Blackjack Card Counting
Card counting offers the only way to beat the house in blackjack. You may be surprised to know that card counting isn’t difficult to learn.
However, you must understand the intricacies behind this advantage-play technique before successfully using it. You should also know the best practice methods for improving your counting skills.
This guide covers both basic and advanced card-counting topics. It also answers the most-important questions surrounding counting. For more ways to win in blackjack, see our top tips.
Basics of card counting
What is card counting?
Card counting is an advantage-play method that helps you determine when the blackjack odds are in your favor. It involves tracking cards as they come out of the shoe and assigning them point values.
The running count helps you figure out when the shoe is rich in aces and 10-value cards. With a rich deck, you stand a better chance of receiving natural blackjacks and seeing the dealer bust out.
The dealer must draw to 17. More 10-value cards and aces increase the odds that they’ll bust out on totals 12-16.
Why does card counting work?
Unlike many casino games, blackjack isn’t completely random. Your odds of winning either improve or decrease as cards are dealt.
A single ace coming out of the shoe lowers your odds. It leaves you with one less helpful card that can provide a natural blackjack or bust the dealer.
As a recreational player, you have no idea when the odds are in your favor. You’re truly playing a random game, in this case.
If you’re tracking cards, though, you’ll know when the odds favor you. Furthermore, you can raise your bets in these situations and capitalize on the opportunity.
What kind of edge can you gain?
Your advantage in card counting depends upon your skills and the game rules. Assuming you’re a good counter and playing with favorable rules, you’ll hold between a 0.5% to 1.5% edge.
You can boost your advantage even more by counting with a team (covered later). Skilled teams gain between a 2% and 4% edge over the house.
How do you count cards according to the Hi-Lo system?
Assign point values to cards
The method for assigning point values to cards varies based on the system. However, the general idea involves adding +1, 0, or -1 to specific card groups.
The popular Hi-Lo system includes the following point values and card groups:
- High cards (10 through ace) = -1
- Neutral cards (7 through 9) = 0
- Low cards (2 through 6) = +1
Low cards coming out improve your chances of winning (hence +1). High cards leaving the shoe lower your odds.
Keep a running count
You must track every dealt card to consistently be successful with this technique. This count, which runs until the shoe is reshuffled, is known as the running count.
It doesn’t take into consideration when a game features multiple decks. Instead, it’s a simple running tally of every +1 or -1.
Here’s an example using a single hand:
- You receive 7-4-8 (count at +1).
- Player 2 receives 10-J-8 (count at -2)
- Player 3 receives 2-4-9 (count at +2).
- Dealer receives 3-6-J (count at +1).
You must keep up with the game speed to maintain a proper running count. However, you shouldn’t be discouraged if you struggle with the speed in the beginning.
Convert to a true count (if necessary)
The Hi-Lo system is a balanced card counting system that assigns +1 and -1 to an equal amount of cards. Assuming you track every card until the shoe is dealt, you’ll end up with zero.
You must account for multiple decks in a shoe when using a balanced system. To do this, you convert your running count into a true count.
A true count requires dividing your running count by the number of estimated remaining decks. Here’s an example:
- Your running count is +10.
- You estimate that five decks remain.
- 10 / 5 = +2 true count
The true count isn’t necessary with unbalanced systems. We’ll discuss an unbalanced strategy in the next section.
Increase your bets at the right time
A positive count by itself means nothing. You must raise your bets to take advantage of favorable situations.
You should stick with the minimum bet until determining a positive count. Most systems call on you to increase wagers upon determining a +2 true count.
The difference between the table minimum and your increased wager is the bet spread. Bigger spreads let you capitalize more on favorable counts.
However, an extreme bet spread can alert the pit boss. If you’re spreading from $10 to $200 (i.e. 1-20 spread), for example, then you’re more likely to get caught.
The following strategy helps you evade casino detection and cash in on higher true counts:
- You bet the $10 table minimum.
- +2 true count = $50 bet (1-5 spread)
- +3 true count = $100 bet (1-10 spread)
- +4 true count (and above) = $150 (1-15 spread)
Some casinos let you get away with as high as a 1-15 spread. Others will clamp down immediately when they see you spread from 1-10, or sometimes, even lower.
You should research casinos ahead of time to determine which establishments will let you spread higher.
Different card counting systems
Dozens of card counting systems exist. These strategies differ in terms of complexity and how much of an edge they provide.
You may opt for a complicated system that maximises your advantage. However, you could also struggle to maintain a proper count with such strategies.
