Introduction to Card Counting

Blackjack Advantage Play

We'll offer detailed advice about card counting throughout the site, but this introduction to card counting page is where you should start if you're a beginner.

We include the broad overview information here—stuff like how and why counting cards works. We also look at the legality of counting cards. Finally, we include a simple count that anyone can master quickly, along with some advice about how to practice at home before trying to get an edge at the casino.

Continue reading to find out more about card counting, and find further information on where you should go after mastering the basics.

How and Why Card Counting Works

In most casino games, the odds are the same every time you place a wager. That's because every event is an independent trial.

Example

When you're playing roulette, you have 38 possible outcomes. All 38 of those outcomes are possible on every spin. So your odds of winning a single number bet are always the same—1 in 38.

But what if every time a number got hit, it was no longer available? Suppose they filled in that slot for a while?

The odds would change, right? Instead of having a 1 in 38 chance to win a single number bet, you'd have a 1 in 37 chance of winning most of the single bets available. But one of those bets would have a 0% chance of paying off'the one that got blacked out when you hit it before.

If you continued to black out slots on the wheel as those numbers got hit, the odds of all the other numbers hitting would continue to rise.

That's a good illustration of how and why card counting works. In most casinos, the deck gets used multiple times before being reshuffled. The cards that have already been used are gone, and that changes the odds that certain things will happen.

Here's an easy to understand example:

Suppose you're playing in a single deck blackjack game, and all 4 aces are dealt during the first round. What are your odds of being dealt a blackjack during the 2nd round?

Since a natural is made up of an ace and a ten, you'd have a 0% chance of getting a blackjack. This would increase the house's edge against you, because a natural pays off at 3 to 2. Since that's now impossible, the house gains a slight percentage over you.

Of course, that kind of situation is going to happen rarely, but it illustrates why the composition of the deck affects the player's advantage or disadvantage in relation to the house. A deck of cards that has a relatively large number of high cards (tens and aces) is better for the player than a deck that has a relatively large number of low cards.

That's because your chances of being dealt a natural go up when there are a lot of tens and aces in the deck. They go down when there are more low cards in the deck. And since a natural pays off at 3 to 2, you're hoping for that outcome on every hand.

What card counters do is track the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck so that they can raise their bets when they have an edge and lower their bets when they don't. They do this by assigning a value to the high cards and the low cards in the deck and keeping a running count.

Please Note

Notice that we didn't say anything about having to memorize which cards have already been played. That's a common myth about counting cards that writers have been trying to dispel for years. You don't have to be some kind of idiot savant with a perfect memory to count cards. If you can add or subtract by one or two, you can learn to count cards.

Card counting systems assign a positive value (usually +1 or +2) to the lower valued cards in the deck. They assign a negative value (usually -1 or -2) to the higher valued cards (the tens and aces) in the deck. So the count goes up as the low value cards disappear from the deck, and it goes down as the high value cards disappear from the deck.

Card counting systems can be balanced or unbalanced, and they can also be single level or multi level.

  • Balanced

    A balanced card counting system has an equal number of positive values as negative. If you were to count through an entire deck, your count would end where it started—at 0.

  • Unbalanced

    An unbalanced system, on the other hand, might start with a number other than 0. It has an unequal number of values on each side.

  • Single Level

    A single level system only has you moving the count up or down by one unit for each card.

  • Multi Level

    Multi level systems might have different values for different cards. Aces might count as -2, while tens might count as -1.

Our advice to beginners is to go with the simplest system you can—at least at first. Eventually, once you get the hang of it, you can move on and try harder systems.

Is Card Counting Illegal?

Card counting isn't cheating because it doesn't violate any of the laws or regulations related to running gambling games. You're not mis-representing the size of your bets. You're not physically changing the conditions of the game by marking the cards. And you're not trying to bribe the dealer.

You're just thinking about the game while you're playing.

It would be hard to outlaw thinking during a game, wouldn't it?

Casinos, on the other hand, frown on the practice. This is understandable, since casinos are in the business of offering games to the public where the casinos—not the players—have a mathematical edge. In fact, if the casinos didn't have a mathematical edge, they wouldn't be able to stay in business. Some people might consider these games "rigged", but not in the sense that the casino is cheating. They just have an edge over the player.

