Blackjack Card Counting

Blackjack Card Counting Guide

You don’t need to be a genius or amazing at math to know how to count cards. If you can add and subtract one or two from a number and keep the total in your head, you can learn how to become a good blackjack card counter.

Here you will find an in-depth guide on card counting, including everything you need to know to start.

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How to Count Cards: Learn Blackjack Basics First

Blackjack players know that the best way to get an advantage against the casino is by learning blackjack card counting.

And the good news is you don’t have to learn a great deal before you’re ready to count cards, but you must master a few things beforehand.

Learn to Play Blackjack

You first need to know 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 advantage to be competitive.

It is relatively easy and requires little reading and knowledge to master. Anyone can learn this. Most 10-year-olds 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 a blackjack basic strategy in every situation. If you can’t play perfect strategy, it doesn’t matter how well you learn to count cards. 

The only way to gain a long-term advantage over the casino is by reducing the edge as low as possible by using perfect strategy and then using card counting to tip the scales in your favor.

Counting cards should swing the house edge by roughly 1%. The top card counters in the best games 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.

Blackjack Card Counting Basic StrategyChart

How to Count Cards

Once you have mastered the blackjack rules and perfect basic strategy, you’ll be ready to learn how to count cards. We can explain card counting in three easy steps:

1

Assign a Value to Each Card

Count Cards Assigning A Value to Each Blackjack Card

Each counting system assigns a positive, negative, or zero number 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.

You subtract numbers for big cards and add numbers for small cards because the deck has more big cards than small cards, and it’s advantageous for the player. When there’s a positive count, you are reaching a profitable area or are already there.

The count goes up as more low cards are removed from the deck or shoe. The count goes down if more high cards are played than low onesIf the count goes down enough, you must either stop playing until a new shoe is dealt or reduce your bets as much as possible.

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 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 0.5% edge. You have to play either of the following to break even in the long run.
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.
Assuming you were to play with a 0.5% 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.
3

Change Your Bet with the True Count

Changing Blackjack Bets for Card Counting

Ideally, you want to bet as low as possible when the count is against you or in the negative. Likewise, wager as high as possible when the count is in your favor.
You’d only bet when the count was favorable in a perfect world. While you can operate in only positive counts, it isn’t easy and requires a team or a great deal of standing around trying not to let the casinos know what you’re doing.

Only Playing Positive Counts

You may wonder how you could only play in hands where the count is in your favor. You can do this in two ways, but both are more complex.

  • Count Cards from Behind Other Players: Watch games, count from behind other players, and only join when the count is favorable. Theoretically, this is a good idea, but trained pit bosses 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. It is called no mid-shoe entry.
  • Card Counting with a Team: The other way to only play profitable counts is with a team of players. A team can consist of only two players, but it’s beneficial to have three to five players on most teams.

Learn How to Count Cards in Blackjack – Video Tutorial

Watch our easy tutorial and learn how to count cards in Blackjack to increase your odds of beating the house.

You’ll get a basic understanding of keeping your running and true counts and how to apply them to your game. Watch our tutorial, practice, and beat the dealer!

How to Count Cards in Blackjack with a Team

How to Count Cards in Blackjack

All but one player take a seat at different blackjack tables and play for the table’s 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 increase their wagers. 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 leaving the table, they wait until another player signals a positive shoe and join that game.

Card Counting: True Count & Running Count

The next step is determining at which positive count you start having an edge. You need to learn to estimate how many full, half, and quarter decks have been dealt by looking at the discard tray to determine how many are still in play.

Finding the “True” Count

Calculate the true count by dividing the running count by the number of decks remaining. You use the true count to determine how strong your edge is and to help you determine how much you should bet.

  • 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).

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 0.15% 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 0.15%. If the game started with a 0.50% house edge, removing one five lowers the house edge to 0.35%.

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 0.025%. In other words, taking the original 0.50% and subtracting the 0.025% only reduces the house edge to 0.475%.

Continuing with the example, if you took six fives out of a six-deck shoe, you’d get the entire 0.15% decrease to the house edge.

Single Deck Counting Example

Single Deck Card Counting

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 0.50%?

By removing three 5’s, you only reduce the edge by 0.45%, so you have to remove all four 5’s, which is a total decrease of 0.60%. This leaves the edge in your favor by 0.10%.

Every 10-valued card or ace that’s removed from the deck adds to the house edge by 0.08% to 0.10% 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 to use the count you choose and convert it to a true count if required.

Importance of the True Count

The reason this conversion is so important is that each card removed from a deck of cards has a positive or negative effect on the edge.

This conversion is vital because each card removed from a deck of cards has a positive or negative effect on the edge.

However, the same card must be removed from every deck in play to get the full edge. That 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. 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 that you don’t have to understand it to work in your favor.

Blackjack Card Counting: Unbalanced Counts

In addition to balanced counts, you can find unbalanced counts. Unbalanced counts don’t require a conversion to a true count.

Everyone would want to use an unbalanced count to skip the true count conversion. However, if you’re good enough to learn a strong, balanced card count accurately, you can quickly and accurately estimate the true count.

