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How To Count Cards In Blackjack

Jennifer Lynn Written by Jennifer Lynn
Richard Grant Reviewed by Richard Grant

Blackjack counting cards

What is Counting Cards?

Counting cards is the art is keeping track of cards that have been dealt, with the aim to increase the odds in favor of the player.

The most common game for Counting cards is usually Blackjack, especially when more than one shoe or deck of cards is used.

How advantageous is Card Counting?

It has featured in a number of films over the years and several of them make it look like it is a surefire way to win. Let’s face it though, if that was the case, people would be doing it all the time and casinos would either have made changes to counter-act it or they would have gone bust by now.

Yes, it can help you make decisions in a hand if you know if there is an above average or below average number of cards with the value of 10, Aces, or low-value cards.

However, the edge it gives the player over the house is small at around 0.5% to 1.5% – and many players don’t feel that it is worth the effort.

How to Count Cards?

Now we begin counting. There are many systems available and they fall into two general categories: balanced and unbalanced. Unbalanced counts, like the KO (Knock Out) system was designed to eliminate true count conversion. Generally speaking, the easier a system is to use the less effective it is; sometimes the difference amounts to splitting hairs, but there is a difference. We are going to use High-Low for this example as it is a simple balanced count, and is perhaps the most widely used system. High-Low falls somewhere in the middle of the pack for playing efficiency. We would suggest using this as your counting method at first. Switching to a more complicated system should not be hard once High-Low is mastered, and stepping down, as it were, to a simpler count will be very easy.

High-Low Card Counting

How advantageous is Card CountingIn High-Low the 2-6 are valued at +1, and the 10s and Aces are counted as -1. Note that there is the same amount in each group: 2,3,4,5,6 and 10, J, Q, K, A. The 7,8,9 are neutral in this count and our eye should be trained to not even see these for counting purposes, for they have no bearing on the count. If the low cards are good for the dealer why are they counted as plus value? Because when we see that low cards come out the ratio of high to low cards remaining has changed slightly in our favor.

We start with a deck of cards, flipping them over one at a time and keeping the running count. If they come out 8,K,3,3,6,2,7,A we would count 0,-1, 0, +1, +2, +3, +3, +2. At the end of the deck, we should come out at “0”. We won’t, at least in the beginning. Keep practicing until you do come out even at the end, every time, and gradually build speed. Eventually, we will want to approach 25 seconds running the deck down one card at a time while maintaining accuracy. This speed will guarantee that no dealer alive can spread cards faster than we can count.

When proficient at this try pulling a card out of the deck, face down. Set it aside. After running the deck “guess” what the remaining card is. Your validation will come when you say, “It has to be a ten or an ace,” and then flip it over to find yourself correct.

Next, we’ll flip the cards two at a time. We often see this in “pitch” games, that is, hand-held single and double-deck games. On a bust, the dealer flips up the player’s two-hole cards. It’s a good idea to learn to disregard “matching pairs” like Q, and 5, as they cancel each other out. The less we have to deal with the better, and by not allowing our eyes to register these “matched pairs” we will streamline our counting.

In actual play, there are many individual styles of counting the cards. In a face-up shoe game some people advocate waiting until the second card is dealt to each hand and counting the hands as whole units, as often a hand will cancel itself out, i.e., 10-6, or two consecutive hands will: K,10 – 3,5. Other folks insist it’s easier to count the cards as each one comes out. Try both methods and find what works best for you. In a pitch game, it’s a bit different. Count your cards and the dealer’s up card first, then all exposed cards from hits splits, doubles, and busts as they happen. Next count the dealer’s hole card and subsequent hits. As the dealer exposes the remaining hole cards one hand at a time a quick glance should suffice to carry the count forward. Practice for the game you intend to play but don’t neglect the other. Your favored game might not be playable because of crowds, bad rules, etc.

Speaking of rules in general, don’t play under bad conditions. If the only game in your area is a six-deck with two+ decks cut off – save up and go to where the games are better. Normally this would automatically mean Las Vegas, but over Super Bowl weekend there I observed a double deck game where a deck-and-a-quarter was cut off, a horrible stunt by the management. At another place that normally had a good single deck game, they were dealing three hands in heads-up play when five and sometimes six is the norm. I overheard some dealers talk about juicing the games for the Super Bowl crowd. The point is to shop for good penetration and to walk when it’s not there. Penetration is a key element in winning.

We should be able to master the above two drills in about 20 hours of dedicated practice; as always, your mileage may vary.

Card Counting Strategy

Card Counting StrategyLet’s take a look at all options available to you and see what you should do when there are a lot of 10s available and why.

Stand: As a Player, you can choose to stand on totals from 12 to 16, which the Dealer cannot do.
When there is a lot of 10’s left in the shoe, the chances of busting increase and therefore it is recommended that you play more conservative and Stand when there is a chance of Busting more often.

