Card counting has been a matter of wide public interest since Dustin Hoffman helped Tom Cruise win $85,000 at the Caesars Palace blackjack tables in 1988’s “Rain Man.”
Is it really possible to anticipate which card is coming out of the deck next? Do you need special abilities to make card predictions? Is it legal? Can it be learned?
The truth is, you don’t need special abilities to improve your odds at blackjack by counting cards. The basic technique can be learned in a few minutes. It is legal, but most casinos will politely ask you to leave if they think you’re doing it.
What is Card Counting and How Does it Work?
American mathematician Edward O. Thorp has been known as the Father of Card Counting since the publication of his 1962 book, Beat the Dealer. The book includes mathematically sound strategies for winning at blackjack by predicting whether the next hand will give an advantage to the player or the dealer.
Key to Thorp’s strategies are techniques for keeping track of which cards are played, with an eye toward estimating how many high cards and low cards remain in the deck.
That is the essence of counting cards: Bet more when the count gives you an advantage. Make smaller bets when the count predicts the next hand will be a loser.
Is Card Counting Illegal in Vegas?
Counting cards is not illegal anywhere except in bad movies.
Although counting cards is legal, casinos will ban you from the blackjack tables if they become aware that you are doing it. Obvious counting is a shortcut to being asked politely to leave the casino – just like in the movies. But it’s not illegal.
What’s illegal? Using devices to count cards or calculate odds. Conspiring with others to set up a gambling scheme. Paying off dealers. Marking cards. All that stuff.
Counting cards? From a legal standpoint, that counts as playing the game skillfully, nothing more than that.
The House Edge
Card counting can be thought of as a way of reducing the house edge.
The edge is the percentage that a casino is likely to win over thousands of bets.
Every casino game has a house edge. Slot machines are built with a return-to-player percentage of 85 to 95, for example, meaning that on average, over thousands of spins, 85% to 95% of deposited coins are returned to players. The casino keeps the remainder. That’s the edge.
In roulette, you can bet odd or even, red or black. There’s not much opportunity with those bets to tip the odds. They give you a 50% chance of winning – or they would, except for the 0 and 00 squares. Those two squares are the house edge. Without them, you could put one chip on red and one on black and win your money back with every spin.
Blackjack rules vary from casino to casino, but in general the house has an edge over a gambler playing Ed Thorp’s “basic” strategy flawlessly because the house wins if both the player and the dealer bust, or exceed 21. In a typical six-deck game, the house edge is 0.64%.
You don’t eliminate the house edge when you learn to count cards. You still win and lose a roughly equal number of hands. You win money because you place bigger bets on the hands that you are likely to win and smaller bets on the others.
The benefits of card counting are statistical. They’ll help you win over thousands of hands. There’s no guarantee they’ll yield positive results during a single session. And as for predicting a single hand? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Card Counting Basics
Contrary to popular belief and despite what you see in movies, none of the techniques in card counting require unusual abilities. Nor do you have to memorize sequences of cards.
How does card counting work? It’s a simple matter of keeping track of whether more high-value or low-value cards have been played. That information lets you predict whether the next cards to be played are more likely to have high values or low values. And that lets you make smarter bets.
The 10 Count System
Ed Thorp’s original system is neither the simplest nor the best card counting system in play today, but it’s a good place to start. It’s known as the 10 Count system.
Your job, in this simplest of all card counting techniques, is to keep track of a single number – the count. When you take a seat at the table, the count is zero. Every time you see an A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 – in your hand, another player’s hand, or the dealer’s hand – add 4 to the count. When you see a 10, jack, queen, or king, subtract 9.
When the count is high, make big bets. When the count is low, make minimum bets.
That’s all there is to card-counting blackjack.
The 10 Count works because when the values are higher, you are more likely to get a card whose value is 10. Two high cards give you a hand with a value of 20, which is a good hand, likely to win against the dealer.
When the count is low, you’re more likely to be dealt lower cards, giving you a hand with a value of 14-17. Those are more likely to lose against the dealer.
The Hi-Lo System
With the Hi-Lo system, you add 1 to the count for each low card (2-6) and subtract one for each high card (10-A). Ignore cards with values 7-9.
Once again, the winning strategy for counting cards blackjack is to make large bets when the count is high and minimum bets when the count is low.
Hi-Lo counting gives you a value gamblers call the “running count.” When you’re playing with multiple decks – virtually all casinos use multiple decks – the count can be misleading. To get the “true count,” divide the count by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. This is a number you’ll have to judge by glancing at the cards yet to be dealt and estimating how many decks there are.
Whether you’re using the running count or the true count when counting cards in blackjack, a high number indicates better odds and a low number indicates worse odds.
