Card counting is a strategy used by blackjack players in which they assign a value to each card and monitor the ratio of low to high-value cards still available. This is because a player has a better chance of winning if there are more cards worth 10 or 11 points still in play. Card counting can lower the house edge and tilt the odds to the player’s advantage.
Contrary to what you’ve seen in movies like Rain Man or 21; it doesn’t take a genius to learn how to count cards in blackjack. It’s not about memorizing all the cards that have already been dealt or how many low-value cards are available. You just need a general sense of the deck’s remaining card values, so you can adjust your playing style and betting strategy.
Blackjack Card Counting 101
Attention to detail and extensive practice are key, but anyone can master this blackjack strategy. Card counting ranks as one of the most effective strategies for winning at blackjack, so investing your time and effort is worthwhile.
Here are simple steps to master card counting.
Assign card values
There are nine card counting systems but the basic principle in all of them is assigning a positive, negative, or zero value to each card.
When the dealer deals each card, you will either add 1, subtract 1, or do nothing, depending on the card’s value.
Keep a Running Count
As each card lands on the table, apply the designated values and maintain a running count. In this example, we’ll use the Hi-Lo system since it’s the best one for beginners.
Example 1: The dealer reveals a 3 (+1). We’re holding a 5 (+1) and an Ace (-1). The running count for this round is +1.
Example 2: The dealer reveals a Q (-1). We’re holding a 6 (+1) and a 3 (+1). The running count for this round is +1.
Whether you’re using the Hi-Lo system or other card counting techniques, you need to track each card coming out of the shoe every round until the dealer shuffles the cards again. When the running count rises, the player has the advantage. Conversely, if the running count turns negative, the casino gains a greater advantage.
Practice the running count in the demo version of Bitcoin blackjack here at Bspin to hone your card-counting skill. Don’t worry if the game shuffles the deck after each hand, the point of the exercise is to sharpen your card counting skill through repetition.
It is better to practice on a blackjack demo game than lose real money at a casino. Don’t forget to time yourself as the more cards you can count accurately the easier it is to count cards in blackjack in a casino environment.
Compute the True Count
Blackjack normally uses one deck of cards, making card counting much easier. But land-based casinos today use multiple decks at the blackjack table to negate card counting.
Don’t worry though, we can still count cards by having a true count (also called count per deck). To do this, divide the running count by the number of decks.
True count = running count / remaining decks
Example 1: The running count is -7 and there are 3 remaining decks. The true count is -2.3 (-7 / 3) but we round it to -2.
Example 1: The running count is 9 and there are 6 remaining decks. The true count is 1.5 (9 / 6) but we round it to 2.
If the true count increases, so does your advantage over the casino, and vice versa.
In the examples above, a true count of -2 in a game with 3 decks essentially means the casino has the advantage over you. A true count of 2 means you have the advantage if you play optimally.
Adjust Your Bets in Relation to the True Count
The purpose of card counting in blackjack is to increase your winnings. Once you’re tracking a running count and a true count, you need to bet small when the dealer has the advantage. Raise the stakes when the condition is more favorable to you.
Advanced Card Counting Systems
The Hi-Lo system is a solid choice for beginners but there are other systems that can provide more accuracy. However, these card counting systems are best suited for intermediate and expert players and demand higher precision for successful outcomes.
High Opt Card Counting System
The Hi-Opt (Highly Optimum) card counting systems are a family of card counting strategies that are more advanced than basic systems like the Hi-Lo count. The Hi-Opt systems aim to offer greater efficiency and accuracy for the advanced card counter. There are two main variations:
The Hi-Opt I system is more advanced than Hi-Lo but still relatively easy to learn. It is a balanced system, meaning that if you count down an entire deck of cards, you will end up with a count of zero. The point values for the cards are as follows:
Unlike Hi-Lo, the Hi-Opt I card counting system does not assign a value to the 5s and does not count Aces in the main running count. This is an attempt to focus the counting on the cards that will make the most difference in the player’s favor. Some players keep a separate side count of Aces to further refine their play.
The Hi-Opt II system is more complex and requires a greater amount of mental agility and practice to use effectively. It offers a higher level of accuracy for the advanced player but is more difficult to implement under the pressure of a live game. The point values in Hi-Opt II are:
Like Hi-Opt I, this system is also balanced, but the inclusion of multiple-point values makes it more complicated to use in practice.
Both Hi-Opt systems require a conversion from a running count to a true count, which involves dividing the running count by the estimated number of decks remaining in the shoe. This helps to accurately gauge the composition of the remaining cards.
Omega II Card Counting System
Created by Bruce Carlson, the Omega II system was introduced in his book “Blackjack for Blood” and has gained popularity among serious blackjack players for its high level of accuracy.
As a balanced system, if you count through an entire deck of cards using the Omega II count, you will end up with zero. This allows for a high level of accuracy but requires the player to convert the running count to a true count, which involves dividing the running count by the estimated number of decks remaining in the shoe. This added layer of complexity can make the Omega II card counting system challenging to use in the fast-paced environment of a casino.
Wong Halves Card Counting System
Also known as the Wong Halves system, the Halves Card Counting System is a balanced card counting strategy developed by John Ferguson, a well-known gambling author. The system uses fractional values, which adds a layer of complexity but also increases accuracy.
To convert the running count into a true count, you divide by the estimated number of decks remaining in the shoe. This true count will provide a more accurate representation of your advantage at any given time.
Practice, Practice, Practice
All this card counting knowledge means nothing if you don’t practice it. Play a game of blackjack with friends and apply what you’ve learned. Once you’ve mastered how to count cards in blackjack, raise your winning potential and maximize your earnings even further by pairing your knowledge with the basic blackjack strategy.
We’ve also written other blackjack guides to help you polish your blackjack skills, do check them out:
- Blackjack betting strategy
- What is the house edge in blackjack
- 14 types of blackjack games
- Blackjack odds
- What is even money in blackjack
- When to surrender in blackjack
Questions from Our Readers and Players
How difficult is it to count cards?
The difficulty of card counting can vary depending on the specific system used and individual aptitude for tasks like mental arithmetic and concentration.
The easiest card counting system to learn is hi-lo while the Wong Halves is considered as the most complex and hardest to master.
However, it’s generally agreed that while the fundamental concept of card counting is straightforward, mastering it to the point where you can consistently gain an advantage over the house involves a considerable investment of time and effort.
How long does it take to learn how to count cards?
The time it takes to learn how to count cards can vary widely from person to person. The card counting system you prefer, your mental acuity, and how much time you dedicate to practice are all factors.
That said, you can learn the basics of card counting in a week or two of dedicated practice. Becoming proficient and comfortable enough to use it in a casino will likely take a few months
Does card counting still work?
While card counting can influence the house edge to your favor, remember that this technique works only in land-based casinos that either don’t shuffle the deck after each hand or do it infrequently.
Does card counting work online?
Counting cards will not work on online casinos. However, you can still practice the running count and the true count in the demo version of online blackjack games.
Is card counting cheating?
Card counting is generally not considered cheating under the law, as it does not involve altering any of the rules of the game, using a device, or deceiving the casino employees. Card counters simply use the cards that have been dealt and their analytical prowess to make more informed decisions.
However, it’s important to note that casinos reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, and many have systems in place to identify and ban card counters. Being caught card counting might get you removed from the casino or banned from playing blackjack. But it is not illegal in most jurisdictions and you won’t get jailed for counting cards. Some places, like Atlantic City, even have laws that prohibit casinos from barring card counters.
Is card counting illegal?
Card counting is generally not illegal under U.S. federal or state laws, as long as players do not use a device or external aid to help them count cards. However, laws can vary by jurisdiction, so it’s a good idea to research the rules where you intend to play.
As we’ve mentioned before, you won’t end up in prison counting cards but the casinos might ask you to leave their premises or outright ban you if you’re caught. However, these are civil measures and not criminal ones.
How do you get caught counting cards?
Getting caught counting cards is usually a result of patterns, behaviors, and actions that draw the attention of casino staff, particularly the pit bosses and the surveillance team. Casinos are adept at identifying card counters.
One of the biggest giveaways is having a large betting spread, meaning you bet the minimum when the count is unfavorable and significantly more when the count is in your favor.
It’s rare for casual players to have a winning streak. If you always make the mathematically correct decision, it can be a sign that you’re a skilled player, which may cause the casino to watch you more closely.
Your body language and mannerisms can also give you away. If you appear too intense or are seen moving your lips (as if silently counting), it can arouse suspicion. You might also draw the attention of pit bosses if you’re not drinking alcoholic drinks or if you’re at the tables for hours without taking breaks.
Lastly, modern casinos use surveillance and technology. Casino personnel can identify known card counters or suspicious players using facial recognition. Some casinos even utilize RFID embedded within the casino chips to automatically track bet amounts and flag suspicious betting behavior.