Blackjack Card Counting
Entire books have been written about blackjack card counting, and obviously, you won’t find every last detail on a single page. You will find an in-depth page of card counting including everything you need to know to get started. Players learn what’s included on this page and follow the instructions, they can be counting cards well enough to get an edge against the casinos within a few weeks.
Notice that it didn’t say you needed to be a genius or amazing at math. Most players are afraid of counting, so they don’t even try to learn how to do it. They’re afraid they have to memorize every card, or be super smart, or be a math guru to do it.
The truth is, if you can add and subtract one or two from a given number and keep the total in your head, you can learn everything you need to know to become a profitable blackjack card counter.
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Learn Blackjack Basics First
Blackjack players know that the best way to get an edge against the casino is by learning blackjack card counting. They start trying to learn before they’re ready.
The good news is you don’t have to learn a great deal before you’re ready to count cards, but you do need to master a few things beforehand.
Learn to Play Blackjack
The first thing you need to know is how to play blackjack and how the different rules variations change the house edge. You need to be able to recognize a good game and one that doesn’t offer a low enough edge to be competitive. This is fairly easy and only takes a little reading and knowledge to master.
Anyone can learn this. Most 10-year-old’s can get a solid understanding of the rules and favorable games with a little practice.
Master Basic Strategy
The next step is just as important, if not more so. You have to learn how to play perfect basic strategy in every situation. If you can’t play perfect strategy it doesn’t matter how good you learn to count cards. The only way to gain a long term edge over the casino is by reducing the edge as low as possible by using perfect strategy and then using car counting to push the edge into your favor.
Blackjack Strategy in Play
Counting cards should swing the house edge by roughly 1%. The top card counters in the best games may be able to gain a slightly higher edge, but if you’re good enough to move the edge by 1%, you’re good enough to make a profit.
Those willing to look for them can find blackjack games that offer a house edge as low as a half percent (.5%) with proper strategy. If you can move the advantage by 1% you’ll now be playing with a half percent edge against the house.
Players that don’t learn how to use the strategy perfectly, will end up losing more than what the 1% edge can give you, and you won’t make a profit.
Practice Makes Perfect
It’s not hard to learn perfect basic strategy, but it does take a bit of work. If you’re not willing to do the work required to master basic strategy you won’t be able to become a successful card counter.
When we say perfect strategy, we mean every single play. You can’t make any mistakes at all. This may seem like a daunting task at first, but with dedication and work you can learn every possible play.
The Card Counting 101 page at AP Heat is another resource you can use hand in hand with this page. The Wizard of Odds also claims you need to learn basic strategy first.
How to Count Cards
In order to count cards, you have to have a system. You can find dozens of systems, but a few are popular and most aren’t used by many players. So if you need a system first, why isn’t that section listed before the how to count cards section?
You really need to work on the system you’re planning to use from the beginning, so you need to understand exactly how counting cards works before you choose which system you want to use.
Counting cards can be explained in three easy steps:
Step 1: Assign a Value to Each Card
Each counting system assigns a number, either positive, negative, or zero, to every card in the deck. A negative number means you subtract the number from your running count and a positive number means you add it to the running count.
The reason you subtract numbers for big cards and add numbers for small cards is because when the deck has more big cards than small cards, it’s advantageous for the player. When the count goes to the positive it’s either getting close to profitable for the player or has already moved into a profitable area for the player.
As more low cards are removed from the deck or shoe the count goes up. If more high cards are played than low cards the count goes down. If the count goes low enough you need to either stop playing until a new shoe is dealt or reduce your bets as much as possible.
Step 2: Keep a “Running” Count of the Card Values
At the beginning of the shoe, you start with a count of zero. As the cards are dealt you start adding and subtracting numbers from your count to see when the count is in your favor. When you find a favorable count you have to increase your bets in order to overcome all of the hands you play with the house still holding an edge.
Blackjack Card Counting example:
Say you play 20 hands, at $20 each hand, and the house has a .5% edge, you have to play either of the following in order to break even in the long-run. Assuming you were to play with a with a .5% edge against the house, these are your options:
- 20 hands at $20 per hand.
- 10 hands at $40 per hand.
- 5 hands at $80 per hand.
- One hand at $400 per hand.
Of course, you aren’t interested in breaking even. You want to make a profit. So, you need to bet more when there is a positive count, and bet less (the table minimum) when there is a negative count.
