Blackjack Card Counting – Zen System

The Zen Count System doesn’t really have anything at all to
do with Zen. Arnold Snyder popularized this system for counting
cards in this 1983 book, Blackbelt in Blackjack. It’s an
excellent book, and Snyder devotes a lot of space comparing
skilled blackjack play to martial arts practice. That’s probably
the point of the name of this system.

The Zen Count System is an intermediate system, not
appropriate for beginners. It is, though, a powerful system that
more experienced players might enjoy using. We explain how to
use the Zen Count System in practice and look at the pros and
cons of it as compared to other card counting systems below.

How to Use the Zen Count System

The first step in learning any card counting system is
learning the values to assign to each card that you see.
Contrary to popular perception, counting cards doesn’t involve
memorizing which cards have already been played except in a very
general way.

  1. High cards hurt the deck when they’re removed
  2. Low cards help the deck when they’re removed

This is because card counters want to raise their bets when
the deck has a relatively high number of aces and 10s in it.
Remember that “a natural”; (or a “blackjack”) pays out at 3 to 2
instead of even odds. If you have a higher chance of being dealt
a blackjack, then you can improve your odds just by getting more
money onto the table when that happens.

It’s similar to the way professional poker players bet and
raise when they have a good hand and fold when they don’t. They
don’t always win when they have a good hand, but they want to
get as much money into action as possible when they have a
chance of winning.

In most card counting systems, you only add and subtract 1
for each card that you see. These are called single level
systems. They can be quite powerful in terms of helping you get
an edge over the casino.

Multi level systems can be even more powerful. They can
provide better guidance in terms of when and by how much to
raise your bets, but most card counters like multi level systems
for the difference they make to their strategy decisions.

The Zen Count is a 2 level system. Some of the cards are
worth + or -2, while some of the cards are worth + or -1. The
actual values for each card are listed below:

  • Aces are worth -1
  • 10s are worth -2
  • 2s, 3s, and 7s are worth +1
  • 4s, 5s, and 6s are worth -1

This is a balanced system, as the total for all the cards of
each value add up to 0 when you count through an entire deck.
This is true even if you’re counting through multiple decks.
Balanced systems are, in general, easier to use than unbalanced
systems, but they do require you to calculate a true count.

What’s that?

A running count is the total you get when you’re adding and
subtracting these values during the game. But it doesn’t take
into account the number of decks in play. If you’re playing in a
single deck game, then the running count is a more-or-less
accurate picture of how much of an edge you have over the
casino. But when you add more decks to the equation, the effect
of an individual card becomes discounted.

It’s easy to understand why if you think about it, but if
you’re having trouble grasping the concept, imagine a single
deck blackjack game in which 3 of the aces have already been
dealt. Your chances of getting a blackjack are pretty small at
this point, because there’s only one ace left in the deck.

But if you’re playing in a game with 8 decks, there are 32
aces in the deck. Even if 3 of them have already been dealt, you
still have 29 aces left. This doesn’t mean that the dealing of
those 3 aces hasn’t hurt you, but they haven’t hurt you as much.

You compensate for this discounted effect by calculating a
true count. Depending on which version of the Zen Count System
you’re using, you’ll divide the running count by the number of
decks left in the shoe or by the number of quarter-decks left in
the shoe.

The Pros and Cons of the Zen Count System

Norm Wattenberger provides detailed mathematical analysis of
the various aspects of card counting systems on his excellent
website QFIT. He looks at how well the system correlates to when
you should raise and lower your bets, how well it affects your
strategy decisions, and how well it informs your insurance
decisions. These are all graded on a scale from 0 to 1.

  • Betting Correlation Grade

    The Zen Count has a 0.96
    betting correlation, which makes it one of the best systems
    in the world for helping you decide when to raise your bets.

  • Playing Efficiency Grade

    It also has a 0.63 playing
    efficiency, which is better than it sounds. Most simpler
    systems have a playing efficiency of less than 0.6.

  • Insurance Correlation Grade

    The insurance correlation
    is 0.85, which is also excellent.

The biggest drawback to the Zen Count System is the same
drawback that other multi level card counting systems suffer
from. It’s just plain hard to use. Wattenberger scores the
difficulty of using each system on a scale from 1 to 10, with a
lower score meaning it’s harder to use. The Zen Count scores a 4
here, which makes it one of the hardest counts to use that we’ve

Further Information

If you’re interested in learning more
about Wattenberger’s research findings, you can review them here.

At the end of the day, the Zen System works in a similar
manner to every other card counting system out there. You decide
how much of a bankroll you have. You decide how much you’re
willing to bet per hand, and you set a betting range. When the
count is high, you increase your bets accordingly.

Here’s an example:

You have $10,000 to play with. You decide that you want to be
conservative, so you stick with the $10 games, which means you
have 1000 units to play with. You also decide that you’re
willing to work with a betting spread from 1 to 10. That means
you’ll bet as much as $100 per hand if the count warrants it.

You should be able to get an edge of at least 1% over the
casino pursuing this strategy, and that’s without making
strategy adjustments. If you adjust your strategy accordingly,
you can increase your edge over the casino by an additional 0.2%
or more.


The Zen Count is an excellent, powerful card counting
strategy. It’s harder than a single level strategy, but as multi
level strategies go, it’s not as hard as the Wong Halves
Strategy. You can get specific details about this counting
system by buying the book Blackbelt in Blackjack by Stanford

The Zen Count might be harder than other systems, but it
should pay off in the form of increased profits at the table.