Statisticians have come up with many variations and enhancements to improve the performance of basic card-counting strategies. Some add and subtract 2, while others call for adding and subtracting fractional amounts. Some make finer distinctions among different card values. These systems – Hi-Opt II, KO, Omega 2, Red 7, Halves, Zen Count, and many more – may improve your odds slightly at the cost of requiring you to adjust the count quickly in complicated ways.
That is how to count cards.
Keep in mind that every table is being watched from the control room. If you raise your bets too drastically, or if you begin betting larger amounts when almost all the cards are gone, you will become the object of unwanted attention.
Card-Counting Drills and Practice
If you’re serious about learning to count cards, there’s no substitute for practice. Luckily, there are plenty of websites that will help you learn the basic principles of card counting and administer drills so you can improve your speed and accuracy with practice. The programs act like real dealers. They’re perfect for those who wish to learn card counting online.
The training programs work just like real games. The software flashes two to six cards on your screen. You adjust your running count. Then more cards. At the end of the training period, you can see if your count is right or wrong. If you prefer, you can check our count after each round.
You have the option to choose between one deck or six decks of cards. You can also control the speed. Start slow and keep practising until you can keep up with card counting drills at full speed.
How to Play Perfect Blackjack
Blackjack is a simple game. Get closer to 21 than the dealer without busting.
But about 40% of the cards you are dealt will leave you with a hand totalling 12 to 17.
What you need is a reliable quick reference that tells you whether to stand or hit each hand at each count. In fact, those references have existed since the 1950s in the form of blackjack strategy charts.
If you’re really serious about the game, studying those charts will pay off. They’ve got specific advice for soft hands, hard hands, doubling down, and splitting pairs. The basic chart consists of 28 vertical columns showing your possible hand and 10 horizontal rows showing a possible dealer’s hand. To know what to do in a specific situation, just locate the situation you’re in and read the recommended move: stand, hit, split, double down.
Of course there cannot be a perfect blackjack strategy. Every game is different and no chart can guarantee a win. Still, the charts are a helpful addition if you already understand card counting.
Card counting makes casinos lose money, and that’s why casinos don’t want anybody counting cards at their tables. To achieve that goal, they use a combination of different measures.
Prominent among the tools are video surveillance, computer analysis of player behavior, dealer observations, and pit bosses. Semi-automated systems are designed to analyze player behavior and detect card counters.
Casinos can also shuffle “hot” decks or continuously shuffle one deck while another is in play. That way they can neutralize card counters without an unpleasant encounter or accusation.
Card Counting Apps
Using card-counting software in casinos is illegal, so you can forget about using them in a real casino. There is nothing illegal about using them to count cards on your mobile phone, however.
The apps are good training tools, but they’re of no use in real-world situations or in online gambling.
Card Counting in Online Blackjack
Alas, online blackjack card counting is a waste of time and effort. Online casinos use random number generators, employ a larger house edge to guarantee profits, and shuffle their blackjack decks after every round. The necessary elements for card counting are not present, so you can’t get a running or true count.
How to Avoid Being Caught
Counting cards is not illegal, but card counters are unwelcome at most casinos. If you’ve taken card counting practice seriously, everything you need to win at blackjack is already inside your skull. All you need to do is avoid being caught.
- Rule number 1: Don’t attract attention. When you’re counting cards, any attention is bad attention.
- Rule number 2: Don’t get greedy. You can raise your bets slightly when a great opportunity presents itself, but raising your bets dramatically is the easiest way to get caught.
- Rule number 3: Your face and your body must not send signals of what is happening in your mind during card counting. Dealers and pit bosses must not see or hear you counting.
- Rule number 4: Forget about any kind of card counting machine. It will be detected immediately and you will quickly find yourself outside the casino on the street.
- Rule number 5: It’s a good idea to make the occasional error that a recreational player would make.
- Rule number 6: Do not drink alcohol. And for heaven’s sake, don’t pretend that you are drinking. That’s a flashing light for the dealer and floor boss.
- Rule number 7: Take a cigarette or bathroom break when the count is high. Dealers can count cards too, and if you take a break when the count is high you will be less suspicious.
Can You Count Cards in Poker?
Counting cards in poker is quite different from counting cards in blackjack. For one thing, poker decks are shuffled after every hand. There’s no use keeping track of the count.
None of the card-counting strategies that work in blackjack are applicable to poker. However, it still makes sense to keep track of which cards have been dealt to other players. It’s smart to keep track of the cards you’ve seen, which gives you an idea about which cards are left in the deck.
Counting cards in poker can help you estimate the likelihood of drawing the 7 or ace you need to complete your winning hand. It can give you some solid clues about whether your opponents are bluffing, too. The player with two aces showing wants you to believe there are two more in his hand – but that won’t work if you’ve already seen them in the up cards of two players who folded early.