But card counters have to be really good: One mistake an hour could swing the advantage back to the house. And casinos don't mind that. "If you're not perfect at card counting, you can still lose money," Jonas said. "They'll watch you count cards and if you make any mistake they'll just let you play."
They might even let a good counter continue to play if he or she is part of the entourage of a high roller who's losing millions.
If the counter makes $20,000 off the casino while his buddy loses millions, for the casino it's just part of the cost of doing business.
Card counting teams from MIT made millions off Vegas and have since been immortalized in a book and film. The MIT team's innovation was to have separate roles for players: Some were there to count and place small bets, others acted as high rollers and made big bets when the decks were favorable. It's easy for Vegas to spot a counter working alone based on betting patterns - lots of small bets followed by a few big ones. The MIT team survived longer than most because the separation of roles gave the appearance of legitimate betting patterns.
There are many other methods players use to shift the odds in their favor, with varying levels of legality. Jonas discussed a few, in some cases showing photos and video from his own collection. Here's a sampling: * The infinite hundred-dollar bill: One team took $1.2 million off a casino in two weeks when it discovered that a new hundred-dollar bill could be fed into a certain slot machine and, if you hit a button at just the right time, the machine would give the player $100 worth of credit while spitting the actual $100 bill right back into the player's hands.
* The chip cup: The chip cup looks just like a stack of $5 chips, but it's hollowed out and can hold a few $100 chips. Using the chip cup, a dealer and player working together can make a killing.
* The palm: A player palms a card and trades it with a neighbor to make a better blackjack hand. This trick is decidedly low-tech, but nearly undetectable when done with great skill.
* The specialty code: A programmer who worked on a video poker game snuck in some code that produced an automatic royal flush if a player followed a specific sequence of betting over the course of seven or eight hands.
* Cameraman: Jonas showed photos of one player who was wearing buttons that were actually infrared cameras, capable of capturing the identity of cards as they pass through a shuffle machine. One shuffle machine in particular had a tiny hole that revealed each card, but not to the naked eye. The infrared camera illuminated the card, and the video images were transmitted to a vehicle in the parking lot, where collaborators slowed the video down and could tell their player in the casino which card was coming next. Hitting on 17 is a smart move when you know a four is coming next.
Casinos are all about odds. If a player has shifted the odds into his favor, he can be asked to leave. But if a player simply wins a ton of money through sheer luck even though the odds are against him, the casino will do everything it can to lure the player back.
To Jonas, the example that may describe this phenomenon involves a private jet.
"There's this one casino, one of their high rollers beat them for $18 million," Jonas said. "That's actually going to show up on quarterly earnings. So they left with $18 million. The casino sent a jet to their town and left a limo in front of their house on weekends and said 'you know just in case you get the bug.' And they got the bug and they took them up on it and they came back and lost something like $22 million."
For tax reasons, casinos have to track players who cross certain winnings thresholds, such as $2,500 and $10,000, Jonas said.
If you win this much money, expect to be followed even if you haven't told anyone your name.