Step 3: Change Your Bet with the True Count
In theory, you want to bet as low as possible when the count is against you, or in the negative, and as much as possible when the count is in your favor. In a perfect world, you’d only bet when the count was favorable. While you can operate in only positive counts, it’s difficult and requires a team or a great deal of standing around trying to not let the casinos know what you’re doing. You can read more about these two options below in the only playing positive counts section.
Don’t Arouse Suspicion
The problem is you need to increase your bets without the casinos figuring out you’re a card counter. It’s not whether or not card counting is legal, but the fact that the casino can decide if they want to let you play. They can refuse to let you play for any reason, and if they think you’re a danger to their bottom line they will want you to stop playing.
True Count & Running Count
The next step is determining at what positive count you start having an edge. Rarely do you have a mathematical edge at a count of one or two.
Some systems, called balanced systems, require a conversion base on the number of decks remaining in the shoe. You need to learn to estimate how many decks, half, decks, and quarter decks, have been dealt by looking at the discard tray so you can determine how many decks are still in play.
Finding the “True” Count
The true count is found by dividing the running count by the number of decks remaining.
- If your running count is four (+4) and four decks remain, the true count is one (+1).
- If your running count is six (+6) and four decks remain, the true count is one and a half (+1.5).
You use the true count to determine how strong your edge is and to help you determine how much you should bet.
Importance of the True Count
The reason this conversion is so important is because each card removed from a deck of cards has a positive or negative effect on the edge. However, to get the full edge the same card has to be removed from every deck in play. This isn’t how it works at the blackjack table, so you have to use a system to take the removal of a single card, instead of six or eight, into account. The conversion to a true count does this.
It takes most players quite a while to grasp why this is so important and why it works the way it does. The good news is you don’t have to understand it for it to work in your favor. Here’s an explanation stated in a different way to try to help you understand.
The Wizard of Odds site has a table that shows the effects of removing a car from a deck of cards.
Removing a Single Card
The numbers are based on removing a single card from each deck of cards in a six deck shoe. If a five is removed from every deck it moves the edge .15% closer to the players favor. If you were playing with a single deck and a single five was removed, the house edge would go down by .15%. If the game started with a .50% house edge, removing one five lowers the house edge to .35%.
But if you’re playing a six-deck game and one five is removed you have to divide the change in the edge by six because you’re only taking it from one deck, not all six. This reduces the house edge by only .025%. In other words, taking the original .50% and subtract the .025% only reduces the house edge to .475%.
Continuing with the example, if you took six fives out of a six deck shoe you’d get the entire .15% decrease to the house edge.
Single Deck Counting Example
How many fives do you need to remove from a single deck to turn the house edge into a player edge if it starts at .50%?
Removing three 5’s, you only reduce the edge by .45%, so you have to remove all four 5’s, which is a total decrease of .60%. This leaves the edge in your favor by .10%.
Every 10 valued card or ace that gets removed from the deck as to the house edge by .08% to .10% per single deck.
Don’t be alarmed if all of this seems complicated. You don’t have to learn how to do anything yet, expect for using the count you choose and convert it to a true count if required.
In addition to balanced counts, you can find unbalanced counts. Unbalanced counts don’t require a conversion to a true count.
It may seem like everyone would want to use an unbalanced count so they could skip the true count conversion, but the truth is if you’re good enough to learn a strong balanced count accurately you won’t have any trouble quickly and accurately estimating the true count.
The reason an unbalanced counting system doesn’t require a conversion to a true count is due to the fact that it automatically takes into account a type of true conversion as you play through the decks.
Red Seven Unbalanced System
If you use an unbalanced system like the Red Seven:
- A count through a single deck will have the end count being two.
- A count through a six deck shoe will have the end count being 12.
The difference is you start at a negative number that takes into account the number of decks, and the system teaches you at what count you should bet more.
You can learn more about balanced and unbalanced counts and how they work in the next section.
Some players struggle with or don’t like negative numbers. One trick that you can learn to use if you don’t like to keep track of negative numbers or use negative numbers in your running count is to start your count at 10 instead of 0. This way you never have to keep track of a negative number or subtract from a negative number.
Blackjack Card Counting Strategy
You can find many different types of card counting systems. Most systems are classified as balanced or unbalanced.
In a balanced system all of the plus and minus numbers equal zero if you count down an entire deck. So if you count any number of decks using a balanced system you should end with a count of zero at the end.
