Learn How to Count Cards

by James Carter on February 19th, 2015.

Beating the dealer at real-money blackjack is possible but requires a lot of practice and studying.

Is It Legal?

"As long as a card counter is only using his brains to decide how to play his hand, then the act of card counting is not illegal." Henry Tamburin, Gambling Author

The kind of card counting that I discuss on Gaming the Odds is not cheating or illegal - simply put: casinos have rules for their blackjack games and card counters play according to those rules.

In fact, card counters have forced casinos to make the games worse in order to prevent card counting. In New Jersey, casinos aren't allowed to throw players out for counting cards so they have to rely on card counting countermeasures. (In Nevada, casinos are allowed to decide who plays on their properties so they can throw you out.)

So a card counter must not only know how to identify a good game and count cards profitably but also to get away with counting cards. It's of little help to know how to count cards well if you get thrown out of each game you could count cards in or the casino makes the game worse for you.

The worse the games, the less people count cards, and the casino gets a bigger proportion of its bets from recreational players. Some of us want to play only when we have an advantage and look at playing casino games as "investing" rather than "gambling." Since the amount of good games has gone significantly down since the '90s, there are less and less successful card counters each year.

It's certainly not the best time to start counting cards at blackjack but there are still opportunities out there.

How It Works

"Essentially, card counting is a method for tracking the probability of the player receiving cards that are favorable to him." Arnold Snyder, Gambling Author

Say you have a box full of coloured balls -- red and blue. You and your friend decide to play a little game in which you pull ten balls out of the box: you receive $5 for each red ball and you pay your friend $5 for each blue ball.

Is this a profitable game for you? No. In the long run, over many games, you'll break even since your expectation in this game is zero. You both receive or pay an equal amount of money and you have an equal amount of balls in the box.

Nobody has an advantage.

But what would it take to make the game more profitable for you?

How to Count CardsAside from you receiving more money per every red ball while what you have to pay to your friend for every blue ball remains the same, you'd have a positive expectation in any situation in which the box contains more red balls than blue balls. It only makes sense for you to participate in this game under those circumstances.

Card counting at blackjack is doing the same thing.

High cards are your red balls and low cards are your blue balls. In addition, there are neutral cards which neither help nor work against you (imagine yellow balls in the box that you don't have to pay or receive money for).

Unless you do "back-counting," you must bet something on each blackjack hand, so the only way you're going to benefit from when the shoe is beneficial to you is by betting more. (If you were to go through the whole shoe with same bet sizes, you would get no advantage.)

You increase the bet size when the shoe is beneficial and therefore you stand to win more when you have a good chance of winning, as opposed to losing less when the shoe is bad for you.

Why It Works

"Keeping track of cards already played tells us about hands yet to come. But to make use of this information, we need to know which cards are beneficial to us as players, and which cards are not." Olaf Vancura & Ken Fuchs, KO Count

As explained above, you get an advantage at real-money blackjack when the deck is rich in good cards relative to the amount of bad cards. But why are some cards good or bad for you and which cards belong to those groups?

High cards (tens, jacks, queens, kings and aces) are good for you mainly because of the following reasons:

  • More blackjacks:
    The more ten-valued cards and aces, the more blackjacks you and the dealer are going to make -- the difference is, you get paid 3:2 for a blackjack while the dealer only gets 1:1.
  • The dealer must hit until 17 or more:
    With more high cards in the deck, the dealer's chances of reaching 17 while going over 21 increase -- with more low cards, the dealer reaches the target value (17-21) easier.
  • Better for doubling down:
    When doubling down, you expect to win the hand and do it by only drawing one more card; when you have a hand value around 10 against the dealer's low card, you're likely to get a high hand value with one more card and the dealer, once again, is likelier to bust.
  • Better for splitting:
    High cards are better for splitting in general.

Those points make blackjack card counting profitable when used while playing according to basic strategy and, of course, suggesting you're playing a game with reasonable rules.

