choices in his career — "Gigli" and "Jersey Girl" come to mind. But when it comes to playing 21, there's likely some above-average action going on in that handsome man melon of his.
"Look," says Steve Marshall, a veteran casino consultant at The Fine Point Group, "a lot of people claim to count cards, but they're not really. They just sit down and try to keep up with how many face cards are coming out."
Dr. David Schwartz, director for the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, tells me, "Basically you’re tracking how many aces and 10s are left in the deck. The more there are left in the deck, the more beneficial it is for the player."
In contrast, what Affleck supposedly did at the Hard Rock blackjack tables — essentially being "too good," resulting in his ban from the game at that establishment— required much more know-how and practice.
Real card counters develop complex mathematical systems to determine which cards might come out of a shoe and when. We're talking formulae so dense that it can take, say, a team of MIT students to tip the odds in a player's favor.
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"It depends on what kind of game you're playing," Marshall explains. "There are a wide variety of approaches, depending on whether you're working with a six-deck shoe all the way down to a more common double-deck situation which wouldn't necessarily be that difficult to observe and count.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world to do," Marshall says, "but in general, hard-core card counters either assign a basic value to a card — a value they then use to determine how much to bet — or they attempt a 'Rain Man'-esque tally of every card as it arrives."
However, "It’s not like 'Rain Man,' where you automatically know what the next card is going to be," adds Schwartz. "It's taking a game that has a 2 percent advantage to the house and giving that 2 percent advantage to the player. A 2 percent edge doesn't sound like a lot, but it adds up over time, if you have a big enough bankroll to weather the swings in the house's direction. That's why the house usually wins. They have the bankroll.
"It doesn't require a lot of advanced mathematics," continues Schwarz, "but with card counting you really need good concentration. It's not guaranteed that the player will win even if he is counting cards."
Besides, Marshall says, "you do need to be fairly intelligent" to do it. "And you need to practice it to master those techniques. It's not something you can just walk into casino and do."
Which is why most blackjack fans don't even bother to try authentic card counting. Also, while it's not illegal, it's not tolerated on the Strip. Those who get caught get bounced from the tables, and word tends to spread around town when a card counter is identified. But it's doubtful the blackjack ban will keep Affleck away; his A-game is poker, a hobby that catapulted him to California state championship status in 2004, as well as a seat at the 2008 World Series of Poker.
And besides, he has a Batman movie to prep for — definitely a safer way to make money, don't you think?
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Leslie Gornstein is an entertainment writer and the host of the weekly Hollywood gossip podcast The Fame Fatale.