Advanced blackjack strategy – card counting
I’m sure if you’ve had any experience in the casino, you have heard of what is known as card counting – a system that allows you to gain a positive expectation while playing blackjack putting the house edge in your favor. While card counting is not explicitly illegal, most casinos will kick out card counters since they can seriously damage the casino’s profits if they hit a hot streak.
Below is a brief introduction to card counting if you are curious about how this tactic is done.
What is card counting?
In a nutshell, card counting is a tracking system where players use their memory to keep track of what cards have been dealt in blackjack. Since the game is dealt from a shoe (in most casinos) and there are only a certain number of cards in play each round, it is possible to get an idea of what is remaining in the deck and adjust your betting strategy accordingly.
Most counting systems use a -1, 0 and +1 system which gives each card in the deck a value. Usually cards 2-6 are +1, cards 7, 8 and 9 are 0 (neutral) and face cards and aces are -1.
As the cards are dealt, the player keeps track of the count using this system to get an overall picture for the remaining cards in the shoe. Since most blackjack games use multiple decks, the player will have to divide the running count (current count they have) by the number of decks they believe are left to form what is known as the true count.
Using the true count value, the player adjusts the bet so when it’s high in the positives they bet much more, however when the count is low they lower their bet since the odds aren’t in their favor. This system takes a ton of practice, however it is a proven method to get an advantage over the casino in blackjack.
Card counting in casinos is a concept surrounded by misconceptions, with most people assuming it is a skill only mathematical wizards can pull off successfully. Blackjack and poker players are often assailed by questions regarding the big deal with counting cards, as well as its legality and workability.
Counting cards is really just a variation of basic strategies, not rocket science. It requires no mathematical prowess or photographic memory, even though mathematicians developed and established the first card counting systems. The actual counting is a skill average players master without a challenge; the difficult part is usually avoiding getting kicked out of a casino, though this is not a problem with online casinos.
It makes it possible for a Blackjack player to be at an advantage over the casino for a lengthy period of time, which means that overall, players that are counting cards will experience more wins than losses. This is only possible when the player knows when the odds of winning are in their favor, so they can bet more, and when the odds of losing the hand shift to the dealer. This is done by keeping track of the cards during the game.
How to Count Cards in Blackjack
Blackjack is a game of adversaries, with the player’s opponent being the house dealer. The game has many variations, but for standard Blackjack, the player aims at having a hand of cards totaling to 21 points without exceeding. The face value of all cards in the deck is considered to be their points, except for 10, Jack, Queen, and King, which are the Royals, each with a value of 10. The Ace can serve as a 10 or a 1, depending on the player’s decision.
To play, the dealer deals each player with two cards, face down, and two cards to themselves, with only one face down. The player is then able to see the exposed card and can speculate what the dealer’s hole card and hand value is.
In Blackjack, you should not expect to see the deck being shuffled except for that one time at the onset of the game. For players with extremely good memory, they can mentally mark every card they see, hand after hand, and then deduct the number of cards remaining in the deck as well as which ones have been dealt already.
Following this deduction, a player can tell when it’s time to bet high or low. For instance, if only small cards have been revealed for a while, there is a great chance that Royals will be the next hand, and this may be the best time to bet high. On the other hand, if only large cards have been shown, betting low is the best option, and you can hit without worrying about a bust.
Why do Large Cards Favor the Player?
Before you venture into playing blackjack for real money, understand that the mix of cards in the deck influences the probability of your winning a hand. The probability increases when the mix has an abundance of large cards, such as Aces, 10s, Kings, Queens, and Jacks. When dominated by small cards, the odds remain in the dealer’s favor.
To understand how large cards shift the odds to the player’s favor, start by understanding that a mix full of large cards is likely to yield more Blackjacks. Even as the dealer also has the same chance of obtaining Blackjacks, the player’s Blackjack hand wins them a 3:2 bonus payoff.
Sometimes the dealer may end up with a stiff hand (such as 12 to 16), and at this point he has to draw. If large cards are the majority in the deck, it is more likely that the dealer will bust. However, the player’s situation when the deck is still rich in large cards is the contrary, as they are not obliged to draw on a stiff hand.
Players who double down in the large card mix usually make good. Likewise, when the dealer’s face card is weak, the player can get quite a lucrative pay by splitting the pair into two hands. On the other hand, there is more profit for dealers who hold stiff hands and draw from small card-rich decks.
How then does the player know if the deck is laden with large or small cards? This is where understanding the basics of card counting in Blackjack come in handy.
Basic Strategies of Card Counting
The basis of a card counting strategy is the odds that come with every card in the deck. However, when a hand has been played, the used cards are put by the dealer in the discard tray. The next hand is dealt with what remains of that deck. An estimated half or three-quarters of the same deck may end up being used before the cards are reshuffled.
Normally, card counting systems base their calculations for the odds of drawing a 10-value card on the cards still in the deck. When a player is able to keep track of the cards as they are played, deduction becomes easy. Keeping track of the cards is easiest done by assigning each card with a tag.
Tagging Cards Using the Hi-Low Card Counting System
Hi-Low, the most popular system of counting cards, assigns a tag of +1 to the small cards favorable to the dealer (2-6). A tag of -1 is assigned to the player favorable cards, which are the large cards (10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace). A tag of 0 is assigned to the cards left (7, 8, and 9).