What It Takes to Count Cards

"I've met more people who play blackjack for a living than most. Successful players come from all walks of life: students, real estate people... ... and a used car salesman. Good, solid, average people." Ken Uston, Million Dollar Blackjack

Movies may have given you the idea that you need to be a mathematical genius to learn card counting, when in fact simple arithmetic is enough. But you need to add or subtract a single-digit numbers fast, keep the count in your mind and divide when needed.

As with almost anything in life, being in good physical shape helps when counting cards at blackjack since you'll be able to do it longer, keeps your mind sharp, etc. And you need to be comfortable with the grind. Playing hours of real-money blackjack a day gets boring. At poker, circumstances change all the time and every player is a new puzzle to solve; at blackjack, every day is almost the same as the day before.

Then it's just about how hard you're willing to work to learn how to count cards at blackjack. The harder you work on counting speed, acting and finding good games, the better you do. Making good money from blackjack is simple in theory but it takes a lot of practice and research to make it happen.

Multiple Decks

An increase in the amount of decks increases the house advantage as well. As you can see from the blackjack house edge page, the difference between playing a single-deck game and an 8-deck game is significant to say the least.

The same goes for card counting and the reason is simple: let's say you have a single deck game and you remove two fours from the deck; now the amount of high cards (tens to aces) is clearly higher than the amount of low cards (2-6).

But what happens when we take two fours out of an 8-deck shoe? Again, there are two low cards less but the change has significantly less impact since the total amount of low cards is now eight times higher, as you can see from the following:

Single-deck:
20 low cards and 20 high cards take 2 low cards 18 low cards and 20 high cards.

Eight decks:
160 low cards and 160 high cards take 2 low cards 158 low cards and 160 high cards.

It's easier to get away with counting cards with multiple decks since casinos have more of a reason to expect card counters play in single-deck games. More importantly, the count changes much more often single-deck games so you have to constantly change your bet sizes which makes you look more suspicious.

When counting cards with multiple decks there won't be as many bet size fluctuations but less profitability as well. The upside? You don't give the casino staff as much reason to suspect you for card counting since you don't have to vary bet sizes as much.

In case you want to learn how to count cards with several decks, you have to know how to convert from running count to true count. The best way (in my opinion) to start practicing card counting with multiple decks is to use a balanced counting system since you'll always end-up with zero at the end of the shoe. (You'll know whether you kept up with the count or not.)

How to Not Get Caught

You should learn how to count cards without getting caught because casinos have the right to stop you from playing their games in most jurisdictions, in which case you lose a good, profitable game, perhaps for a lifetime. (When casinos don't have such right, the games are usually unbeatable.) That is a big blow to serious card counters.

The art of not getting caught is an essential one to learn for anyone who wants to make money at blackjack. There are casinos that disregard "small-timer" card counters but once you start betting (and winning) significant money, they suddenly turn more serious too. Therefore the only way to make a lot of money is to not get caught. (If someone from the casino staff approaches you, one of my favourite ways of pretending to be clueless about blackjack is to act like I've invented a genius system which is based on something crazy like the day of the week or the weather outside.)

The ideal situation would be to not even make the casino staff suspicious. This, however, is almost impossible to avoid in the long run. It's best to prepare to get caught because you most likely will, at some point, suggesting you count cards more than a few times in your lifetime.

The best way to count cards without getting caught (in my opinion) is to stay at one casino for about two hours and move on to the next one. There are about 80 casinos in Las Vegas and pit bosses work in three shifts, so in theory as long as you haven't been banned from a casino, you can re-enter the casino once the next pit boss starts his shift, so that would give you 240 chances of playing under the supervision of a different pit boss in 24 hours (suggesting you play in Vegas).

There's an added benefit to counting cards an hour or two at a time and moving on to the next casino; you'll have losing sessions and some casinos tend to "comfort" their customers by providing them with a free lunch afterwards. Since you'll quite likely lose money in at least one of the four casinos you visit during one day of playing, you might as well take a free dinner while you're at it.

Blackjack as a Team

I'll be the first to admit that I've never practiced blackjack counting as a team. In fact, I've hardly even thought of it at all. For some reason, I enjoy counting cards by myself where I have control over everything, but there's no question that the group counting strategy has worked extremely well and made some people millionaires. This article consists of advice that other people - mostly famous blackjack authors - have given, alongside with my thoughts on that advice.

