Almost all recreational gamblers, and even many proficient blackjack players, think they understand the concept of counting cards.
Thanks to the long line of card counting scenes portrayed in Hollywood hits like “Rain Man” (1988) and “21” (2008), casual players tend to assume that card counting is a breeze.
And when you watch the famous scenes above, it’s no wonder where the myth of card counting’s simplicity stems from. In the movies, characters who find themselves down on their luck in Las Vegas just need to find a friend who has an uncanny knack for mental math. From there, these characters – generally depicted as either idiot savants or genius math geeks – only need a few chips and a blackjack game to gin up a fortune out of thin air.
Numbers fly around the screen, the character intently watches the cards being dealt, and before the viewer at home knows it, a steady stream of blackjacks and dealer busts arrives right on cue. After amassing a pile of high-denomination chips, the character cashes out and resumes the wider story newly enriched thanks to his natural card counting prowess.
A piece of cake, right?
Well, not so fast hotshot…
They need to effectively disguise their ability to count the deck from dealers and pit boss, a process known in the industry as “camouflaging” your play. Counters also have to effectively balance their bets as part of the camouflage, making sure the house doesn’t lose so much, and so quickly, that they become suspicious. Add in the ever-present threat of aggressive action from security staff if caught, and card counters shoulder a heavy burden – all before they even start to sift through the deck.
As for that counting ability itself, it takes countless hours of study and practice to truly master the most effective methods. You’ll find various card counting systems out there – including the original Hi-Lo, the Knockout (“KO”), and the Red Seven just to name a few – but they all have one thing in common and that’s difficulty.
The best card counting systems are based on one deceptively simple idea – tracking the exposed cards during a shoe’s deal, assigning them a value based on rank, and then adding and/or subtracting them from a baseline count. After enough cards are seen, counters are theoretically able to deduce whether the remaining shoe is either favorable (containing more 10s and Aces) or unfavorable (containing more low-ranked cards). From there, gaining an edge at blackjack is as basic as betting big when the count is good, and dialing your wager size back to the minimum when it’s not.
That all sounds easy enough on paper, but when you actually try to put it all together in practice, counting cards requires instant calculations and total recall. Forgive the quality of the clip, but you can a get a good glimpse into the rigors of learning to count here in this testing scene from “21.”
As you can see, even the famed MIT Blackjack team – comprised of literal geniuses who know numbers better than most of us will ever know anything – had trouble acclimating their skills to the unique challenge of counting cards on the fly.
Ever since the first counting systems were devised back in the 1950s and 1960s, blackjack sharps were forced to learn complex formulas that bordered on convoluted.
But that all changed in 2006 when prolific gambling authors Frank Scoblete and Henry Tamburin published their book “Golden Touch Blackjack Revolution!: Easiest Way to Beat the Casino at Blackjack.”
At the heart of their Golden Touch blackjack system, Scoblete and Tamburin presented a system they dubbed the “Speed Count.” Many players swear by the Speed Count, calling it by far the easiest and most effective way to gain an edge on the house. Conversely, critics claim that the Speed Count’s tendency to cut corners in the name of efficiency doesn’t produce nearly enough of an impact on the house edge to make it worth your while.
Where you come down on the Speed Count debate is likely a matter of personal opinion, because as is the case with any reputable blackjack system, this concept surely works in theory. Whether or not it will work in real-time – under the bright spotlight of a casino’s “eye in the sky,” as a skilled dealer pitches cards promptly and without delay, and with cold, hard cash on the line – is all up to you.
But before you can render a verdict on the Speed Count system, you need to know what it is and how it works.
For decades, blackjack card counting systems all revolved around the same basic premise.
Players start off the game with a baseline count, before adding or subtracting digits from that count based on the appearance of high or low cards. This “running count” then needed to be converted into a “true count” by dividing the current number by the amount of decks remaining in the shoe.
Add all of that up, and counters were responsible for a) accurately tracking exposed cards, b) adding and subtracting from the running count, c) tracking ALL cards dealt to determine how many decks remained in the shoe, and d) dividing the running count by the remaining decks.
That intensely difficult system had to be performed over and over again, all while the player pretended to be your average drunk tourist blindly alternating their bet sizing.
Due to the sheer difficulty involved, blackjack experts estimate that for every 100 aspiring counters who knew the concepts cold, only one managed to utilize those skills on the casino floor to turn a profit.
Everything changed in December of 2002, however, when gambling writer Henry Tamburin posed the following question to his data analyst Dan Pronovost:
“There must be an easier way for everyday average gamblers to learn to count cards in blackjack and get an edge over the casino… what do you think Dan?”
The pair were huddling up to discuss their latest issue of the monthly Blackjack Insider online newsletter – which featured an array of counting systems popular at the time – and Tamburin challenged Pronovost to come up with something easier for casual players to learn.
Here’s how Pronovost remembered the conversation 13 years after it inspired him to invent the Speed Count:
“We had taught many students different card counting systems including the popular Knock-Out and High-Low. And we both felt exactly the same way about learning proper card counting techniques in blackjack: it was too hard for the majority of average gamblers to master.
