Counting Cards in Blackjack

Card Counting: Is It Worth It? The Pros and Cons

Blackjack for Blood: The Card Counter's BibleCounting cards in blackjack is a legitimate advantage gambling strategy, but it's not necessarily the best way to make money as a professional gambler. Gambling pros can also profit from sports betting, poker, and video poker, and each activity rewards different temperaments and styles.

For example, casinos hate card counters, and they'll often ask blackjack players who they suspect of counting to leave or restrict their play to other games. Players with chutzpah won't be bothered by this, but people who are easily embarrassed won't like this at all. They might do better at the poker table, where the casino doesn't care whether you win or lose. In poker, the casino makes a percentage of each pot, so your specific wins and/or losses aren't really relevant to them.

Is It Legal?

One question that a lot of people ask is whether or not counting cards is legal. Casinos consider it "cheating", but it's not illegal. In fact, most rational people would agree that thinking while you're playing a game isn't cheating at all.

As far as I know, no government which allows legal gambling has outlawed card counting. It would be hard to prove in court even if they did pass such a law.

How Card Counting Works

Winning Blackjack without Counting CardsThe difference between blackjack and most other games is that the odds change while the game is being played. If you're playing roulette, then the number of green slots, red slots, and black slots remain the same throughout the game, no matter what happened on your previous bet. But in blackjack, if all the aces have already been dealt out of the deck, it's impossible to be dealt a natural. Without the possibility of a 3 to 2 payout for a natural, the house edge increases dramatically.

On the other hand, if all of the fours and fives have been dealt, but none of the aces are tens have been dealt, then the chances of being dealt a blackjack increase dramatically. The house edge has titled in favor of the player.

The strategy for a skilled card counter is to wager as little as possible when the house edge is high and to wager as much as possible when the house edge is negative. They do this by tracking the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck. And the good news is that this is easier than you might think.

The easiest card counting system I've ever seen is called the ace five count. Every time you see a five get dealt, you add +1 in your head. Every time an ace is dealt, you subtract 1 from your ongoing total. The higher the total (the "running count"), the more you bet on each hand.

A slightly more involved strategy is called the Hi-Lo system, which tracks aces and tens versus threes, fours, fives, and sixes. Any time an ace or ten is dealt, subtract 1. Any time one of the low cards listed falls, add 1.

Of course, you have to compensate for the number of decks in use. You also have to start over every time the dealer reshuffles. And you also have to do all of this without looking like you're doing it, which is harder than you might think.

How to Practice

The best way to practice counting cards is at your kitchen table. You should start with a deck of cards, deal them out one at a time, and keep a running count using the Hi Lo system described above. If you count correctly, then you'll be able to reach a total of 0 every time. If you get any other total, you're not accurate enough.

Once you're confident that you count accurately one card at a time, start dealing the cards two at a time. That's how you'll be seeing the cards at the table in the casino, anyway. Soon you'll start recognizing combinations that cancel each other out, and you'll grow quite fast.

Before you play in a casino, you need to be able to do all of this without looking like you're concentrating. If your lips move when you count, you're a goner. The casino will ban you from their blackjack tables or maybe even their entire establishment.

How to Start a Card Counting Team

A lot of teams are effective at counting cards because they eliminate the bet spreads that are such an obvious tell to casino management. For example, if you have a team with five players, you might seat one player each at four different tables. They'll flat bet at the lowest possible amount. When the count becomes sufficiently large, they'll signal the fifth member of the team, the big bettor, who will come in and place a large bet immediately while the count is in the team's favor.

The best thing to do if you're starting a blackjack team is to make sure you have a written agreement outlining the exact business arrangements. A casual, verbal agreement among five people is a recipe for disaster. The bankroll for the team should be kept separate from everyone's living expenses and budget, too. Some blackjack teams are staked by someone who doesn't even play, but since he's providing the bankroll, he gets a share of the profits.

Counting Cards on the Internet

You can't count cards during Internet blackjack games. Do you know why?

Most online casinos use software to simulate blackjack games. This software shuffles the deck after every hand. That means there's never a different ratio of cards in the deck, so it's impossible to gain an advantage.

You'll occasionally find traditional, land-based casinos which use automatic shuffler devices to achieve the same effect. Or they deal from eight decks, and they shuffle up so often that you never get a chance to get an edge over the house.

Counting cards is a great way to earn money for the right kind of gambler, but if you don't have the temperament for it, don't force yourself. Playing poker offers the same opportunities to get an edge while gambling, without the potential drawbacks.