Card counting, Loss of insect life and others

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Card counting is legal and skillful - it is casinos that 'cheat'

Card counting is legal and skillful - it is casinos that 'cheat'

Sir: Your report "Three held over £1.3m Ritz roulette 'fraud'" (23 March) fails to differentiate between collusion with a croupier, which is clearly fraudulent, and card counting at blackjack, which is neither fraudulent, illegal nor against the rules.

The basis of blackjack is that, on average, the casino has a 2-3 per cent advantage over the player if - and only if - the player makes plays according to "basic strategy" (the best decision among standing, taking another card, splitting identical cards, or doubling his bet if his two-card total is nine, 10 or 11, all based on the dealer's and the player's cards: there are some 220 permutations). If the player fails to make that best play (which is what virtually every blackjack player I have ever watched does, apart from a handful of experts), the casino's advantage will increase greatly.

By law, all UK casinos must use six decks of cards; the player can decrease the casino's advantage (to the extent whereby the player has an advantage) by estimating whether the cards still to be played from the remainder of the six decks have more or fewer 10-value cards, and then changing his play and the amount he bets accordingly. That estimation is achieved by "card counting". It requires considerable knowledge, skill and discipline. It is certainly not cheating or trickery, and it is not illegal either here or in the US.

There has been considerable court action in the US about both card counting at blackjack and the use of electronic aids at roulette: decisions have been virtually unanimous that card counting is the legitimate deployment of skill and expertise, and the use of electronic aids is fraudulent.

It still doesn't stop US casinos banning or hounding out card counters, and UK casinos have the luxury of requiring every player to be a member and, therefore, the ability to terminate membership if a player deploys his skill and expertise. Which means that our casinos have the ability (via electronic surveillance) to determine who is a skillful player and who is an unskillful player, and the right to ban the skillful ones! That sounds like "cheating and trickery" to me.
Name and address supplied

Sudden loss of our insect life

Sir: Having been an avid birdwatcher most of my life, spending a lot of time "in the field", I'm acutely aware that since the 1950s and 1960s there's been a massive reduction in the insect population ("Why Britain's disappearing butterflies may be early victims of the sixth mass extinction", 19 March).

Species such as stag, dor, soldier and devil's coach-horse beetle, earwig, centipede and cockchafer, once common, have all but disappeared, while bees, wasps, bluebottles, houseflies, grasshoppers, butterflies, craneflies and froghoppers (cuckoo-spit) have declined alarmingly. The list goes on. And the familiar "splat" of night-flying insects, notably moths, on the car windscreen on summer evenings has decreased dramatically.

Some people will welcome the demise of "creepy crawlies", especially on picnics, but cut insects out of the food chain and it's no surprise what is happening to birds. In evolutionary terms, it has happened in the blink of an eye and sadly, almost entirely due to human activities.


Sir: The trouble with trying to preserve museum landscapes is having to choose the period to be preserved. Ray Steele (letter, "Why we will rue the loss of Britain's ancient forests," 24 March) favours sessile oak, and Exmoor National Park does contain lovely combes where this species predominates.

But, equally, if "ancient" is the watchword, should we consider replanting parts of Exmoor to Scots pine, once the predominant species? Or ripping out the hundreds of miles of Exmoor beech hedges because beech is not native and was brought by the Romans? Should livestock farmers discontinue maize silage because maize is not native?

Our softwood industry has stalled because there is no market for thinnings which used to go for paper pulp or chipboard, because we have so improved our recycling habits that these industries now obtain their raw materials from newspapers and chipped pallets respectively, at lower cost and with better environmental practice.

We should look to Denmark for improved forestry practice. Their percentage of woodland is about the same as ours and their forestry sector thrives. Softwood thinnings are harvested for energy and thinning pays for itself as a fuel oil replacement. A tonne of oven-dry wood replaces 400 litres of fuel oil and there is a net full-cycle saving of 1072kg of atmospheric carbon. According to Eurostat (four-year-old figures) Denmark derives 10.6 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. The UK ? 1.1 per cent.

Five miles from Mr Steele, we heat our farmhouse with a Danish boiler, burning chipped hazel and willow coppice. Next year we will have three-quarters of an acre of clear-cut land to replant but we will not be planting sessile oak. We as a nation import softwood building timber to the tune of £8bn a year. When we build on this farm we don't even consider the local builder's merchants who stock perfectly good Canadian, Russian and Swedish timber but go straight to the local sawmill and order local Douglas fir. It is lovely stuff to build with. It creates local employment at all stages of its growth. Sustainability has more than one dimension and self-sufficiency will never be served by sessile oak.

Shirwell, Devon

Sir: There are some simple measures gardeners can take to arrest the decline of garden bird species ("Decline of starling makes sparrow Britain's top bird," 25 March). Putting out food is all well and good, but if the traditional garden has been "Ground Forced" into a wildlife desert of extended patio, hard paving, woodchip borders and gravel laid over plastic sheeting, then many birds will continue to suffer.

From close observation over several years, the following steps really do help birds. Retain as much lawn and flowerbed as possible. Birds use them to forage for seeds, insects and larvae. At this time of year, they collect dead stems and foliage to build nests. Preserve shrubs, trees and dense cover. Birds require cover of varying heights at regular intervals in order to feel safe. One of the best trees/hedges to plant is hawthorn; tall-growing ivy, once large enough to support nests, is also excellent; and old, tangled rose bushes are remarkably attractive to birds.

If you must use slug pellets, make them completely inaccessible to foraging birds. Birds such as sparrows eat them and die as a result. And think twice before employing the services of a cat.

