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Casinos on lookout for iPhone card-counting app

Nevada's Gaming Control Board issues an alert warning casinos about an application called "A Blackjack Card Counter." It helps determine the optimal times to bet in blackjack.

Update 4:19 pm: This story has been modified to include reaction from the creator of the card-counting iPhone app.

Since the July 2008 launch of the App Store, Apple has maintained a sort of moral code--a PG-13-type standard, if you will--surrounding the thousands of iPhone and iPod Touch applications available via the service.

That's why, for example, there are no iPhone porn apps, though it is certainly possible to access adult content optimized for the device.

Given that, one would think that Apple wouldn't have given the thumbs-up to an app that, if used in the most logical manner, could get someone arrested, or worse. But with an app called "A Blackjack Card Counter," that's not, in fact, the case.

'A Blackjack Card Counter,' an iPhone application that helps people count cards in blackjack, was the subject of an alert to Nevada casinos by that state's Gaming Control Board. Webtopia

We've all seen the movies where the hot-shot gambler slips up and finds himself hustled off to a back room where a genial but brutal casino manager calmly breaks a few fingers while issuing a stern warning never to come back. Films like The Cooler, 21, Rounders, Casino and many others have made this kind of scene, even if it's not always about card counting, a staple of our imagination.

Yet card counting--a complex practice that gives practitioners a way to determine the optimal times to bet in blackjack--prevails to this day. And it's not even illegal, though being caught at it is sure to lead to a hasty expulsion from a casino, at best, or even the kind of back-room visit discussed above. What is definitely illegal, however, is the employment of any kind of electronic device that aids players in counting cards.

And that's where "A Blackjack Card Counter," and perhaps a few other iPhone apps come into play.

Earlier this month, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, itself tipped off by the California Bureau of Gambling Control, issued an alert to "all non-restricted licensees and interested parties"--the state's casinos--warning of the emergence of iPhone card counting apps.

"This blackjack card-counting program can be utilized on either the Apple iPhone or the Apple iPod Touch...Once this program is installed on the phone through the iTunes Web site it can make counting cards easy," Nevada Gaming Control Board member Randall Sayre wrote in the alert. "This program can be used in the 'stealth mode.' When the program is used in the 'stealth mode' the screen of the phone will remain shut off, and as long as the user knows where the keys are located, the program can be run effortlessly without detection."

And, as Sayre pointed out, "use of this type of program or possession of a device with this type of program on it--with the intent to use it--in a licensed gaming establishment, is a violation" of the law.

For its part, the makers of "A Blackjack Card Counter," an Australian outfit called Webtopia, couldn't be happier about the attention being paid to its app as a result of its potentially illegal nature.

"Since the Nevada Gaming Control Board warned casinos about 'A Blackjack Card Counter' there's been an unprecedented demand for this app," Webtopia wrote in the tool's official App Store description. "Now you can see what all the fuss (is) about at a very reasonable price."

According to Webtopia, the app "allows any blackjack player, professional or amateur, to keep track of their blackjack card count." Among the features it offers are a "count vibrate," which vibrates the iPhone or iPod touch "when the true count reaches the value you specify...This is particularly useful when using stealth mode."

Webtopia also cautions users of the app that, "This card counter is great for learning to count cards or for playing blackjack with your friends. While counting cards is deemed legal, electronic card counting devices are illegal in many casinos. Therefore I would not recommend using this app in a casino as you could get into a lot of trouble."

And in an interview, Webtopia's Travis Yates, a 35-year-old developer in Cairns, Australia, said that the stealth features of the app--which allow players to surreptitiously hit buttons updating the count on the iPhone while its screen appears black--came as a result of feedback on earlier versions of the app.

"It's the features people were asking for," Yates said. "The was very simple at the start. It's my understanding that the app isn't illegal, so I thought, 'Why not?'"

Yates also said that since the Nevada Gaming Control Board put out its alert, sales of the app have risen to around 500 a day, after lingering at 10 or so a day previously.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

In a story in the Las Vegas Review Journal, Howard Stutz wrote that the Gaming Control Board leaves it up to individual casinos to decide their own policies regarding the use of mobile phones and other electronic devices. But he added in the story that, "After iPhones came on the market in 2007, Harrah's Entertainment halted their use at the World Series of Poker."

'Card Counting Practice,' from Bacon Bear Productions, is another card-counting app for the iPhone. It offers a disclaimer that, 'This app is for entertainment purposes only. Counting in casinos may be hazardous to your health.' Bacon Bear Productions

In an interview, Stutz said, "It's actually unusual that a (Nevada Gaming Control Board) memo went out. It's kind of interesting that they were forthcoming about this."

To Sayre, of the Gaming Control Board, it would indeed be abnormal to issue a public statement about new cheating technology.

"But this technology is available and can be utilized for appropriate as well as criminal conduct," Sayre said in an interview, "and because (mobile) phones are of such prevalent use in all walks of society, because this phone can be used in this capacity, I thought that it was appropriate to notify the entire industry that this capability was available."

Sayre added that the application can be used legitimately--outside any Nevada casino--to help people learn advanced blackjack techniques.

While "A Blackjack Card Counter" might be the only iPhone app specifically called out by the Gaming Control Board, it is by no means the only app that purports to at least teach card counting techniques. Others currently available on the App Store include Card Counter and Card Counting Practice, the latter of which warns, "This app is for entertainment purposes only. Counting in casinos may be hazardous to your health."

Of course, to some people, the dangers of being caught using apps like this to count cards might even be worse than having a Vegas tough guy break some fingers. They might decide to take away your iPhone.