How to Count Cards in Blackjack (It’s Easier than You Think)

So you want to learn how to count cards in blackjack?

I’ve put together a blog post explaining in 7 steps how to become a card counter.

The first thing to understand is that learning how to count cards in blackjack is easier than you think. You don’t have to memorize which cards have been played. (If you’ve seen Rain Man, you might think that’s the point. But it’s not.)

Blackjack is one of the only games in the casino where a smart player can win consistently. Counting cards is the way most people are able to beat the casino consistently.

Here’s how you can get started.

1- Learn how to play blackjack first.

This might seem obvious, but it’s not. Before learning how to count cards in blackjack, you need to be an expert in the basics of how to play. This means understanding all the options you have when playing your hand.

It’s not enough to just know how to hit or stand.

The players and the dealer each get 2 cards to start. The players play their hands first. Also, one of the dealer’s cards is face-up.

You’re playing against the dealer, not the other players. It doesn’t matter what the other players” totals are.

The cards are worth between 1 and 11 points each. The aces are worth 1 or 11, depending on what’s better for you. The face cards are all worth 10 points each. All the other cards are worth their face value.

You score your hand based on its total. If you get a hard total of 22 or higher, you bust–automatically losing.

Based on your total and the dealer face-up card, you can decide whether to take more cards or not.

If your final total is higher than the dealer’s (without going over 21), you win. You also win if the dealer busts.

The dealer must play her hand in a prescribed way. She doesn’t get to make choices based on your situation. Usually this means she must hit any hard total of 16 or less, and stand on any hard total of 17 or more. The rules for soft 17 vary by casino.

Since the dealer plays last, you have an opportunity to bust before the dealer has to play her hand. This is a big part of how the casino gets its mathematical edge over the player.

Besides hitting (taking an additional card) and standing (not taking an additional card), you have the following options when playing a blackjack hand:

  • Splitting – If you have 2 cards of the same value, you can put up another bet and start 2 new hands. Each of the new hands uses one card from your existing hand as its first card. The dealer gives you another card for each hand. You play both hands independently.
  • Doubling down – This is when you opt to double the size of your bet and take exactly one additional card. For example, if you have a total of 11, it’s common to double down. You’re  hoping to catch a 10 and wind up with a total of 21.
  • Taking insurance – This is a side bet that the dealer will have a blackjack. You only get this option when the dealer’s face-up card is an ace. It’s an even-money bet. Unless you’re counting cards, this is always the wrong play.
  • Surrendering – If you hate your first 2 cards, especially compared to the dealer’s face-up card, you have the option to bow out of the hand and only lose half your bet. Not all casinos allow this, and the rules for when you can surrender (before or after the dealer checks for blackjack), vary too.

Once you understand the basic game-play, you can move on.

But this is the foundation for winning at blackjack via card counting.

I recommend practicing at an online casino for a while before hitting a traditional casino and trying to play blackjack there.

2- Then master basic strategy.

Based on your total and the dealer’s face-up card, there’s one correct mathematical way to play any particular hand of blackjack. Memorizing the correct play in every situation is called “learning basic strategy”.

Luckily, mastering basic strategy is easier than you think.

The first step is recognizing the difference between soft totals and hard totals. A soft total is one in which you can count the ace as 1 or 11 without busting. A hard total is a hand with no ace, or a hand with an ace that has to be counted as 1 to avoid busting.

You can find plenty of sites which offer strategy charts you can memorize. These are great for visual learners.

I prefer to learn a set of rules for playing particular types of hands. Here’s a quick (and simple) overview of basic strategy that’s good for most games:

Surrendering

Your first decisions is whether to surrender. The only time you’ll surrender is when you have a hard total of 15 or 16.

You’ll surrender with a total of 15 if the dealer has a 10 showing as her up-card.

You’ll surrender with a total of 16 if the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing.

Splitting

If you’ve decided to not surrender, the next decision is whether to split or not. You can only split hands where you have 2 cards of the same value.

Here’s how you’ll know whether or not to split:

  • Always split aces or 8s.
  • Never split 4s, 5s, or 10s.
  • Split 9s if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. You’ll also split if the dealer has an 8 or 9.
  • Split 7s if the dealer has a 7 or lower showing.
  • Split 6s, 3s, or 2s if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing.

Doubling

You’ll only double down on the following totals in the following situations:

  • If you have a soft 13 or 14, double down if the dealer has a 5 or 6 showing.
  • With a soft 15 or 16, double down if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing.
  • If you have a soft 17, double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing.
  • With a soft 18, double down if the dealer has a 6 or less showing.
  • If you have a soft 19, double down only if the dealer has a 6 showing.
  • Always double down if you have a hard total of 11.
  • Double down if you have a hard total of 10 UNLESS the dealer has an ace showing.
  • Double down if you have a hard total of 9 if the dealer has a 6 or less showing.

Hitting

You should hit your hand in the following situations:

  • If you have a soft 17 or lower, always hit unless you’re doubling down.
  • If you have a soft 18, hit versus a dealer 9, 10, or ace.
  • Always hit a hard total of of 11 or less, unless you’re doubling down.
  • Hit a hard total of 12 if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6.
  • Hit a hard total of 13, 14, 15, or 16 if the dealer has a 7 or higher.

Standing

You should stand in the following situations:

  • Always stand on a soft 20.
  • Stand on soft 19 unless you’re doubling down.
  • Stand on soft 18 if the dealer has a 7 or 8 showing.
  • Always stand on any hard total of 17 or higher.
  • Stand on hard 13, 14, 15, or 16 if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing.
  • Stand on hard 12 if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6.