An unbalanced card counting system doesn’t require a conversion to a true count because 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.

Some players struggle with or don’t like negative numbers. One trick you can learn if you don’t want 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 it from a negative number.

Blackjack Card Counting Strategy

Blackjack Card Counting Strategy

You must have a system if you want to learn how to count cards in blackjack or any other game. You can find dozens of methods, but a few are popular, and players don’t use many. 

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 card counting, this is a quick way to find out if you’re making mistakes.

Five Blackjack Card Counting Strategies

The Hi-Lo system is the most popular balanced counting system in use. The Red Seven is a popular unbalanced system. 

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 ValueTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEightNineTenAce
Hi-Lo11111000-1-1
K-O11111100-1-1
Red Seven111110 / 100-1-1
Zen11222100-2-1
Ace-Five000100000-1
  • 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.
  • Ace-Five is the simplest system, 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.

The Best Card Counting System

Best Card Counting System Icon

If you’re looking for a recommendation for the best system, it might be Hi-Lo, K-O, or the Red Seven. In all honesty, if you master any of the popular methods, 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.

Card Counting Strategy: Indexes

Most popular card-counting systems have certain strategic plays you need to make that may differ from what the perfect basic strategy tells you to do. These are called indexes or index plays.

Index Example

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, insurance becomes a profitable bet depending on your counting system.

Read the Book, Learn the Plays

The way to find the proper index plays is to read the book that includes the system. 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 some indexes that are very important and others that you can ignore without costing you much in long-term profitability. 

But 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 the basic strategy and the counting system you have chosen. Then add a few index plays each time so you don’t get overwhelmed with information.

Books to Help You Learn To Count Cards

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.

  • Hi-Lo is often credited to Stanford Wong from his book “Professional Blackjack,” but it was originated by Harvey Dubner in 1963 and was 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.

Practice Card Counting

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

Single Deck Blackjack Cards Counting Practice

One way to get started is by shuffling a deck of cards and 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 by following these tips:

  • If you’re using the Hi-Lo or another balanced card counting 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 repeatedly until you can count while flipping the cards as fast as possible. Then start turning the cards over two at a time. When looking at two or more cards, a shortcut 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 as they don’t move the count.
  • Work until you can count as fast using two cards as possible, and then start turning over two, three, and four cards simultaneously. Add a second deck when you can do this as quickly as possible. Then add a third and fourth, and so on, up to eight decks.
  • Keep practicing until you can count cards while doing other things, such as watching television, talking on the phone, or anything chaotic.

Learn to Count Cards Playing Free Online Blackjack

Another way to start learning how to count cards 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 of how the games are dealt, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to practice.

Play Free Blackjack Games & Practice Before Counting Cards

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Practice Your Card Counting Skills Playing Live Blackjack

Once you have mastered learning the basic rules of blackjack and using basic strategy, getting into a real blackjack game experience will certainly help.

You can do this at a land-based casino, or you can also play live dealer blackjack online.

We recommend you play online. Blackjack virtual tables will have lower minimum bets to get a seat, and you’ll be able to play more to improve your skills.

Is It Illegal to Count Cards?

Illegal Card Counting Icon

According to local, state, and federal laws, card counting is not illegal in the United States. 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. Also, players are not allowed to use card-counting devices or have a person assist them while counting cards.

If a casino is particularly unhappy with you, they can read what many people call a trespass act. When this happens, it makes it illegal for you to come back. Most places will ask you to leave or stop playing. Some venues will even let you play other games but won’t let you play blackjack anymore.

Famous Card Counters in the Gambling History

Blackjack card counters have made millions, but usually after intensive study and often with the help of a team. They also carry a dangerous element and deception since casinos, and their enforcers don’t like counters.

Here are some of the most famous blackjack card counters.

Edward O. Thorp famous card counters
  • Edward Thorp

    This mathematician is credited with first making the concept of blackjack card counting public with his book, “Beat The Dealer,” published in 1966. The best-seller revolutionized the game, picking up millions of followers and causing casinos to add multiple-shoe decks and extra shuffles.
  • Al FrancescoThe Godfather of Blackjack

    Francesco is a famous blackjack card counter considered the first player to come up with the team concept for blackjack card counting. He began recruiting and training a team in 1971 and eventually had up to 22 members. Then in 1977, one of the team, Ken Uston, published the book, “The Big Player,” which exposed the team’s tactics. It led to Francesco and his troupe being banned from casinos, and the team fell apart.
  • Thomas Hyland

    Hyland picked up on Thorp’s method and assembled a team of card counters in 1979. The team multiplied their money in Atlantic City, soon becoming a headache for casinos worldwide. Hyland eventually had as many as 200 blackjack players in and out of his crew. The team was active until 1994 when members were hauled off to jail after playing in Canada. They were eventually acquitted of charges when a judge ruled that they were not cheating but using strategy. The case is one of the reasons card counting is still legal.

Card Counting Tips

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. So here are our top tips to make your card counting camouflage near perfect.

