Blackjack Shuffle Tracking
Shuffle tracking is something used by some advantage players while playing blackjack or other casino table games. These players try to track how the cards are put into the discard tray and shuffled so they can predict the next cards to be dealt after a shuffle.
At a very basic level shuffle tracking works like this:
If you open a new pack of playing cards, split it perfectly in half for two stacks of 26 cards, and shuffle it perfectly, you can accurately predict the order of cards. If you split it into two 26 card stacks and shuffle it perfectly again you can determine the order of cards again.
As long as you know how the cards started, the cards are split into two 26 card stacks, and they're shuffled perfectly, you can determine the order of the cards.
Even a perfect situation like the one we just described has a variable though. You need to know which stack has the first card land on the bottom to make an accurate prediction. But after you see the first few cards off the top of the new shuffle you can determine which of the two deck halves started the stack.
If you're playing a casino table game like blackjack and you know the order of the cards do you think you can win? It'd be like playing with all of the cards face up. You'd always know what the dealer has and what cards are coming next, so you could bet big when you're going to win and bet small when you're going to lose.
Of course real life creates all kinds of issues with tracking a shuffle. Even if the dealer is hand shuffling a single deck they rarely have two stacks of 26 cards and almost never make a perfect shuffle where exactly one card from each stack lands on the final stack in an every other card order.
But some players are able to track certain cards or clusters of cards through a shuffle well enough to gain an advantage against the casino. But shuffle tracking is one of the hardest skills to master for advantage players, so many who attempt to do it end up losing money instead of making it.
Hand Dealt Games and Automatic Shuffling Machines
Games that are shuffled by hand are difficult to track, but many dealers are lazy enough that they don't shuffle well or shuffle enough times, so it's possible to find profitable situations. But what about games that use an automatic shuffling machine? Can they be tracked?
This is the only area on the page where we move from verifiable information to conjecture. A few players claim they've been able to get their hands on an automatic shuffling machine and learn how it works well enough to track a shuffle through it. We can't verify this is true, but a mechanical machine has to operate in a set way over and over again, so it sounds like it's possible.
So if you want to explore this advantage play focus on being a master at the hand shuffled games before attempting to transfer your skills over to an automatic machine. You may be able to do it, but it can be a costly learning curve while you're trying.
And if you want to try to beat the automatic machines you need to figure out how to get your hands on one or more of them so you can determine how they work. This may sound simple, but the companies that make the machines are smart enough to protect their designs so getting one can be quite difficult.
Is Shuffle Tracking Profitable?
If you learn how to do it well and are able to adjust the size of your bets when a group or slug of high cards is coming then shuffle tracking can be profitable. But if you misjudge where the set of high cards is and raise your bets at the wrong time you'll end up losing more than if you simply flat bet and use basic strategy.
The bottom line is if you can do it well shuffle tracking can be more profitable than card counting and many other advantage play methods. But doing it well takes a great deal of practice and work and can cost you a great deal of money, so the long term profit comes with a real price.
One area where normal players don't recognize a chance to reduce the house edge when using shuffle tracking is insurance at the blackjack table. You may know that when you're using basic strategy that insurance is never a good bet. But if you know you're in the middle of a group of face cards and the dealer has an ace showing it can be profitable to take insurance.
The insurance bet is basically a bet that the dealer's down card is a 10 valued card or not and pays 2 to 1. If the odds are better than this that the dealer has a 10 valued card it's a good bet. In a situation where the down card is random the odds are worse than 2 to 1, but if you know that the odds of a 10 value down card is higher because of tracking the shuffle you can take insurance.
Can You Do It?
Shuffle tracking is one of the hardest advantage play methods used by casino players. It's more difficult than counting cards and few people ever truly master it. But the only way you can find out if you're able to do it is by giving it a try.
Even if you aren't able to use shuffle tracking like the professional advantage players you may still be able to use the same basics to get a quick advantage from time to time.
If you're playing in a single or double deck hand shuffled blackjack game and one round of cards has three aces, seven face cards, and only two low cards you should watch how they're placed in the discard tray. Let's say one of the cards is the ace of diamonds and it gets placed on the top of the discard stack with the other 11 cards we just descried directly below it.
Unless the dealer does a strong job of shuffling you can expect this group of face cards and aces to come out of the deck shortly after the ace of diamonds. Simply by knowing more high cards are coming than low ones gives you an edge over the house, so you can raise your bets.
As you get better at recognizing situations like this you'll be able to start tracking two or three cards at a time. In the previous example you might see the ace of diamonds is on top, the next card is he king of spades, and the third card down is the jack of hearts. This gives you even more information to work with.
You can also attempt to track a slug of cards like the one just described through the shuffle. If you know roughly where the slug of high cards is located you can cut the cards so they're at the top of the deck. This way you can bet big off the top of the deal and either reduce your bets or quit paying after the high card slug is gone.
So even if learning to be a full fledged shuffle tracker is too hard for many players, if you pay attention and are always on the lookout for an advantage you can use shuffle tracking techniques to gain an edge from time to time.
The nice thing about a game like blackjack, that offers a house edge as low as a half percent with good rules and proper strategy, is you don't need to find a small edge too often to break even against the house.
You play blackjack at $20 a hand most of the time but are always watching for the chance to track a slug of high cards like we described in the last example. When you find a situation with a profitable slug or string of cards you bet $100 per hand. You're playing in a game with good rules and you always use perfect strategy so the house edge is a half percent during normal play. When you recognize an advantage and play at $100 per hand you have a 2% edge over the house.
You might think that a 2% edge over the house is high in these situations, but if you do a good job recognizing these situations it can be much higher than this.
Out of every 100 hands you play, do you know how many you need to play with an advantage to break even?
100 hands at $20 per hand with a loss of a half percent means you lose $10. His basically means you lose 10 cents per hand on average. Every hand where you bet $100 with a 2% house edge wins $2 on average. This means that if you can find one hand out of every 20 on average with an advantage you'll be able to break even in the long run playing blackjack.
Over the short term your results will vary quite a bit, but if you understand the math and are able to grab a profitable situation from time to time it'll help your bankroll considerably.
Other Advantage Play Methods to Consider
Casino players have been trying to figure out ways to beat the casinos for as long as casinos have been operating. Methods range from outright cheating to using your brain power to legitimately beat the house. Here are a couple other real ways that players have found to beat the casinos other than shuffle tracking.
By keeping track of the ratio of high cards to low cards players can predict when the remaining cards have more high cards than low cards. By raising your bets when the deck is rich in high cards you have a chance to overcome the house edge and play with an advantage.
Counting cards isn't as hard as it sounds. You don't have to keep track of every single card, just the ratio of high to low ones. This is done by adding and subtracting a number, usually one, from a running count as you see cards. You can learn more about counting cards on our main card counting page.
Some casino dealers are sloppy and flash the value of their down cards to players sitting at certain seats at the table. This means that sometimes you might be able to see the dealer's down card while playing blackjack. Or if you play a game like Let It Ride you might be able to see the value of one or more of the down cards used to make your final hand.
This can be quite profitable, but it's difficult to find these dealers. Most players don't pay enough attention to spot a sloppy dealer, but if you're always on the lookout for one you'll run across one from time to time.
While it should be clear after reading this page about shuffle tracking that it isn't for everyone, you should also realize that you don't have to be a full fledged shuffle tracker or advantage player to be able to see a situation where you can decrease the house edge from time to time.
Keep your eyes open and see if you can track a slug of high cards and aces through a shuffle the next time you play blackjack. You might find it's easier than it sounds. And even if it isn't easy, you may find that with a little practice you're able to predict a big win every once in a while.