Basics of blackjack card counting
Basics of blackjack card counting
Estimated reading time 6 minutes
Blackjack card counting is one of the most misunderstood aspects of casino gambling. Many folks mistakenly believe it to be illegal, but in actual fact this method of play is 100% legitimate. The most advanced counting plays can be extremely effective when executed properly, which is why gaming venues don’t like it.
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Here at TopOnlineCasinoSites.com, we will show you some simple card counting techniques to get you started. We’ll also explain the pros and cons of taking this approach to real money blackjack, and why such systems don’t really work at online casinos.
What is card counting?
In the simplest terms, card counting is all about knowing which cards are still in the deck and which are not. By tracking the cards that are dealt into play and discarded after a hand, you get a far better idea of actual probabilities and odds than if you assume the deck (or a shoe containing several decks) is always full.
In particular, blackjack card counters tend to focus on the number of high cards dealt versus the number of low-ranked cards seen. The more 10-point cards (10, Jack, Queen, King) and Aces remain in a live deck, the higher the player’s chances of drawing a natural 21.
By observing how many high cards and low cards hit the table, you can take advantage by betting more aggressively when the shoe reaches a favourable balance. On the other side of the coin, you would back off your wagers when the deck is overrun with low cards.
This is probably the easiest way to count cards effectively in casino blackjack, and also one of the safest. By tracking only the Aces and Fives, you can adjust your stakes from hand to hand and gain a subtle edge without needing to focus on every card. Thus, you’re less likely to draw the attention of dealers, pit bosses and surveillance staff than with more complicated techniques.
The first step is to figure out what your minimum and maximum bets will be. Experienced players typically like to use exponents of two – e.g. the max bet might be 16 times the smallest stake – but you can use any system you like. As ever, the important thing is to make sure your bankroll can cop the maximum wager.
Next, you have to enter the game. When using the Ace/Five method, you should always commence counting at the beginning of a new shoe – that is, when the casino switches the old decks out for a fresh set of cards. This allows you to start your count knowing that not a single card has hit the table yet.
Start with your minimum bet and play with basic strategy as per normal, but all while keeping a running points tally using this very simple system:
– When you see a Five, add one point to your count
– When you see an Ace, subtract one point from your count
If the score is two points or more, then you should double your bet on the next hand; but if the total is one point or less, you should play the minimum bet. This means you keep raising the stakes when you’re seeing more Fives than Aces, but you return to the low bet when the balance is about even or worse.
The hi-lo system is the most well-known card counting method for blackjack, and it works much like the A-5 technique described above. But rather than covering only the Aces and Fives, this one also assigns values to all 10-point cards and all cards ranked Six or lower.
As such, this technique requires more practice and focus than the Ace-Five counting method, as there is much more data going into your tally. When done right, however, the hi/lo count gives you a more complete picture of how the shoe is playing.
The cards are scored like so:
- Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks and Tens = -1
- Nines, Eights and Sevens = 0
- Sixes, Fives, Fours, Threes and Deuces = 1
Now, just do what you did with the Ace/Five strategy: raise your bet when the score is two points or more, but stick to the minimum bet in all other situations. Remember, it’s much easier if you have your betting increments sorted out before you hit the tables.
Stanford Wong’s Back Counting Method
For those who aren’t in the know, Stanford Wong (aka John Ferguson) is one of the foremost authors on the topic of blackjack strategy. He is most famous, however, for developing the back-counting technique – widely known these days as “Wonging in”.
Rather than playing from the start of the shoe, Wong advocates standing back and counting cards without actually joining the table until the deck runs hot (i.e. the numbers are in the counter’s favour). The idea is to “Wong in” and play only when the count is up, and to “Wong out” and observe when the shoe goes cold.
The benefit of the back-counting strategy is obvious: you play only when the deck is in your favour, so you’re much more likely to maintain a healthy winning record. Indeed, this approach proved so effective in the 1980s and early ’90s that many land-based casinos began prohibiting mid-shoe entry – still a common policy at blackjack tables all over the world.
Back-counting can be very easy to spot when used by a single player, especially if they keep entering and exiting the same game. It is also difficult for one player to find the best-value shoe in the casino, as you can only count one game at a time.
The best results have come with organised teams of card counters, where spotters identify the hottest tables and send covert signals to the main players in the group. This method was employed with incredible success by the infamous MIT blackjack team – the inspiration for the movie 21, starring Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess.
More card counting techniques
Knockout – The KO, as it is often called, is a slight variation on the high-low counting technique. Deuces through Sevens are all worth one point in the KO count, whereas Sevens have no value in hi-lo.
Red Seven – Almost identical to the KO system, except Sevens only register 0.5 points here.
Omega II – Deuces, Threes and Sevens score plus one (+1); Fours, Fives and Sixes are plus two (+2); Nines are negative one (-1); all 10-value cards get negative two (-2); and Aces and Eights are worth nothing.
Zen Count – Very similar to the Omega II counting method, except Nines score zero and Aces add one point each.
Can I count cards in online blackjack?
No, is the short answer. Card counting relies on the traditional casino method of dealing from a shoe which, in theory, is not shuffled until all decks have been used. Players can gain a reliable count because the order of the deck isn’t supposed to change until the shoe runs out, although nowadays dealers are sometimes instructed to shuffle on big bets in an attempt to thwart counters.
Internet blackjack games work in a different way. They are powered by random number generators (RNGs), which ensure that the deck is reset after every hand. That makes it impossible to track used cards, as each round is like playing a brand new shoe.
And no, live dealer blackjack games aren’t any better for card counters. The vast majority of live online casinos for Australians use continuous shuffling machines on their real money 21 tables, which means the shoe behaves much like it does in digital blackjack.
Tips for counting 21
- Learn basic strategy. Counting cards is pointless if you don’t know the best move for every hand you are dealt. Check out our blackjack strategy charts, which show you when to hit, split, stand and double for every possible hand you might draw.
- Only play games with a low house edge. There is little advantage to be gained counting cards on tables with extremely dealer-friendly rules, such as Crown Casino’s Blackjack Plus. Look for games which favour the house by less than 0.50%, if possible.
- Avoid continuous shuffling machines. As mentioned previously, the CSM devices found on many modern blackjack tables make it nigh-on impossible to count cards with any degree of accuracy. Hand-dealt games are the best, but even automated shoes are fine as long they don’t keep shuffling discards back into play.
- Practice, practice, practice. To count cards effectively, you need to train your brain and your body to track the deal and keep score without looking suspicious. If you’re staring at everybody’s cards and whispering numbers to yourself, you will almost certainly be asked to leave.
Here’s a simple drill: try dealing out a full deck, card by card, and keeping count while you’ve got the television or the radio on. This multi-tasking exercise will help you look natural while counting, despite the many challenges and distractions of the casino floor.
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