Card Counting Basics

Most people have an incredibly skewed understanding of what card counting is. The media has latched on to this particular technique because it provides a very convenient way to move a story along. A genius comes in, who can memorize the deck as it’s shuffled, or can remember ever single card dealt already and this gives him an enormous advantage. So big that it constitutes fraud, which either gets the FBI on his tail or the casino tries to kill him in a back room. Whatever the scenario, in the movies, card counters just collect cash from the casino and are unstoppable. The movies will show the card counter with an enormous pile of chips in front of him and a supernatural inability to lose. The Dealer will be sweating at the brow and sneaking glances at the pit boss, who is trained to catch cheaters.

This is a ridiculous scenario and is so far from the truth that it literally has nothing to do with the actual practice of card counting. The first thing anyone must understand about counting cards is that it is legal. The second, and vastly more important thing to realize, is that card counting does not impart supernatural abilities on the player. The practice of counting cards, when done perfectly, only imparts a small advantage on the player. Not enough to consistently win, but enough that it improves the odds further past what playing basic strategy does. The advantage is approximately 1%. This is not enough to be a threat to the casino, which is why professional gamblers today are not billionaires and casinos are not out of business the world over.

If card counting only increases the odds of winning by 1%, then what’s the point? 1% is actually a statistically significant amount when the margin of error is +/- 3% to begin with, as it is in online casinos. The game remains completely random, but counting cards improves one’s ability to estimate the odds of certain things happening. The key word here is estimate and not predict. There is a very important difference there. No one can ever predict any outcome with any type of certainty when a system is designed to be completely random. Blackjack shoes are designed to be completely random. Each deck is shuffled over seven times, ensuring that there is absolutely no pattern inherent within it.

That said, the casinos still probably don’t want anyone counting cards. There is no law against it, but no casino wants to give up even 1% of advantage. Online casinos are businesses and the bottom line is all that matters to them. They do, in fact, have trained pit bosses who can spot card counters by watching their style of play. In traditional casinos, getting caught counting cards will get one banned. Unless you’re talking about Atlantic City casinos, which are actually required by law to allow card counters to play without bothering them. In order to minimize the impact of counting cards, casinos have simply responded by adding more cards to the shoe and inserting more shuffles during the game.

These casino countermeasures have actually gone a long way toward eliminating the vast majority of card counter advantages. It is just too hard for most people to learn to count cards effectively enough to gain a measurable benefit from it. But it can still be done.

Today, most casino players gamble online. Card counters are significantly more difficult to identify online, where it is impossible to observe them directly. The interesting thing is that it actually doesn’t matter to the casino. Between the countermeasures I mentioned, and the large number of players, combined with low overhead, card counters do not affect the casino’s bottom line. Thus, not only are card counters tolerated at online casinos, they are actively encouraged to learn to do so. The reasoning is that the better a player is, the more he will win, and the more likely he is to continue playing, allowing the casino the long term house advantage to take effect. This arrangement works out better for both the casino and the player.

Card counting is very difficult to learn and master. It is very important, however, to study the technique in depth before utilizing it in the real world. To illustrate the difficulty of the system, I’ll outline the basics necessary to learn how to count cards. The first thing is that one needs to be able to count down a deck of cards in his head and very fast. Try it now. You’ll quickly realize that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. On top of this, there are charts, much like the charts in basic strategy, that need to be memorized. Unlike basic strategy charts, though, card counting charts are incredibly complex and notoriously difficult to learn.

What do you need in order to count better?

Card Counting BasicsI mentioned that card counting imparts an advantage of approximately 1%. In an online casino setting, where the odds are shifted in the player’s favor by default, the advantage is actually closer to 2%. Utilizing the same margin of error of +/- 3%, card counting virtually eliminates the house advantage altogether. It becomes so small, in fact, as to be undetectable without long computer simulations. If one can truly learn to count cards and plays online, then his chances of winning are exactly the same as the casino’s. Blackjack becomes a completely fair game.

The basics of card counting are rather easy to understand and utilize in a short period of time. There are a certain number of cards in a deck. And this number is finite. With each dealt card, the finite numbers are easier to estimate. Thus, if a player knows whether there are more aces or less aces, more tens or less tens, or more small cards than large cards, it becomes a lot easier to make informed decisions to amend the basic strategy rules.

Put another way, by counting the cards left in the deck, the player knows what is really going on inside the deck without having to see the cards contained therein. How is this information useful? In a real life example, take the rules for when to stand. If a player has a 12 to a 16, he is to stand. The dealer cannot stand, though. So what to do? The player wants there to be more tens in the deck so that the dealer has a better chance of busting.

To properly start counting cards it is important to train to keep in your head which cards have already been played. It is impossible to literally keep track of each individual card. So trying to remember if the height of spades was or wasn’t drawn three hands ago is futile. A shorthand method is necessary. All the cards are subdivided into one of three groups. There are many ways of splitting up the cards into groups, but a popular version is one called Hi-Lo.

In Hi-Lo, all you have to do is keep a running count in your head by adding or subtracting 1 to each drawn card. If the card has a value of 2-6, then it is worth +1. The 7-9 cards are worth 0. And the tens and aces are worth -1. This method makes it a lot easier to keep track of cards because all you need to know is the current value the deck holds. Is it positive or negative? This will tell you if it is filled with high cards or low cards, and by what degree. The closer it is to 0, the less stacked it is in either direction.

The actual purpose of knowing this information is not to be clairvoyant. It is to inform you of whether or not you should play by basic strategy rules or to abandon them because your situation is better or worse than a purely random deck. This is where memorizing the modified charts comes in. It is not enough to know the basic strategy by heart. You need to know all the modifications to the basic strategy too. And they all differ, depending on the situation inside the deck.

There are several books on the subject, and they can be extremely informative. I suggest playing a few practice rounds on the computer, and counting in a basic sense. You will find that even the most rudimentary form of card counting can improve your game dramatically. It is important, however, to bolster this with tried and true methods, which have been proven through mathematical models. Anyone can learn to count cards like a pro. It just takes a bit of effort. Try it out today at Spin Palace Casino!