No matter how we taught students, or what system we used, only a small percentage of gamblers had the skill and dedication to master card counting sufficiently to a level to get a good positive edge in the game.
Despite the plethora of blackjack books, and even good blackjack training software (such as my own, www.HandheldBlackjack.com), it still takes most individuals 40 to 80 hours to master High-Low, or even Knock-Out.”
Back then, Pronovost wasn’t the only gambling analyst on the lookout for ways to shave time and energy off the standard counts.
Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs had previously solved the dilemma of converting a running count into a true count. Using their “Knockout” (commonly abbreviated as “KO”) system, the number of decks in the shoe was used to establish the baseline count. In a single-deck game, the baseline started at 0, but at a table with a two-deck shoe the baseline begins at -4. Find a six-deck show and the count starts at -20, and eight-deck shoes kick the count off at -28.
Using the KO method, players were able to cut an entire step out of the process, as dividing the running count by the number of decks remaining was no longer necessary.
Prodded by Tamburin, the mathematically-inclined Pronovost – who went on to found the gaming analytics firm DeepNet Technologies – set to work searching for an even more streamlined count.
Pronovost’s research revealed that a game of blackjack reliably deals out 2.7 cards to each hand, player and dealer included, on average. This statistical quirk held firm no matter how the house rules were tweaked, providing Pronovost with his first crucial insight into the Speed Count.
Next, he used the ratio of low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, and 6) in the deck (20) to high cards (7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, and A) in the deck (32) to arrive at 5/13. In other words, a small card will arrive on the felt five-thirteenths, or 38.46 percent, of the time.
Finally, the math whiz multiplied his 2.7 cards per hand average by 5/13 to produce 1.038 -which represents the statistical average number of low cards that will appear in any random blackjack hand.
From there, Pronovost devised a system in which players need only track the low cards as they appear. Low cards are valued at +1 in the Speed Count, while high cards are valued at 0. Because there are no negative card values in the Speed Count, players don’t have to worry about adding AND subtracting digits from the running count. Instead, they simply track the low cards and add them to the running count.
Using a baseline count of 0 in a single-deck game* for simplicity’s sake, let’s see how this works with an example deal as shown below:
|Hand 1||Hand 2||Hand 3||Hand 4||Dealer Hand|
|3d / 4h||Ks / Qc||Jd / 5h||2s / 9d||4c / 4h|
*Two-deck shoes start with a baseline count of 30, while six-deck shoes start at 27
Using a subtle scan of the table, you spot six separate low cards – the 3d, 4h, 5h, 2s, 4c, and 4h.
Each of these is worth +1, and the high cards don’t matter at all, so our running count moves from the 0 baseline to +6.
Now, players and the dealer will act on their hands, as shown below:
|Hand 1||Hand 2||Hand 3||Hand 4||Dealer Hand|
|3d / 4h||Ks / Qc||Jd / 5h||2s / 9d||4c / 4s|
|Hit (Qd)||Stand||Hit (5s)||Double (3s)||Hit(4d)/Hit(9h)|
Using the current running count of +6, we scan the table for low cards a second time (remember, you’ll be doing this on the fly as each card appears, not all at once as in this example).
Three more low cards (5s, 3s, and 4d) have hit the felt, bringing our running count to +9.
At this point, subtraction is involved in the Speed Count, but only at the end of each deal when you’ll have a few seconds of breathing room to make the calculation. And fortunately, this calculation is as easy as they come…
To finish off your Speed Count for a given hand, just take the number of hands in play (both player and dealer hands) and subtract it from your running count. In our case, the running count is +9 and we have five hands on the table, so the end count for this hand is +4.
Whenever you have a positive count after a hand ends – which simply signifies that more low cards appeared per hand than the 1.038 statistical average – you know the deck now includes a greater concentration of high cards.
The single-deck example used above makes this extremely easy to prove too. Using the 15 exposed cards we’ve seen, we know 9 of them are low and the other 6 are high. And because we also know the deck only holds 20 low cards in total, we can deduce that just 11 low cards remain unrevealed. With the remaining deck containing 37 cards, the ratio of low cards left comes to 11/37, or 29.73 percent.
Accordingly, this current deck construction gives players 26 high cards out of 37 total – good for a whopping 70.27 percent chance to land high cards on the next deal.
Obviously, things won’t be so cut and dry when you move to multiple-deck shoes holding up to eight decks and 416 cards. Using the 30 baseline for two-deck games and 27 for six-deck shoes, Pronovost establishes 31 as the “magic number” – or the cutoff at which a player’s count is considered positive. In other words, when you reach 31 or higher on your running count after a deal, feel free to bet bigger on the next hand(s) until the count drops back under 31 again.
And if you’re more of a visual and auditory learner, check out this short instructional video from Frank Scoblete – the controversial gambling author Pronovost and Tamburin chose to package and publish their Speed Count system as part of the Golden Touch gambling brand.
