Ultimate Blackjack Guide: How to Count Cards

We may have all heard the term “counting cards” in Hollywood movies but what exactly is it? In this guide, we will discuss all areas of card counting, including the history of counting cards, how to count cards, various strategies, and of course the possible legal implications that can arise from counting cards.

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Practice Using Our Epic Blackjack Training Game

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The basis of counting cards is assigning values to cards and remembering these values. There are low cards, high cards, and of course everything in between:

Ace, King, Queen, and Jack are your high cards and will be assigned a value of -1
Cards 2 to 6 are your low cards and have the assigned value of +1
Cards 7 to 9 are neither low nor high and hold a value of 0
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Cards will automatically be dealt upon pressing play.

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Starting the game will trigger a 40-second timer. During this period, the player must add and subtract the various values assigned to cards and determine what the total value of all the cards are.

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Once you are happy with your math, you can enter the number into the text box.

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The game will continue if your guess is correct, and you will then need to continue adding and subtracting values.

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As you level up, it is important to keep track of your values. Every new round will be the sum of your previous rounds as well as the current round.

What is Blackjack Card Counting?

So, you already know that when it comes to counting cards, we assign values to cards but why exactly do we do this? The purpose of assigning values is to keep track of how many high cards and low cards remain in the dealers’ deck. The goal is to know what your odds are at drawing a high or low card. This is in no way a method of cheating in Blackjack, and it is important to remember that it won’t guarantee that you will consistently win every round of Blackjack. Counting cards in Blackjack is simply a skillset that you can learn which could potentially improve your Blackjack game.

Of course, you may have seen counting cards portrayed in a somewhat negative light in many movies but why exactly is that and does that mean that you should not do it? Let’s take a look at why you should or shouldn’t count cards in Blackjack.

Why shouldn’t you count cards?

First of all, it is important that you know there are no actual laws – state or federal, that prohibits you from counting cards. That is of course as long as you are counting cards in your head and not doing so on an app or device. Even so, counting cards is seen as a form of cheating. So, if you are planning on counting cards in a casino, it is important to tread with caution and ensure that you do not get caught. Getting caught will most definitely result in you being removed from the premises and it may even result in a ban.

Why should you count cards?

We looked at the ethics behind counting cards but despite that people still do it, so, why is that? It is quite simple; it helps you win. When counting cards properly, it can be a golden ticket in terms of strategy. Blackjack is one of the most popular casino games worldwide - the winning potential can be enormous and counting cards can help you get there. This little trick turns the odds in your favor and gives you the opportunity to win big.

How to Count Cards in Blackjack

Whether you are into online Blackjack or hitting the tables in an actual brick and mortar casino, you will need to know how to count cards properly in order to increase your odds of winning. As stated before, it is all about keeping track of the total value of all the cards that have been revealed. Here are four easy steps that will help you count cards in Blackjack:

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First you need to assign values to high cards, low cards, and everything in between. This is usually +1 for low cards, 0 for middle numbers, and -1 for high cards.

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Every time a card is revealed, keep count in your head using the above-mentioned values.

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Doing this will allow you to determine what the value of the remaining cards in the dealers’ deck is estimated to be.

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The idea is to increase your bet if after the round the count is negative as there are estimated to be more low-value cards remaining in the deck. If, however, the count is positive then it is advised that you lower your bet.

So, how does this give you an advantage in Blackjack? Statistically a perfect Blackjack player still sits with a 0.5% disadvantage against the house whereas a perfect Blackjack player that has managed to master the art of card counting has a 1% advantage over the house. This makes a massive difference in your odds of winning.

Did you know?

You can boost your advantage over the house to 2% to 4% by working as part of a team of card counters?

Counting Cards in Online Blackjack

Like we briefly mentioned, counting cards is not only an option at a real-life casino but also a great strategy when playing online blackjack. There is of course one problem that you may encounter with many online Blackjack games and that is that many online casinos shuffle the deck after every hand is dealt. There are also apps that can aid you in counting cards, but these apps are banned and, in most cases, get detected by online casinos.

If you manage to count cards at an online casino though it does make the task of doing so much simpler as you don’t need to risk being caught. In fact, it is a great way to practice counting cards before doing so at a brick-and-mortar casino. It is strongly advised that you don’t attempt card counting at a land-based casino until you are confident in your card counting skills. The best way to become confident and practice counting cards is by using our online free Blackjack games. This way there is also no risk of losing any of your real hard-earned money.

Simple Strategy for Counting Cards

The Hi-Lo strategy is the most popular strategy for beginners, and it is the strategy that we offer in our simulator.
The Hi-Lo strategy is the strategy we have been discussing where high cards, low cards, and medium cards get assigned values of -1, 0, and +1. This is the easiest strategy to use when starting to count cards.

Every time the dealer deals a card, make a mental note of its value and keep adding and subtracting to and from that figure until the deck is shuffled again. If for example the dealer deals a Queen, then subtract 1. This leaves you with a total of -1. If the next card is a 4 then add 1, bringing your total to 0. This total is known as a “running count”.

This adding and subtracting happens every time a card is dealt and only restarts when the deck is shuffled.

