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What is card counting in Blackjack?

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Card counting is a hot topic when talking about blackjack. If we were to summarize it, then we would say that it’s a strategy that helps a player to predict the hand that will appear next. This may sound as though it requires a player to predict the future. But in fact, this is all based on logic. The idea of blackjack card counting is often thought of as something only for pure mathematicians and for those with a unique sense of internal arithmetic. While you do need some level of mathematics, you will be surprised as to how simple the logic behind card counting actually is. Don’t get too ahead of yourself just yet though. You can wipe that thought away of raking in millions of blackjack winnings. There is a long road ahead. Let’s start by looking at the basics of card counting. What is card counting in blackjack? And where do you need to start to get your strategy off the ground and move in the right direction? Which is to hopefully start winning more money!

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Card Counting Logic in 4 Simple Steps

The logic behind blackjack card counting is simple. Below, we have summarized the concept in four basic steps:

  1. Assign a number value to each of the cards.
  2. Keep track of your “running count” using the number value of the dealt cards.
  3. Use the running count to judge the count per deck and the overall “true count”.
  4. Adjust your bets in accordance as the true count starts to rise.

Players do this in several ways. First of all, the common number of decks used at most blackjack tables is 6 or 8, and when these decks are shuffled together, it’s not possible to accurately judge which cards are left in the dealer’s shoe until you get closer to the end of the shoe. Second of all, there’s a thing called a cut card.
The cut card will be placed in the shoe, usually about halfway or ⅔ of the way down the shoe, so that it separates the last half or the last third of the cards left in the shoe.

Once the dealer has dealt all of the cards ahead of the cut card, the decks will be replaced or reshuffled. That way, you never get to the portion of the cards where you can predict which cards are left to be dealt. If you still want to try to count cards to try and win blackjack, we suggest you choose to play Single Deck Blackjack so you’re only playing with one deck at a time.

Yes, this may all sound like a foreign language right now. Stick with us, we will explain it all later on and break down each of the steps in more detail.

Conditions Required to Count Cards

Here we have the three key conditions that you need to ensure that you have the best possible chances of winning when using the card counting strategy. You will be starting with a mountain to climb without these conditions in place. So, we suggest that you store them in memory and make the checks before you put down real money on the blackjack table.

  • Optimal Blackjack Rules - Blackjack payouts such as 6:5 and not being able to double down after a split will put you on the back foot from the start.
  • Sufficient Deck Penetration - The more rounds you can get through before the dealer shuffles will make card counting much easier and more profitable.
  • Sufficient Rounds per Hour - The more rounds you can play per hour, the more you can win from a single gaming session.

Can I Count Cards Playing Online?

Card counting is best left for the brick-and-mortar casinos. However, some people believe that they can count cards in live casino blackjack games. There is a fine line when counting cards. Also, you need the optimal rules to succeed, which we will soon find out are very hard to find when playing live casino blackjack games. For the record, don’t even try to count cards when playing the older RNG blackjack games. The random number generator throws all the card counting logic out of the window straight away. 

Back to the live casino concept though. Here we have some of the key ideas to think about when attempting the card counting technique. We are keeping these ideas in line with the key conditions that are required to find success when counting cards.

  • Optimal Blackjack Rules - Most live casino blackjack rules are poor or average at best. Therefore, you are not given the right setting to successfully count cards.
  • Sufficient Deck Penetration - Most online casinos will frequently shuffle cards. Either via the dealer in the middle of the shoe or a continuous shuffle machine.
  • Sufficient Rounds per Hour - Online live casino blackjack games are slow. Very slow. As such, you are not getting anywhere near the speed of real blackjack tables at the casino.