Insurance: Whereas Insurance would normally be considered a bad bet if there are a higher than an average number of 10’s available, it is worth considering. On average, a 10 will be drawn from the shoe around 30.8% of the time. If this increases to 33.33, so 1 in 3 cards have a value of 10, then the edge the house has is removed from the bet. Anything above 33.33% puts the bet in the Player’s favor as the potential returns outweigh the potential losses.

Doubling: A high majority of the time if a player Doubles, they would like a 10. If there are a high number of 10s in the shoe, it follows that their chance of hitting one increases. Therefore, you should look to maximize your bets, including Doubling where your total is higher than the Dealers and there is no chance of Busting. For example, a total of 9 versus the Dealers 8.

Surrender: If there are a lot of 10’s available and it would lead to you Busting, then a viable alternative when available is to Surrender. Yes, you lose half your stake with no chance of winning the hand, but the odds are higher than average that you will Bust anyway, so by Surrendering you at least get half of your stake back as opposed to losing the lot.

Splitting: Splitting would normally happen when you have a reasonable size card and the Dealer has a low card. Again, it is all about maximizing your bets when the Dealer has a 5 or 6, in a shoe with above-average 10’s, you can also look to Split against the Dealers 3 and 4, as there is a higher chance they will bust and you still have a chance of getting a good total as well.

Watching Your Bet Range: Watch your bet range or spread. While everything mathematical tells us to jump our bet from, oh, $5 to $100 this is the surest way to get unwanted attention in the least and outright barring at the extreme. To survive we must, unfortunately, limit our spreads; the pits are not stupid – they basically know how counting works.

In pitch games this usually means spreading about 1-5 units; in shoe games, we will get away with much larger spreads, say 1-8 or even two hands at 6 each. Generally, counters step their bets up with the count: 1 unit at negative or 0, then incrementally up with the count. Read books like Stanford Wong’s Professional Blackjack and Don Schlesinger’s Blackjack Attack for more input in this area. In fact read everything you can find from these two authors as well as Snyder, Uston, and other accepted experts. Read, then read some more.

At this point it would be prudent to take it slow, and play at the lowest tables you can find. Fine-tune your game and act. There are still one-dollar tables in Nevada. Read the suggested authors – bankroll is very important. Even spreading 1 to 5 in silver a counter needs a bankroll in the hundreds. Never play under-financed – it’s self-defeating. Wild swings happen all the time in this game, and we don’t win consistently – the proficient counter wins in the long run.

Should You Count Cards?

Should You Count CardsSo, the question we need to answer is, “Should you count cards?” This all depends on the circumstances. You see, if you are just a typical player, not really looking to play blackjack professionally or even regularly, then you are no different from most of the blackjack-playing population.

However, even the most casual of players don’t want to play a game where the odds are stacked against them, to the point where winning is almost impossible. So, what happens with casual players who actually want a chance to beat the house?

Apart from mastering basic strategies and learning some money management skills, what else can you do to even the odds that the house stacks against you? That is simple. You must learn to count cards. As we said, we can’t say whether you should or shouldn’t learn. At the end of the day, the choice is yours. However, if you want to be the type of gambler who has the advantage over the house, counting cards is a necessity.

Studies have shown that card counting is not just a tool to even the odds against a casino. In some cases, it can even put you ahead of the house, and tip the odds in your favor. In fact, card counters tend to have about 0.5% to 1% advantage when it comes to the game. This might not seem like much, but in a game like a blackjack, it certainly is.

“If card counting is so beneficial -“ you might say, “- then why doesn’t everyone do it?” There are a couple of answers to that question.

1. Most gambling establishments frown upon card counting. The practice is made as hard as possible, and once you are caught, you might face a lifelong ban.

2. Some people are unwilling and others are unable to learn how to count cards.

3. It takes a long time to learn, and some people simply don’t have the time.

4. Many people misunderstand that card counting is illegal. To date, there is nothing illegal about the practice. It is simply frowned upon by casinos.

However, all four of these drawbacks have not stopped certain professional blackjack players from learning the skill and applying it every day to their games. And if they can do it, so can you. But, it will not be easy. There are a few things you need to bear in mind before you embark on the journey of card counting.

1. You must dedicate hundreds of hours to this. It isn’t as easy as some films make it seem.

2. You must master the basic rules and variations of the game.

3. You must familiarize yourself with the basic strategies of blackjack.

4. You must play hundreds of games until you are sure that you will make no mistakes.

5. You must also learn how to stay undetected. This means frequently changing casinos and tables. It might even involve sometimes taking a dive.

6. Lastly, it is best to play by yourself against the dealer. Or at least with as few other players as possible. So choose the time of day or night when a casino is least attended.