Beginners Guide to Counting Cards

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Assign values of -1, 0, and +1 to every card.

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Add and subtract numbers every time a card is dealt.

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Use these values to keep track of the running count.

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Place bets in accordance with the running count. Negative count = increase bet. Positive count = lower bet.

Advance Guide for Counting Cards

The Hi-Lo strategy is only the beginning of the card counting game. Once you have managed to master this strategy, you will move on to more complicated strategies and techniques. These include the Omega II, Wong Halves, Group Play, and Multiple Decks.

Let us go over these advance card counting strategies:

Omega II

The Omega II strategy was created by Bryce Carlson who was the author of a card counting book back in 1992. This technique consists of a balanced system which is similar to Hi-Lo but more advanced.

All face cards and 10 are assigned -2

9 is assigned -1

8 and Ace is assigned 0

2,3, and 7 are assigned 1

4, 5, and 6 are assigned 2.

If your running count is positive then you increase your bet and if your running count is negative, then decrease your bet.

Wong Halves

Stanford Wong founded this strategy which was named after him. In this advanced card counting strategy, fractions are used in order to equate a running total.

10, face cards, and Ace are assigned -1

9 is assigned -0.5

8 is assigned 0

2 and 7 are assigned 0.5

3, 4, and 6 are assigned 1

5 is assigned 1.5

This is another balanced system which means that when the entire deck is dealt the running count will be 0.

Group Play

Everything is easier in a group, right? Well, so is counting cards. This strategy allows players to count multiple decks across multiple tables at once. When a player is seated at a table where the count is negative which indicates big bets, they can signal other players secretly to join, thus massively increasing the odds of winning big.

Multiple Decks

You may have heard of this strategy in the 2008 Hollywood movie titled 21. This movie is based on a true story where a group of MIT students and alumni won millions of dollars from many casinos over the course of a few years.

Counting Multiple Decks

Using multiple decks is one way that casinos popularly discourage players from counting cards as it makes the practice increasingly difficult to keep track of the running total. Despite this, the Hi-lo strategy can still be used in cases where multiple decks are present. The only amendment is to divide the running count by the total remaining decks. This total is known as the ‘true count’.

So, in cases of multiple decks we work with true counts instead of running counts. This total will determine your advantage or disadvantage in cases where multiple decks are used. Of course, running totals still form part of the true count equation and these must be accurate in order to calculate an accurate true count. If the running count is 5 and there are 2 decks in play, then the true count is 2.5.

Is Card Counting Legal?

We always try to ensure that our readers are well-informed and know what they should and shouldn’t do when it comes to gambling. Therefore, we take extra effort when researching gambling laws in order to protect our users. In our research we came across some laws that you may want to consider before using card counting strategies at casinos.
Nevada, where Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world, is located, has a state law that makes the use of mechanical or electrical assistance in card counting illegal. This includes but is not limited to smartphone apps and calculators. If you attempt to use such aids in the state of Nevada, you can be arrested when caught. However, if you count cards using your own arithmetic skills then there is no law that can stop you from doing so.

Unfortunately, while no law prohibits you from counting cards in your head, most casinos will remove you from the premises if they suspect you of doing so. In fact, there are law firms in the United States that employ legal teams to handle cases specific to Las Vegas casino incidents.

Casinos take several measures to avoid and deter card counting on the premises. These measures include an abundance of surveillance cameras that watch for signs of card counting among other security concerns. Another popular practice is switching dealers when a table is hot. Hot tables are also often faced with a forced shuffle where the dealer is instructed to shuffle the deck when by instruction from the pit boss. While you won’t come across this in online Blackjack you will find that many online Blackjack games force random shuffles.

While counting cards is a great way to improve your odds of winning at Blackjack, it is also important to play responsibly and respect casinos and their rules.

Tips for Counting Cards

Keep Track of your Chips

When you are counting cards, it is easy to lose track of your wins and losses. It is therefore important to remember that while counting and focusing on the cards is important, it is also essential to make wise betting choices and keep track of how much you have won and lost.

Discretion is Key

Even though counting cards is not illegal, it is definitely frowned upon. It is therefore important to practice it discreetly and make sure that the casino staff don’t catch you in the act as they may ask you to leave or even have you removed from the premises.

Land-Based Casinos Offer More Success

Unfortunately, due to the random reshuffles at online Blackjack tables, counting cards online is very difficult. Therefore, while an online casino is the ideal place to practice counting cards, you will be far more successful in your winnings when you do so at a brick-and-mortar casino.

Use a Card Counting Strategy

We shared some of the most popular card counting strategies in this article which you can try out. Of course, it is recommended to start with the Hi-Lo strategy, but when you are comfortable, move on to some more advanced strategies like Omega II. You should find a strategy that suits you best.

Bet Up When the Odds Are in your Favour

Counting cards is to keep track of your odds and to react depending on them. Thus, when you find that the odds are in your favor, such as in cases where the running total is negative, increase your bets to boost your chances of winning big.

Tip your Dealer

This little trick will help you to divert suspicions. It is commonly known that card counters don’t tip as they are not there to have fun but there to profit. Therefore, be sure to tip your dealer. Not only will it divert suspicions, but the dealer will like you more.

