How to Play Blackjack (Part 5) – How to Count Cards in Blackjack

There is only one practical, and legal, way you can place yourself in a position of having an edge when you are playing blackjack. This is by learning to become a card counter. But it must be emphasized that card counting isn’t for everyone. For the average casino player it’s a lot of math and a lot of work. You don’t need to be a math whiz, but it would certainly help to be good at math if you want to learn to count cards in blackjack.

Most players don’t want to be bothered with card counting as they are just recreational gamblers, but some players want to step up their game and they know that counting cards is the only way to be a long-term winner at the game of blackjack. For this article we’ll explain the basics you need to get started, but keep in mind that there numerous other sources online that can give you an in-depth understanding of the topic if you want to pursue it further.

For many blackjack players, card counting is seen as needing to have a photographic memory and having the ability to remember every card that has been played. Well, that isn’t really the case with card counting. Actually, the concept of card counting is simply the assumption that the dealer will bust more often when there are a lot of 10’s remaining in the deck and he will have more completed hands when there are smaller value cards remaining. Pausing to think on this a little makes sense, doesn’t it?

dealer must hit soft 17

Since the dealer plays by the rules which require him to take a card until he has a total of 17 or more. His chance of busting is reduced greatly when the deck is full of smaller value cards like 2’s, 3’s and 4’s, and his chance of busting more often is greatly increased when the deck is dominated by 10’s.

The card counter takes advantage of this by keeping in mind a running total of the cards that have been played. This gives him/her an insight into the kind of cards remaining. With this, the card counter bets more, or less, depending on the value of the cards dominating the remainder of the deck. That is, he/she bets more money when there are more 10’s left in the deck and less money when it is the smaller numbers that dominate the deck. The card counter can also deviate from basic strategy in certain situations, if needed. 

blackjack players

There are many card counting systems; at least a dozen. We will just look at a relatively simple one, which is also the most popular. It is called the High-Low count. Using this system, you assign a +1 to all 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s.  A -1 is assigned to all 10’s (Jack, Queen, and King) and Aces. 7,8 and 9 have no value, thus they are not counted.

 -1= 10, J, Q, K, A

 +1= 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

A look at these numbers show that there is an equal number of cards in each group. Five cards valued -1 and five cards valued +1. There is a balance here and the end result will always be a total of zero if you add them all together. 

Therefore, if you were to take a deck of 52 cards and count them all out using these High-Low card counting values, the total of all 52 cards would be zero. So, if you want to learn to count cards the first step would be to memorize the plus and minus card values. Then take a deck of cards and count them out. If your total is zero when you get to the last card then you know you have counted it down correctly. If not, then you made a mistake somewhere. So, just keep practicing until you no longer make a mistake. Once that is accomplished, you can then work on your speed. If you can count down the entire deck within one minute you will be well on your way to becoming a card counter! 

blackjack pays 3-to-2

So, basically, a card counter’s work is to keep a running total of all the cards as they are played out. Whenever the total has plus value, he/she is aware that a lot of small cards have been dealt and the remaining deck is full of 10’s which is good for the player. A minus value is indicative of a bad game against the player. Let’s give you an example to illustrate this further. Assuming the following cards have been dealt first hand from a single deck:

   2, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6, 6, 2, 4 =+10

   J, K, Q, A =-4

   Total =+6

From the above, there were 10 plus-value cards and four minus-value cards which gave us a total count of +6.  This signifies there are now six more 10-value cards remaining in the deck than low cards and the advantage is towards the player. It can be said that the higher the plus count, the greater advantage the player has. Counters will always seize this opportunity and increase their bet as the plus count gets higher. Note that the card counter will still be using the same basic strategies we discussed earlier (although some slight changes may be called for in certain instances – these are called strategy deviations).

Keep in mind that when the count is negative, the card counter would prefer not to bet at all, but casinos don’t want you to sit at their tables and not bet, so the counter will usually make a table minimum bet. 

Actually, card counters usually are keeping track of two different counts: the running count and the true count. The true count is a measure of the count per deck rather than a running count of all the cards that have been played and to get the true count you simply divide the running count by the number of decks remaining to be played. As an illustration, assume you are playing a 6-deck game and the count is +12. You estimate that there are 3-decks remaining to be played after looking at the shoe. You’ll then divide the count of +12 by 3 which gives you a +4. This is the true count.

It is crucial for the card counter to always take the running count and divide it by the number of decks remaining to get the true count. This is because all playing and betting decisions should be made based on the true count and not the running count.

blackjack table

The running count and true count are initially the same when you are playing a single deck. However, more weight is added to the running count when you are getting more into the deck because there is less than one deck left. So, if the running count is +3 and only a half-deck is remaining, the true count will be calculated by dividing +3 by 1/2, gives us a true count value of +6. Also, we have a running count of +2 with 2/4 remaining. We’ll divide +2 by 2/4 to get a true count of +4.

From the above examples, the count becomes more meaningful the closer you get to the last cards in the deck. This is why casinos never deal down to the end. The dealer will instead insert a solid-color plastic card about 2/3 or 3/4 in the way of the deck signifying that particular round is finished and the dealer will shuffle the cards after reaching this cut card.

How far the point of insertion of the plastic cut card is into the deck(s) is known as the penetration point. Card counters will always look for dealers that will give a good penetration point. This is because the true count becomes more meaningful when there are fewer cards left to be dealt and it is more advantageous for the card counter when the penetration point is deep.

So, having known about card counting, the advantages he/she has over the casino is dependent on the number of decks used, the counter’s skill and the rules in place. These could raise the advantage up to 2% at the high end or 1% which is closer to the actual truth. This implies that for every $100 in bets made,  the card counter makes $1. Doesn’t look like much right? But there are many people who can actually make a living playing the game.

We hope this has five part series has been helpful in introducing you to the basics of blackjack, how to play the game well and how to turn your bets into wins by becoming a card counter. And, who knows? Maybe one day you can become a professional blackjack player!

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