If you are able to master all of the above set rules, then you will have no trouble becoming as great a counter as any of them. However, if you are not interested in becoming a professional, if you don’t want to beat the house at their own game, and if you just want to play a nice, friendly and casual game of blackjack, then all you need to do is learn the basic blackjack strategy, in order to overcome the huge odds advantage that the house has against you. By mastering basic strategies, you will have at least evened the odds, and given yourself just a little advantage. Enough to win a few games.

For casual players, who might not frequent the casino, this is the best way to go. If you are serious, counting cards is a must. However, if you are just enjoying a fun time out with friends, colleagues, or co-workers, and every now and again you visit the casinos, then certainly, you don’t need to spend hours learning card counting. Just be familiar with the most basic of strategies, so you don’t lose everything including your pants.

Blackjack References:

Single Deck vs Multideck Blackjack

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About the author

Jennifer Lynn
Head of Content
Jennifer Lynn has spent 14 years working in the online casino industry, making her a real expert in the field. She's not just skilled at writing about casinos; she also has a deep interest in online gambling games and is a passionate researcher and player. Jennifer offers her expertise on a range of casino games and the smart strategies to use. But her life isn't all about gambling and casinos. She also loves riding horses and practicing yoga, showing that she knows how to balance her professional interests with personal passions.
Last Updated: May 27, 2024



What is Card Counting in Blackjack?

As the name suggests, card counting is a technique that many top-tier gamblers use to give themselves an advantage when playing blackjack. The technique involves counting the cards during the first few deals, and then determining which cards will come next based on that.


Is Card Counting Legal in Blackjack?

The truth is, as long as no external device is used, card counting is perfectly legal under United States law. There is no state in the country that considers card counting a criminal offense, and there is no federal law prohibiting it. That doesn’t mean, however, that casinos and gambling establishments take very kindly to it. In fact, counting cards will get you banned from most casinos.


Is Card Counting Effective in Blackjack?

It is not as simple as a yes or no answer. Card counting in blackjack can be effective. However, there are multiple systems for counting cards, all with varying degree of accuracy. The more difficult a system is to pull off, the more accurate it usually is. In 2022, the most accurate system is the Hi-Lo system, which seems to have been adopted by quite a few gamblers.


Can you Count Cards in Online Blackjack?

With the increasing popularity of online gambling sites, many are wondering whether they can count cards in online blackjack. The short answer is yes. The long of it is as follows. Online blackjack uses a software to randomly generate cards with each new deal. However, computer programmers have come up with certain programs that can predict the software’s algorithm and count up the cards that were dealt. From there, they can predict which cards are likeliest to be dealt. While programs like these exist and can be used, generally, most online gambling sites forbid them, and you are likely to be banned or worse if caught using these programs.


What Cards Should One Count in Blackjack?

Most card counting systems are based around the statistical facts that the higher cards serve the players, while the lower cards serve the dealer. From that perspective, the best cards to count are the aces and tens, when it comes to the highs, and the 5s when it comes to the lows. Many card counters have also claimed that 3s and 4s are also important to keep track of.


Can a Casino Kick You Out for Card Counting in Blackjack?

As we said, card counting is not illegal under U.S. law. There is neither a local, state, or federal law against the practice. However, most gambling establishments still frown on the activity, and consider it cheating. As private entities, casinos have every right to ban you for their premises should they suspect you of counting cards.


Are You Allowed to Use External Devices to Count Cards in Blackjack?

When we say card counting is not illegal, the statement comes with a caveat. While it is not illegal to count cards in your head, silently, it absolutely is illegal to use external devices in order to count cards. Being caught doing so can land a gambler in quite a lot of trouble.


How Can a Casino Tell If You Are Counting Cards in Blackjack?

In 2022, most casinos are full of surveillance cameras that keep an eye out for that sort of thing. If a player is suspected for card counting, the casino deploys someone called a “pit boss”. The pit boss counts along with the player, and oversees the player’s choices. If they match the count, then the pit boss stops the game and the player may be asked to leave.


Is Card Counting in Blackjack Difficult?

Most film and media portrayal of card counting makes it out to be a mysterious practice only math geniuses can master. This is not true at all. In fact, just about anyone can learn how to count cards. Of course, having some understanding of mathematics helps, but thanks to the systems that have already been thought up by experts, none is necessary.


Do Professional Blackjack Players Count Cards?

By and large, yes, most pros know how to count cards. For anyone interested in a career in blackjack, counting cards is a necessary skill. Also, there are quite a lot of casino employees who know how to count cards as a measure against card counters.


How Can You Learn to Count Cards in Blackjack?

There are numerous articles (such as the one above) that teach newbies how to count cards. Learning to count cards has never been easier than it is in 2022. The best way to hone your skills, of course, is to just play the game. So gather up a group of friends and put your skills to the test.

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