How to Use Card Counting to Beat Blackjack

Made popular by the movie Rain Man and the legendary MIT blackjack team that won millions off casinos, card counting is one of the few ways that a player can gain an edge over the house.

What is Card Counting?

Card counting is using a mental trick to record the discarded cards prior to them being shuffled back in so that you can have a predictive effect on the remaining cards to be dealt. If there are lots of face cards and aces this benefits the player. The primary obvious way is that there are more blackjacks which is a natural 21 consisting of an ace and a face card (Tens, being the same value as face cards, are included when I say face cards).

But if there are more blackjacks then the dealer will get more blackjacks as well as the player, right? So, where’s the advantage? The advantage is that when the player gets a blackjack he/she gets 3:2 odds so that a $100 bet will lose $100 to a dealer blackjack but will win $150 for a player blackjack. In theory, players should love to alternate blackjacks with the dealer all day long!

Also, when there are more large-valued cards in the deck, it’s beneficial to the player when doubling down. In addition, when the dealer is showing a bust card like a 2-6, a deck full of face cards make a dealer bust more likely.

A deck full of smaller cards like 2-6 is a bad spot for the player. Many fewer blackjacks occur and double downs become less effective and the dealer busts more infrequently.

How easy is it to learn how to count cards?

Although it’s relatively easy to learn card counting techniques, it takes a lot of work to go from a novice to a professional card counter.

My nephew Michael is a perfect example of a novice card counter. He knows how to count down a deck of cards and he knows basic strategy.

After that, he only possesses a basic understanding of card counting elements such as true count conversion, the use of play indices, bet spread requirements and table conditions.

In addition, like all novice card counters, his playing bankroll is represented by the money in his pocket. Michael may be able to count down a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds, but he will be unable to maintain a long-term edge over the casino because he is using an incomplete set of tools.

One night Michael decided to test his newly gained, but limited skill set, and count cards at a small casino in North Las Vegas. In addition to his meager understanding of card counting techniques, he added two other variables to the equation: alcohol and a girl he had just recently met. However, fortune shined down on Michael and he came home a $40 winner.

He was so ecstatic about his win that he woke me up to tell me that card counting was his new profession. After as much discouragement as I could heap on him, he refused to accept that his winnings were pure luck, and he proceeded over the course of several nights to lose the $40 and an additional amount that he did not care to share with me.

Why did Michael suffer the drastic turnaround in his path to becoming a professional blackjack player? Many people don’t realize that to be a profitable card counter, you have to understand and master an entire set of techniques. You also need to practice these techniques just as one would need to do to become good at a skill game such as golf, bowling or even darts.

Blackjack Card Counting Basics

So, you’re saying get to it, right? Ok, take one deck of cards to start.

Think in your head before you begin the number 0. Start taking the cards off the deck one by one.

For each 2,3,4,5, or 6 you see mentally add +1 to the number you are thinking.

For every 10,J,Q,K,A you see think -1. Don’t count 7,8, or 9.

This is the most common form of card counting and it’s called the Hi/lo system.

So let’s say you have a full deck and start at the number 0. When you see a five and a six come out, you add 1 for each so now that number in your head is +2. The next card is a king. Subtract 1. Now the number in your head is +1. You keep doing that. If you start at the number zero and count the entire deck in this manner what number will you end up with? Not a trick question. You’ll end up at zero! You’re counting an equivalent number of cards as +1 as you are counting -1.

This means when you have a deck rich in aces and face cards you’ll have a large plus number, say +12. That would be a deck with many fewer small cards remaining and a higher percentage of large-value cards. You would want to bet higher amounts and you may make some changes in your strategy by doubling down more aggressively or making other changes. A big minus count means a heavy advantage for the house, you’d either want to reduce your bet or sit out the hand if possible. Also, you would hit more often. There are many changes one would make to both bet size and playing strategy depending on what level of expertise you wish to shoot for.

When it comes to counting multiple decks, say 6 deck games, the methodology is the same. Count +1 or -1. Even with 6 decks if you start at zero, you’ll end at zero. What you would want to do with the count is adjust it to a single deck count. This means dividing by the number of decks remaining. This is really jumping the gun, but what I’m trying to say is that 6 decks aren’t significantly harder than a single deck. It’s just different.
Don’t think you can spend a couple of hours brushing up on this and beating the casino.