That’s a summary of basic strategy. If you play your hands according to those guidelines, you’ll face one of the lowest edges in the casino–about 0.5%.

If you ignore basic strategy, you’re facing an edge of between 2% and 4%, depending on how far and how often you deviate from basic strategy.

You can learn more about basic strategy at Blackjack Apprenticeship, too. They offer a great basic strategy table to study, too.

3- Understand how blackjack probabilities work.

The reason counting cards works is because the composition of the deck affects your edge. In casinos where the dealer shuffles the deck after every hand, you can’t get an edge by counting cards. In those casinos, blackjack is like roulette–every hand is an independent event.

But in casinos which don’t shuffle every hand, the composition of the deck changes as the cards are dealt. A deck with a disproportionately high ratio of 10s and aces as compared to low cards, for example, offers you a better probability of being dealt a blackjack.

A blackjack is a 2-card hand that totals 21. It’s also called a natural. Since this hand pays off at 3 to 2 instead of even money, the house edge falls in situations where you’re more likely to get this bigger payoff.

If you raise your bets in this situation, you maximize your advantage. If you bet less when the opposite is true, you take advantage of the discrepancy in ratios.

Think of it as being like poker. When you have a good hand in poker, you bet and raise with it. You want more money in the pot when your odds of winning are better.

That’s how and why card counting works. It tracks the ratio of high cards to low cards so you can raise your bets when the odds are in your favor.

4- Start with a simple system like the Hi-Lo.

I mentioned it earlier, but I’ll repeat it here:

You don’t have to memorize which cards have been played to learn how to count cards in blackjack.

Instead, you’ll assign a value to each card. You’ll increase or decrease a running total as the cards get dealt.

The simplest system for doing this is the Hi-Lo system, which assigns a value of -1, 0, or +1 to every card in the deck, as follows:

  • 2-6 are counted as +1.
  • 7, 8, and 9 are counted as 0.
  • 10s and aces are counted as -1.

If you’re playing in a game with multiple decks, you also have to divide this count by the number of decks left in the shoe. (This is called converting to a true count.)

When the count is positive, raise the size of your bets. The higher the count, the more you bet.

When the count is 0 or negative, bet the minimum.

By doing this, you get an edge over the casino of at least 0.5%. If you’re good at counting cards,the game rules are generous, and your betting spread is wide, you can increase that to 1% or 2%.

5- Practice a lot.

Start by counting through a single deck at your kitchen table, one card at a time. If you finish with a count of 0, you got it right.

Then get a stopwatch and time yourself. See how fast you can go through the deck. Try to improve your time over previous results while maintaining accuracy.

Once you’ve hit a plateau, start dealing the cards 2 at a time. Look for patterns. This should make you faster still. Keep using the stopwatch.

When you’re fast and accurate, start adding distractions. Turn up the radio. Play the television at the same time. Practice when the kids are playing in the kitchen.

Casinos are full of distractions. If you want to win when counting at cards, you need to practice until it’s effortless.

You also need to be able to count cards without LOOKING like you’re counting cards.

6- Put together a bankroll.

You can’t play blackjack or count cards without money to bet. Not only that, but counting cards is a long-term play. In the short run, it’s possible to go broke before your edge over the house kicks in.

So not only do you need significant skill to succeed as a card counter, you need significant money, too.

When blackjack experts make recommendations for the size of your bankroll, they define your bankroll by a multiple of your betting unit.

For example, when you read that you should have at least 400 betting units, it means you should have 400 times the amount of your flat bet.

If you only have $2000 to get started with, you’re stuck playing the $5 minimum games.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind:

The lower your bankroll, the more likely you are to go broke during a short-term losing streak. At 400 betting units, you still have a 40% or so chance of going broke.

Increase your bankroll to 1000 betting units, and you’re probability of going broke drops to less than 10%.

The probability that you’ll go broke before your long-term edge kicks in is called “risk of ruin”.

7- Hit the casinos and put your skills to the test.

I want to cover 2 main things about counting cards in the casino:

  1. How much money you can expect to earn per hour in the long run.
  2. How hard it is to avoid detection.

The formula for how much money you can earn is easy enough to calculate. You multiply your average bet by your edge. Then you multiply that by the number of bets you place per hour.

Let’s say you have a bankroll of $5000, so you’re starting off at the $5 tables. You estimate that you have a 0.5% edge over the casino.

You’re betting $5 average per hand, and you’re getting in 70 hands per hour. You’re putting $350 per hour into action.

You expect to win an average of 0.5% of that, which amounts to just $1.75 per hour.

Clearly, you can’t expect to get rich at this rate.

Your goal needs to be to improve your edge and to play for higher stakes. That means having a larger bankroll.

If you get your edge up to 1%, and you average $100 wagers per hand, you’re looking at earning $70/hour instead.

But you need to be able to do this without attracting attention. Casinos consider card counting cheating, even though it’s not illegal.

So you need to be able to count cards without looking like you’re counting.

You should also limit yourself to no more than an hour at any given casino on any given day. Try to play with different dealers during different shifts, too.

Spend too much time at any one table at any one casino, and you’ll eventually be 86’ed.

Finally

Learning how to count cards in blackjack isn’t as hard as you think. You don’t have to memorize all the cards that have been played. In fact, if you can add and subtract 1 in your head, you can count cards.

Master counting cards and you can earn significant amounts of money from your gambling hobby.

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