Counting Cards in Blackjack

Counting cards is a much-misunderstood subject and we’re here to clear up a few things. So if you’re wondering whether or not card count is legal, profitable, or even possible, this article is for you!

What is Card Counting?

Before we go any further, we should first explain what counting cards really is. Beginners often think that card counters are literally remembering every single card, like some kind of genius feat of memory. But it’s not quite that complex.

When playing blackjack, there are certain cards which are likely to hinder us and others which probably help. Counting cards simply allows us to quickly identify when there is a concentration of high-value cards in the deck. If this happens, it’s time to increase your bets.

However, while counting cards does theoretically decrease the house edge in the long run, it’s not a magic money printing machine. Just because a lot of useful cards remain in the deck, that’s no guarantee of success. We are still reliant on a degree of luck. 

But even more importantly, we still need to correctly apply basic strategy, without which counting cards would be completely pointless. Card counting is only really effective in the long term. It will turn blackjack into a positive expectation game, but you won’t become an overnight millionaire.

When is Counting Cards Effective?

How To Count Cards in Blackjack

Counting cards is most effective with fewer decks in the shoe. Imagine playing with a single deck and knowing that an Ace had been removed. With just three of four left in the shoe, it makes a massive difference. But in a multiple deck game of blackjack, let’s say eight decks, that’s 31 Aces left instead of 32. Barely a scratch.

It’s also important to only count cards at physical blackjack tables. If you try to play at an online casino using RNG software, you have absolutely no chance of counting cards. Each hand is completely random, so counting serves no purpose whatsoever. But what about live dealer blackjack games?

Card Counting in Live Casino Blackjack

When playing blackjack, the dealer shuffles together multiple decks. At this point, we have no idea how the shoe looks and that’s why we start counting cards. The more we play, the better a feel we get for how the shoe is set up, and we can adjust our strategy accordingly. 

Eventually, when we reach the cut card, the shoe is reshuffled, taking away whatever advantage the card counters had and they need to start again. When playing at a physical casino, the cut card is inserted quite low into the shoe, giving us time to learn what is happening and adapt.

However, when we play at a live dealer casino, they place the cut card far higher into the shoe, resulting in more frequent shuffling. That’s because the casino has no way to check whether players are counting, unlike in a physical casino. They are simply protecting themselves.

Is Counting Cards Illegal?

This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of counting cards. Every individual country obviously has its own local laws, so you should always check if you travel somewhere new. But generally speaking, card counting is not illegal. 

Although movies might suggest otherwise, this is true even of Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on this and even Nevada law clearly states that counting cards is completely legal. 

Although it’s perfectly legal to count cards, that doesn’t necessarily mean that casinos like you trying it. If they catch you, they may ask you to leave. It depends on the circumstances. If you’re playing low stakes, enjoying a drink and not especially causing a problem, you may be fine. But if we are talking about high-rolling VIP players staking tens of thousands, that’s a different situation.

How to Count Cards

Now that we’re clear on the legality of counting cards, how does it actually work? Well, there are actually many different card counting systems which all vary in their complexity. Wong Halves, Red 7, Hi-Lo, and KnockOut are just a few of the many different approaches you can take. 

No matter the chosen method, they all have a few things in common:

  • Each card is assigned a nominal value;
  • These simplistic denominations are used to track the “running” count;
  • This count is converted to a “true” count;
  • The true count can then be used to adjust your bet sizing;
  • You still need to follow the basic blackjack playing strategy.

When Should You Count?

All the time! When counting cards, it’s important to track every single card that’s dealt. Yes, that includes the dealer, as well as every other player seated at your table! And not just for a single hand, but every hand that is dealt in the shoe. 

Counting cards is not for the faint-hearted. It requires discipline, patience, stamina, and skill. It’s certainly not fun – it’s more like a job!

The Running Count

Blackjack Card Counting - Running Count

As we already mentioned, each card counting strategy is different. But for illustrative purposes, let’s take one of the simplest methods, the Hi-Lo system. To keep a running count using Hi-Lo, the following values are issued to each card in the deck.

  • 10 – A: -1
  • 7 – 9: 0
  • 2 – 6: +1

For example, let’s imagine a table with you, one other player, and the dealer. It’s the very first hand of the shoe and you received an Ace and a King for blackjack. Your fellow player received a King and a Queen for 20 and the dealer’s hand was a 3. Their hidden card was revealed to be a King and when they drew again, they received a 6 for a total of 19.

Congratulations on your blackjack! But amid all the excitement, what is the running count? If you said -4, you’d be absolutely correct. We’ve seen an Ace, three Kings and a Queen (-5) as well as a 3 (+1) and a 6 (0). That’s an overall count of -4.

True Count

Okay, now that we understand the running count, why don’t we just use that as our system for counting cards? In short, the running count only gives us a brief insight into the state of the shoe. If we were playing with a single deck, this would be fine. But we’re often using six, or even eight.

As we already mentioned, there’s a massive impact when removing an Ace from a single deck. But when there are still 31 left, it’s totally different. So each card counting system has its own formula which must be applied to convert the running count into a true count. And it’s this figure which we use to vary our bet size.

Whenever the count is negative, we should bet smaller, or possibly even leave the table. That means a high percentage of the favourable cards have already been removed. Ideally, we’re looking for a highly positive count, as that means the deck is loaded with Aces and 10-value cards. That’s what we want to see when we’re doubling down!

How to Count Cards in Poker

Put simply, it’s not possible to count cards in poker. You can certainly calculate the number of outs you might have in a hand if you’re drawing, for instance. In fact, you must do so in order to calculate both the required pot odds and your own hand’s equity.

Alternatively, you could count the number of blockers in your hand. These are certain cards which make it less likely, or even impossible, for your opponent to be holding a specific hand. However, neither of these things could truly be classed as card counting in poker. It is just not a concept that exists outside of the blackjack world.

Conclusion

Counting cards is a perfectly legal way to play blackjack. It’s not easy to do, as you must already be a proficient player of basic strategy. Card counting also requires a good memory, quick wits, patience, and discipline. However, the right system can turn blackjack into a profitable long-term game.

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