Counting cards in Blackjack.

Below is a brief introduction to the joys of card counting in Blackjack. It's not intended to be a detailed reference on how to do it, but simply an overview. I recommend that anyone wishing to investigate the subject in greater depth, and perhaps learn the techniques involved, follow the links at the bottom of the page to other resources on the 'net.

The basics . . . .

In Blackjack, aces and ten cards/face cards favour the player and small cards favour the house. The more of each that remain to be played the greater the advantage either way. It follows then, that if you can track the cards that have been played, you can determine those that have not been, and whether you have an advantage or not. This is the principle of card counting at Blackjack.

But, this doesn't mean you have to memorise every card that's played - with 75% penetration (75% of the cards are in front of the cut card and are available to be dealt out) on a six deck game, that'd mean having to memorise 234 cards as they're played - no mean feat by anyone's standards. Better to lump cards into categories of "high", "low" and "neutral" and to keep a running count of the net number of these cards as they're played - so if four small cards have been dealt out, one neutral card and one high card, it'd mean that the net number of cards played would be three low cards - four low cards offset by one high card, the neutral card having no impact. If each of these categories of cards were assigned a tag value of low=+1, neutral=0, high=-1, then the net count of these tag values (the "running count") would be +3 (+4,+0,-1).

If the count continues to climb, then there'll come a point where the shoe has an abundance of high cards that favour the player and thereby give the player an advantage for the next hand. An average of one additional high card per deck unplayed will cancel out the overall HE of roughly 0.5%, and an average of two high cards per deck will shift the advantage to the player to the tune of around 0.5%. So if there are four decks unplayed, and the running count reaches +8, then it's time to raise your bets as the composition of the deck still to be played out favours the player with a small advantage.

That really is just about it for an explaination of how it works! Obviously there's a lot more to learn, but I'm not going to go into further - as there's an abundance of quality reference material on the 'net you can refer to. At the bottom of this page, there's also a link to a 24 lesson course in card counting that's free to access online by anyone.

Some myths around card counting.

You need to be a mathematical genius to do it.
Not really. If you can memorise simples tables of data and add, subtract and divide by single digits in your head you're more than capable of learning to count cards to a proficient standard. All of the hard maths have already been done and are available in good books or on the 'net.

You have to memorise every individual card played.
No you don't. The simple explanation above, of how card types can be categorised and assigned a tag value should make it clear why this is completely unnecessary.

Card counters have a greater chance of winning each hand.
In actual fact that's not the case. Regardless of what cards remain to be played, before any are dealt out the house has a higher probability of winning the next hand. Where the "count" rises, the probability of the house winning the next hand is reduced but it's always greater than the odds of the player winning.

Card counters always come out ahead for each session they play.
No they don't. The natural variance in the game means that they'll lose probably more often than they win. But when they win, they'll win more money than they lose, due to increasing their bets in line with their advantage for each round. The clue's in the fact that card counters play with an "advantage" - sometimes.

When card counters do play with an advantage it's only on around 20% of all of the hands dealt and at a maximum of 2% or so over the house. An advantage, however, is not a guarantee! If you want one of those buy a toaster. Despite becoming proficient at card counting, people continue to lose money to the casinos when applying the techniques, even when it's done error free. You can do everything right and still lose - just like with Poker.

Card counting is cheating !
No it isn't. Using that mass of cells between your ears to keep track of which cards have been played does not:

  • interfere with the normal procedures or routines of the game,

  • interfere with the items associated with the game, ie the cards (which players in the UK aren't allowed to handle anyway),

  • involve any attempts at deceiving the staff dealing or supervising the game, eg to make erroneous payouts,

As varying the amount you bet on each hand isn't prohibited, the idea that keeping count of cards that have been played, and making changes to the amount you bet as a result, is in anyway cheating is complete nonsense.

Here's an extract from the Gambling Act 2005, Section 42(3), which relates to "cheating" (which it should be noted has been a criminal offence since this piece of legislation was fully enabled on 1st September 2007).

(3) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) cheating at gambling may, in particular, consist of actual or attempted deception or interference in connection with -
(a) the process by which gambling is conducted, or
(b) a real or virtual game, race or other event or process to which gambling relates.

So, doing anything that doesn't keep within the rules of a game (ie swapping or marking cards) or attempted deception ("capping" bets) would contravene 42(3)a, and hacking into an online casino's server and altering the software to make greater payouts on wins than should be the case would contravene 42(3)b. Although there have been convictions for cheating under the Gambling Act 2005, I'm not aware that anyone has been prosecuted for cheating on the grounds that they were counting cards - it'd be virtually impossible to prove someone was counting cards "beyond all reasonable doubt" anyway, in order to secure a conviction.

If a casino cottons on to a card counter they can expect a bashing.
Nah . . . that's all in the Las Vegas past and the movies. The most common response is to terminate your membership of the operator's group, which'll mean you won't be able to play in any of their outlets across the Country. A problem in the UK where the market is tied up by a relatively small number of operator organisations, and most require you to be a member to enter their venues and play.

It allows poeple to give up the day job.
Well . . . anyone can, but I wouldn't advise it. The fact of the matter is that although card counters play with a modest mathematical advantage over the house, the counting bit is easy - what's hard is making a consistent profit at it. A "longer term" average return of two units an hour or thereabouts is considered to be about right for the advantage that card counting brings. If you're playing at £25 a unit, great, but if all you can afford is to play at a basic £2 a unit at a regional casino, as a form of earning you might as well stack shelves in a supermarket or push a toilet brush around a U-bend (or become a casino dealer for the Gala group).
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I will say that there are other advantage play techniques that can be used in Blackjack (such as shuffle tracking) but I've deliberately not gone into them here - again, if you're interested in finding out more just search the 'web.

Good luck.