  • Change Your Appearance

    Some professional players go so far as to alter their appearance by using make-up and disguises.
  • Control the Size of Your Bets

    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 running count. You want to spread your bets as much as possible, even getting to 1 to 10 at times, without getting kicked out.
  • Keep Moving Casinos

    You must only play in one place for a short time if you count cards. You can’t spend hours and hours counting the same games because, eventually, the casino will figure out what you’re doing. 
  • New Shoe vs. In-Play Shoe

    Another red flag is when a player never starts a game from the top of a new shoe. It may raise suspicion if you always watch a game before sitting down in the middle of a shoe.
  • Start Big, then Go Low

    A few players start off a new shoe betting high and then back off as the count goes negative. But this will cost you money off the top of most shoes by having large bets out when the average house edge is against you.
  • Discretion is Key

    Avoid staring at the cards as the dealer passes them out, and make sure you don’t move your lips or mouth as you count.

Top Counting Cards Movies You Have To Watch

Naturally, the drama of what goes into card counting and the strategy involved when casinos can ban you has led to films centering on the craft. Here are three movies about counting cards in blackjack that you need to watch.

Netflix Gambling Movies 21
  • 21

    This 2008 release starring Kevin Spacey is about the famous MIT Blackjack Team that took casinos for millions in the 1980s and ’90s. The students went to Atlantic City for a successful run and later carried their craft to casinos worldwide. The movie emphasizes the discipline required in card counting, how things can go awry in the face of gnarly casino owners, and the backlash of making so much money.
  • Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians

    This 2011 film is about one of history’s largest and most well-financed blackjack teams. Over six years, the team made more than $3 million. But because they were all churchgoing Christians, the obvious conflict arises between their high-stakes “gambling” and their faith.
  • Rain Man

    Starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, this award-winning 1988 movie is less about card counting and more about the relationship between brothers, one an autistic savant. Upon his father’s death, Charlie discovers that he has an elder brother, Ray, who is in a mental institution. During a long trek to settle the estate and get Charlie out of debt, the two go to Las Vegas and employ Ray’s superb memory to count cards. The result leads to the most memorable scenes in the film.

Online Blackjack Card Counting

Online Blackjack Card Counting Icon

As you read in the section about card counting practice, one of the best ways to quickly practice your counting cards skills 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 shuffled at the end of every hand, so you always face a new 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 blackjack games to help you learn how to count cards, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can get a real advantage playing online blackjack.

Card Counting FAQ

These are the most common questions we get about card counting.

What is card counting?

Card counting is the technique of keeping track of what cards have been dealt and which ones are left in the shoe to give yourself a statistical advantage. It’s primarily used in blackjack and poker.

Is blackjack card counting different from counting cards in poker?

Card counting is used for different purposes in blackjack and poker. In blackjack, people count cards to give themselves an advantage over the house and will bet high when they have an advantage and low when the dealer does. In poker, counting cards help determine what decisions to make against other players.

Can you count cards in online blackjack?

No, you can’t count cards in online blackjack. The software uses an automated process to shuffle the deck for each hand. It’s all done by a computer and is completely randomized.

Does card counting really work?

Yes, it does work and is a successful way to give yourself a statistical advantage. However, don’t bet on being able to get away with it. Many casinos frown on the practice and may ask you to leave if you get caught.

How hard is it to count cards?

The concept of counting cards isn’t difficult to master, but it can become hard to execute when there are multiple decks in a shoe. It takes a lot of practice and repetition, and even the best card counters wouldn’t be able to get a good read in a blackjack game with six decks.

What is the best card-counting system?

The Hi-Lo system is the easiest to master, which makes it the most popular way to count cards. Numbers 2-6 get counted as +1, 6-9 get counted as 0, and 10-Ace get counted as -1. The higher the count, the more a player can assume 10s and face cards are left in the shoe.

How to win at blackjack without counting cards?

You don’t need to count cards to win at blackjack. The best thing you can do is learn how to use the basic strategy. Practice playing and use a strategy chart to help determine what moves to make. If you apply all of these tips, you will improve your game drastically.

Can you make a living with card counting?

It’s questionable if you can make a living card counting. People make careers out of playing blackjack, but it may be unrealistic for the average gambler. And although counting cards is legal, many casinos will back you off a game if they suspect you’re using this strategy.

Does card counting work at online casinos?

Counting cards can work at online casinos if you’re playing a live dealer blackjack game since you can see real cards as they get pulled from the shoe. However, you have to consider that each studio shuffles and changes dealers with different frequencies.

How often do you win when counting cards?

Many blackjack players make the mistake of believing that by learning to count cards, they’ll start winning every time they play. It isn’t true. Even the best card counters have losing sessions and can lose for an extended period before the long-term edge comes through.
If you become a good counter, you’ll work with around a half-percent edge against the casino. You might be right if you need more than this for all the work involved. 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.

About the Author
Neil White

Neil White - Editor in Chief

His drive and passion for casinos and the most popular games keep him in touch with the latest news and interests to provide the best for his readers.