It’s way easier to learn how to count cards in blackjack than you probably think. Anyone of average intelligence or better can learn. In fact, it might not even take you long, depending on your powers of attention and concentration.
You should learn proper basic strategy, first, of course. Honestly, memorizing basic strategy is probably harder than learning to count cards though.
Also, keep in mind that even when you know how to count cards, it’s harder to do in a casino environment than you might think. Casinos are, by design, distracting places. You have people talking at the blackjack table. There’s music playing. Cocktail waitresses are offering to bring you drinks. The slot machines, by themselves, provide a cacophony of sounds.
So, the trick to counting cards in the casino is to practice at home a lot first. Then start off slow at the casino and don’t be afraid to call it a game if it’s too much for you. You can always practice some more and try again.
Here are the steps you should take before counting cards in the casino for the first time:
The Theory Behind Counting Cards in Blackjack
The basics of why card counting works can be boiled down to 2 simple truths about the game:
- Big cards are better for the players
- Small cards are better for the casino
We know this because of 2 reasons, too:
- You can’t make a blackjack (a natural) without a 10 and an ace—the big cards.
- Computer scientists have run simulations of millions of hands, and the results bear this out.
Unlike most casino games, blackjack has odds which are constantly changing. That’s because the makeup of the deck is constantly changing as the cards get dealt. When you play roulette, there are always 38 numbers on the wheel. But in blackjack, once an ace or a 10 has been dealt, it’s no longer in the deck until the dealer reshuffles.
Since a natural or a blackjack pays off at 3 to 2, anything that increases your probability of getting such a hand improves your expected return. Imagine a deck where all the cards have been dealt except for the aces and the 10s. Can you see why such a deck would have a higher probability of resulting in a blackjack than a deck which still had 52 cards in it?
This doesn’t mean you’ll automatically win when the deck is rich in 10s and aces. On the contrary, you’ll still lose, and you’ll lose surprisingly often.
When you do win, though, you’ll get that juicy 3 to 2 payoff. By raising your bets when that’s more likely, you can see a net increase in your probability versus the casino.
A card counting system works by tracking the ratio of small cards to big cards left in the deck. Card counters raise the size of their bets when the ratio of high cards to low cards is larger. They also make some changes to basic strategy based on this ratio, but most of their edge comes from raising the bets when the deck is favorable. Some counters even take insurance when it’s profitable, although that’s usually a big hint to the casino as to what you’re doing.
Card Counting Systems and How to Choose One
You can find dozens—maybe hundreds—of card counting systems. The basics of many of them are available for free on the internet. Others require the purchase of a book. Some systems are still only available for relatively large amounts of money (like $300 or so) from private sellers.
Some systems track every card in the deck. I don’t have much use for a system like that. Other systems have 4, 3, 2, or 1 levels. That means that each card has a value of between -4 and +4. In a single level system, you’ll only add and subtract 1 every time you see a card. In a 2 level system, some cards are worth +1 or +2, and other cards are worth -2 or -1. And so on.
Almost all these systems work to some extent or another. The trick for the first time card counter is to find a system that’s effective and easy to learn at the same time.
My suggestion for the beginner is to learn the Hi-Lo Count. This is probably the most common entry point for card counters. It’s a single level system that’s remarkably effective. Some card counting systems might be more accurate, but if you compare the gain in accuracy versus the effort of learning, you’ll probably discover that it’s not worth it to learn a more complicated system.
Here’s what the cards are worth in the Hi-Lo system:
- 2, +1
- 3, +1
- 4, +1
- 5, +1
- 6, +1
- 7, 0
- 8, 0
- 9, 0
- 10, -1
- Ace, -1
The number before the comma is the point value of the card. The number after the comma is the number you’ll add to the count as the cards are dealt.
You’ll start with 0. Every time you see a card numbered 2 through 6, you’ll add +1 to the count. Every time you see a 7, 8, or 9, you’ll ignore it. Every time you see an ace or 10, you’ll subtract 1 from the count.
As the low cards get dealt, the ratio of high cards to low cards improves. As the high cards get dealt, that ratio worsens.
You’re looking for a positive count. When you have a positive count, you can raise the size of your bet, because the deck is in your favor. When you have a negative count, you should lower the size of your bet, because the deck favors the casino.
More about Why the Ratio of High Cards to Low Cards Matters So Much
The bigger cards in the deck make it more likely that you’ll get a blackjack. The dealer also has a higher probability of getting a blackjack, but that doesn’t matter, because if the dealer gets a blackjack, you either push or lose a single bet.