As a result, casinos try to reserve the right to bar players from blackjack games if they suspect them of counting cards. Some players even get banned from a casino for life.

But no one gets arrested for counting cards.

And if you're smart about how and when you do it, you can even avoid getting "heat" from the casino management. We'll cover more on that subject later on this page.

The Ace Five Count – Counting Cards for Dummies

The easiest card counting system we're familiar with is called the ace five count. As the name of the system might seem to indicate, you're going to track the aces and the fives as they're dealt. Since there are four aces in the deck and four fives, this is a balanced system.

  • The aces count as -1. Every time you see an ace, you subtract 1 from your running count.
  • The fives count as +1. Every time you see a five, you add 1 from your running count.

You start off by betting 1 unit per hand. Every subsequent hand, based on the count, you raise your bet accordingly. If the count is negative, you continue to bet a unit per hand. But every point the count is positive raises the amount you bet by 1 more unit.

So if the count is +2, you'll be 3 units on that hand instead of just one.

It should be easy to see why this system makes sense. Every ace in the deck increases your chances of getting a blackjack. The fives are doubly bad, because they reduce your chances of getting a blackjack. They're also the one card in the deck that's most disadvantageous to the player.

Think about it this way. More of the cards in the deck have a value of 10 than any other value. So if you get dealt a five and a ten, you have a total of 15. You have no good options in that situation. You can hit, but you stand a good chance of going bust. You can stand, but the chances of winning if you don't hit are pretty small, too.

Top Tip

The trick when using this count is to do so without letting the casino know that this is what you're up to. So don't move your lips while counting. Don't look like you're concentrating.

Also, you want to avoid "casino heat". This means you probably shouldn't play for more than an hour at any given casino at any given time. Try to hit the casinos during different shifts. Eventually, you'll get caught counting cards. That's just part of the experience.

How to Practice Counting Cards

Learning how to count these cards without looking like you're doing so is the biggest trick. You can't learn how to do that in a casino environment. It's just too hard.

So you have to learn how to practice counting cards.

The first step is to get a deck of cards, then count through it, one card at a time, at your kitchen table. Since the ace five count is a balanced count, you should have a total of 0 once you've counted through.

Once you can do that quickly, learn to keep count while dealing the cards two at a time.

Once you can do that quickly, turn on the television and make things as noisy and distracting as possible while you practice. That's the kind of environment a casino is, and that's the kind of environment you need to be comfortable counting cards in.

Then, once you're ready, give it a shot at the casino.

Moving on to More Advanced Counting Techniques

The next step is to learn a more advanced card counting system. We recommend the "hi lo system". That system is a balanced single level system which is more accurate than the ace five count. You'll be counting tens AND aces. The low cards included in the tally include the 5s but also several other cards surrounding it.

Card Counting Systems

You can find detailed instructions for the hi lo system and other card counting systems here on our site. The following are just some of the systems we cover in our section on advanced blackjack, which also includes a more detailed look at card counting in general.

You can also find a lot of different blackjack books which explain various card counting systems in detail.

Here's our recommendation about more advanced strategies:

Don't get too stressed out trying to find the perfect card counting system. The hi lo system is advanced enough to play blackjack as a professional. It's not as accurate as it could be, but smart bankroll management and avoiding heat are just as important—if not more important—than having an accurate count.

Eventually you'll need to be able to convert a running count into a true count, too. This is how you take into account the dilutive effect of having multiple decks in play. It's one thing to have all the fives gone from a single deck blackjack game. But in a game with eight decks, having four of the fives gone isn't nearly as much of an advantage for the player.

You'll find more details about converting running counts to true counts on other pages of the site as well.

Summary

Counting cards for dummies has been the theme of this page. This introduction to card counting offers some simple advice to help anyone, even an idiot, get started winning at blackjack with a minimal amount of effort.

You can and probably will learn more advanced strategies, but good bankroll management and being able to avoid casino heat are two skills that are probably at least as important as being able to count well.

The ace five count is the best starting system for a newbie to learn. You're only tracking cards of two different values, so it's a lot easier than most counting systems. And since those two cards are so important to the odds, you'll be surprised at how much of an effect it has on your profitability.

Keep in mind, though, that this system is inherently volatile. You'll see big winning streaks and big losing streaks. This is true of any kind of advantage gambling, but it's especially true of this system.

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