Card Counting in Blackjack

If you’ve ever seen the popular films 21 or The Last Casino, your probably already have a solid grasp on how card counting works. This widely-known card game strategy is primarily used in blackjack to determine whether the next hand is likely to give an advantage to the player or dealer. While casinos have a strategic edge, players who use the right strategy may actually have the odds in their favor. Card counting is one of these strategies that can give a player a higher probability of walking away a winner.

How Card Counting Works

A standard game of blackjack is played with a single deck of cards which is why it’s the only table game that can give a player the most advantageous odds when it comes to card counting. The concept of card counting refers to keeping a tally of certain cards as the dealer burns through the deck.

The process of counting cards consists of:

1. Assign a Value to Each Card

Despite misconceptions, you don’t have to have a photographic memory to count cards. Instead, many card counters rely on a system called tagging. In this system, each card is assigned a numerical value and as the cards are laid out on the table, the player simply adds and subtracts.

Hi-Lo is one of the most popular cards counting strategies and the easiest to learn. With this strategy, every card is given a value of -1, +1, or 0. A single deck of 52 cards has a total value of zero. In this system, the values for each card is as follows:

  • Cards 2-6: +1
  • Cards 7-9: 0
  • Cards 10-Ace: -1

2. Keeping a Running Count

As each card is dealt, you will need to either add 1, subtract 1, or do nothing based on the value of the card. For example, if you begin at zero and a queen is dealt, the new count is -1. If a 4 is dealt next, your count would go to 0. (-1 plus +1 = 0). If your count is getting high, you know that there are more higher value cards left in the deck.

3. Calculating a True Count

With more and more players using card counting to try and gain bigger wins, casinos are pushing back by using multiple decks. While this certainly makes it more difficult to count cards, it doesn’t make the strategy obsolete. To keep a running count in a game with multiple decks, you need to calculate a true count or count per deck.

To calculate true count, divide the running count by the number of decks that remain. For example, if you have a running count of 10 and there are 5 decks remaining, then the true count is 2 (10 ÷ 5).

4. Changing Your Bets Based on the True Count

As the game goes on, you may find it necessary to change your bet based on if the true count rises or falls. To increase your odds of a win, you will want to raise your bets as the true count rises. When the count is negative or neutral, bet small. Of course, throughout this process you will want to keep an eye on your bankroll.

Is Card Counting Really Effective?

This is a common question that many new gamblers want to know – “Does card counting actually work?” The answer is yes and no. It’s true that card counting gives good players an edge over the casino. However, it’s a small edge. Most seasoned card counters are only able to gain about a 0.5% to 1% advantage. 

When it comes to online casinos, card counting isn’t as effective, even in live casinos. Online live casinos are designed to thwart card counting by playing 8 decks, using features like auto shuffling, and having cards that are “burned” at the start of the shoe. This makes is difficult if not impossible to count cards.

Consequences of Card Counting

While card counting is not yet illegal, it can get you banned from a casino. Of course, this is not really a problem with online casinos. However, if a casino believes you may be counting cards you can expect a few things to happen. They may change the minimum or maximum at a table, set the cut card earlier, or use automatic shuffling machines. In short, casinos deter card counters by making the game less fun.

Getting Started with Card Counting

If you’re set on learning the ropes of card counting, know that it takes practice and patience to get it right. While you don’t need to be a genius to count cards, you do need to think fast and have the ability to calculate numbers in your head. Over time, you may find that your card counting abilities have helped you become better at blackjack. 

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