Maybe you saw a movie or television show about the MIT blackjack team or picked up a book about how someone made millions beating the casinos playing blackjack. Or maybe you read an article about Don Johnson — no, not Don Johnson the television star — who won millions at the blackjack tables.
If these people can beat the blackjack tables, why can’t you become a professional blackjack player?
The truth is that you can if that’s what you really want to do. But the reality of professional blackjack play is far from what you see in movies and in most books. Casinos constantly try to eliminate blackjack advantage play by changing rules or simply banning some players from the tables.
Even when you can get away with playing blackjack with an advantage, you have to travel quite a bit, usually with large amounts of cash, and unless you’re playing at high levels, the profits can be small.
If you want to be a professional blackjack player, I give you a detailed plan below. But first, you need to know why you shouldn’t try professional blackjack, as well as why you should consider it.
Why You Shouldn’t Be a Pro Blackjack Player
I can list several reasons why you shouldn’t be a professional blackjack player, and I cover many of them in this section. The number-one reason you should not be a professional blackjack player is that it’s hard to make enough money to make a good living.
Every person has a different level of income they need in order to consider it a good living, but no matter what your level is, it’s hard to make a lot of money as a blackjack pro. The reason is that you’re dealing with such a small edge over the house that you have to get large amounts of money into play to have a chance at good money.
Getting large amounts of money in play comes with its own set of problems, but for now, let me show you some hard math.
Everything you do as a blackjack pro is based on the house edge. You track and estimate the house edge, and you bet as much as possible when you see the edge is in your favor. Every dollar you bet when the casino has an edge costs you money, and every dollar you wager when you have the edge makes you money.
The problem is that it’s hard to get to the situations where you have an edge without investing in the situations when you don’t have an edge. You can use a few strategies to help with this, like back counting and team play, but you still only have so many opportunities to make profitable bets.
Back counting is when you watch a game and count cards without making bets. Once the count moves in your favor, you join the game and make bets until the count goes against you. Many casinos have instituted no mid-shoe entry rules to eliminate back counting. I talk about team play more in the last section.
A good goal for a card counter is to get the overall house edge on all their bets as an average at around 1%. Of course, you want this to be as high as possible, but it’s difficult for most players to get much higher. The absolute top professionals in the world can do it, but only a few players fall into this category, so it’s not a good idea to estimate that you can do it.
If your average bet size is $100, and you make 100 bets per hour, you wager a total of $10,000. If you can average a 1% return on your bets, you make $100 an hour.
This sounds like a pretty good reason to be a professional blackjack player.
But this doesn’t show the entire picture. In order for your average bet to be $100 per hand, you have to make many bets of $20 to $50 a hand when the count isn’t in your favor, and then make bets of $400 or higher when the count is in your favor.
Most blackjack tables have low and high betting limits that fall into this range, but if you have a bet spread this big, the casino is likely going to be able to figure out that you’re counting cards. If they figure it out, they’ll make you stop playing.
This means that you have to hit a game fast and then get out before the casinos kicks you out. You need to find another place to play, and then another place after that. You always need to be moving in order to keep the heat as low as possible.
This leads to the problem of finding good games. If you can’t find enough games with good rules close together, you end up traveling instead of playing most of the time. Making $100 an hour is good, but if you can’t play many hours, you still aren’t making great money.
Because you have to travel to where the best games are, you have to spend a great deal of time away from your family and friends. This can be stressful. Always trying to avoid heat from the casino is also stressful. Making sure you don’t make mistakes in strategy and counting adds even more stress.
What if you can only get your average edge to .5% instead of 1%? This reduces your hourly win rate by half. What if you can only play 75 hands an hour instead of 100? This reduces your average win rate by 25% an hour.
The bottom line is that most people are better off working for a living and playing blackjack as a hobby.
Why You Should Be a Pro Blackjack Player
On the other hand, there are also many reasons why playing blackjack professionally is appealing. The game within a game or beating the casinos at their own game can be intoxicating. Accepting the casino’s challenge, and knowing that you beat them is an awesome feeling.
When you master your skills, you can make a great deal of money. If you build a great team, you can reduce the chance of being caught and multiply your profits. You can play a game for a living instead of being stuck working at a regular job.
It’s also not as hard to learn how to do the things you need to do to beat the casinos as many people believe. Learning basic strategy is just a matter of practice. Even if you use a card every time you play and have trouble memorizing things, you eventually learn all of the proper plays. Once you play a few sessions, the most common plays start to seem natural to you.
You might still need to check your strategy card on the rare plays from time to time, but even these plays will eventually become automatic. If you simply memorize one strategy play a day, you’ll have everything memorized in a couple months.
Learning how to count cards is also much easier than most people believe. You just have to add and subtract one from a number that you remember. The hardest part for some players is keeping the running count in their head while making strategy decisions. This is why it’s so important to make sure you have strategy memorized to the point where the plays are automatic.
I cover more about card counting in the next section, but the point is that it’s easy enough to do that anyone who plays blackjack should learn how to do it. Even if you decide you don’t want to be a card counter at the level of the professionals, you can still use it in a limited way to give you a real chance to break even against the casino while playing blackjack.
The best strategy is probably to start working on the things that pro blackjack players do and see how fast you pick them up and if you like it. You don’t have anything to lose, and you might end up joining the ranks of pro blackjack players.
In the next section, I give you a step-by-step plan to get started. Dedicate 15 minutes to an hour every day to improving your blackjack skills, and in just a few months, you’re going to be able to play perfect strategy and count cards. Once you reach this point, you can decide if you really want to be a professional blackjack player.
Now you know why you should consider playing blackjack professionally and why you shouldn’t. If you still want to give it a try, here’s a step-by-step plan on how to do it. It’s not easy, but if you want to beat the blackjack tables, you can learn how.
