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Card Counting
Card Counting

Card Counting

Card counting at blackjack is a system that assigns a numerical value to each exposed card during play to determine whether the house or the player holds the mathematical edge at any one time. When the house has the edge, the player tries to keep their wager small. When the player has the mathematical edge, the player tries to make larger wagers. If the player is able to follow the count, play perfect basic strategy, and employ a bet variation of at least 1 to 4, they may be said to hold a small edge over the house (usually less than 1 percent). The actual play of certain hands may also need to vary based on the current point total or “count.”

Although popular Hollywood films like “21” have glorified card counting and made playing blackjack in casinos look both glamorous and dangerous, neither is strictly true. Playing blackjack in a casino is a fun and exciting pastime that offers millions of players around the world a chance to play a simple to learn game that has only a small house edge, about the same as single-zero roulette. However, by learning a short set of rules for playing certain hands called blackjack basic strategy, players can reduce the house edge to less than 1%.

Players that show proficiency with basic strategy may find that card counting is something they also enjoy, especially if they start slow with the aces and fives count, which does actually put the player at break-even with most casinos and even offers a small edge at casinos with liberal blackjack rules.

Blackjack Theory for Card Counting

The mathematical edge at blackjack is dependent on the un-played cards remaining in a deck or shoe. The house has the advantage on the first hand (sometimes called “off the top” of the deck), but that edge changes based on the cards removed from play before the next hand. Players must act first at blackjack and risk busting (going over 21) and losing their wagers even before seeing both dealer cards, which gives the house a significant edge. However, with card counting, the player knows when they hold a small edge over the house and can vary their play and the size of their wager in response to their knowledge.

High cards like tens and aces help players make a natural blackjack, and the player is paid 3 to 2 on their wager for a blackjack. A high concentration of tens and aces also help a player when doubling down on 9, 10 and 11. Conversely, a high concentration of small value cards, especially fives, help the dealer make hands when they are forced to hit (the dealer must hit until they have at least 17).

The goal of card counting is to assign a point value to each card that correlates to the overall effect of removal from the deck or decks. The removal of tens from the deck is bad for the player, so tens are given a negative number. A positive count signifies the player has the edge, a negative count signifies the house has the current advantage. A simple count used by many counters is the Hi-Lo system.

In the Hi-Lo count, cards 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 are counted as plus one (+1). Cards 7, 8, 9 are neutral or zero (0), and tens, jack, queens, kings and aces are minus one (-1). If you take a standard 52-card deck you will see there are 20 cards that count plus 1 and 20 cards that count minus 1. If you shuffle the deck and turn over one card at a time, adding and subtracting as you go, when the final card is exposed your count will have returned to zero. If you simply pull two high cards out, you have a minus 2 count and the house would have the edge. If you pull two small cards out, you would have a plus 2 count and the player would have the advantage.

Keeping the Count

Although learning to count cards is a challenge, it doesn’t take any special mental abilities to do so. It takes knowledge of the system, concentration, and discipline. The Hi-Low count is considered a simple plus/minus count, meaning each card adds or subtracts a single digit from the count. More advanced count systems have multiple numbers and sometimes require a side-count of aces to increase the users’ knowledge of the remaining cards.

When playing against a single deck of cards, the Hi-Low is fairly easy to use and allows the player to keep track of the “running” count in their head, but of course practice makes perfect. The more diligent the player is about practicing, the more likely they will be able to employ their new system in actual play. A counter should already know basic strategy perfectly and be able to keep the count perfectly before risking any money at a casino.

To practice, start with a single deck of cards and lay out the plus one cards together, the zero cards together, and the minus one cards together. See them clearly in your mind before shuffling them together and starting to practice. Turn each card over one at a time and say the count of the card (one, minus one, zero) out loud and go through several shuffles of the deck. When you know each cards value, start a new shuffle of cards and add each card’s value to a running count (one, even, plus one, plus two, etc.).

This process should be repeated until you can go through the deck and come back to the correct count of zero after turning over the last card of the deck. Then, at another time, start practicing again and try to improve your speed. You should be able to get through a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds, which will approximate your casino interaction.

Making Money

You won’t be able to make money regularly if you don’t become an expert at basic strategy and with keeping a perfect running count. And, there is the third thing: varying your bet. To take advantage of you skill as a card counter, you will need to make a small bet at the beginning of the deck or shoe, and increase your wagers as the count goes up (becomes more positive). When the count is negative, keep your bet small. When it is positive, raise your bet. For simplicity, raise your bet one unit for every +2 change.

In other words, as soon at the deck is +1, bet two units. At +3, bet 3 units; at +5, bet 4 units; at +7, bet 5 units. Go as high as 10 units, building slowly. If you simply bet one chip and suddenly shove 10 chips into the betting circle, the Pit Bosses will notice. It’s time to play cat and mouse. Your changes in bet size have to look fairly normal. By the same token, you can’t bet 10 units one hand and then drop immediately back to one (except with a new shoe or deck) without being noticed.

Multiple Decks

If you are playing on a multiple deck game, you will need to do more math. To accommodate for the large number of cards, your “running count” must be converted to a “true count.” To do this, you must divide the remaining decks by your count. If you are on a six-deck shoe and the count is plus 5 after the first hand, you need to divide 5 by 5 decks, which results in plus 1. Similarly, a plus 12 count with four remaining decks give a count of plus 3 (12 divided by 4 reaming decks = 3). If you don’t convert your running count to a true count, you will over-bet your edge.


Although insurance is usually a bad wager, if you are counting cards, it can be a good wager. For simplicity, any time you have a bet of 4 or more units, take insurance. While the rules presented here are fairly simple, they can give you a small edge over the house! Practice until you truly know basic strategy and can keep a perfect running count and can convert it to the true count for wagering decisions, then give it a try!

Read also: Avoiding detection from the Pit Bosses.

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