London E17

Hamas hypocrisy

Sir: I am not Jewish, and find many of Mr Sharon's actions reprehensible. However for Jack Straw to denounce the assassination of Hamas leader Yassin as a contravention of international law is the height of hypocrisy.

Having instigated a war which, at the very least, stretched international law to its limit, killed untold thousands of Iraqis, and was, we increasingly discover, founded on a tissue of half-truths if not downright lies, he is hardly in a position to claim any kind of moral high ground. In a world that becomes more frighteningly unstable and dangerous by the week, such vacuous posturing does nothing to help.

I wonder what we would do with a fellow who openly declared his intention to destroy the UK, and regularly sent suicide bombers to the heart of London, killing (in relative proportion) two hundred people each time. Send in the SAS and offer him tea and biscuits I suppose.

Middle Barton, Oxfordshire

Sir: Matthew Hoffman (Opinion, 23 March) argues on the killing of Shiekh Yassin that, "If targeted assassination of the leaders of those who are trying to kill you is illegal in international law, then international law in this respect is itself wrong."

Does this only apply if one is Israeli? Last time I checked, about three times more Palestinian civilians had been killed during the Intifada than Israeli, and those not by radical individuals but by the military of a democratically elected government. Does this give the Palestinians the right to kill the leaders of Israel?


Sir: P J Stewart's letter of 19 March takes a rather rosy view of the experience of Jewish communities that previously lived under various Middle Eastern despots.

The fact that the votes of these communities overwhelmingly go to the "hawks" on the Israeli political scene seems to indicate that they and their descendants do not view things in quite the same light. Indeed, it is the other Jewish communities in Israel (the "European" Jews as P J Stewart calls them) that are the main supporters of a more conciliatory line towards Arab neighbours, be it via the left-wing parties or organisations such as Peace Now.

As for the failure of the so called European Jews to fit into the Middle East, is P J Stewart suggesting that Israelis should abandon democracy for a feudal kingship or military dictatorship; abandon the rule of law for arbitrary fiat; abandon all realistic concepts of equality for women and then slash their GDP by two thirds for good measure? That's what it would take for Israel to "fit in" with its neighbours.

London EC1

Arms to Libya

Sir: Libya, after months of painstaking negotiation and diplomacy with the UK (we are told), has voluntarily given up its "weapons of mass destruction" and abandoned its "nuclear weapons programme". As a reward the arms embargo on Libya "is expected to be lifted. . . its armed forces will benefit from Western weaponry and training"("Blair hails Gaddafi's courage and offers 'hand in partnership'," 25 March).

As with Saddam, who hosted US and British ministers in the 1980s, when we have armed Libya with state-of-the-art weapons, the country will no doubt be declared the most dangerous state on the planet, Gaddafi will be the most dangerous man since Hitler - the Butcher of Benghazi, Tyrant of Tripoli - and, like Afghanistan and Iraq, Libya will be flattened and the US and UK will move in, grab the oil and award themselves lucrative "rebuilding" contracts.

London E9

Mother's tragedy

Sir: I was baffled to read of a mother of three young children described as "unemployed" ("A poster girl for the socially excluded", 23 March). Anyone who has spent any time with young children will easily see that it is not employment that she lacks.

It is a mystery to me also how anyone can conclude that children in such a situation would be helped by depriving them during daytime hours of the main stabilising and loving influence in their lives by forcing their mother into some kind of paid employment.

The triumph of Courtney and other women like her is it seems to me that she loved her children enough to carry them to term in adverse circumstances and to want to be with them and bring them up, rather than quietly doing away with them and "getting on with life".

The tragedy is that she did not receive and is still not receiving the message that she is worthwhile for herself as a unique person not as a function of either who she is sleeping with or how much she can earn.


Urban manners

Sir: I must object to the letters from Patrick Powell (20 March) and J S Curtis (23 March) on road manners.

I live in south-east London, where we have plenty of roads with cars parked on each side. Drivers need to give way to get through. This morning on my way to work I had 12 such encounters. In all of these except two the other driver thanked me, or where they had waited for me, acknowledged my thanks in return.

We all have our prejudices about ill-mannered drivers, but I am unhappy that anyone should use them to feed the "rural good - urban bad" feeling that I detect creeping into articles and letters in The Independent.

I write as a Westcountryman who loves both living in London and spending time visiting family in Devon.

London SE9

Honest politician

Sir: Peter Plotts (letters, 25 March) asks why we should accord credibility to the pronouncements of Jimmy Carter, a "proved incompetent". Because he is at least an honest man, honesty being in doubt with today's incompetents.


Cars are the killers

Sir: While cyclists should, of course, be considerate and law abiding, Ruth Brandon's condemnation of cyclists is too harsh ("Can anything stop the new breed of boy-racer cyclists?", 23 March). In 2002, only 167 pedestrians were injured in collisions with cyclists, but 35,027 were injured in collisions with motor vehicles. Why not focus the rage on the vehicles doing the harm?

Policy and Campaigns Officer
Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety
London SW1

Kennedy conspiracy

Sir: The whispering campaign against Charles Kennedy is a little strange. I am not a Lib Dem member, voter or supporter, but it raises my suspicions when the only leader of a major party who opposed the war is the subject of an attempt to destabilise him. How long before he is replaced by a more "acceptable" figure?

London SW2

Take no notice

Sir: Further to the correspondence on misleading signs, a church near us promotes planned giving and provides envelopes for Sunday School children's weekly collection. However I was troubled by the child protection issues raised by the notice displayed over the stock of envelopes: "If your child has run out, please take another."

Barnston, Merseyside