But if YOU get a blackjack, you get a 3 to 2 payoff on your bet.
Think about it this way. You’re betting $100 a hand. In hand #1, the dealer gets a blackjack, and you lose $100. But in hand #2, you get a blackjack, and you win $150.
Here’s the other factor that benefits the player:
You and the dealer will both get better starting hands than usual when the deck is rich in 10s. But the dealer doesn’t have any flexibility in how she plays her hands. If she has a total of 12 through 16, she must hit, even though there are more 10s in the deck than usual—meaning she’ll bust more often.
That’s to your advantage, too, because you can decide whether to hit that possible bust hand.
Counting Cards Doesn’t Guarantee You a Win
It’s important to repeat something here, too:
Counting cards improves your probabilities versus the dealer. It doesn’t guarantee you a win. It’s still possible that you won’t see a blackjack. It’s also still possible that a dealer will get a bust hand and draw a low card and beat you.
Card counting tracks probabilities. In the long run, using these probabilities to inform your decisions will result in profits for you, as long as you don’t go broke.
But in the short run, you can lose, just like any other blackjack player can lose. This is true of a single hand, and it’s also true of any single session—even if it’s a longish session that lasts for 2 or 3 hours.
Probabilities work in the long run. This means that you must commit to thousands of hands before you can expect to see your actual results start to resemble your mathematically expected results.
Putting the Hi-Lo System into Action
You should start by practicing with a single deck of cards at your kitchen table. Count through the deck, one card at a time, using the values I listed above. After you’ve dealt the last card in the deck, your count should be 0.
If you’re like me, you won’t wind up with a 0 at the end of this experiment. This means you made a mistake. That’s okay. Shuffle the cards and try again, and this time go slower.
Once you’ve managed to count through the deck a few times without making a mistake, use a stopwatch to see how fast you can go through the deck one card at a time and maintain your count. Keep practicing, using your stopwatch, until you’ve managed to cut that time in half.
Once you’ve succeeded in that, try dealing the cards 2 at a time. You should get used to creating totals from 2 cards. If someone gets a blackjack, that’s an instant -2. If someone gets a 10 and a 2, that’s an automatic 0, because they cancel each other out.
Keep working on improving your time and accuracy. You’re still not finished, though.
Once you’re satisfied with your speed and accuracy, start practicing with the ratio turned up loud. Then turn the television on at the same time. Ask your wife and kids to talk to you while you’re counting through the deck.
Focus on counting through the deck without making faces, without saying the numbers out loud, and while staying relaxed and not looking like you’re thinking hard.
These are all skills you’ll need in the casino to prevent them from catching on to the fact that you’re counting cards.
This could take a few hours of practice. But it will be worth it once it’s time to try counting cards in the casino the first time.
The Running Count and the True Count and Sizing Your Bets
When you’re dealing with multiple decks of cards in a shoe, you’ll need to convert the running count into a true count. This is because when you’re using multiple decks of cards, the effect of any card being dealt is diluted by how many cards are left in the deck.
Think about it this way. If you have a 52-card deck, and all 4 aces have already been dealt, the probability of getting an ace is now 0%.
But in an 8-deck show, if 4 aces have been dealt, the probability of getting an ace is now 28/204, or 7/51, which is around 14%.
There’s a big difference between 0% and 14%.
To compensate for this, you divide the running count—that number you’ve been keeping up with—by the number of decks you estimate are left in the shoe.
This matters because you’re going to use the true count to determine the size of your bets.
Before you sit down to play, you should decide what kind of range you’re going to have when placing your bets. For example, you might decide you’re going to bet between 1 and 10 units. Be advised, though—that’s an aggressive betting spread. It might draw attention from the casino.
The more aggressive your betting spread is, the more likely it is you’ll draw attention from the casino. Some players limit themselves to a betting spread of 1 to 4, or 1 to 6, or something else. There’s no ideal number to avoid casino scrutiny, although the more you can bet, the better your edge.
You then size your bets according to the count. If the count is 0 or less, you bet 1 unit—for example, $10. You add the count to 1 to get the multiple of that you should bet. If the count is +2, for example, you bet $30 instead of $10. The higher the count, the bigger your edge, and the more you should bet.
For purposes of this calculation, though, you must use the true count—NOT the running count.
In a single deck game, the true count and the running count are the same.
For your first time counting cards, I don’t recommend trying to modify your basic strategy based on the count. Just raise and lower your bets based on the true count.
