Card Counting

Card counting is a proven mathematical system which can change the house edge in favour of the player during a game of blackjack.  To be able to count cards in blackjack, players should have a thorough understanding of how to play blackjack as well as how to use blackjack basic strategy during game play.  These two basics are essential to learn before you attempt to learn card counting since it is important to always play correctly when using a card counting system.  On this page you will find an overview of various card counting systems as well as an in-depth look at how blackjack card counting works and can be used by players in a casino.

In a nutshell, card counting is a tool that players use to determine when the deck in a blackjack game is full of high value cards that favour player wins, such as 10's and aces.  By correctly determining this scenario, it is possible for the player to gain a slight advantage over the house by increasing their bet per hand since the odds dictate that in this unique situation the player will win more often than the dealer.

Card counting strategies date back as early as 1949 when it is said that a Nuclear Physicist named Jess Marcum had figured out how to use a counting system to the players advantage.  Although this was the earliest reported use of card counting in the United States, the method didn't catch much public attention until the release of the 1962 book Beat The Dealer by Edward Thorp.  Beat The Dealer was the first system which offered a proven mathematical advantage over the house and is what most modern card counting systems are based off of to this day.

Now that we know a little bit about the history and implementation of card counting in blackjack, let's take a look at how it actually works and can be used during a game of blackjack to increase the players odds against the house.

How Card Counting Works

Over the years many different card counting systems have been created however few have had the effectiveness or ease of use than the Hi-Lo count system.  The Hi-Lo card counting system assigns values to every card in the deck which are then used to determine a count which dictates how the player should bet.  This system is still the most widely used counting method in the world and has been glorified in movies such as 21 and books such as Bringing Down The House.  Below is a full overview of how the Hi-Lo system works and what you need to learn the system.

To start out, each player must memorize the card values that correspond to each card dealt from the shoe.  The scale uses -1, 0 and +1 values depending on the card that is dealt on the table.  Below is a visual representation of the card values.

Card Dealt Value For The Running Count
Two Two carries a value of +1 in the Hi-Lo System
Three Three carries a value of +1 in the Hi-Lo System
Four Four carries a value of +1 in the Hi-Lo System
Five Five carries a value of +1 in the Hi-Lo System
Six Six carries a value of +1 in the Hi-Lo System
Seven Seven carries a value of 0 in the Hi-Lo System
Eight Eight carries a value of 0 in the Hi-Lo System
Nine Nine carries a value of 0 in the Hi-Lo System
Ten Ten carries a value of -1 in the Hi-Lo System
Jack Jack carries a value of -1 in the Hi-Lo System
Queen Queen carries a value of -1 in the Hi-Lo System
King King carries a value of -1 in the Hi-Lo System
Ace Ace carries a value of -1 in the Hi-Lo System

Once you have learned the above count values for all of the cards in the deck, the next step would be actually implementing this counting strategy during a live game or practice session so you can get the hang for calculating the count on the fly.  Remember that you will need to keep track of the count for every card that is dealt on the table in order to have an accurate idea of how and when to bet properly.

Step 1: The first step before you actually start card counting is to determine what your minimum and maximum bets will be at the table.  A general guideline would be to have between 10-30 times you minimum bet as your maximum depending on your bankroll and the table limits offered in the game.  Once you have figured out the betting range you will use you are ready to select a table and being playing.

Step 2: To card count effectively, you must join a table that is just starting a shoe where no cards have been dealt.  At this point, the count is at 0 and you will start with betting your minimum bet.  As the cards come out of the shoe and are dealt, you must constantly use the hand values shown above to keep track of the running count during the game.  For example if 10, 9, 7, 9, 5 was dealt, the current running count would be +1 for that particular game.  This is the first step in card counting and you should practice calculating running counts a lot before live casino play.

Step 3: The next step is to figure out what the "true count" is in the game since the running count only gives a depiction of all the decks in play (usually 6 or 8) and does not account for the cards that have already been discarded in previous rounds.  To calculate the true count the player should divide the running count by the number of decks remaining in the shoe.  Since there is no way to know exactly how many shoes are remaining, a good estimate will suffice however you should always try to be as accurate as possible when determining this information.  For example with a running count of +6 and 2 decks remaining in the shoe, we would find the true count to be 6/2 = 3, meaning the true count at that point is +3.

Step 4: Once we have determined the true count in blackjack, we use this number to decide how much we will bet on the next hand.  The exact methodology in this area is highly debatable and depends on a great many factors, however generally players will wager anywhere between 2 and 15 times their minimum bet when the count is high in the game +5 or above.  The problem with this calculation is that as a player you need to take into account casino security when making this decision since jumping from very low to very high bets is bound to raise a red flag to staff.  Below is a sample chart which recommends the bet multipliers you can use when counting and trying to determine what bet size you should use for your next hand.

True Count Number Of Units To Be Bet
True Count 0 Player should bet their minimum units
True Count +1 Player should bet their minimum units
True Count +2 Player should bet their 2 units
True Count +3 Player should bet their 2 units
True Count +4 Player should bet their 3 units
True Count +5 Player should bet their 3 units
True Count +6 Player should bet their 4 units
True Count +7 Player should bet their 4 units
True Count +8> Player should bet their 5 units

Step 5: Continue practicing this method at home until you have the count done to a science and get it right every single time.  As we said this method takes a lot of practice but can be used effectively to profit in casinos when combined with blackjack basic strategy and a healthy player bankroll.  Just remember that although card counting works the system is based on long term play and in the short run it is possible to lose money using a card counting system.

Is Card Counting Illegal?

You actually might be surprise to hear that card counting in blackjack and other casino games is completely legal.  The reason is that casino law states that players may not interfere with games using an electronic device however since counting is all done in your mind, the law stipulates that it is in fact within the boundaries of fair play.  Of course this makes the casinos extremely unhappy and it is very normal for card counters to banned due to winning to much money.  The casinos can do this of course since it is their private property and they do not wish to have these types of patrons gaming in their casinos since the risk of ruin is far to high.

That being said, there are still many card counters who enter and play in casinos around the world each year.  The way many succeed at counting despite the increased awareness and precautions to spot card counters includes a variety of methods including disguises, altering betting strategy and a number of other tactics.  If you are considering becoming a card counter you better believe that casino will be looking for you, so practicing different methods of concealing your play is an absolute must if you want to succeed at counting in the long run.