Below, you can read about both simple and complex systems and decide which type seems most inviting.
The Knockout (KO) system is similar to the Hi-Lo. However, it features a small difference in two of the card groups:
- High cards (ace through 10) = -1
- Neutral cards (8 and 9) = 0
- Low cards (2 through 7) = +1
The KO is an unbalanced system, because it features more cards in the low group than high. Therefore, you don’t need to convert to a true count with this strategy.
This system is easy to use due to the true count’s absence. However, it’s also less accurate than other strategies covered here.
The Hi-Lo is the most-popular counting system. It’s user friendly and provides a solid advantage over the house.
As covered before, the Hi-Lo requires you to count high (10-A), neutral (7-9), and low (2-6) cards. You must also convert your running count to a true count due to the balance aspect.
The Omega II is a more advanced balanced system. It calls on you to assign values between +2 and -2 to cards.
Here are the card groups and values:
- 10 through king = -2
- 9 = -1
- 8 and ace = 0
- 2, 3, and 7 = +1
- 4, 5, and 6 = +2
This system offers more accuracy than both the KO and Hi-Lo. However, it’s also much harder to use than those strategies.
Wong Halves derives its name from its creator (Stanford Wong) and how it introduces half points. You assign card values ranging from -1 to 1.5.
Here are the point values and card groups associated with this system:
- 10 and ace = -1
- 9 = -0.5
- 8 = 0
- 2 and 7 = 0.5
- 3, 4, and 6 = +1
- 5 = +1.5
Much like Omega II, Wong Halves is an accurate-but-complicated system. You can simplify it to some degree by doubling every point total—thus eliminating the halves.
Improve your counting skills
Learning card counting is the easy part. Putting it into practice is the much more difficult component.
The game speed and casino distractions can cause you to lose count. However, it is possible to overcome these hurdles by using one or more of the following practice techniques.
Use an online trainer
An online blackjack trainer is a program that continually flashes card values. Your goal is to assign point values to these cards and maintain an accurate count.
Trainers offer the perfect starting point for card counting. They’re free and feature a low-pressure environment to practice basic counting skills.
Deal to yourself
Land-based casinos don’t deal cards through a smartphone or computer screen, like trainers do. Instead, they deal real cards.
You can better simulate casino conditions by dealing hands to yourself. You also hold the ability to manipulate the game speed based on your skill level.
Practice with a friend
If you know a friend who’s also interested in card counting, you both can take turns dealing to each other. This practice method takes the previous technique a step further.
A friend acting as the dealer creates a more-realistic blackjack experience. After all, you can’t deal to yourself in the casino.
Play for low stakes at the casino
One final practice method involves actually playing and counting at a real table. You can stick with the table minimum most of the time and slightly raise your bets during favorable counts.
This practice technique lets you get the full card-counting experience without the heavy risk. By keeping bets low, you minimize losses in case your session goes poorly.
Is card counting illegal?
Counting isn’t cheating
You may have read that card counting is illegal and constitutes cheating. However, this idea is a myth.
Card counting is a skill that requires a keen eye and quick arithmetic skills. We don’t know of any gambling jurisdiction that deems this skill to be illegal.
Most jurisdictions, such as Nevada, only arrest you if you’re using an electronic aid (e.g. smartphone) to help count cards.
Casinos reserve the right to kick you out
Gambling venues can’t get you arrested for standard card counting. However, they can throw you out with no problem.
Casinos are private establishments that can refuse your business for a variety of reasons. They’re especially apt to toss you for being an advantage player.
Atlantic City is rare in that they prohibit casinos from barring advantage gamblers. Most other gambling destinations and jurisdictions, though, let casinos ban card counters.
Some casinos are more lenient than others when it comes to card counting. They allow you to spread bets without immediately becoming suspicious.
Any casino will toss you if you’re blatantly counting. However, your odds of successfully counting improve in a venue that’s known for leniency.
Stay on the move
You shouldn’t expect to count cards for hours in the same casino. Any pit boss who notices you spreading bets all night will eventually become skeptical.
You must hit casinos briefly,and quickly move on to the next establishment. One to two shoes should suffice before you relocate to the next venue.
You’ll also find that counting in major gambling destinations (e.g. Las Vegas, Atlantic City) is preferrable. Large destinations provide more casinos and shifts for you to explore.
Other considerations with counting cards
Count solo or with a team?
Solo counting gives you more control over your counting efforts. You’re the boss in this situation and control the schedule and all other aspects.