Team BlackjackKen Uston is famous for running a blackjack team that took casinos for millions of dollars. He's published books about it -- I've read Million Dollar Blackjack, which I quoted in this article, and I plan on reading The Big Player once I get my hands on it.

But first, instead of quoting Uston directly, let's look at how Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs explain Uston's blackjack team in their book KO Blackjack:

"... Uston formed teams that used the now-legendary "big player" (BP) technique. Big players can be used in several ways. In one common approach, little players are stationed at several tables in a casino, counting through the shoes and placing table-minimum bets while the BP wanders around aimlessly. Every so often, as superstitious high-rollers tend to do, the BP gets a "hunch" and plays a few hands, perhaps at the betting maximum, at a table chosen seemingly at random. Unbeknownst to casino personnel, the BP has actually been signaled into the game by one of the little players after the count has gone favorable."

Simple enough. In Blackjack Secrets, Marvin French is quoted mentioning actual betting amounts; as an example, small players would make $2 bets, after which big players come in and start making $100 bets.

This approach to card counting has the same advantage as back-counting in that there's no need for bet spreads. Small players keep betting a small amount, such as $2, and big players keep betting big amounts, such as $100.

But this sort of approach has other advantages as well: for example, it's harder for the casino to come into the conclusion that you're olaying blackjack as a group. If you come out of nowhere, not having been near the table to be able to back-count, and start betting big rightaway, and you don't stay for long, I think you're going to need a very experienced dealer or pit boss to catch something like that.

"When the BP arrives at the table, the present count may be relayed to him via signals worked out beforehand. Alternatively, the little player can simply make all betting and strategic decisions for the BP, again through signals. In this case, the BP need not know anything about expert play, only how to read and follow the signals. When the deck goes sour, the BP is signaled to leave. The BP then dawdles while waiting for the next signal indicating a juicy deck."

Even though small players try to lose the minimum and big players try to win the maximum, in which case it's the big player who makes the money for the blackjack team, the role of the small player could be even more crucial -- after all, in Uston's case, it's often the small player who counts cards and tells the big player what to do, while the big player just acts according to instructions.

"The beauty of this technique is that the BP makes only large wagers and always in positive situations. Because he never varies his bets, the BP appears to be a fun-loving highroller, "haphazardly" making his way from one "lucky" table to the next. Casino personnel see a big bettor jumping from game to game, never staying at a particular table long enough to possibly be counting cards."

As mentioned, one of the big advantages in team-play blackjack card counting is that there's no bet spread, and players who stay only for a while (after appearing out of nowhere) are rarely card counters.

Finally, let's look at Kevin Blackwood's take on counting cards as a team from his Play Blackjack Like the Pros. He has an entire section dedicated to the subject, but here's an excerpt:

"I prefer putting spotters behind the table and always use verbal signals to pass the count. This has three advantages. First, the back counters never have to play the hands or bet any money in the negative shoes, which provides an excellent entry-level position for new players to break into the game. Second, verbal signals can't be detected by the overhead cameras, but even the most covert hand signals could be deciphered with the modern aid of replaying them over and over again on videotapes. And standing behind the tables makes it much easier to move when the count is going south and the odds favor shifting to a new table to back-count."

The Mindset

"The wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time they don't. It's just that simple." Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway

Blackjack card counting is investing. In order to invest, you need to risk real money. The advantage over the casino is small even in best-case scenario and you will experience bankroll swings due to variance. It's never a steady ride upwards -- in fact, it may be more like a roller coaster.

By the way, never buy into any betting progression systems such as Martingale, Fibonacci and D'Alembert, or any of the other common blackjack mistakes.

It's unwise to bother yourself with market swings when investing in stocks and also important to only concentrate on making profitable investments and trust that time will deliver the profits. But unlike with investing, you know exactly how likely you're to win at blackjack in the long run. The dealer must follow the rules of the game and you get to know all the rules involved in the game before playing. Should you decide to play, it will be on your terms, when you find it beneficial.

I've also written short pieces about card counting in other games: