Is It Worth It to Learn How to Count Cards?

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Blackjack Counting Cards

I’ve written about how to count cards before, but in most of the how-to pages on the internet, one important question gets overlooked:

Is it worth the time and effort to learn how to count cards in blackjack?

In this post, I look at both the pros and the cons of learning how to count cards

Counting Cards Is Easier Than Most People Think

A lot of people think that counting cards in blackjack is next to impossible. They’ve seen Rain Man, and they think they need to memorize every card that’s been played and extrapolate which cards are left in the deck.

This might be easier than you think if you learn some advanced memory techniques, but that’s not even close to necessary.

Card counting works because the aces and 10s are the cards which create the blackjacks, which pay off at 3 to 2 odds.

If you have a deck where a lot of low-value cards like 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, and 6s have already been dealt, and where a low of high-value cards like 10s and aces are still in the deck, you should raise your bets.

That’s because you have a higher probability of getting that 3 to 2 payoff.

And with a random deck of cards, this situation will happen some of the time.

The rest of the time, you’ll bet the minimum – or even sit out entirely.

It’s Also Harder Than It Sounds

So, to track this ratio, you’ll usually use some kind of system that creates a value for the high cards and the low cards.

The most commonly used system is called the Hi-Lo System, and it gives the cards these values:

  • Any card 2 through 6 is counted as +1.
  • Any 10 or ace (including face cards) is counted as -1.
  • The 7s, 8s, and 9s count as 0.

When the count is positive, the ratio of low cards to high cards favors the player and vice versa.

That sounds easy enough, but that’s not all there is to it.

Most casinos use multiple decks of cards in a shoe, which dilutes the effect each card has it’s dealt. In those situations, you must convert the “running count” to the “true count.”

To do this, you estimate how many decks of cards are left in the shoe.

Then you divide the running count by this number to get the true count.

You base the size of your bets on the true count, NOT the running count.

For Example:

if you have a running count of +6 with 3 decks left in the shoe, you’ll convert that into a true count of +2, and you’ll bet accordingly.

Also, you need to be able to keep up with all these numbers without looking like your keeping up with these numbers.

Here’s more about that.

Casinos Think Counting Cards Is Cheating

You and I are reasonable people. We understand that counting cards isn’t cheating. It’s just using information that’s visible to everyone to play the game optimally.

We’re not marking the cards or asking the dealer to give us hints as to what card is coming next. We’re not changing the conditions of the game or using a computer.

We’re just thinking about the game we’re playing.

How could that be considered cheating?

You’ll have to ask the casino management, because they HATE card counters.

If they see you raising and lowering the sizes of your bets on a consistent basis, they’ll start counting, too. When they realize for sure that you’re counting cards, they’ll back you off from the games.

They might do this by asking you to no longer play at their blackjack tables.

Or they might ask you to leave the casino and never come back.

To succeed at counting cards, you must be able to do so without the casino noticing.

Good luck with that.

You’ll need it.

If You’re Good Enough, You Could Make a Living at Counting Cards

Let’s say you’re a good enough card counter to have a 1% edge over the casino.

How much real money could you make playing blackjack?

  • Let’s say your average size bet is $50 and you get in about 80 hands per hour.
  • This means you’re putting $4000 into action each hour, and you’re expected to win 1% of that.
  • That’s an hourly rate of $40.
  • If you could do that 40 hours a week, you could make $1600 a week – or $80,000 a year.
  • That’s a middle-class living for playing a game.
  • To most people, that doesn’t sound too bad.

Keep in mind, though, that you can’t just sit at a blackjack table and count cards for 8 hours straight. The longer you sit at a blackjack table, the more likely the casino is to catch on to what you’re doing.

This means that you need to visit multiple casinos at various times of day to get your time in at the table.

And to avoid getting caught, you really need to limit the amount of time you spend in one place. I’ve seen some gamblers I respect say they never spend more than an hour at a time at a specific casino’s blackjack table, and they try to limit their visits to a casino to 3 times a week – all during different shifts.

You CANNOT Count Cards at an Online Casino

It’s not immediately obvious as to why you can’t count cards at an online casino. After all, don’t online casinos use exactly the same odds you’d have with a 52-card deck?

They do, but they shuffle the deck after every hand.

They even do this at live dealer casinos – yes, there’s a real dealer there with a real shoe full of cards.

But all of the casinos I know use an automatic shuffler where they feed the dealt cards back into the deck.

To get an edge by counting cards, you have to have a deck of cards where some of the cards are gone from the deck before your next hand.

Counting Cards Helps You Understand Some Gambling Concepts Better

It can be worthwhile to learn how to count cards because it will demonstrate in practical terms the difference between the long run and the short term.

Even if you’re the best card counter in the world, you can still go on some crazy losing streaks. In fact, to succeed at counting cards, you need a bankroll big enough to avoid going broke before your long-term edge kicks in.

The bigger your bankroll is relative to the size of your bets, the less likely you are to go broke before your edge kicks in.

That’s because the game of blackjack is still random, even when the odds change in your favor. The count can be +7, and you might be betting $800 per hand, but you can still bust and lose on any specific hand.

This tendency for short-term results to be unpredictable is called “variance.”

The tendency for long-term results to conform to the statistical prediction is called “The Law of Large Numbers.”

It’s easy to understand those concepts on a surface level by just reading about them, but it’s something else to see them in action in real life.

It Can Be Fun to Show Off Your Card Counting Skills to the Right Person

I like to take people to the casino who don’t know much about gambling and educate them a little bit about some of the casino gambling concepts I’ve learned through the years.

You just need to make sure before showing off your card counting skills to your next date that she’s able to be discreet.

It’s okay to tell her to raise her bets when she sees you raising your bets, but she can’t do anything to let on that she knows you’re counting cards.

That will be disastrous in short order.


Is it worth it to learn how to count cards?

That’s an individual decision that I can’t make for you.

I learned to count cards over a decade ago, and I’m glad that I did.

You might or might not care about some of the pros and/or cons more than I do, though.

Think about card counting in light of the points I made in this post, and then you can make your decision accordingly.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for since early 2016. ...

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