However, solo counting also forces you to spread bets. In many situations, the bet spreading provides an obvious clue that you’re an advantage player.
The team-based approach helps hide that you and others are counting cards. Here’s an example of how team-based counting works:
- Spotters sit at different blackjack tables and count cards.
- They use hand signals to let the big player (BP) know when a deck is hot.
- The BP sits down at a hot table and immediately begins betting big.
- The casino is more likely to think that the BP is a high roller than a counter.
Both team and solo counting carry pros and cons. Therefore, you should weigh the advantages and drawbacks before choosing an approach.
More deck penetration is better
Deck penetration refers to the amount of the shoe that’s dealt before the cards are reshuffled. Here’s an example:
- A table features a six-deck shoe.
- The croupier deals four decks before reshuffling.
- 4 / 6 = 66.67% penetration
More deck penetration makes your count more meaningful toward the end of a shoe. A +3 true count with one deck left is far more accurate than the same count with five remaining decks.
Different tables/casinos allow various levels of deck penetration. You should look for tables that permit at least 70% penetration.
Avoid tables with continuous shuffling machines
Some blackjack tables use continuous shuffling machines (CSMs). CSMs are devices that continuously insert discards into the shoe.
A CSM doesn’t allow for any deck penetration and makes card counting impossible. That said, you should avoid tables with CSMs whenever you’re counting.
Even if you’re an expert card counter, you won’t hold a large edge over the casino. A 1.5% advantage by no means guarantees short-term profits.
You’ll experience lots of volatility and downswings on your way to profits. Therefore, you’ll need a large bankroll to survive this volatility.
As a solo counter, you should aim for a starting bankroll worth at least $10,000. When you’re on a team, your squad should begin with $25,000 or more.
Practice your skills
No perfect blueprint exists on how long you should practice card counting. However, you should aim to make counting feel like second nature before risking serious money.
After all, card counting involves many challenges and nuances once you’re out in the field. You don’t want to risk $100 or more per hand when you easily get distracted by table banter.
You can refer to the earlier section of this guide that covers practice methods. Trainers, dealing to yourself, and counting at low stakes are all viable practice techniques.
FAQs on blackjack card counting
No, you cannot count cards at online casinos. Gaming sites feature software-based tables that automatically reshuffle the shoe after every hand.
Land-based casinos allow deck penetration because they don’t want to slow down games. The casino loses theoretical profits every time that the dealer must stop to reshuffle a shoe.
Internet casinos don’t need to worry about this. Their software reshuffles a blackjack shoe with no time wasted.
Live blackjack tables normally use continuous shuffling machines. Again, a CSM eliminates deck penetration.
Some live dealer outfits allow up to 50% penetration. However, this amount is still too far away from the more-ideal 70% figure.
Developed by Stanford Wong, “wonging” refers to counting cards at a table where you’re not playing. You take a seat and start betting big when the count becomes favorable.
Wonging essentially lets you carry out the team-based counting approach by yourself. Unfortunately, most casinos establish rules that specifically combat wonging.
Many tables feature signs that state, “No mid-shoe entry.” This rule forces you to wait until the beginning of a shoe to start playing and diminishes wonging’s effectiveness.
Large bet spreads offer a key piece of evidence that you’re counting. If you spread from the table minimum to $150 within the same shoe, then you’ll quickly draw suspicion.
Upon noticing this event, the pit boss may spark a friendly conversation with you. Their goal is to throw your count off and get a better read on you.
Dealers can also inform the pit boss if they notice irregularities in your play. They often do this when changing tables or shifts if they suspect that you’re a counter.
You shouldn’t have much trouble learning card counting. You can learn a basic, yet effective, system like the Hi-Lo in minutes.
The challenge, though, comes when counting in an actual casino environment. You should spend hours practicing before you begin wagering on your abilities.
Casinos are private establishments that can refuse service to anybody for legitimate reasons. They maintain every right to kick you out and ban you for counting cards.
Atlantic City is the only major gambling jurisdiction that doesn’t allow casinos to discriminate against advantage players. However, Atlantic City casinos instate other rules to make card counting less profitable.
Elite card counters can earn a six-figure annual salary. James Grosjean, Jeff Ma, Arnold Snyder, and the late Ken Uston are some players who’ve gotten wealthy through counting.
Certain pros add other advantage-play techniques on top of counting to boost their win rate. Grosjean, for example, is adept at both shuffle tracking and hole carding.