Proving once again that there is no such thing as bad publicity, an iPhone application designed to assist gamblers in counting cards has seen a sharp spike in sales following a warning from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

In a letter written on Feb. 5, board member Randall E. Sayre said the California Bureau of Gambling Control recently discovered that gamblers were using an app called Blackjack Card Counter written by Travis Yates, the operator of an Australian Web-design company called Webtopia.

Sayre provided casinos with a description of the program's function and warned that it "calculates the 'True Count' and does it significantly more accurately." He also said the program can operate in stealth mode: The screen is turned off, but the buttons are still active. When a particular count is reached (indicating a good betting opportunity), the program makes the phone vibrate.

A Publicity Boom for Webtopia

"Just as a reminder," Sayre said, "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 NRS 465.075."

Sayre told the Los Angeles Review-Journal that there hadn't yet been reports of gamblers trying to use the app in a Nevada casino. "We wanted to put the industry on notice," Sayre said, "to be aware this device is out there."

The widespread news coverage has given Webtopia a nice sales bounce. Yates told PC World that his app was selling about 10 copies a day before Sayre's letter. Since then, sales have shot up to more than 500 copies in the U.S. alone.

The icon for the Blackjack Card Counter now carries a banner "As Seen on CNN" and Yates dropped the price "for one day only" from $4.99 to $1.99. The program has received generally favorable reviews on Apple's iTunes Store, although the letter from the Gaming Control Board has been cited as a warning by some reviewers.

Counting by Itself Is Not Illegal

The controversy has given rise to some confusion about the precise restrictions of Nevada law. As one iTunes reviewer pointed out, card counting itself isn't an illegal activity, although casinos reserve the right to eject anyone they suspect of using card-counting techniques.

"I work in casino surveillance," said Snake4444. "The first review is correct: If you get caught using any counting device in a casino, you will be arrested. If you are caught counting in your head, you can be asked not to play blackjack any more. Good luck."

There is some question about how Apple views the matter. The company carefully (some say too carefully) vets iPhone and iPod touch apps to keep them in the PG-13 range, although the iTunes Game Ratings contain a 17+ category for apps that may contain excessive levels of violence, sexuality or intense offensive language. Blackjack Card Counter earned a 12+ rating for "Infrequent/Mild Simulated Gambling." However, this isn't the type of publicity that Apple typically cultivates.

Efforts to reach Apple for comment were unsuccessful.