Blackjack is a mathematical game. Most casino games are mathematical, but blackjack has some advantages for players if they know how to use them.
The first advantage is that the set of rules that a casino uses dictates the house edge. Some blackjack rules make the house edge higher, and some rules make it lower. This means the first step in your plan to play blackjack as a professional is to learn how each rule changes the house edge. Then learn how to find games that offer good rules.
By finding games with good rules, it lowers the house edge, which makes it easier to use other strategies to overcome the edge.
The next step is learning how to use basic blackjack strategy . I don’t mean learning it a little bit or glancing at a strategy card before you play. I mean that you have to learn basic strategy so well that you never make a strategy mistake.
You can use a card while you play, so there’s never an excuse to make a mistake. Basic blackjack strategy is designed to keep the house edge as low as humanly possible. Every possible scenario has been run through a computer program, and the most profitable play has been determined.
Anytime you don’t make the correct play, it makes the house edge go up, and it costs you money. The best thing to do is use the basic strategy so much that you have it memorized. Once you have it memorized, you can move on to the next step.
The next step is learning how to count cards. This is the main way you can change the house edge from the casino’s favor to yours. You don’t really need to understand completely why card counting works to use it, but here are the basics.
Different card values are better for you and the house. Some cards increase your chances to win, while others lower your chances to win. You might be saying that this is obvious, but you need to think about this on a slightly deeper level to understand how counting cards helps your blackjack results.
The cards that can be dealt from the deck or shoe dictate your long-term profit. If you always make the same size bet, you lose money. But when you track the ratio of good cards to bad cards left in the deck or shoe, you can bet more when you have an advantage.
By betting more when you have an advantage, you can win enough in these situations to overcome the normal house edge.
All you do is keep track of the ratio of good and bad cards. A ratio is simply a comparison of how many of two different things exist in a given situation.
When the remaining shoe or deck has a high ratio of high cards in comparison to low cards, the house has a lower edge. When the opposite is the case, with more low cards than high cards, the house edge goes up.
A card counting system is a fairly easy way to track this ratio. You can find dozens of card counting systems, but I recommend starting with the high low system. It’s also called hi-lo in many places.
Learn how to use the system and practice until you have it down perfectly. Just like learning how to play perfect strategy, you need to learn your counting system so well that you never make a mistake.
Once you perfect your counting system, the next step is learning the adjustments you need to make to basic strategy based on the count. Each card counting system has a list of certain situations where you need to make a different play than basic strategy dictates.
As the count changes, it changes the odds and percentages that basic strategy is based on. When these odds and percentages change enough, a new play is the best play.
If playing professional blackjack seems like a lot of work, it’s because it is. At this point, you know everything about the blackjack rules, can play perfect basic strategy, count cards without ever making a mistake, and know all of the adjustments you need to make based on the count. But you aren’t done.
Now you need to learn how much you need to adjust your betting limits based on the count to maximize your profit. You need to consider your ability to have a large bet spread with your ability to get away with it. When casinos see blackjack players with large bet spreads, they start looking at you to see if you might be counting.
If the casino thinks you’re counting cards, they can make you stop playing. So the next step is figuring out how to get away with counting cards. You can figure out ways to camouflage your play, and you can move from casino to casino often.
Once you master all of these things, you’re able to make money playing blackjack. It still doesn’t mean that you’re making a great deal of money, but the potential is there.
Now that you know how to play blackjack professionally, you can look at other ways to add to your profits. One way is to form a blackjack team. A blackjack team offers some advantages over solo play, but a team also adds some challenges.
A well-run blackjack team is harder for a casino to identify as a threat, so you can play longer at one place. On the other hand, finding good team members who you can trust is challenging. Teams can consist of as few as two people, so if you think you want to put together a team, start with one or two other people who you can trust and who you can teach everything you know about beating blackjack.
You have to hold other team members to the same standards as you have. Everyone has to be able to play perfect strategy and count cards without making mistakes. If someone is too lazy to learn perfect strategy, they’re not someone you want on your team.
Two other strategies that professional blackjack players look for opportunities to use are hole carding and shuffle tracking. I don’t recommend considering these until you completely understand card counting, but they can add to your profits.
Some dealers aren’t trained well, and they show players the value of face-down cards if the player knows where to look during the deal. Even the worst dealers don’t flash every card, but if you can see a few cards, you can use the information to help you make better decisions on hands.
Always watch the cards as the dealer is passing them out. Eventually, you’re going to see a dealer flash you a card value. As you watch, you’re going to see this more often, and you’re going to learn how to spot sloppy dealers.
Shuffle tracking is harder to do than counting cards and looking for hole cards, and many casinos make it impossible. But if you find the right game and learn how to do it, you can find an extra edge sometimes.
In a hand-shuffled blackjack game, it’s sometimes possible to track groups of aces and high cards that have been discarded together through the shuffle. This takes a great deal of practice, but if you can predict when a group of high cards is coming, you can make bigger bets and show a larger profit.
Blackjack tables that use a shuffling machine and dealers that have been trained to do a good shuffle eliminate shuffle tracking, so you won’t find many opportunities to use it. But it might still be worth taking the time to learn a little bit more about it.
Should you give playing blackjack professionally a shot? Only you can answer this question, but even if you don’t want to be a pro, it won’t hurt you to learn how to play perfect strategy and count cards. It’s not as hard as most players think to count cards, and even if you don’t master it, maybe you can play closer to break-even.
You can become a professional blackjack player. But it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s hard work, involves some risk, and it can take a toll on your mental health and your family life. But if you can handle the risks and stress and do it well, you can make money playing blackjack.