Yes, Card Counting Is Illegal in California

Man Counting on Fingers, Casino Cards, Emblem of the State of California

The myth that card counting is illegal has been busted again and again. You normally aren’t violating any laws simply by counting cards.

I use the word “normally,” though, because California does effectively ban card counting. The Golden State has a certain penal code that makes counting cards illegal.

You can keep reading to find out more about this odd law along with how you’re okay to count cards pretty much anywhere else.

Why Counting Cards Is Legal in Other States

Every gaming jurisdiction bans cheating in casino games. If you’re caught cheating anywhere, you’ll face fines and potential jail time.

Using skill to beat a casino game, however, is a different story. Almost no jurisdiction makes it illegal to win money through skill.

Card counting falls under the skill-based category. It’s a difficult method that involves tracking card values and raising bets when the count is in your favor.

When done right, card counting can provide between a 0.5% and 1.5% edge over the house. You won’t win in every session with such a slim advantage, but you’ll earn blackjack profits over time.

Why Do People Think Card Counting Is Illegal?

Counting cards might not be illegal. Nevertheless, casinos still have the right to throw you out if they suspect that you’re counting.

Nearly every market gives gaming establishments this privilege. Casinos are private businesses that can refuse service to anybody, for any reason.

Atlantic City is the one exception to the norm. Due to the ruling in a 1982 case (Uston v. Resorts International), casinos aren’t allowed to ban gamblers based on skill alone.

Players Around a Blackjack Table

Outside of Atlantic City, though, gaming venues can kick gamblers out just for being good enough to beat them. This creates the perception that card counting is somehow illegal.

Again, nothing is wrong with counting cards almost everywhere you go. People only believe this myth due to how casinos can boot advantage gamblers.

The Golden State Has Strict Rules on Card Games

California features a gaming market that revolves around tribal casinos. Various tribes have negotiated compacts with Sacramento to offer casino games.

The Golden State has some weird rules involving gaming. Most notably, casinos aren’t allowed to offer games that feature dice or a wheel. This exclusion of traditional craps and roulette isn’t the only odd rule.

California also has a set of rules that essentially bar card counting. According to Penal Code 337v, a gambler can’t use any of the following skills to beat the house:

  • Projecting the outcome of a gambling game.
  • Keeping track of the cards played.
  • Analyzing the probability of the occurrence of an event relating to a gambling game.
  • Analyzing the strategy for playing or wagering to be used in the gambling game, with the exception of those permitted by the California Gambling Control Commission or tribal gaming regulators.

Why California’s Laws Effectively Ban Card Counting

Blackjack card counting involves keeping track of card values as a shoe is being dealt. The goal is to figure out when the shoe contains more aces and 10-value cards than normal.

When this is the case, you’ll have a better shot at getting natural blackjacks. Furthermore, the dealer will stand a higher chance of busting out when hitting to a soft or hard 17.

You want to raise your bets with a hot shoe. This way, you’ll have more money on the table when the odds are in your favor.

In no way are you cheating when tracking card values. Instead, you’re simply using a combination of skill and the nature of blackjack to win.

California, however, sees the matter differently. Its gambling laws are specifically crafted to ban counting cards.

You’re not allowed to “keep track of the cards played” in the Golden State. Furthermore, you’re not legally able to “project the outcome of a gambling game.”

Card counting is impossible if you can’t track the values. After all, you must assign each type of card a numerical value. For example, A-10 would have a -1 value; 7-9 would be worth 0 (neutral); and 2-6 would be worth +1.

Pair of Aces and Casino Chips

2-6 have a positive count because you want these cards coming out of the deck. They help the house more than they help you.

Again, though, the Golden State deems it illegal to use this sort of advantage play. It wants you playing by the book and using basic strategy.

Will You Be Arrested for Counting Cards in California?

This state outlaws the components of card counting in its penal code. Therefore, a prosecutor could technically bring a case against you for using this advantage-play method. Nevertheless, you’re highly unlikely to be arrested for counting.

Law enforcement would have a difficult time proving that you were counting cards in the first place. You could simply say that you weren’t counting, and the casino mistakenly identified you as an advantage gambler.

Secondly, Penal Code 337v is mostly a scare tactic to protect tribal gaming revenue and its contributions to the state. Law enforcement fully realizes that you’re not committing the felony to end all felonies in this case.

The most-likely scenario is that you’ll be kicked out of the respective casino and banned. These punishments will likely be enough for the acting casino rather than pursuing a criminal case.

The Good News Is that You Can Count Cards Virtually Anywhere Else

You take your chances when trying to count cards at a CA tribal casino. As covered above, the Golden State specifically bans this type of advantage gambling.

Luckily, though, you can exercise your right to count cards virtually anywhere else. The vast majority of jurisdictions are fine with skill-based gaming from a legal standpoint.

Everywhere from Las Vegas to Maryland allows card counting. “Allows” is a strong word, though, because the casinos themselves don’t permit this type of advantage play.

The point, however, is that you’re not violating any laws by counting cards. You’re simply relying on your own skills to try and beat the house.

Of course, just because you count cards doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to win. Card counting is difficult when factoring in the speed of the live game.

You may find yourself eventually losing track of the count. Without a proper count, you won’t know when to raise bets and capitalize on your perspective edge.

The good thing, though, is that counting isn’t overly difficult to learn. You can master the Hi-Lo system in a matter of minutes.

After learning the Hi-Lo or another system, you can practice it to improve your abilities. With enough practice, you’ll eventually be able to keep up with the game speed.

Casinos Can Still Try to Stop You from Counting

Your counting skills aren’t the only aspect to winning profits through blackjack. You also have to worry about the casino looking out for advantage players.

Ever since card counting became well known in the 1960s, gaming establishments have been on the lookout for it. They’ll throw out and ban anybody caught counting.

Blackjack table

The key tool that casinos use to catch advantage players involves the bet spread. A bet spread refers to how much your wagers vary from the table’s minimum during a favorable count.

Here’s an example:

  • You’re playing at a blackjack table with a $5 minimum bet.
  • The count reaches +4, meaning the shoe is really in your favor.
  • You raise your bet to $75 to capitalize.
  • 75 / 5 = 15
  • Your bet spread is 1-to-15 in this case.

You start off a counting session by placing the table’s minimum wager. This way, you minimize losses when the count isn’t in your favor.

The goal is to determine when the count is positive, meaning the shoe has a disproportionately high number of aces and 10’s. You also want this higher positive count to occur later in the shoe when you can have more confidence while placing bigger bets.

Every pit boss across America is aware that basic card counting involves raising bets later in a shoe. However, some casinos are more lenient than others before giving advantage players heat. The goal is to find and play in these casinos so that you have a better chance of winning.

Our Thoughts

California is a strange anomaly when it comes to card counting. It’s the only jurisdiction that flat-out bans counting cards.

As if it doesn’t already have strange enough laws when considering the no-dice and no-ball rules, it goes even further by outlawing card counting.

Of course, none of this is to say that you can’t have a good time when playing at CA tribal casinos. You should be aware, though, that California prohibits this advantage play method.

Fortunately, you can count cards legally in every other jurisdiction. You just want to take steps to ensure that you’re not caught and banned from lots of different casinos.