Back-Counting at Blackjack

by James Carter on February 19th, 2015.

There are basically two approaches to card counting: one is to increase your bet sizes when the deck gets good, and the other one is to join the game when deck gets good, also known as "back-counting," "table-hopping" or "Wonging."

When back-counting, your job is to find a game that's going to be profitable when you enter the game. So instead of counting your way through the whole deck or shoe and bet more when you have an advantage. This means that you

There are two major advantages to this in a nutshell:

  1. You bet mostly when it's profitable. When you're not back-counting, you have to make smaller bets no matter what the profitability is like. When back-counting, you only make good bets.
  2. Less need for bet spreads. The problem with spreading your bets when counting cards "the regular way" is that dealers and pit bosses pay attention to those things, especially if changing bet sizes seems systematic. When back-counting, the shoe is already good and you can start making bigger bets rightaway. You don't need to spread your bets to get an advantage; you already have the advantage.

That is not to say you don't have to use traditional card counting methods when back-counting; the shoe will get worse eventually and you have to adjust your bet sizes, or you may use a strategy like Mr. Schlesinger:

"Getting back to the bet scheme: one unit from +1 to +2; two units from +2 to +3; four units from +3 to +4; six units from +4 to +5; and two hands ofsix units from +5 to anything higher." Don Schlesinger, Blackjack Attack

Naturally, Schlesinger is referring to true counts in that quote. Being +1 in running count is barely an edge at all, and the following hand could easily make the shoe unprofitable again. Therefore it's essential to play with a margin of safety that guarantees you'll be able to play at least a while before the shoe turns bad. You don't get involved to find out when the shoe is profitable; you get involved when the shoe is definitely profitable.

The amount of decks is something to consider as well -- generally, Wonging works best in games of four, six or eight decks, since the count is less stable in games of one or two decks. You want to make the vast majority - all if possible - bets when you have the advantage, and the less decks there are, the more you have to keep getting up leaving the game, which, of course, easily makes the casino staff suspicious.

Back-Counting Tactics

But you can read about card counting theory throughout this site and those principles are simple anyway. In order to back-count successfully, however, you need to develop good tactics to not get caught.

The most difficult part, quite obviously, is keeping track of a count without sitting at the table (actually, you should be able to keep track of multiple counts simultaneously). In other words, how can you not make it look suspicious that you're lurking close to blackjack tables without actually playing? That's the biggest challenge.

But, of course, top blackjack card counters have figured out ways to pull it off, like you'll have to do too. Here are a couple of excerpts from well-known blackjack books:

When to Join the Game

One of the big questions regarding table-hopping is "when to join the game?" First of all, I've never counted cards for a living; I treat it as a hobby even though I've read about it extensively and done my research.

The point being: I have no absolute need to play. I only do it on my terms, in which case the shoe is clearly in my favour.

My approach to Wonging is simple: I play when the shoe is great, I bet the same amount all the time (to not draw attention) and I leave rightaway once the shoe gets worse than what I want it to be.

I almost always act like I'm busy so that I'll have a good excuse to leave when I need to, and an important part of the act is to share the fact that I'm busy when I enter the game.

Having an act in place at the moment you join the game is incredibly important, but again, I would still put more importance on the profitability of the shoe. Worry about that first and it's much easier to give the impression that you're not counting cards.

"I'm looking for true counts of +1 or higher to enter the game. Zero is still a minimum bet. Why do I want to play when they have the edge?" Don Schlesinger, Blackjack Attack

Sometimes, but rarely, I double my bet after I've just won when the shoe is super-good. (Doubling your bet after winning is not suspicious; doubling your bet after losing usually is.)

Joining the Game

Knowing when to join the game is the easy part; being able to first track the cards and then join the game are harder to do without being recognized as a card counter. Here's what our two authors say about Wonging without getting caught for doing so:

"When looking for a profitable single deck, keep walking as you are looking at the cards at various tables. Never take root and stare. You may stop and watch, if a round is in progress, because you must wait until the round is finished before you make a bet. When the dealer is ready to deal the next round you have only two valid options - bet or walk away. Do not watch a second round at that same table, because your watching may be watched. You do not want anyone to question the chastity of your blackjack playing." Stanford Wong, Blackjack Secrets

"If your concept of back-counting is literally standing two inches behind a player's back and riveting your eyes on each card as it falls, then you've got this thing all wrong. Look, there's a dealer shuffling at the comer table, the one across the aisle from the craps table. I position myself in between the two. I'll be looking at the craps action almost as frequently as at the blackjack table." Don Schlesinger, Blackjack Attack

For the most of it, I agree with these approaches, and I think that Schlesinger makes an important point: don't only appear to be interested in blackjack games. Talk to people, perhaps even bring someone you know with you to the casino who you can have a conversation with while keeping your eyes on the counts. There are many ways; find something that works for you and stick to it at least for the most of it.

Leaving the Game

Earlier in this article I explained the tactic I often use: act like you're in a hurry so you'd have a good reason to leave the game when you don't have an advantage anymore. Interestingly, Schlesinger uses exactly the same strategy as I do, while Wong shares his opinion on the subject as well:

"If casino personnel watch you closely in an effort to discover whyyou hop from table to table, you could give them a reason for what you do. For example, you could leave a table only when the count is negative and you have just lost a hand, and never leave a table after a win. Your expected winrate will be reduced slightly if you play occasionally when the cards are unfavorable, but the off setting benefitis that the pit bosses will attribute your table-hopping to your losing a hand." Stanford Wong, Blackjack Secrets

"I look at my watch constantly. I want everyone to think I'm on the verge of leaving at any moment. In fact, I am; but if they think it's because I'm late for an appointment or because (later in the day) the bus is leaving, my departure from the table is expected and appears more natural. A little common sense goes a long way. I have no hard and fast rule for how long to play in one casino. But I am sure of one thing. Most amateur card counters - win or lose - overstay their welcome.. If I win a lot - say 30 units or so - I'll be out the door. I consider it poor taste to shove it down the casinos' throats." Don Schlesinger, Blackjack Attack

Throughout his book, Schlesinger makes it clear that he always wants to be welcomed back to the casino. That is the reason why knowing how to leave the game is as important as knowing when to do it.

Additionally, read Ian Andersen's Turning the Tables on Las Vegas for more tips on counting cards without being barred by the casino.

What Successful Back-Counting Takes

Aside from the obvious (know systems for counting cards by heart, for example), here's how the main requirements for successful table-hopping can be summarized:

  • Count cards fast. Speed is everything when it comes to Wonging. You need to be able to keep a track of counts at tables (yes, plural) with multiple players. Schlesinger says that he's able to count a full deck of cards in 14 seconds - that's impressive, but also something you should go for.
  • Act well. Often the hardest and most underrated part of table-hopping is acting. It's a skill that you need to respect from the start and work on continuously -- perhaps you could even take some acting classes.
  • Good eyesight. You need to be able to see what happens at various tables so you can only see the cards that are dealt from some distance.

Finally, I recommend that you read Stanford Wong's Blackjack Secrets and Don Schlesinger's Blackjack Attack, Both of them were quoted in this article and both have sections dedicated to blackjack back-counting.