The player observes keenly as the cards are played and then discarded, and he continually adds their values. Zero is the starting point immediately after a shuffle, and the values fluctuate between positive and negative, the total being the running count. At the start of the first round, when the cards are faced, the player adds the tags. If, for instance, player #1 shows a 2 and 4, you add +1 tag for the 2 and +1 tag for the 4 to get a sum count of +2.
This addition of the card tags should continue for every card the player sees, increasing the count by 1 for small cards and decreasing by 1 for large cards. As the first round draws to a close, the running count will either be negative or positive. The player may have seen 10 (-1), 9 (0), 2 (+1), King (-1), Ace (-1), and Jack (-1) dealt in the first hand, in which case the count would be -3.
A negative running count indicates more high value cards have been played, and therefore, the deck is rich in small cards. At this point, the dealer will have the edge and the player bets the lowest amount allowed. The reverse is true of a positive running count: the discard tray contains many low value cards, which in turn means the deck still has a greater percentage of high value cards. This has a positive impact, as the next hand brings the odds in favor of the player, and the next bet he makes should be larger.
Considering a player bases his strategy on the assumption that a 10-value card will be dealt in the next hand, this assumption becomes stronger when it is backed by the greater percentage. This, therefore, strengthens the overall basic strategy.
Placing the Bet
A typical user of a card-counting system usually places a minimum bet against the table when the deck is still fresh. As the running count increases and gets to a particular level, like a +4 or higher, the system user doubles down aggressively or increases his bet significantly. The higher the running count, the larger the bet placed and vice versa.
These are the beneficial odds the player uses to make wins while the deck is still hot. When the count drops to less than a zero or the dealer shuffles the deck, it is high time to go back to the minimum bets.
This goes to show that card counting in Blackjack is simply adding each card’s tag as it is played, and it changes the amount you bet but not the rules of the basic counting strategy.
Putting Theory into Practice
As a player, you must put all you have learned so far into practice. Take a deck of cards and thoroughly shuffle them, after which you should turn each card over at a time, reciting its tag. If, for example, the first card is a 4, say “plus 1” and if the one that follows is a Jack, say “minus 1.” Do the same for the whole deck, so that you can be able to associate each card with its tag.
Next, flip the cards in the same deck over one at a time while making a mental note of the running count. If the first card is 3 and the next is 2, the running count is “plus 2.” If the third card is 8, the running count remains a “plus 2,” as the tag for 8 is 0. By the time you are done counting the entire deck, “zero” should be your running count. This is the test for card counting accuracy.
Success at card counting comes with the ability to make an accurate count down of a deck of cards in under 30 seconds. Other skills also come to play, which include the following:
- How to place a bet depending on the count.
- How to determine the amount of bankroll you need.
- When to stop using the basic playing strategy and make a deviation.
- How to play without indicating you have an edge.
- How to gauge risk of ruin.
How Legal is Counting Cards?
Card counting is not cheating, unless counting machines or devices are used. In spite of the many attempts by casinos to get laws criminalizing it passed, it remains legal. This means that winning a card game by employing a mental strategy or skillfully using the information you have is not an issue. You cannot really be stopped by anyone from counting cards in your head!
The problem comes in when the casinos, which are private establishments with the right to serve the customers they choose, deem a counting strategy cheating and believe a player to be counting cards. Such a decision could even stem from the fact that the player’s winning streak is so long that the casino begins to lose money. At this point, the player risks not only being thrown out of the casino they are playing at, but being blacklisted by other casinos as well.
Most brick-and-mortar casinos hire people with the training and experience for spotting players counting cards so as to boot them before the casino incurs significant loss. They also share a common network, and it is quite possible for a player barred from entering one casino under accusations of rigging a game to be given the same treatment in all casinos within the same link. Charges of trespass become inevitable if you go to these casinos after being blacklisted.
Blackjack strategy frequently asked questions
Do players have the best odds in blackjack?
The answer is yes. The odds normally depend on the rules of the game, as well as how skilled the player is. For instance, with Las Vegas Strip rules, in a single deck game where you play using the correct basic strategy, you are allowed to double after splitting and this gives you an advantage of +0.1 percent.
What does the term “Las Vegas rules” mean?
This is a term often used when comparing different variations of blackjack, and it refers to the variants with rules that are typical of Downtown Las Vegas. These include:
- Players are allowed to double down on their initial two cards.
- Players are allowed to re-split.
- The dealer can hit a soft 17.
- Insurance is allowed.
- The “Las Vegas rules” enhance the odds of the player slightly, as the dealer has to stand on soft 17.
What is meant by the correct basic blackjack strategy?
Blackjack has a single correct basic strategy, given the game’s basic rules. However, the strategy can vary slightly from game to game, as different casinos may offer different rules. The basic strategy can also be affected by the number of decks used in different blackjack variants.
What is the first step in learning how to win at blackjack?
There are many good books on blackjack that you can read. Learning the basic strategy perfectly is the first step towards a winning streak. As you read and practice this strategy, keep your bets in the casino at the minimum, and be wary of any promises of advantages exceeding 1.5 percent.
You should also keep off money management systems and progressive betting. You can even subscribe to reputable newsletters for the latest strategies. Most of all, be disciplined. This is your money at stake!