It takes many hours of practice and succeeding on your kitchen table is much different than in a casino with the distractions and the scrutiny. Card counting isn’t illegal but there’s always a bit of a cat and mouse game going on between players and the casinos so that the players are still welcome to play.

Card Counting is a Skill That Must Be Practiced Seriously

If you don’t practice the skill, you will never excel at the sport. It’s the same with counting cards. If you don’t practice the different techniques that make up professional card counting, how can you expect to make money in the long term? The professional-level card counter is known to practice more hours per day than he spends playing in the casino.

I was once told a very good rule of thumb when describing the levels a person has to master before they can count cards and beat blackjack.

  • Of 100 people who pick up a book on card counting, only 10 percent will read it from cover to cover.\
  • For every 100 people who read the book on counting, only 10 percent will practice counting down a deck of cards.
  • For every 100 people who have counted down a deck of cards, only 10 percent can do it in less than 30 seconds without making a mistake.
  • Of that 100, only 10 percent will learn anything about the technique set that constitutes the skill of card counting, and only 10 percent of those 100 will achieve the ability to break even or better on the tables over the long term.

This rule of thumb means that for every 100,000 people who pick up that original book on card counting, only one will achieve the ability to be considered a professional­–level card counter.

Note: Michael eventually became a prolific card counter, but he chooses to use his skills from the casino side of the business.

How does card counting provide an edge in blackjack?

Why does the skill of counting cards provide the player with an edge over the casino? What card counting does is provide the knowledgeable player with a tool for measuring the advantage maintained by the casino through their use of numbers of decks and rules.

This tool can be used to determine when the house has the advantage and when the subset of cards remaining in the shoe or deck favors the blackjack player.

For example, in a standard six-deck shoe game where the casino elects to deal four and a half decks before shuffling the cards, 80 dealt hands out of 100 will favor the house or will be even.

However, 20 hands out of 100 will favor the player, and these are the positive situations that the card counter is watching for. Once a positive situation is recognized, the knowledgeable card counter will wager more money. If the information dictates the shoe or deck is not in the player’s favor, the counter will wager the least amount of money that he can (if any).

When done correctly, the card counter can gain an overall mathematical edge of approximately 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent. In essence, by watching the cards being removed from the deck, and effectively calculating the mathematical edge of the remaining cards in the shoe or deck, the card counter is reversing the blackjack table edge back onto the casino.

Master basic strategy before learning to count cards

Step one in becoming a card counter, or catch card-counters, is the master of basic strategy for the game set one wishes to attack. I used the term “master” because hand play decisions have to be snap decisions, practically second nature. If one needs to ponder a situation, it will detract from his ability to observe and consider other blackjack game factors.

Card counting isn’t the place you want to start when it comes to blackjack. The first place is what’s called the Basic Strategy. This is a strategy that is always the proper play of the cards given the only knowledge being your two-card hand and the dealer’s upcard. For example, basic strategy is to always hit 16 against a dealer’s face card (unless surrender is offered which is rare but in which case surrender is proper) and you should always split 9s against an 8, which many people incorrectly stand.

Basic strategy for just about all forms of regular blackjack you find in the casinos is the same. There can be small differences between games that have more or fewer decks or casinos that stand on soft 17 versus hit on soft 17 (a soft 17 is a 17 including an ace that can be hit with a face card and not bust) and bigger changes in games that allow you to double after you split cards, in which case you’d split pairs much more frequently. Any blackjack book should have a basic strategy section, and there are many online if you search.

Many people think that they know blackjack strategy but the truth is that if you’ve never specifically studied a basic strategy chart, you’re probably making numerous mistakes. The best way to learn is to make flashcards. There are also software programs and apps for your tablet or phone that will let you practice.

Make sure to learn Basic Strategy before starting the adventure in counting!
Having said that, I was asked for a card counting article and that’s what I’m going to give you. People have a lot of confusion as to what card counting is. Before I learned to count, I thought that card counting involved memorization. This isn’t the case.

It is also essential that the person learns how to count down a single deck of cards in less than 40 seconds. Professional counters should be able to count a single deck in 20 seconds or less. The following points include other factors the blackjack card counter must master before qualifying as “professional level”:

True count conversion

Card counting was originally established to attack single-deck games, but today the counter’s bread and butter is shoe games. In order to accommodate the dilution effect of more playing cards, the counter needs to incorporate a technique known as “true count conversion.” The process of counting the value of the cards as they are seen by the counter is known as keeping a running count.

