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Blackjack Card Counting - How Does It Work?

If you've already made up your mind that blackjack is the game to play if you want to make some money, you're on the right path – this is the casino game with the lowest house edge. If you're already fluent in basic strategy and are using it to hit, stand and double down without questioning it, you're already enjoying a house edge as low as 0.5%. You are, however, curious to try and bring down the house the way so many have managed to do and make some cash on the side. Then you need card counting. It will give you 1% advantage over the casino. Read on to find out all about it.
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What’s Card Counting?

Card counting s just what it seems – counting cards at blackjack. It refers to paying attention to every card dealt to you, the other players and the dealer. Knowing which cards have passed gives the counter a better idea which cards are likely to come up next and, thus, they can increase or decrease their stake respectively. We’ll now look at the requirements for making it into card counting, the actual process and the different types of counting strategies one can employ.

Everyone Can Do It

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a math whiz to count cards. You don’t even need to be good at maths. Anyone with the desire to learn and the commitment to practice can learn how to do it properly. A considerable advantage for the beginners who are eager to start is the fact that there are different levels of doing it and there are, consequently, types of strategies to suit those just starting out and others to be a challenge for more advanced counters. But before we look into those strategies, let’s have a look at the process of counting cards.

Card Values & The Process of Counting

The simplest technique for counting cards is called Hi-Lo. It divides all cards into three groups, assigning them positive, negative or neutral value. Low cards 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are worth +1 point because by taking them out the deck becomes more favourable to the player. Cards 7, 8, and 9 don’t change the odds, so they are 0 points. Finally, high cards 10, J, Q, K, and A are assigned -1 because taking them out of the deck makes it less favourable to the player and gives the house an advantage. So, that’s it. You keep your running count by noting every card and either adding or subtracting from the count. When the count is positive, stake more. When the count is negative, stake less.

Running Count Vs. True Count

Fun Fact Edward O. Thorp was the first to discuss card counting in his 1962 book Beat the Dealer.

However, bear in mind that what I’ve just explained is valid for single deck games only, that is the running count will not be enough for you to know what cards are coming up in the deck if the game uses more than one deck of cards. If that is the case, you’ll need to do some more calculations in order to figure out the so-called true count. How do you do that? It’s simple – divide the running count by the number of decks left. For example, let’s say your running count is +8 and you estimate the remaining decks to be 4. Divide 8 by 4 and you get your true count +2. Don’t worry too much about having an exact number and if the result is +1.75, for instance, just round it up to 2 to keep things simple.

Types of Strategies

There are different types of strategies depending on their rate of success and their difficulty. Naturally, there are counting systems that would give you a better success rate but they are, as you might expect, more complicated and take months to learn. The one that I’ve already discussed, the Hi-Lo strategy, is by far the most appropriate one. It has an excellent ratio between success and difficulty and if it was good enough for the MIT team, then it’s good enough for you to use as well.

“There is no such thing as a “best” card counting system unless you are a robot, in which case you would be keeping track of each and every card.” Michael Dalton (Blackjack Review Magazine)

Tips on Improving Your Card Counting Technique

So, you think you’re ready to start making money with your card counting skills? Wonderful! But before you withdraw your savings in hope you’ll multiply them in a couple of hours’ time, have a look at the checklist I’ve prepared for you and make sure you’re really ready. This small detour will be worth your while, I promise, and you might even be reminded of something important you’ve somehow forgotten.

  1. You’ve Memorised Basic Strategy – There’s no going round this one and knowing “most of it” won’t cut it. You’ll need to know basic strategy by heart and trust it even when you’re losing, because there will be times you’ll be losing.
  2. You’ve Memorised Card Value Points – Once you’ve chosen a strategy, say the Hi-Lo system, stick with it and make sure you have no doubts what value each card is assigned. That means that even before you can identify a card as the Queen of Diamonds, for example, you should be thinking -1.
  3. You’ve Practised Many Times – Having a look at the basic strategy chart and watching a few videos online about what card counting is will be an improvement on blindly depending on your luck to make the correct decision but it won’t do much to improve your advantage. You need to practise – alone, going through a deck of cards and ending up at 0; with a partner at increasing speed; at a real casino.
  4. You Can Count Cards Quickly in Any Environment – You may have the perfect eye for detail when you’re all alone at home with all sounds blocked out but can you pay attention to the running count while ordering drinks and seemingly not much paying attention to other player’s cards in a noisy casino? Think about it – casinos will not make it easy for you to count cards, quite the contrary
  5. You Have a Stable Bankroll – You’ll have to be able to invest some money into perfecting your skills. It won’t happen as in the movies where someone stakes their last 100 bucks only to walk away with a fortune a couple of hours later. You’ll need to invest time as well but the money might be a problem. Don’t forget that both basic strategy and card counting will take some time to work and you’ll still have hands that will lose no matter what.

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