Zen System

Zen System for Card Counting in Blackjack

The Zen Count System doesn't really have anything at all to do with Zen. Arnold Snyder popularized this system for counting cards in this 1983 book, Blackbelt in Blackjack. It's an excellent book, and Snyder devotes a lot of space comparing skilled blackjack play to martial arts practice. That's probably the point of the name of this system.

The Zen Count System is an intermediate system, not appropriate for beginners. It is, though, a powerful system that more experienced players might enjoy using. We explain how to use the Zen Count System in practice and look at the pros and cons of it as compared to other card counting systems below.

How to Use the Zen Count System

The first step in learning any card counting system is learning the values to assign to each card that you see. Contrary to popular perception, counting cards doesn't involve memorizing which cards have already been played except in a very general way.

1High cards hurt the deck when they're removed
2Low cards help the deck when they're removed

This is because card counters want to raise their bets when the deck has a relatively high number of aces and 10s in it. Remember that "a natural"; (or a "blackjack") pays out at 3 to 2 instead of even odds. If you have a higher chance of being dealt a blackjack, then you can improve your odds just by getting more money onto the table when that happens.

It's similar to the way professional poker players bet and raise when they have a good hand and fold when they don't. They don't always win when they have a good hand, but they want to get as much money into action as possible when they have a chance of winning.

In most card counting systems, you only add and subtract 1 for each card that you see. These are called single level systems. They can be quite powerful in terms of helping you get an edge over the casino.

Multi level systems can be even more powerful. They can provide better guidance in terms of when and by how much to raise your bets, but most card counters like multi level systems for the difference they make to their strategy decisions.

The Zen Count is a 2 level system. Some of the cards are worth + or -2, while some of the cards are worth + or -1. The actual values for each card are listed below:

  • Aces are worth -1
  • 10s are worth -2
  • 2s, 3s, and 7s are worth +1
  • 4s, 5s, and 6s are worth -1

This is a balanced system, as the total for all the cards of each value add up to 0 when you count through an entire deck. This is true even if you're counting through multiple decks. Balanced systems are, in general, easier to use than unbalanced systems, but they do require you to calculate a true count.

What's that?

A running count is the total you get when you're adding and subtracting these values during the game. But it doesn't take into account the number of decks in play. If you're playing in a single deck game, then the running count is a more-or-less accurate picture of how much of an edge you have over the casino. But when you add more decks to the equation, the effect of an individual card becomes discounted.

It's easy to understand why if you think about it, but if you're having trouble grasping the concept, imagine a single deck blackjack game in which 3 of the aces have already been dealt. Your chances of getting a blackjack are pretty small at this point, because there's only one ace left in the deck.

But if you're playing in a game with 8 decks, there are 32 aces in the deck. Even if 3 of them have already been dealt, you still have 29 aces left. This doesn't mean that the dealing of those 3 aces hasn't hurt you, but they haven't hurt you as much.

You compensate for this discounted effect by calculating a true count. Depending on which version of the Zen Count System you're using, you'll divide the running count by the number of decks left in the shoe or by the number of quarter-decks left in the shoe.

The Pros and Cons of the Zen Count System

Norm Wattenberger provides detailed mathematical analysis of the various aspects of card counting systems on his excellent website QFIT. He looks at how well the system correlates to when you should raise and lower your bets, how well it affects your strategy decisions, and how well it informs your insurance decisions. These are all graded on a scale from 0 to 1.

  • Betting Correlation Grade

    The Zen Count has a 0.96 betting correlation, which makes it one of the best systems in the world for helping you decide when to raise your bets.

  • Playing Efficiency Grade

    It also has a 0.63 playing efficiency, which is better than it sounds. Most simpler systems have a playing efficiency of less than 0.6.

  • Insurance Correlation Grade

    The insurance correlation is 0.85, which is also excellent.

The biggest drawback to the Zen Count System is the same drawback that other multi level card counting systems suffer from. It's just plain hard to use. Wattenberger scores the difficulty of using each system on a scale from 1 to 10, with a lower score meaning it's harder to use. The Zen Count scores a 4 here, which makes it one of the hardest counts to use that we've found.

Further Information
If you're interested in learning more about Wattenberger's research findings, you can review them here.

At the end of the day, the Zen System works in a similar manner to every other card counting system out there. You decide how much of a bankroll you have. You decide how much you're willing to bet per hand, and you set a betting range. When the count is high, you increase your bets accordingly.

Here's an example:

You have $10,000 to play with. You decide that you want to be conservative, so you stick with the $10 games, which means you have 1000 units to play with. You also decide that you're willing to work with a betting spread from 1 to 10. That means you'll bet as much as $100 per hand if the count warrants it.

You should be able to get an edge of at least 1% over the casino pursuing this strategy, and that's without making strategy adjustments. If you adjust your strategy accordingly, you can increase your edge over the casino by an additional 0.2% or more.

Summary

The Zen Count is an excellent, powerful card counting strategy. It's harder than a single level strategy, but as multi level strategies go, it's not as hard as the Wong Halves Strategy. You can get specific details about this counting system by buying the book Blackbelt in Blackjack by Stanford Wong.

The Zen Count might be harder than other systems, but it should pay off in the form of increased profits at the table.

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