Card counting is a pretty advanced strategy that lots of blackjack players use to their advantage. The process isn’t technically illegal, but it is against house rules, although it can be hard to spot so if you’re discrete enough then it can be useful.
This is something that you see in lots of movies that involve casinos and in particular, blackjack, but it is a process that does take place in your local casinos so it isn’t just a Hollywood creation.
Floor managers are trained to spot signs that people may be counting cards and we talk about some of these signs later in the article.
Why would you want to card count?
The most common misconception with card counting is that you need to memorise each card that has been dealt at the table. This is not how it works. It would be almost impossible for people to do this, especially on any scale over a prolonged period of time.
The idea of card counting is to get a feel for the range of cards that is left in the shoe. We do this by grouping cards and then running a ‘count’. A positive or negative number is given for each card drawn and this running tally gives an indication of whether the shoe has more high or low ranked cards left, thus giving the player the ability to make better future decisions.
Once a player knows this, they can adjust their strategy based on the count. For example, if a player is dealt T/T then this is a hand that you should never split and always stand. But if the shoe is loaded with higher numbered cards, then splitting here to make two higher hands would be the best play. You can only know this from counting cards.
How do you count cards?
The first thing that needs to be done is to assign a value to every card. The most common processes for this work on a high or low basis. A common grouping might look like this:
- 2-6 = +1
- 7-9 = 0
- 10-Ace = -1
As the cards are dealt you simply add or subtract from the count accordingly. For each round of the game you are then going to have a positive or negative number.
Running the count is the hardest part of counting cards because keeping track of the points from the card groups above is difficult with all the distractions of the casino around you. Each card offers new information and if you lose your place it’s over until the shoe is replaced and you can start again.
The ideal scenario for the player here is that the running count increases, meaning that more of the low cards have already been drawn and more of the higher cards are still in the shoe. When this happens, the odds can significantly move in the players favour and this would likely indicate that more money can be wagered at the table.
Let’s assume that there are 3 players at the table and the following cards are dealt (we won’t include suit here as it doesn’t matter):
- Player 1 = A/2 (0)
- Player 2 = J/T (-2)
- Player 3 = 7/3 (+2)
- Dealer = 6 (+1)
The numbers in brackets represent the groups that we spoke about earlier and in this case highlight that after hand 1, the count is +1.
- Players 1 = A/3 (0)
- Player 2 = K/5 (0)
- Player 3 = 5/2 (+2
- Dealer = 7 (0)
Following on from this hand, our count is +2, which means that the overall count is +3.
- Player 1 = Q2 (0)
- Player 2 = 32 (+2)
- Player 3 = AJ (-2)
- Dealer = 5 (+1)
This hand would give us +1 total, meaning the total count would then be +4.
Even though this would be small example, it highlights the count is positive, meaning that the deck is in the player’s favour right now. The idea is to get as far ahead as possible in the count and then start to add the biggest stake your bankroll can afford to your hands when the deck has a greater number of higher valued cards than lower value ones.
What happens as the number of decks increase?
One of the ways that casinos were trying to get around card counting was to introduce more decks into the mix. This is why you often see games with 6+ decks for games like blackjack.
The card counting process actually remains just the same, but it does dilute the count somewhat, so this needs to be taken into account. We move this from a running count to a true count.
To find the true count we simply need to divide the count by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. So, if the count was 8 and we had 4 decks, we just divide 8 by 4 to get +2. This is the True count.
Knowing how many decks you are playing with is imperative to this system working. If you are able to then apply even the most basic of blackjack strategies to this, then you are likely going to be on to a winner – assuming the casino does not cotton on to what you are doing, of course.
Can you card count online?
It’s a surprisingly popular question and possibly the reason you’ve landed on this article in the first place, but you cannot card count online.
The reason is that after each hand, the whole shoe of cards will get shuffled and reset by the algorithm. When you play live there might be 6 decks of cards in the shoe, but any used cards just get mucked and then put away until the dealer decides to reshuffle the pack. Once a shuffle is made and the removed cards haven been re-added, then the whole card counting system will reset.
It is possible to do it on some live dealer casino games that are popular online. Again, this all depends on if the deck is shuffled fully after each hand or not. If it’s not, then you can card count in these games, but the majority of the time it is, so it becomes impossible.
How to spot someone counting cards
Spotting someone counting cards isn’t always that easy. If you are new to blackjack and sitting at your first table then it’s unlikely that you would spot a card counter, even after hours of play.
Floor managers know what the obvious signs are though, and the dealers can also give them a heads up if they think that something untoward is going on. Here are a few that they tend to look for:
- Bet sizing is the first thing that they will look at. As the game comes towards the end of the shoe, if a player’s bet sizes either drastically increase or decrease, then this is likely for a reason. An increase means that they think the shoe is heavy with high value cards and a reduction or even sitting out of hands would signify they think the shoe is light.
- Odd strategy lines from experienced payers is another sign. We spoke earlier about splitting 10’s, which by the letter of a ‘perfect’ blackjack strategy would be a huge mistake, so when experienced players do it, it’s likely because they think the shoe is heavy so have a good chance of hitting two good hands from their 10 starting hand.
- The final one is when someone is taking insurance, even though they have a highly ranked hand. If they know the shoe is heavy, then there is a good chance that the dealer will have blackjack, so they take insurance here even though they know it’s a big red flag.
Can you prosper from card counting?
It’s probably as hard as it’s ever been to successfully count cards.
The number of cameras that are on each table and the number of floor managers that casinos now employ make it tough. Also, if you are caught once you are usually red flagged from that casino and can’t get back in, and your info can be passed to other casinos as well.
Having said all that, it does still happen, and people do still make money from it. You’re looking at places that are away from the high-profile casinos and for lazy floor managers, but yes, it can still be done, and you can still make money from it if executed correctly.