Of course, casinos never count all the way to the end of a deck or shoe, but when you practice this is a quick way to find out if you’re making mistakes.
Balanced and Unbalanced Card Counting Systems
The Hi-Lo system is the most popular balanced counting system in use.
The Red Seven is a popular unbalanced system. An unbalanced system doesn’t equal zero when counted all the way through a deck.
You may also see a count listed as a level one or level two count. The level number is simply how much you have to add or subtract as the highest amount. A level one count only uses plus or minus one, a level two count can use plus and minus one or two, a level three count can use one, two, or three, and it continues like that.
Five Blackjack Card Counting Strategies
Here are the count numbers for five popular real money blackjack counting systems. The card values are listed across the top line and the numbers to add or subtract from your count are listed in the columns. The first four are from Qfit.
|System / Card Value||Two||Three||Four||Five||Six||Seven||Eight||Nine||Ten||Ace|
|Red Seven||1||1||1||1||1||0 / 1||0||0||-1||-1|
- If you use the Hi-Lo system you add one for every two thru six you see and subtract one for every ace and ace card.
- The K-O system is the same except you also add one for every seven.
- If you use the Red Seven, it’s the same as the Hi-Lo except you add one for every red seven.
- The Zen count is a level two count.
A count tracking only fives and aces was first introduced by Edward Thorp, the author of “Beat the Dealer“, and later expanded on by Michael Shackleford. It’s the simplest system you can find, but it works surprisingly well. It’s not as good as the others listed in the table, but if you’re scared of jumping into a more advanced counting system, learn the ace-five.
Looking for the Best System
If you’re looking for a recommendation for the best system, an argument can be made for Hi-Lo, K-O, or the Red Seven. In all honesty, if you master any of the popular systems they’ll work for you. The Hi-Lo is probably the most used system by professional card counters, so it’s as good as any.
If you’re terrified of converting the running count to a true count decide if you can count every red seven and ignore the black sevens. If so, go with the Red Seven count. If not, use K-O.
Books to Help You Get Better
- Hi-Lo is often credited to Stanford Wong from his book “Professional Blackjack”, but it was originated by Harvey Dubner is 1963 and worked on by Edward Thorp and Julian Braun.
- K-O was introduced in the book “Knock-Out Blackjack” by Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs.
- Red Seven was introduced in the book “Blackbelt in Blackjack” by Arnold Snyder.
- The Zen count is also found in Snyder’s “Blackbelt in Blackjack”.
Each blackjack book includes in-depth details you need for each system. You can learn how to keep the running count for each system using the details found on this page but to get the most out of each system you should read the book.
Most popular card counting systems have certain strategic plays that you need to make that may not be the same as what the perfect basic strategy tells you to do. These are called indexes or index plays.
You’ve probably read that you should never take insurance because it’s a bad bet with a high house edge. This is true, except when the count is very high. When the count reaches a certain point, depending on which counting system you’re using, insurance actually becomes a profitable bet.
Read the Book, Learn the Plays
The way to find the proper index plays is usually to read the book the system is included in. Every index play is based on the best statistical play for long term profit in each situation, just like basic strategy. Once you reach certain counts, specific index plays need to be used.
Most counting systems have a number of indexes that are very important and others that can be ignored without costing you much in long term profitability. Here’s a little secret that most books don’t include, you don’t have to use index plays to be a profitable blackjack player. Most players who use unbalanced counts don’t use index charts, and even balanced count users don’t all use them.
You shouldn’t worry about using index plays until you’ve mastered basic strategy and the counting system you have chosen. Then just add a few index plays each time so you don’t get overwhelmed with information.
Practice Card Counting
Now that you understand how card counting works and have chosen a system, it’s time to learn the simple step by step methods you need to become a card counter. You have picked a system by now, haven’t you?
The only way to learn how to count cards effectively is by practicing. Once you know everything you need to know you need to jump in and get started.
Single Deck Practice
One way to gets started is by shuffling a deck of cards and start turning them over one at a time while using your counting system. Take as long as you need, but make sure your count is 100% correct. If you’re using the Hi-Lo or another balanced system your count should always be zero when you finish the deck. The Red Seven count ends with a positive count of two.
Work with a single deck over and over until you can count while flipping the cards as fast as possible. Then start turning the cards over two at a time. A shortcut when looking at two or more cards is recognizing when two cards cancel each other out. For example, a three and a king are plus one and minus one, so you can ignore both of them as they don’t move the count.
