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Blackjack is the only casino game where the player has an advantage over the house. "Counters" - players who manage to count the cards as dealt - can, in favourable circumstances, obtain an advantage of one per cent or so. Over the short haul, this is not significant. But if you shoot, say, 100,000 hands a year, you will surely win.

Or will you? Casinos are terrified of counters and ban them, or disrupt their play by frequent shuffling. The principle of counting is simple. When there are more 10-value cards than low cards left in the shoe, play favours the player, because the dealer is liable to go bust on hitting stiffs. When that situation occurs, players should increase their stakes. When the converse holds, they should bet the minimum.

The guru of blackjack is Californian Arnold Snyder, who signs his commentaries with the well-chosen sobriquet "the Bishop". At this level, blackjack is almost a religious commitment. In a recent sermon, the Bishop warned that few professionals can make a living. To make $50,000 a year, a counter must play 1,000 hours (at 100 hands an hour) with an expectation of $50-an-hour profit.

A piece of cake, right? Not so, says the Bishop. First, there is the difficulty of finding "good" games, and secondly there are travel expenses, hardly less than $15,000 a year. So, with an edge of one per cent, the counter needs to win $65,000. A player may manage this with a betting spread of $25-$100 and a bankroll (crucial factor) of $30,000. But with a standard deviation of 0.5 per cent, it is possible that his stake would be lost long before the year was out.

Nowadays, counters concentrate on techniques such as "spooking", which is waiting by a table for a favourable count and then jumping in with a big bet, or "shuffle tracking" - following clumps of cards from the shuffle, to identify a sequence in advance of the deal. It's not fun, it's a hard grind, with an extremely uncertain result.

For true believers, the Bishop's quarterly Blackjack Forum, and his manuals on the single and multi-deck games, are obtainable from the Gambler's Book Club, 630 South 11th Street, Las Vegas, Nevada 89101 (fax: (702) 382-7594).

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