What is Card Counting in Blackjack?
Card counting is a method used to determine if the player or the dealer has an advantage on the next hand. The idea behind card counting is that a player can determine before the round is played whether to be confidently or carefully based on the card counting system. This allows players to essentially find a way around the House Edge as, by accurately determining the next round of cards, the House loses its 0.5% advantage over the player.
The philosophy behind card counting was first introduced by a mathematician known as Edward O. Thorp who determined that the House edge of Blackjack could be beaten with a decent system of card counting. Thorp, along with being a mathematician, also became a well-respected Blackjack researcher and published the controversial Beat the Dealer in 1956. He used an IBM 704 computer to determine the patterns for card counting and devised a strategy that could allow players to have a better chance of predicting the next round of cards based on the dealer’s shuffle and therefore have a better chance of winning.
How does it work?
Blackjack is a game of skill and, unlike other table casino games, the House Edge is not a fixed percentage in any given game. Using a basic strategy, you can theoretically lower the House Edge of Blackjack to around 0.5% but Blackjack is not set at a fixed percentage because of the way cards are distributed. The House Edge is dependent on the cards drawn as a dealer Ace upcard will increase the potential House Edge while an Ace for the player will lower it.
Card counting works on a system of value assignment where different cards have different values that are either positive (+1), neutral (0), or negative (-1). High value cards of 10-A are negative and low value cards 2-6 are positive. By counting each card that appears and adding or subtracting the value, players can determine the expected value of the rest of the deck. This allows players to raise or lower their bet based on what could appear in the deck next. Card counting allows for the House Edge of Blackjack to be lowered to be in favour of the player up to 0.5%. Since the inception of card counting, multiple strategies and systems have arose to cover nearly every variation of Blackjack including multi-deck games.
A Walkthrough on Card Counting
Now that you know the basics around how card counting works, here is a short step-by-step guide on how any given round of Blackjack:
- If a card has a value 2-6 then add the tag +1 to them
- If a card has the value 10-A then assign a -1 to them
- All other cards have a value of 0 (7-9)
- After any round, if the total count value is positive then the next round has a higher chance of having higher value cards (10-A) and you should increase your current bet
- Likewise, if the results are negative that means that the undealt deck is predominantly low-value cards (2-6) and the current bet should be lowered
- Bet higher when the results are positive and lower when the results are negative
Hi-Lo Counting System
Hi-Lo is the most utilised and popular system for card counting as it follows the basic system highlighted above. Inspired by Thorpe’s original work on card counting, the Hi-Lo system was founded by an engineer by the name of Harvey Dubner in 1963. The Hi-Lo system is seen as the easiest system for counting cards as it splits the cards within the deck into 3 distinct categories of positive, neutral, and negative.
The Hi-Lo system works in 3 stages known as the Running Count, True Count, and the Raise. Essentially, you follow the cards as they are drawn and add their value to the total. Once all cards have been dealt, you calculate the true count by dividing the final value of the cards by the number of played decks for the given game. Doing this will give you your final calculation and then you can raise or lower your bet accordingly.
Here’s an example:
- A total of 6 cards are dealt with the overall value of 4
- The game uses 4 decks so you calculate as 4/4 which makes 1
- The final value for the round is +1 indicating that you should raise your bet by a little
The Hi-Lo system is flexible to the number of decks played or if the Blackjack game includes multiple players. Keep in mind that your count must include all cards dealt in the round whether it be for your hand or not. Count the cards that are dealt to other players as well as the dealer to make sure that your calculations are accurate.
Other Card Counting Systems
Hi-Lo isn’t the only system used for Card Counting as there are a number of different variations that all use different calculations and have varying levels of difficulty. Each card counting system has different levels of accuracy depending on the Blackjack variation that is being played. Practice with a few of these and get an idea of what works best for you in your card counting journey.
Here is a table highlighting some of the most frequently used Blackjack counting systems and the calculations around their card values, accuracy, and efficiency during play:
Betting Correlation (BC)- Equates the accuracy of each system to if used by a computer out of 100. The higher the BC score, the more accurate the system is at predicting if the next round is high or low value.
Playing Efficiency (PE)- Accounts for how accurate a strategy is at predicting basic strategy deviations or exceptions to the standard Blackjack strategy rules. Once again, the closer to 100 the better.
Insurance Correlation (IC)- Dictates how effective each strategy is for when to take Insurance on a given hand.
Top tips for Card Counting in Blackjack
- Practice makes perfect- As the cliche goes practice makes perfect and card counting is no different. Find the system that works for you and practice so you can take your skills to the table with confidence.
- Start it slow- Take the time necessary to get your feet before you dive into the deep end. Practice offline with a deck of cards or try out with friends before hitting the table to avoid any unnecessary panicking during real play.
- Try out different systems- While Hi-Lo is the most popular system for card counting it doesn’t mean you have to use it. Test the waters and find the system that works the best for you for learning.
- Memorise your numbers- Regardless of what system you utilise, card values and the corresponding value is the name of the game. Memorise what cards correspond to each number and make it clockwork so you can make those split-second decisions when you take your skills to the table.
- Keep it fun- In both practice and when you take it to the table, you can make mistakes or get it wrong sometimes. Take the time you need and don’t feel like you need to be an expert immediately. Multiple sources highlight Blackjack card counting as taking 100+ hours to fully master so make the journey fun.
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Is card counting hard to learn?
Card counting is simple to learn but may take some extra time to fully master. Take your time, find the system that works for you, and practice until you can memorise your strategy.
Is card counting illegal?
Card counting is not illegal but some land-based casinos reserve the right to prevent you from continuous play if they suspect you of consistent card counting.
Can you card count in online Blackjack?
It is technically possible to card count in some online Blackjack games but a lot of them use software that shuffles the cards between rounds to keep the results fair and seemingly random. Live Blackjack also uses a mechanical shuffler to prevent card counting.
How does card counting work?
Blackjack card counting works by assigning values to each drawn card with 2-6 having a positive value, 7-9 having no value, and 10-A having a negative value. If at the end of the drawing round the cards have an overall positive or negative value, then raise or lower your bet accordingly. Positive values mean you should raise your bet and negative values mean you should lower it.
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