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Card Counting

Let me dispel a couple of myths about card counting right away. Card counters do not memorize every card they have seen dealt out of a deck or shoe. Card counting also does not allow a player to magically know what card will be dealt out the deck or shoe next. If you see some guy take a hit on his hard nineteen against a dealers 10 and he receives a two for a total of 21, it doesn't mean that he is an expert card counter. It means he is either a drunk, a fool, or he managed to see the dealers hole card; it doesn't mean he is a card counter, as a card counter would never do such a reckless thing. Yes, if the cards were dealt down to the last few in the deck, a good card counter would probably know what card is likely to come next. But in the real world of casino blackjack you will never be involved in a game where the cards are dealt down to the last remaining cards. The reason for this is simple; it would give a huge advantage to the card counter and obviously any casino you play in will take measures to insure that this type of situation won't occur.

But that doesn't mean that card counting can't be done, or that it can't be very useful or profitable to a blackjack player.

I will be discussing two methods of card counting on this page. The first one is a true card counting system, but it takes work to master it. The second one is what I call 'casual' card counting and it is something which is pretty easy to do. But its important to read this entire section to understand what card counting is all about and how to use it to your advantage.

The basic premise of card counting is that a deck or shoe that is 'rich' in face cards and aces (IE: a high percentage of these cards) favors the player over the dealer. This is true for several reasons.

  • A player receiving a 'natural', an ace and a ten-point card, is paid 3-2 on his original bet, whereas the dealer only wins the wager if he or she has blackjack.

  • If the dealer receives a poor hand as the original two cards (IE: a point count of 12 to 16), they must draw another card and they are more likely to bust if the deck or shoe is rich in face cards. Remember, you don't have to hit these hands if you don't want to; the dealer however must.

  • With a two card hand totaling 9, 10, 11, the dealer can't double in a a high card rich deck, but you can.

  • With an abundance of face cards there will be more blackjacks and pat hands (IE: 17-21) dealt.

  • As in basic strategy computer simulations, it has been mathematically proven that a deck or shoe rich in face cards is favorable to the player. A deck or shoe rich in low cards however, will always favor the dealer.

On the other hand, when the number of low value cards far outnumber the face cards and aces, a blackjack player can choose to modify his or her split and double down decisions, since the chances of winning these hands are reduced when a low card is dealt to the player after a split or double down.

To sum it up, card counters use a betting system, or strategy, of betting their smallest wagers when the deck or shoe is rich in low points cards, since their chances of winning in this case are reduced. When the deck or shoe is rich in high cards the card counter will increase their original bet since their chances of winning are now increased.

So how does a blackjack player actually count cards? Well, there are many different techniques that have been researched and invented to keep track of the cards played from a deck or a shoe. Some of these techniques are difficult to master, while some are easy to learn and master. Here again, computer simulations of the many different methods of card counting have shown that some of the easiest card counting systems to learn are just as effective as the more traditional and complicated methods are.

Hi-Low System

One of the most popular card counting systems currently in use is the point count system, also known as Hi-Low. This system is based on assigning a point value of +1, 0, or -1 to every card dealt to all players on the table, including the dealer. Each card is assigned its own specific point value. Aces and 10-point cards are assigned a value of -1. Cards 7, 8, 9 each count as 0. Cards 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 each count as +1.

As the cards are dealt, the player mentally keeps a running count of the cards exposed, and makes wagering decisions based on the current count total.

  • The higher the plus count, IE: the higher percentage of ten-point cards and aces remaining to be dealt, means that the advantage is to player and he/she should increase their wager.

  • If the running count is around zero, the deck or shoe is neutral and neither the player nor the dealer has an advantage.

  • The higher the minus count, the greater disadvantage is to the player, as a higher than normal number of 'stiff' cards remain to be dealt. In this case a player should be making their minimum wager or leave the table.

As the dealing of the cards progresses, the credibility of the count becomes more accurate, and the size of the player's wager can be increased or decreased with a better probability of winning when the deck or shoe is rich in in face cards and aces, and betting and losing less when the deck is rich in 'stiff' cards.

It is important to note that a players decision process, when to hit, stand, double down, etc. is still based on basic strategy. Remember, you MUST learn basic strategy. However, alterations in basic strategy play is sometimes recommended based on the current card count. For example, if the running count is +2 or greater and you have a hard 16 against a dealers up card of ten, you should stand, which is a direct violation of basic strategy. But considering that the deck or shoe is rich in face cards you are more likely to bust in this situation, thus you ignore basic strategy and stand. Another example is to always take insurance when the count is +3 or greater. For the most part however, you should stick with basic strategy and use the card count as an indication of when to increase or decrease the amount of your bet, as that is the whole strategy behind card counting.

Generally speaking, if the point count is +2 or greater in a single deck game you should increase your initial bet.

In a multiple deck game your wager should be increased when the 'TRUE COUNT' is +2 or more. What's the difference between a running count in a single deck game versus the true count in a multiple deck game? The true count in a multiple deck game is based on the actual number of decks left to be played. For example, in a single deck game if the first six cards dealt are small cards you have a running count total of +6, which is a nice advantage to the player. If the first six cards dealt in a multiple deck game are all small cards you also have a running count of +6. However, this doesn't add up to the same advantage because you have several decks in the shoe left to be dealt, therefore you must use a true count as your basis of increasing your wager. If you're at a six-deck game, and the first six cards are small ones, the count per remaining deck (the true count) is actually just a bit over 1, since there is just a bit less than 6 decks remaining to be played.

To determine the true count, divide the 'running' count by the number of decks remaining to be played. What this means is the number of decks left, whether they'll actually be played or not. In a six-deck game for example, a deck or more may be cut off by the dealer after the shuffle, but that means nothing when computing true count. Now figuring out the actual number of decks remaining isn't as difficult as you might think. Simply observe how many cards are in the discard tray. Using a six-deck game for an example, if you see about 2 decks in the discard tray you then have four decks left to be played. So at this point a running count of +8 translates into a true count of 2 because there are four decks left in the shoe. IE: Running count of 8 is divided by number of decks remaining, in this case 4, and the result is 2. 8 divided by 4 = 2. The dealer may shuffle before all four of those remaining decks have been played, but for true count conversion that doesn't matter.

So that's how you count cards. Yes, it takes a bit of concentration and that may take away some of the enjoyment of playing the game. However, you may also choose to use a 'casual' card counting system which is much easier to master. Read on.

Casual Card Counting

Casual card counting is just that, casual. It doesn't take a lot of concentration or mathematical calculations, and demands little use of your memory.

You already know that a deck rich in face cards is an advantage to the player. All you need to do is casually observe the flow of cards coming out of a deck or shoe. For example, if you are playing a multiple deck shoe and after a few hands you observe that very few face cards or aces were played you have a situation where the next hand will probably be good for the player. Thus, you increase your bet.

The key to this system is to look for extremes. The absence or predominance of exposed high cards is easily noticeable by casual observation. Often you will play several hands where the mix of face cards and low value cards are relatively even. But when you see a noticeable absence of high value cards you should increase your next wager.

Casual card counting is something you should always do unless you are following a strict card counting system such as the Hi-Low system. It won't guarantee winners for you on every hand, but it will give you a slight advantage.