Work until you can count as fast using two cards as possible and hen start turning over two, three, and four cards at a time. When you can do this as quickly as possible, add a second deck. Then add a third and fourth, and so on up to eight decks.
Now do this while watching television, talking on the phone, with loud music playing, while talking to your spouse or kids, or while anything chaotic is going on. At first, you’ll find that you lose the count often, but soon you’ll be able to keep count while doing anything.
If you’re using a count that requires a true count conversion start converting your running count every three or four hands. The closer you can estimate the number of remaining decks the better, so keep working on this until you can estimate it down to a quarter of a deck accurately every time.
Play Free Online Blackjack
Another way you can start learning how to count cards or use in conjunction with the method we just covered is by playing free blackjack games online or on your mobile phone or tablet. You won’t be able to get a true count because the way the games are dealt, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to practice.
Both of these methods to learn how to count cards are basically free. You may need to buy a few decks of cards, but most dollar stores have used casino decks for $1 a deck.
This may seem like a great deal of work, but the good news is if you simply follow these steps you can be a card counter in a short period of time. Most players can become quite good in 10 hours or less of actual practice time. But what if it takes you two or three times that long?
That simply means if you spend a single hour every day practicing you’ll be a card counter in a month. Seems like a no brainer and makes me wonder why everyone doesn’t count cards.
Benefit from Practicing Card Counting
The best news is if you actually follow these steps and have perfected basic strategy like you were supposed to, when you finally sit down in a real casino and start playing you’ll be amazed at how slow the game moves. You’ll have plenty of time to count because no game works as fast as you dealing out the cards in twos and threes as fast as you can.
When you start playing for real money, start at the lowest tables available. On your first playing session focus on counting and playing perfect strategy. Use a bet spread of 1 to 2, so you only have two bet sizes.
If you’re playing at a $5 table use a $5 bet when the count is negative and a $10 bet when it’s positive.
Once you feel comfortable and are sure you’re not making any mistakes you can start working on everything else you’ve learned.
How Often Do You Win When Counting Cards?
A mistake that many blackjack players make is believing that by learning to count cards they’ll start winning every time they play blackjack. This simply isn’t true. Even the best card counters have losing sessions, and can lose for an extended period of time before the long-term edge comes through.
If you become a good counter you’ll probably work with around a half percent edge against the casino. This means that for every $100 in bets you’ll win about 50 cents on average over time.
So if you play 50 hands per hour and your average bet is $100, you’ll be betting or risking $5,000 an hour. This leads to an expected hourly profit of $25.
If this doesn’t seem like enough for all of the work involved, you might be right. Only you can determine how large of an average bet you’re comfortable with making. And if the effort and work you have to put in are worth it in the long run.
Only Playing Positive Counts
If you read everything so far on this page you may be wondering how you could possibly only play in hands where the count is in your favor. You can do this in two ways, but neither is especially simple.
The first way is to watch games and count from behind other players and only join the game when the count is favorable. In theory, this sounds like a good idea but pit bosses have been trained to watch for players who do this. Some casinos have started restricting new players to the beginning of the shoe, so you can’t sit down in the middle of a count. This is called no mid-shoe entry.
This form of counting is often called Wonging. It’s named after the author Stanford Wong because he introduced the concept.
Playing Blackjack with a Team
All but one player take a seat at different blackjack tables and play for the table minimum. They never raise their bets; they play basic strategy and appear to be nothing more than a tourist. While they play they count cards but never raise their bets. When a shoe gets to the point where it’s favorable for the player the team member at the table secretly signals the only player who isn’t currently playing.
This player is usually called the big player or the gorilla. When they start playing they start betting at or near the table maximum and continue playing until the count turns bad or to the end of the shoe.
After they leave the table they wait until another player signals a positive shoe and then join that game.
This sounds simple, but like most things it’s not. The small player needs to pass the count to the big player when they sit down or signal them when they should leave. This needs to be done in a way that the casinos can’t track or see. And remember that the casinos have a video of everything.
Most teams go as far as to never be seen together except at the tables, arriving and leaving at different times. The casinos have also been trained to look for the big player teams, but smart teams can work for years.
A big player who’s willing to train new minimum bet counters sometimes called spotters and travel from casino to casino can have a long career as a whale. But you can’t play too long at a casino because once they figure out you’re a winner they’ll ask you to stop playing.