Thus, the central premise of the Speed Count remains exactly as Pronovost and Tamburin had hoped. By tracking low cards only to remove constant addition and subtraction, and eliminating the division needed to calculate the true count, the Speed Count is clearly a much quicker and easier way to count cards.
According to Pronovost’s voluminous data on the subject, the player gains a slight edge over the house whenever the running count reaches 31. From there, Speed Count players see their edge climb in proportion to a higher running count, as seen in the table below:
|Running Count||Player Edge|
Now, experienced blackjack players might be scoffing at these numbers, as even the most tried and true systems out there struggle to generate a 2 percent player edge. This debate over whether or not the Speed Count system really lives up to its marketing claims rages on today, and many respected figures in the blackjack community just don’t believe the hype.
Despite the promise of a truly efficient and easy way to count cards, the Speed Count hasn’t become a fan favorite among the blackjack crowd.
Part of the Speed Count’s dubious reputation undoubtedly stems from its association with Scoblete, an author notorious for passing off basic gambling strategy knowledge as new insights through slick packaging. Scoblete has penned dozens of gambling books over the years, and his admitted specialty is “Dice Control” at the craps table – a widely debunked theory based on the idea that rollers can influence how two dice will land.
But as we’ve learned, Scoblete’s popularity among the masses made him a candidate for publishing the Speed Count, but he had nothing to do with inventing the system. By all accounts, Pronovost and Tamburin are respected authorities on blackjack analytics, so the Speed Count certainly holds up on its merits alone.
Of course, the debate continues as to whether or not Pronovost’s promised player edge rates of up to 4 percent really hold water. According to critics, the shortcuts needed to make the Speed Count so easy incorporate just enough error that the player’s edge is reduced when compared to other popular systems like the KO.
To help quell that debate, Pronovost and Tamburin invited Dr. Don Catlin – a professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts who moonlights as independent gaming industry consultant – to run an audit on the Speed Count. Using specialized software designed to simulate blackjack hands a billion times over, Catlin returned with the following conclusions:
“Speed Count is the easiest card counting system I have encountered.
I designed and ran a simulation of the Regular Speed Count using a 6 deck Blackjack game with doubling after splitting, dealer hits the soft 17, late surrender, split up to three times (total of four hands), Aces are split once and receive one card each.
My result was that the players edge per game was 1.014% and was 0.33% per unit wagered; this was based on 1 billion hands.”
While Dr. Catlin does indeed recommend the Speed Count, the devil is in the details…
As you can see, Catlin’s simulation returned a player edge of 1.014 percent – a rate which surely beats facing a house edge, but is a far cry from the 2, 3, and 4 percent rates advertised by Pronovost and his Golden Touch team.
Legendary casino game analyst and mathematician Michael Shackleford – who players probably know better as the “Wizard of Odds” – offered the following appraisal when a forum reader asked him about the Speed Count:
“How Effective is the Speed Count Really?”
Contrary to what many people think, I have never used it nor analyzed it.
I will say that after an experience with that game I am very slow to give anything that could be construed as a recommendation.
The consensus of many experts is that the KO is about as easy to use, and more powerful.”
The fact that Shackleford – who has spent the last two decades analyzing casino games accurately on his Wizard of Odds site – hasn’t even reviewed the Speed Count doesn’t bode well.
Writing in a four-star review on Amazon titled “A Card Counter’s Perspective,” reader Corey Preuss praised the Speed Count’s simplicity:
“After reading this book, I have to agree with Scoblete and say that this is definitely the easiest card counting system on the market.
What makes this system different from the norm is the fact that you are mostly working with addition and very little (but simple) subtraction, with no true count conversion needed. The basic strategy card deviations serve as good camouflage to the pit crew considering some table entries are different than normal basic strategy.
This book was written for the basic strategy player who tried counting cards but found it too hard to accomplish.”
Meanwhile, fellow Amazon reviewer Aaron Robinson left a three-star review titled “Yeah, it’s Easy, But is it Really Good?” which warns aspiring card counters to stay away:
“Point blank, it’s very easy and yes you can learn it in two days if you really work hard on it, but I’d say more like a week (you have to learn the new strategy that goes with it). That’s probably the 2.9 stars out of the 3 I gave it.
Now here’s the beef. At home on the simulator (CVBJ) it was very inconsistent, and I finally found the same at the casino… I mean why learn to count if when the count is stupidly high, and they are telling you to bet big, and you lose 3-8 straight hands still! So where is this edge???
I’m no BJ rookie by no means, so I understand losing and losing streaks, but wow… I can lose by myself, for less effort, and way less money. Keep your money don’t buy it.”
All things considered, you owe it to yourself to try the Speed Count out for yourself and form your own opinion.
The Speed Count is a perfectly serviceable blackjack counting system for what it’s advertised to be – speedy and simple. While doubts remain over the true effectiveness of a Speed Count in creating the player edge rates Pronovost proudly touts, a billion-hand scientific simulation proved it can boost your edge to over 1 percent. That may not be high enough to satisfy the tough critics who count cards for a living, but if you’re just looking to have a little fun on your next trip to Las Vegas, consider the Speed Count to be a great starting point.
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