Look Like you are Having Fun

This sounds simple but card counters tend to be focused and stone-faced so an easy way to not draw suspicion to yourself when counting cards is to simply ease up and look like you are enjoying the game – while of course keeping track of the running total.

The Best Card Counters in History

The MIT Blackjack Team

Members: Bill Kaplan, Jeff Ma, Jane Willis, Semyon Dukach, Mike Aponte, and John Chang

Biggest Win: Unknown – estimated to have won millions of dollars over the course of 2 decades.

Interesting Fact: Many members of the MIT Blackjack Team made cameo appearances in the 2008 film 21 which is based on their story.

Jeff Ma

Born: 1972

Biggest Win: Unknown – Jeff Ma won millions of dollars during his time as part of the MIT Blackjack team

Interesting Fact: Beyond his success as part of the MIT Blackjack Team, Jeff Ma founded a tech start-up which he went on to sell to Twitter for an estimated $50 million.

Peter Griffin

Born: 1937

Biggest Win: Unknown

Interesting Fact: Peter Griffin wrote a book titled The Theory of Blackjack: The Complete Card Counter's Guide to the Casino Game of 21. He was also a renowned mathematician who was one of the first to discover the disadvantage percentage of a Blackjack player and one of the first people to welcome Blackjack to the Hall of Fame.

Ken Uston

Born: 1935

Biggest Win:Unknown. Millions of dollars

Interesting Fact: Ken Uston was banned from several casinos all over the world and even resorted to wearing disguises to get access to them again.

Erica Schoenberg

Born: 1978

Biggest Win: Turned $25.00 into $2,000.00

Interesting Fact: Erica Schoenberg was known as the ‘Blackjack Babe’ in a game which is dominated by men. She also had a career as a model and learned to count cards from the famous MIT Blackjack Team.

FAQs

How to count cards in Blackjack

Card counting works by tracking your odds of getting low or high cards and betting in accordance.

The goal of card counting is not to count every individual card to know when you have favored odds over the house, but to know how many high and low cards remain in the deck.

Is it illegal to count cards?

Counting cards is not illegal however the use of devices such as an electronic aid or a mechanical aid is illegal at land-based casinos. If you are able to count cards in your head, then you are legally allowed to do this however the practice is frowned upon, and you may be removed from a casino if caught.

Is it easy to count cards?

Counting cards is quite easy and straightforward however it does take a lot of practice. It is something that will come more naturally to some than to others, however, as with anything though, practice makes perfect. The first step though is to understand Blackjack and become good at the game itself.

Can you make a living counting cards?

There are people that have managed to do this however it is not something that is easily achieved and if you ever want to consider pursuing this, you will need to ensure that you are not only an expert at counting cards, but an expert at Blackjack. Even then, it is a gamble – quite literally.

How do you become an expert card counter?

We offer an amazing card counting simulator where you will be able to practice the Hi-Lo card counting strategy. While this won’t make you a professional card counter, it is a great place to start. An important thing to keep in mind is to practice with friends or online and not at a real brick-and-mortar casino as you will not only need to become good at counting cards but also good at hiding it.

Does it take long to learn to count cards?

It is different for every person. Some people will take to counting cards very quickly whereas others may find it more challenging. The best way to determine whether you will be a fast or slow learner is to consider how good you are at arithmetic.

Is card counting cheating?

Card counting is not cheating. Many casinos would like to make it out to be as it gives players an advantage but in reality, card counting is just using your brain to increase your odds of winning. It is merely a strategy – just like you get strategies in chess, you will find them in card games.

Can you only count cards in Blackjack?

There are other games where you can use card counting such as in Baccarat however your skill level will need to be much higher than it does for Blackjack. There is also a very unpopular game called 3-Card Brag where card counting can be used.

What app can help me count cards in Blackjack?

There are many apps that will help you count cards but at the end of the day it is best to practice your mental abilities and do it yourself. If you would like to use an app though, we have an excellent pro tool that will help you up your card counting game.

Do dealers count cards in Blackjack?

There wouldn’t be any reason for a dealer to count cards as it won’t be a benefit. If dealers wanted to count cards then they could however it would be a pointless exercise.

How do I count cards without getting caught?

There are a few ways to ensure that you don’t get caught however the most important thing to do is perfect your card counting skills in order to do so confidently. Other than that it is important to just not be too obvious, and look like you are enjoying yourself.

Are there other ways than counting cards to help you win at Blackjack?

The majority of people playing Blackjack do not count cards so of course it is possible. There are other Blackjack strategies you can use to improve your odds of winning as well. There is however no sure-fire way to win at Blackjack. All you can do is improve your odds of winning.

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Sources and More Information:

Card Counting: Cheating or civil right?, The Washington Post, 2014
21 (film), Colombia Pictures, 2008
Las Vegas Card Counting Legality, De Castroverde Law Group, 2016
Bryce Carson, Blackjack for Blood: The Card-Counters' Bible, and Complete Winning Guide, 1992 (revised edition 2018)
Counting Cards is Legal, But…, Detroit Free Press, 2016
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