Because of the additional cards, the counter can mitigate the dilution effect by dividing the running count by the number of decks remaining unseen by the counter. This produces what is known as the true count. The true count is then used to make wagering decisions, hand strategy decisions that deviate from basic strategy and decisions on when to wager insurance profitably.

Note: Counters who use unbalanced count systems such as the KO or the Red Seven do not utilize a conversion to true count. These count systems are designed to be used without the process.

Strategy indices

The professional-level card counter uses basic strategy: 80 percent of his hands to make the best play and insurance decisions. However, 20 percent of those hands are played based on the ever-changing card composition of the deck or shoe. During these situations, the counter relies on a number of strategy deviations known as either indices or matrix numbers.

These deviations are based on the true count of the cards. They provide the counter with the best hand strategy to use with important and common hand totals. The professional-level counter uses approximately 18 to 28 deviations when counting cards; the remaining decisions are made using basic strategy.

The most important deviation occurs when the dealer has an up-card of Ace and the player must decide whether or not to buy insurance on his hand. Other deviations are made with common hitting and stand decisions, important double down hands, surrender and, believe it or not, splitting 10 value cards versus the dealer’s five or six.

Table conditions

Understanding and identifying specific table conditions are less important in multiple deck games than they would be in deep penetration single-deck games. In a single-deck game, the professional-level counter will sit in the last or latest position on the table. Late positions allow the counter to see more cards prior to his hand decision.

Hand decisions hold substantial importance in a single-deck game, but not so much in a multiple-deck game. In multiple-deck games, table position is not that important. The counter does need to know the game’s mathematical house advantage, as well as degree of deck penetration, and he will use this information to plan his bet spread strategy.

Bet spread requirements

One of the most misunderstood elements of card counting by the casino executive is the required bet spread needed to achieve a worthwhile advantage over a specific blackjack game. Without an adequate bet, based on deck penetration and the game’s house advantage, the card counter will not gain a long-term advantage.

For example, while most casino executives believe the counter gains a “huge” advantage with a bet spread of one to eight units on an average six-deck game, the professional counter is required to make a minimum spread of one to 12 units (one to 16 units or better is optimal) to gain a moderate advantage over the game.

In addition, the counter must increase his wagers substantially each time the deck or shoe reaches a true count level greater than +1. The difference between a non-profitable counter and a profitable counter usually depends on the size of bet spread and the counter’s ability to wager up to the required maximum units as soon as possible.

Bankroll requirements

This is another area that separates the successful counters from the failures. Most semi-professional card counters are undercapitalized and will go broke when suffering moderately, but normal, negative win/loss fluctuation. The professional-level counter knows that to survive standard statistical fluctuations, he must have a substantial bankroll of approximately 100 times his maximum wager.

Primary Elements of Success: Bankroll and Commitment

The true professional card counter will be well-bankrolled and well-schooled in various techniques and skills, and have the courage to make the required higher limit wagers when necessary.

This requires a great deal of commitment and discipline. Most people who decide that card counting is a “neat” way of beating the casino do not have the wherewithal to invest the time to learn and train to become a card counter who will win money in the long term.

In addition, most of these people cannot commit their personal finances to preserving the necessary bankroll to overcome standard win/loss fluctuations. Most want-to-be professional counters put together an inadequate bankroll and then steal from these funds to pay for their month of cost of living.

In the long run, most people who aspire to be professional card counters never get past the “novice” stage, and the ones that do rarely commit the time and money to move into the profitable level. Only a small handful of players ascend to the level of truly profitable professional-level counters.

For the casino executive, these are the only people you need to be concerned about, since they are the only card counters who will be able to gain a long-term advantage of the game of blackjack.

Note: The professional-level card counter has to work to gain a 1 percent average advantage over the standard game of blackjack.

The counter’s maximum gain on a specific hand rarely exceeds a 3 to 4 percent edge. This occurs approximately once in 100 hands of play. Obviously, professional card counting is a grind that takes hours of playing time to achieve positive results. Novice and semi-professional counters will lose money in the long-term.

Only the true professional-level card counters will earn enough money to make their career worthwhile.