The Logic of Counting Cards - Step by Step

If you have watched any of the movies based on blackjack and the card counting stories found in 21, The Last Casino, or Rain Main, then you may think you need some otherworldly level of memorization, but you would be wrong. Using the logic explained below means that you don’t need to memorize how many kings or 4’s are being dealt out. Rather, you keep track of the ratio of high and low cards. It is most favorable for a blackjack player when there are more Aces and 10-value cards left in the shoe, and this is how you track those high-value cards:

1 - Assign a Number Value to Each of the Cards

The Hi-Lo system gives you the simplest of the blackjack card counting systems. As we said earlier, following this does not require you to have extreme mathematical skills. You just need to be able to remember three sets of values and be able to add and subtract the smallest of numbers. Here is how we set out the card values:

  • 2 to 6 = +1
  • 7 to 9 = 0 
  • 10 to Ace = -1

2 - Keep Track of Your “Running Count” Using the Number Value of the Dealt Cards

With the card values above in mind, you will start to track a running count with every card that is dealt out. You add one, subtract one or keep your total the same depending on the card and its card value that comes out of the shoe. You keep this up until the dealer shuffles the cards. 

Back in the days of the single deck blackjack game, this system alone would have been enough to prompt players to start betting or to hold back. This is how you would use the information on a single deck game with minimal shuffling of the cards:

  • If your running total increases then the player takes the advantage
  • If your running total decreases then the casino takes the advantage

This means that a high score shows there are more 10-Ace cards in the deck, which benefits the player. A low or negative score means that several 10-Ace cards have already appeared and this benefits the casino.

However! Casinos quickly noticed this trend and started to introduce multiple decks. With this, card counters had to adapt the system to consider multiple decks.

3 - Use the Running Count to Judge the Count per Deck and the Overall “True Count”

The True Count is a calculation that takes into consideration the number of decks being played. This part of the system has many variations where you would need to go against the basic blackjack rules based on the cards that are left. There is a lot more to research to take on when you look into this part of the strategy. Let us explain the True Count basics for now. If you want to dig deeper into card counting in blackjack then there is plenty of information online to read through.

Here is the formula to work out your current true count:

True Count = Running Count / The Number of Decks Left

Example: A running count of eight with two decks left would result in a true count of 4.

4 - Adjust Your Bets in Accordance as the True Count Starts to Rise

You have your running count and you are working out your true count as each of the cards is being dealt. That in itself is hard work. You need to be accurate here and not forget where you are in the counting. Plus, you can not lose track of the number of decks that are remaining. 

Being able to use this true count is essential in knowing when the house edge turns in the favor of the player and vice versa. The same rule applies from earlier. You should bet bigger when the count is higher and reduce your betting when the true count is low and/or negative. 

Bankroll management and sticking to the blackjack charts are both required as well, in addition to the variations that we mentioned earlier. We said that the logic is simple but to master the art of blackjack card counting takes a lot of research and time to get it exactly right.

What Does The Industry Think About Card Counting?

Let’s get to the point here and discuss the current situation surrounding the question...is card counting illegal? No, as of this moment in time, it is not illegal. There are no laws that have been passed to criminalize the strategy. Despite the many attempts by casinos in the past. In simple terms, nobody can stop you from counting in your head. However, the main issue comes when you are in private casino venues and the management has the right to serve whoever they choose. Although counting cards is not specifically illegal, it is most certainly frowned upon and you can and most likely will, at the very least, get asked to leave the table. 

If you hit a winning streak and the casino starts to lose money then it is more than likely that you will be questioned. This is why it is so important to try and keep your thinking secretive and not be so blatant by counting out aloud or talking about your strategy. It may seem extreme but the casino management will happily ask you to leave. This may even extend to a ban across other casinos as well. After all, they are in the business of making money. And anyone who is continuously winning at their tables will be deemed a threat to their profits. 

Final Thoughts On Blackjack Card Counting

Counting cards in blackjack is a real strategy that works in principle. However, in recent years casinos and online casinos have put in place multiple rules to stop players from taking advantage of the system. Multiple decks and continuous shuffling of cards both create headaches for all those who understand card counting. It is now much harder to be successful, not impossible though. A solid understanding of the basic blackjack strategy is essential and only then should you start to consider the card counting system mentioned in this guide. The logic makes sense and once you understand the deeper areas of the system then you will be in a much stronger place to try and make some money from the blackjack tables. Good luck!

Steven Ford
Steven FordUpdated: 06 Jun 2022
Steve started his iGaming career back in 2007 and he has not looked back since. Various job roles for both global and startup casino brands have given him a deep and thorough under...
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