Tips for Avoiding the Casino’s Wrath
I’ve explained in other posts that casinos frown on the practice of card counting. It’s better for you if they don’t know you’re doing it.
But how do you do that?
The first step is to be good enough at counting cards that you can do it effortlessly. If the casino can tell you’re thinking hard about what you’re doing, they’ll figure out you’re counting. This means no frowning, no staring at the cards or the other players hands, and no counting under your breath. If your lips are moving, you’re giving yourself away.
The next step is to be sure to tip the dealer and to make the occasional basic strategy mistake. Many card counters never tip the dealer because it subtracts from their hourly expected winnings. This is true, but if you get caught counting, your hourly expected winnings at that casino drop to 0 fast. Also, if you occasionally make a basic strategy mistake, you’ll see more like a yokel.
You might consider wearing a disguise, although I don’t recommend going overboard on this. Try not shaving for a week the next time you visit your target casino. Wear a hat some of the time, glasses other times. Dress up nice occasionally, and dress down and be more casual other times.
Avoid playing in the same casino for more than an hour at a time. Don’t visit the casino every day at the same time. Don’t play with the same dealer every time. Casinos have 3 shifts. Try to hit the casino during different shifts every day that you visit, and space your visits out 2 or 3 days apart.
Casinos can’t have you arrested for counting cards, but they can ask you to stick with the other games in the casino—not blackjack. They can also ask you to leave and never come back. If you return to a casino that’s done this, you are breaking the law. It’s called trespassing, and they can all the police on you.
Don’t get scared, though. At most casinos, the worst thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to start shuffling on you a little more often.
Here’s one final thing to keep in mind. The pit bosses in the casino also know how to count cards. They can tell if you’re counting by the way you’re raising and lowering your bets.
Another tell they watch for is whether you’re taking insurance or surrendering. These are the 2 biggest basic strategies informed by counting cards, and almost no one changes their approach to these possibilities unless they’re counting cards.
Why the Casinos Hate Card Counters so Much
You might think that a single card counter wouldn’t be much of a threat to a casino’s bottom line. You’d be right to ask that, especially if the card counter is playing for low stakes. (A card counter betting $10,000 a hand would be a threat all by himself, of course.)
The problem is that casinos are worried about seeing 100+ card counters over the course of a month. Not only are they all winning small amounts of money on average over time, but they’re taking up seats that would otherwise be filled with losing players. The average blackjack player is lousy. He operates at a 4% house edge. Even a basic strategy player beats that by far.
The casinos’ goals are to maximize the amount of money they make per hour per square foot. They can’t maximize their winnings by letting lots of card counters hurt their game in this way.
If you’re playing for $25 as your single unit and going up from there, you’re going to face more scrutiny from the casino than if you’re playing for $5 or $10 as a unit. Even if you use a conservative betting spread of $25 to $100, you’re way more of a perceived threat to the casino than a player who’s betting $10 to $100 based on the count.
Also, if you’re really wanting to disguise your play, only raise the size of your bet after you’ve won. And when you do, double the size of your bet. This mirrors the behavior of players who raise their bets when they think they’re on a “hot streak.”
Finally, as I’ve discussed already, you’re not guaranteed to win just because the probabilities are in your favor. This means that if you don’t have enough money to play with, you risk going broke before your long term edge kicks in.
You need to consider your risk tolerance carefully. How comfortable are you with a 20% probability of going broke? Would you prefer a 10% chance? How about a 5% or a 1% chance?
The bigger your bankroll is in comparison to the lowest bet you’re making, the lower your probability of going broke becomes.
Most aspiring card counters should shoot for a bankroll of 800 to 100 units. If you’re betting $10 per hand as “one unit,” this means having a bankroll of $8000 to $10,000. That keeps you at the lowest risk of going broke from an unlucky streak.
But if your risk tolerance is higher, you can get away with a bankroll of 200 to 400 units. That’s between $2000 and $4000 at the $10/hand level. This puts you close to that 20% probability of going broke, but if you’re willing to risk that, it’s okay. You can always earn more money at your job or by doing something on the side.
Your first time counting cards at a casino doesn’t have to be a scary thing. Counting cards is easier than you think. The trick is putting in the time and effort to learn how to count cards effortlessly at the casino. This means spending a lot of time at the kitchen table and mirroring the distracting environment of the casino.
Most important, don’t think that counting cards guarantees that you’ll be a big winner in blackjack. You can improve the probability so that the edge is in your favor rather than the house’s, but you still risk going broke. Blackjack is still a game of chance.