Is It Illegal to Count Cards?
According to local, state, and federal laws, counting cards in not illegal in the United States. Players are not allowed to use card counting devices or having a person assist them while counting cards. Although it is not illegal in states like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, casinos still object to the blackjack strategy and may ban players they believe are counting cards.
Just because it’s not illegal, doesn’t mean you should let anyone know what you’re doing. The casinos don’t want to let card counters play their games and they don’t have to let you play. They can ask you to not play and if you don’t leave immediately they can have you arrested for trespassing.
If you ever get asked to stop playing or asked to leave, simply pick up your chips and leave immediately. Don’t ask why, don’t argue, and no matter what happens don’t touch any casino personnel for any reason.
When you’re asked to leave you can try to come back on a different shift, but you should probably wait at least a few months to try it.
If a casino is particularly unhappy with you, they can read you what many people call a trespass act. When this happens it makes it illegal for you to come back. Most places will just ask you to leave or stop playing. Some places will even let you play other games, but won’t let you play blackjack anymore.
Camouflage Your Card Counting
You can do a few things to help avoid having the casinos detect that you are counting cards. Anything you do to deceive the casinos is called camouflage.
Change Your Appearance
Some professional players go so far as to alter their appearance by using make-up and disguises. This may seem extreme, but if your livelihood depends on being able to take advantage of profitable blackjack games you should consider any avenue that can possibly help you. Some of the more common things have been mentioned above.
The most important skills of camouflage involve bet sizing and not playing at any one place too long. It helps to have an idea of how casinos catch blackjack card counters, or what makes them start looking at a player closely.
Size of Your Bet
The first thing that tips off a casino that a player may be counting cards is if they raise and lower their bets in correlation with the count. Most casinos either have a staff member who can count cards or a computer program that counts. But you have to use a bet spread of at least 1 to 4 for most counting systems and 1 to 8 is better, so you’ll end up making large bet swings.
A 1 to 4 bet spread means your top bet is four times your lowest wager. If your lowest wager is $20, your top bet is $80. Using a 1 to 8 spread with a $20 minimum bet makes the top bet $160. You want to be able to spread your bets as much as possible, even getting to 1 to 10 at times, without getting kicked out.
New Shoe vs. In-Play Shoe
Another red flag is when a player never starts a game from the top of a new shoe. If you always watch a game before sitting down in the middle of a shoe it may raise suspicion.
You need to learn how to raise and lower your bets without drawing too much suspicion. If you simply raise and lower them based 100% on the count you’ll quickly be discovered. You can alter your bets in all counts but have a higher average wager in high counts than you do in low counts. This is one of the most important skills a card counter can develop.
The problem is that anything you do that alters having the most money out as possible when you have an advantage reduces your long term profit. This always makes it a fine line between keeping your counting hidden and maximizing your profit.
Start Big then Going Low
A few players start off a new shoe betting high and then back off as the count goes negative. This can work for a long time if you vary your bets somewhat throughout different counts, but it also costs you money off the top of most shoes by having large bets out when the average house edge is against you.
Of course, some shoes are advantageous to the player off the top, but on average the house edge is what it’s supposed to be without counting in the long run off the top of a shoe.
If you’re going to be a successful blackjack card counter you need to be willing to jump from casino to casino and always be moving. You can’t spend hours and hours counting the same games because eventually the casino will figure out what you’re doing.
You don’t want to be at a blackjack table long enough for anyone to notice anything out of the ordinary. A couple hours are a long time to work a casino. Many players will leave after an hour or less.
A few other simple suggestions include not staring at the cards as the dealer passes them out and making sure you don’t move your lips or mouth as you count.
You have plenty of time to count the cards and you don’t want to look like you’re counting, so don’t stare at them as they’re being dealt. Many players unconsciously move their lips when counting. Be aware of this and make sure you never do it.
Online Blackjack Card Counting
As you read in the section about practice one of the best ways to quickly practice counting cards is by playing the free blackjack games found online. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can use counting in real money online games to gain an advantage.
The virtual cards are basically shuffled at the end of every hand so you’re always facing a fresh shoe. Even the live dealer blackjack games are aware of card counters and take measures to avoid losing money to counters.
You can and should use online and mobile blackjack games to help you learn how to count cards, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can get a real edge playing online blackjack.