At some point in our lives, we’ve probably all heard the phrase, “The house always wins.” This is referring to the fact that every game in a casino is specifically created so that you have a lesser chance of winning than the house does. From the moment you step through the casino doors the deck is, quite literally, stacked against you.
Oddly enough, people really don’t enjoy being on an uneven playing field, and that is where card counting comes in. Counting cards is a strategy in blackjack in which a player keeps a mental tally of the cards played in order to calculate the probability of certain cards being dealt and therefore obtain an advantage.
How Does Card Counting Work?
Often times when people think of card counting they imagine memorizing hundreds of cards that have been played with a ridiculous off-the-charts photographic memory. There might even be a lot of staring off into space, numbers floating around, and dramatic camera angles.
This, however, actually couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that anyone could actually count cards, as long as they can practice. The process of counting cards involves assigning a number value to specific types of cards (more on that below).
This establishes a running count on the shoe (multiple decks of cards combined). The higher the count, the better the shoe is for the player. You begin the shoe by placing low bets so you can get a count. Every time a new shoe is cut, your count resets.
Eventually, once the shoe is running low enough, you can establish a true count. This tells you whether the shoe is skewed in your favor or the dealer. Once you establish a running count in your favor, you up your bet amounts and, theoretically, are winning much more than you’re losing!
Assigning Values to Cards When Card Counting
As I mentioned above, you are going to assign a value to each type of card. The values you assign to each card are as follows:
Playing Cards 2-6
If the card value is 2-6 then you will assign that a +1 value every time it is played. These cards are known as bust cards with 6 being the best bust card and 2 being the worst. We want these to be out of the deck because while if the dealer is dealt one of these it favors us, if we draw one it hurts us. Every time one of these cards is played we gain an advantage in the shoe, hence it gets a positive 1 value.
Playing Cards 7-9
If the card value is 7-9 then this is considered a neutral card and gets a numeric value of 0. These cards are neutral because they do not favor the dealer or the player. If a 7-9 is played, your count remains the same.
Face Cards and 10’s
The cards we love to see dealt to us are the 10s and face cards. Not only are these the most likely to get you the closest to 21, but they also bring a blackjack into play. A blackjack is when a player gets a card with a value of 10 and an ace. Blackjack’s payout at 3/2 instead of even money like the normal winning hands – a 150% return on your bet! The more 10s in a deck, the higher your odds of winning.
The Running Count
The running count is, very simply, the net difference between the high cards and low cards that have been dealt. For example, if we play through a hand in which four low cards (2-6) and two high cards (10-Ace) have been dealt, the running count would be +2 and trending towards a favorable shoe.
The True Count
The true count is a more accurate depiction of how favorable a deck is because it takes into account how many decks are remaining in the shoe. Remember, a game of blackjack is usually played with 6-8 decks mixed together to make it harder to count cards. In order to find the true count, just take your running total and divide it by the approximate number of decks left in the shoe. You have to eyeball and guess this, but you should also round to the nearest deck to account for this margin of error.
Is Counting Cards Illegal in the US?
Counting cards in land-based casinos in the US is not prohibited by federal law, but it is not appreciated when a player does this. The casino makes all the rules and if they suspect you are counting cards they can and will remove you from the casino and possibly ban you for life from re-entering. In order to avoid this, players should be mindful of their bet sizes and scale them up slowly as the count goes more in your favor.
The name of the game in running a casino is loss prevention. A casino makes more money by limiting the ways people can win money from them. Because of this, all dealers go through a rigorous training process to spot card counters. In addition, there will always be a “pit boss”. Their main job is to make sure no money goes unaccounted for and all games run smoothly. If a pit boss is eyeing you and you’re counting cards, you may have been caught.
Is Card Counting Possible in Online Blackjack?
In RNG (random number generators) software-based online blackjack, card counting is virtually impossible. On the other hand, card counting in live online blackjack is still possible, but very difficult.
Casino software providers like Evolution Gaming use CSMs (Continuous Shuffling Machines) that constantly shuffle decks and replace the deck shoes whenever 50% or more of the cards have been played.
Some online casinos payout 6:5 whenever a dealer stands on a soft 17, which increases the house edge and makes card counting in blackjack useless. It is also noteworthy to mention that most live casino software providers scan the cards that are being dealt and run betting pattern recognition software to check whether players are betting according to a blackjack card counting system.
What are Blackjack Card Counting Myths?
Although blockbuster movies like 21 and Rain Man popularize blackjack card counting, there are quite some myths regarding the practice. Some of the most common blackjack card counting myths are that you need to be a mathematical genius in order to count cards, that you can get rich quick by counting cards, that other players’ mistakes will cause you to lose, and that blackjack card counters never lose.
As we covered earlier in the article, you do NOT have to be a genius to count cards. If you are looking to get rich quick, then counting cards is definitely not for you. The name of the game is steady, unnoticeable profits. As soon as you start winning a lot of money, the casino will likely throw you out because you’re bad for business!
While it is true every decision a player makes affects you, there is no real “right or wrong” way to play. However, there will be times at a table when a player makes a move against the book and costs you a good hand by extension. Finally, it IS possible to lose money while counting cards. Much like Positive EV betting, you are looking at your profits long-term, not on a night-by-night basis.
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