Blackjack Card Counting

Blackjack Card Counting

In most gambling games each spin of the wheel or roll of the dice is independent of those which follow; in blackjack this is not the case. Every card which is dealt from the shoe has a slight impact on the house advantage.  Low cards (taken out of the game) improve the odds for the player while high cards benefit the house. Through careful observation a skilled player is able to raise or lower his bet in accordance with these fluctuating odds and achieve long term profitability.

The common misconception about blackjack card counting is that you need to be some math genius or Rain Man, but you’re not. It requires math skills on the level of a 2nd grade. To be able to implement it while playing for real money in a live casino, that’s a different story and requires days and days of practice.

What is Card Counting?

Card counting is keeping a running tally that increases for every low card and decreases for every high card. There are many counting systems, ranging from the extremely complex to the very simple. Generally in today’s shoe games it is recommended to stick with a basic level one count such as hi-lo. More complicated approaches such as Hi-Opt II make mistakes significantly more likely, especially for novice players and can also contribute to fewer rounds per hour.

How it Works

As each card is dealt the card counter adjusts his running count by increasing it for low cards (2-6), decreasing it for high cards (T-A), and leaving it the same for a neutral cards (7,8,9). The player then divides the running count by the decks remaining to get the true count (TC) or ‘count per deck’. The TC is used for all your betting and playing decisions since it reflects the high card density of the remainder of the shoe.  As the TC increases so does the size of the player’s bet.  Serious professionals typically use an optimal betting structure based upon the Kelly Criterion which says that in even money games you should bet your advantage (if you have a 1% advantage bet 1% of your bankroll).

Is Counting Cards Illegal?

While laws vary between jurisdictions this page knows of nowhere that card counting is formally illegal although if you become good enough the casino can and will show you the door. Card counting is simply thinking while you play. Typically courts have ruled that team play is also legal. On the other hand using a device to assist you while you play, such as a tiny pocket computer, is illegal.

Not Free Money

There is a popular misconception that a card counter can sit down at the table and overnight be guaranteed to win massive amounts of money.  This is simply not the case.  Card counters typically bet with a 1-2% advantage and on any day are virtually as likely to lose as to win. It is always more likely that you will lose the next hand; your advantage comes from the asymmetrical payouts of the game, such as the 150% return for a natural 21 or the multiple bet returns from splitting and doubling down. Card counting is not free money and requires serious and careful preparation if you are to have success at the tables. Wagering with a small advantage leaves you open to massive downswings which is why it is always recommended to bet within your bankroll.

Card Counting Tips

This our general article on the topic, so we won’t get into technicalities, but just give few tips to players making their first steps in card counting.

  • Strategy First: We can’t stress this enough. Counting cards before your strategy is perfect is like trying to walk before you learn how to crawl. I know some children go straight to walking (I’ll let you know in few months if mine will do the same), but this is an exception. To become a professional player and to make money from playing blackjack, you need to know the correct strategy so well, that it will become automatic. If you’ve seen some samurai movies when they do things so perfectly that no thinking is involved, that how you should be when it comes to strategy. A blackjack samurai.
  • Bankroll management: One of the main mistakes beginner counters make is to overplay their bankroll. The fact that the true count is +7 or even higher, doesn’t mean that you will win the next hand; or the one after. It just means that you have a 51.41% odds to win the hand. That’s all. Card counting is not a sprint, so don’t rush things and play according to your bankroll.
  • You cannot count cards playing online: In all online video blackjack games the cards are shuffled either after each hand or every few hands (but without telling you when). On live dealer tables, theoretically you can count, however the deck penetration is too low, usually around 50%. The reason is obvious: sitting at home with a simple software we would all become millionaires. Nonetheless, playing online has many benefits. First, you can perfect your basic strategy. Second, you can practice counting. The tempo of online blackjack (video) is much higher, so it’s a perfect test for your skills before you go to a real casino with its noise and distractions.