Blackjack Card Counting

card pictureBlackjack card counting is a subject that has taken on a larger-than-life image, but in reality it provides a very simple and useful way to play blackjack. Card counting is absolutely useless, however, if you haven’t already mastered basic blackjack strategy. The two topics go hand in hand, so if you haven’t already studied basic strategy, now is the time!

The Big Misconception

Out of all of the gambling topics you could choose to learn about, card counting might be the most misunderstood. The 1988 movie Rainman created a dazzling, but inaccurate image of card counting. The main character has savant syndrome and the unique ability to memorize every single card in a six-deck shoe.

After millions of people around the world saw this film, the image stuck, but in reality, almost anyone can learn to count cards. Instead of actually memorizing the cards, we just assign a positive or negative value to each card. By adding/subtracting each card from a running total, we can easily count cards without any extraordinary ability. Check out the high-low count to start with.

What is Card Counting?

The basic idea behind casino blackjack card counting is that each hand is not a random independent event. After every single card is dealt, that card is no longer in the deck, and therefore the deck has been changed in a predictable way. For instance, for every ace that is dealt, there is one less ace in the deck. Card counters bet more when the deck has many high cards, and bet less when the deck has more low cards.

High cards favor you because they make it very likely for the dealer to bust. Remember, the dealer must hit until their hand is worth at least seventeen, and they cannot split. Thus, a shoe that has many high cards is a dangerous thing for the house.

Part of the Hollywood view of card counting, is that card counters have the amazing ability to win every hand. In reality though, card counters only win slightly more than they lose. In general, card counters are told to expect a 1% statistical edge over the house.

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Practice Makes Perfect

Once you’ve learned a basic card counting system, and assuming you’ve really mastered the basic blackjack strategy, you can begin to practice the art of card counting. If you are very serious about learning these techniques, you should have a friend deal cards to an empty table so you can practice keeping the count at a high pace. A similar technique was employed by the MIT blackjack team.

In the process of using your new-found card counting techniques, you will get the most realistic practice possible. Also, it will take a lot of playing to get the full effect of card counting. You may have losing streaks early on, but after several thousand hands, your fortune should begin to form a normal distribution. This means your statistical advantage will start to be revealed.

Back Counting

Back counting is not a counting technique in the true sense. Rather, it is a way to use any other counting system you may have stumbled across. Back counters walk the cards, without playing, and keep a count all the while. When the count is high enough, or favorable enough, the back counter can then enter the game with a greater than normal advantage.

Back counting is a double edged sword. Beyond the obvious statistical benefits of betting with high counts and never with low counts, these players do not have to vary the size of their bets. Betting with wildly different sized wagers is a red flag for casino security. On the other side of the debate, however, hoping in and out of games may also garner some unwanted attention from the eye in the sky.

Team Play

To count cards successfully for any appreciable amount of time, you’ll probably have to work with a team. The benefits are not, at first obvious, but upon closer inspection, team play is your only real option. A team has two kinds of players. The vast majority of the team is made up of spotters who play for the very minimum every time and do not adjust their play according to the count.

Then there is a big player posing as a high roller standing close by. When a spotter is sitting at a table with a high count, they signal the big player who comes in and makes much larger bets to capitalize on the opportunity. Once the count drops out of favor, the big player moves on.

When playing with this kind of strategy, it is very difficult for the security staff to realize that counting is taking place. There are small-time players and a high roller, but none of them are obviously interacting. The only clue that this is occurring is that the big player is winning consistently.

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Is Card Counting Legal?

Card counting may or may not be legal depending upon where you are playing. In much of Europe, it is illegal to count cards, but most of the world understands that it is simply playing with a strategy. Max Rubin has even advised casino security to look the other way and allow card counters to play. The logic is that most card counters aren’t particularly skilled, and will still lose in the long run.

One important issue is whether or not you are using a computer to help you count. Some players have been caught, and prosecuted, for using hidden computers (tucked away in their shoes) to help them count cards. In Las Vegas, this is a Felony. Recently, some players have even been arrested for using iPhones that are equipped with applications that helped them count cards.

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