At most casinos the dealer must “burn” the first card of a shoe by placing it directly in the discard tray before any cards are dealt. In Atlantic City the burn card is usually shown before it’s taken out of play, but what about when the burn card isn’t revealed? This seems to cause angst for some blackjack players (“that could have been my ace”), but what impact does it really have on the game? For the vast majority of blackjack players who aren’t keeping track of the count, it has no effect whatsoever. From a card counting perspective, when the dealer burns a card it’s equivalent to moving the cut card up by one. For example, if the cut card is placed at a deck and a half (78 cards), the burn card effectively moves the cut card to 79 cards. There’s simply one more unknown card. For both card counters and the average gambler, the impact is insignificant at best.
If burning the first card doesn’t serve as an effective measure against card counting, why do casinos employ this practice? The purpose of burning a card is to protect against the steering of the top card. If a card is exposed when the cards are presented to players to cut, the exposed card can be cut into play. Steering an ace to your self is worth a whopping 51% in expected win. Cutting a ten to self is worth a not too shabby 14%. Card steering is completely legal if the card information is obtained due to the dealer unknowingly exposing a card. The illegal acquisition of card information is what casinos are really concerned about. Cheaters can mark tens and aces, making them recognizable when they end up at the top of the shoe. There’s also the possibility of collusion with the dealer who either flashes the top card to fellow accomplices, or peaks at it and then passes on the information. The bottom line is, even if you’re counting there’s no need to fret about an unseen burn card. Essentially, all the dealer is doing is moving the cut card up by one.