Easiest Way to Count Cards in Blackjack

Staff Writer Tips & Tutorials 1,142

Introduction

This article addresses blackjack card counting for beginners. If you have been playing blackjack for some time and want to improve your performance at the casino blackjack tables, then this article is meant for you. It is important to clear one fact upfront. Card counting will not help you in playing blackjack deals better. That aspect is dealt through blackjack optimum strategy. Card counting lets you know when the chances of winning are in your favour and when they are against you. This enables you to adjust your bet amount accordingly.

Every course has its prerequisites and there are some for counting cards in blackjack as well.

  • You have to be proficient in optimum blackjack strategy. Otherwise the advantage gained by counting cards will be lost by playing incorrectly.
  • You have to be quick in adding or subtracting ones and keeping a running count. This has to be done automatically so that you can focus on playing the hand.
  • You need a high degree of concentration. The glitz and glamour around you should not prove a distraction.

History of Card Counting

Edward Thorp is generally accepted as the father of blackjack card counting, though a few players before him had addressed the issue. In 1962 he authored a book Beat the Dealer that outlined in detail a card counting technique backed by the required mathematics. His system, called Five Count, was based on the realisation that fewer fives left in the deck are more favourable to the player than a deck that is loaded with fives. Thorp continued to improve the system and several other players also devised similar systems. Many of these players are in the Blackjack Hall of Fame for their card counting work. Some of these are:

  • Ken Uston
  • Thomas Hyland
  • Peter Griffin
  • Arnold Snyder

Blackjack card counting became a household term because of the famous MIT Blackjack Team. This team of card counters was assembled in 1980 by J.P. Massar and Bill Kaplan and run on a professional basis like never before. The team of ten players started on August 1, 1980 with an investment of $89,000 and in the first ten weeks they more than doubled their investment. Another famous blackjack card counter John Chang joined the team in 1982. By 1989 the team had over 70 players. After 1993 the prominence of blackjack card counting declined.

Is Card Counting Legal in Casinos?

Card counting at blackjack tables in casinos is perfectly legal. Counting cards is a blackjack skill that the player brings to the table like knowledge of optimum strategy. However, there are conditions attached. In the execution of card counting the player cannot use any mechanical device. Nor can the player relay information to third persons and seek their assistance.  Therefore the use of the following devices would be illegal:

  • Pen and paper
  • Computerized card counters
  • Remote communication devices
  • Card counting apps in smartphones

Card Counting In Five Easy Steps

In this section the generic steps of any blackjack card counting system are explained without going into the details of any specific system. The idea is to familiarise beginner card counters with the philosophy behind the steps.

A brief explanation is needed before we go to the steps. Card counting systems are based on the following mathematically confirmed hypotheses.

  • If there are more high value cards left in the deck as compared to low value cards then the player is in an advantageous position
  • If there are more low value cards left in the deck as compared to high value cards then the house is in an advantageous position

You cannot know the cards in the deck so you track the cards that have been dealt and rejected and then make inferences about the deck.

When you join a blackjack table and the dealer is midway through the shoe, do not start the card counting process. You will have no idea of the cards already on the discard tray and will never get the right card count. Wait till the dealer starts a new shoe and then begin to count the cards.

Step 1: Know the Counts Assigned to the Cards

  • The low cards are assigned small positive counts, usually +1 or +2
  • The middle value cards are assigned a count that is 0
  • The high value cards are assigned small negative counts, usually -1 or -2

Each card counting system has a different valuation. You will need to follow the valuation given by the blackjack system that you are using.

Step 2: Track the Running Count

With a new shoe, start with a running count of 0. As each card is laid face up on the table note its count.

  • If it is negative then subtract it from the running count
  • If it is zero then there is no change
  • If it is positive then add it to the running count
  • Make sure that the value of each card is factored in
  • Always remember the current value of the running count

The running count will change from being positive to negative and vice versa several times in the process.

Step 3: Track the Number of Decks

For the next step in the blackjack card counting process you will need to know the number of decks remaining in the shoe. You will know the number of decks in the new shoe. That number becomes your starting point.

  • Count each card as it is exposed (this is separate and independent of the running count)
  • When you have counted 26 cards, reduce the number of decks by ½

If you start with 8 decks then after the first 26 cards are exposed the remaining decks will be 7 and ½

Step 4: Compute the True Count

A blackjack running count of +6 with 7 decks remaining is nowhere near advantageous as a running count of +6 with 1 deck remaining. So you need to compute the running count per deck, which is also called the true count. You need to do this only before you have to place your next bet.

Step 5: Adjust Your Bet Amount

All this mental callisthenics is of no use unless it leads to useful decision making. The true count is used to adjust the bet amount as follows.

  • If the true count is ‘significantly’ positive it means that more low value cards have been discarded and more high value cards are left in the deck so you should increase the bet
  • If the true count is ‘significantly’ negative it mean that more high value cards have been discarded and more low value cards are left in the deck so you should decrease the bet
  • Otherwise continue with the same bet

The steps are depicted in the following image:

What Are The Benefits of Learning Card Counting?

The average return to player in the popular blackjack variants is about 99.5%. You will still lose money in the long run. If you can count cards correctly then you will be able to place bigger bets when the situation is more favourable. This will push the average return to over 100% and you will start making money in the long run.

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