Dealer Tells and Hole Carding in Blackjack
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word tell to mean (among other things):
"...an unconscious action that is thought to betray an attempted deception."
Most people have heard of "tells" from the world of poker, where players give away their true intentions while attempting to bluff or act in some other way deceptively. Blackjack players may not realize that it is possible to find dealer tells that can make a significant different in game strategy.
You won't find dealer tells on every hand, but you might find enough to make a statistical different in your winnings.
Spotting tells is all about noticing a person's mannerisms, finding patterns in their regular behavior, and looking for inconsistencies in those patterns. These inconsistencies are referred to as "tells," and they generally indicate either a particularly high or low hand.
Since players can act decisively to change their odds when the dealer has a high or a low hand, these tells are valuable. Tells are the best way to know when a player is bluffing, when a player has nothing, and when a player really does have a high-value hand.
Why do tells happen?
Deep down, most of us don't want to lie, and we can't cover up all the physical manifestations of lying when we bluff or try to cover up the truth. Some people smile when they bluff, others will wiggle their nose, and others get chatty or aggressive. By paying a little attention and learning to recognize mannerisms and vocal patterns that indicate a tell, you can take advantage of human nature and give yourself a big advantage at the blackjack table.
Common Blackjack Dealer Tells
These aren't by any means the only blackjack dealer tells – they're just 3 examples of common behaviors that you can look out for at your next blackjack table:
Dealers who want to act with players (hoping for big tips) are happy to bust. This dealer will sometimes even smile or act cheerfully when they say a low card under a ten, or get upset if they see a high hole card.
This tell lets you know that the dealer is on your side, and might even be sloppily giving away a hole card. (We discuss hole carding in more detail below.)
You can also use this tell as an opposite measure – dealers who are against the players are usually happy when you bust out and sad to see low cards under their aces.
When you have a dealer checking her hole card two or three times, you should expect a high hole card. That's because the difference between a numeral and a letter is more noticeable, and they should only need to look once if it's a numeral.
If instead it's a face card, she might need to check again to differentiate a K from an A.
Look where the dealer places her cards after she checks her hole card – if she places them slightly to her right, it's a subtle sign that she has a low hole card and expects to take a hit from the show.
If she places her deck more toward the center of the table, she probably has a pat hand and won't need the extra room it takes to take a hit from the shoe.
How to Exploit a Blackjack Dealer Tell
If you can read a dealer's tells, you can tell if the dealer's hole card is high or low.
That means you can predict a bust or pat hand, and act accordingly, with greater insight than the traditional blackjack strategy chart.
In most casinos, the dealer won't check her hole card until after every player has completed their hands. A tell in this situation is useless. Remember, though, that if the dealer is showing an ace or any 10-point card, she has to check that hole card for a blackjack before any other play takes place.
When the dealer checks the hole card, she learns the value of his hand, and that knowledge exhibits itself in her behavior. Look for the dealer's expression to change, watch where her eyes rest, watch where her hands go, watch to see if she wipes her brow or picks her nose.
Some players find that hesitating before making a decision can help draw out a dealer's tell. Eventually, if you watch closely enough, a pattern emerges, and if you stay in the game long enough, you can exploit that pattern.
So how do you exploit it?
Imagine that you're holding a hand worth 15 against a dealer 10. According to basic strategy, you should surrender. However, if you can read tells, and you're confident that the dealer is holding a bust hand, the better move would be to hold still and wait to collect your win when he busts.
One method of taking advantage of a dealer's mannerisms—hole carding-doesn't require any psychology at all.
The simplest definition of hole carding says that it's "the act of obtaining knowledge of cards that are supposed to be hidden from view."
It means literally looking at the dealer's hole card at the right time, hoping for a combination of a sloppy dealer and a wise and seasoned hole-carder. A player who can see the dealer's hole card gains a theoretical advantage against the house of as much as 13%, depending on strategy.
That's an unheard of edge on any casino floor.
Understandably, casinos aren't happy to find hole carding going on at their tables.
But the practice seems to be totally legal.
A famous case in 1983 involving the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas went all the way to Nevada's Supreme Court. The justices in that body found that "...the conduct did not constitute a violation of the cheating statutes."
That's because hole carding involves nothing more than finding a sloppy dealer, sitting in the right place, and looking in the right place at the right time. There is nothing illegal about any of that.
The legality of hole carding may not matter much if you get caught, or if the casino senses that you're doing something to manipulate the results. Remember that casinos can kick you out for any reason (or for no reason at all).
While it's not as bad as spending a night in jail or having your bones broken by a guy named Knuckles, being asked to leave is embarrassing, and it cuts you off from your juicy dealer tell or hole carding opportunity.
Now that we've learned about hole carding and the law, it's time to figure out how to put together a successful hole carding campaign.
There are just two steps:
Finding Good Blackjack Games for Hole Carding
So how do you scout for good hole carding opportunities?
You look for 3 things:
Within a few minutes of Googling, we were able to research weaknesses in two common shuffling machines (the Shufflemaster Ace and the iDeal) that make it incredibly easy to read the dealer's hole card.
In both cases, the machine itself is manufactured in such a way as to almost require the reveal of the card.
Casinos and game tables should be designed to put shuffling machines out of the view of gamblers.
But that's not always the case.
Shuffler machines designed to sit on top of the table, or forced on top of the table by the table's design, are ideal for the hole-carder. With most shufflers sitting at first base (thanks to dealer familiarity with dealing from a hoe) they're vulnerable from the most positions around the table.
It's almost as if these casinos want the hole card to be visible.
You have to look for a small but consistent and revealing procedural problem. Some dealers grip the cards the wrong way, showing just enough of the symbol to give it away. Sometimes you'll see dealers raising their cards too high, or turning their wrist out. All a hole-carder needs is a glimpse of the hole card to gain an edge.
Advantage gamblers like blackjack because plenty of mathematicians and other big thinkers have already worked out the house edge and ideal playing strategies. There's less thinking required to stick to proper blackjack strategy than in a game like poker. Combining an ability to scout for vulnerable dealers and tables with this built-in rigid strategic system is a recipe for blackjack success, online or in a traditional land-based casino.
To succeed at taking advantage of things like dealer tells and reveals, you have to combine traditional game preparation with hours of scouting and research and the perfect moment in time.