Learn how to count cards in blackjack with our comprehensive guide and play like true professionals from movies.
Let’s start with what is important about counting. It's card counting in blackjack illegal? The answer is not. Counting cards in blackjack is completely legal. Unless you use some device to do so. This is the line actually. You can, legally, tracking cards in your mind is fine but you cannot film with a camera a and analyze results on the computer elsewhere. On the other hand, casinos really do not like card counters and if you are identified as one, they will not let you blackjack or ask you to leave the casino floor and do not come back.
Card counting is a means to track the relationships between high cards (good for the player) and low cards (which are good for the dealer). So if you want to know what players who count cards do, we will give you a simple answer. Analysis of statistical probability.
And why are low cards so advantageous for the dealer? Well, because the dealer has very strict rules for when he must and when he must not draw. If he has less than 17, he must always draw. Therefore, for the dealer, cards with a value of up to 5 are the most important ones from the deck. That’s because starting from 16, he’ll never overshoot with any of them. Counting cards allow us to find out whether more high cards are left, so we can increase bets because we have the advantage over the casino.
How is this a big advantage? In some individual hands, the advantage can also be around 3% to 4%, but in the long run, the advantage is about 1%, depending on the type of game and its rules. However, card counting does not give an advantage in every game.
Life is not a movie and we are not Rainman. On average we will win about 44% of all the hands played. If high cards are being dealt, the dealer has just as good a chance to get a good hand as the player. However, the dealer cannot split or double and gets paid for a blackjack just like an equal bet - this is our basic advantage. In cases where we have 20, we often oppose dealer’s 20 or blackjack. But even in these situations, we have a 1% advantage over the casino in the long run.
The long-term is defined as the time from your first bet until about 400 to 500 hours of gameplay. In this timeframe, we can do about 50,000 games, which is a good position for creating statistics.
We can give an example: If we flip a coin 10 times, it is nothing unusual for heads to land even seven times. However, if we flip this coin 500,000, it is far more likely that we get heads very close to 50% of cases, for example, 0.4977%. This is also the case with blackjack - the more you play, the closer you will approach the mathematical expectations.
First, we first need to learn how to play blackjack properly. In today's computer age, it's no longer complicated. Not only are there many websites where you can learn this strategy, but there are also many e-books on this issue.
You must have mastered the Basic Strategy. Every step of the game must be performed automatically and without thinking. How to achieve that?
First, read and study the Basic Strategy materials carefully. Then you can take a deck, sit down with a strategy book and start counting the cards. Repeat that until you no longer need instructions for the game. The first line is the card shown by the dealer. The first column then represents your first two cards.
2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | A | |
8 | H | H | H | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
9 | D | D | D | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
10 | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | H | H |
11 | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D |
12 | H | H | S | S | S | H | H | H | H | H |
13 | S | S | S | S | S | H | H | H | H | H |
14 | S | S | S | S | S | H | H | H | H | H |
15 | S | S | S | S | S | H | H | H | H | H |
16 | S | S | S | S | S | H | H | H | H/R | H/R |
17 | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S |
A,2 | H | H | D | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
A,3 | H | H | D | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
A,4 | H | H | D | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
A,5 | H | H | D | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
A,6 | D | D | D | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
A,7 | S | Ds | Ds | Ds | Ds | S | S | H | H | S |
A,8 | S | S | S | S | Ds | S | S | S | S | S |
2,2 | H/P | P | P | P | P | P | H | H | H | H |
3,3 | H/P | H/P | P | P | P | P | H/P | H | H | H |
4,4 | H | H | H/P | D/P | D/P | H | H | H | H | H |
5,5 | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | H | H |
6,6 | P | P | P | P | P | H/P | H | H | H | H |
7,7 | P | P | P | P | P | P | H/P | H | S/R | H |
8,8 | P | P | P | P | P | P | P | P | P | P |
9,9 | P | P | P | P | P | S | P | P | S | S |
10,10 | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S |
A,A | P | P | P | P | P | P | P | P | P | P |
Key to table
H | Hit |
S | Stand |
D | Double if possible, otherwise hit |
Ds | Double if possible, otherwise stand |
P | Split |
H/P | If doubled after split, hit |
D/P | If doubled after split, double again |
H/R | Surrender if possible, otherwise hit |
S/R | Surrender if possible, otherwise stand |
Now start training even harder. Do not underestimate take this step. If you are not perfectly confident in Basic Strategy, you will never succeed in counting your cards.
If you find the table too complicated, we have prepared a simplified one.
Your hand | What to do |
5 up to 8 | Always hit |
9 | Double on 3 to 6, otherwise hit |
10 | Double on 2 to 9, otherwise hit |
11 | Double on 2 to 10, otherwise hit |
12 | Stand on 4 to 6, otherwise hit |
13 až 16 | Stand on 2 to 6, otherwise hit |
17 a vyšší | Always stand |
A,2 | Double vs 5 to 6, otherwise hit |
A,3 | Double vs. 5 to 6, otherwise hit |
A,4 | Double vs. 4 to 6, otherwise hit |
A,5 | Double vs. 4 to 6, otherwise hit |
A,6 | Double vs. 3 to 6, otherwise hit |
A,7 | Double vs. 3 to 6, stand vs. 2,7,8 and hit vs. 9,10,A |
A,8-A,9 | Always stand |
2,2 | Split on 2 to 7, otherwise hit |
3,3 | Split on 2 to 7, otherwise hit |
4,4 | Split on 5 to 6, otherwise hit |
5,5 | Never split, plays like 10 |
6,6 | Split on 2 to 6, otherwise hit |
7,7 | Split on 2 to 7, otherwise hit |
8,8 | Always split |
9,9 | Split on 2 to 9, except on 7, otherwise stand |
10,10 | Never split, always stand |
A,A | Always split |
We have to practice and train diligently until the Basic Strategy is firmly embedded in your subconscious. But even then do not play mindlessly, but think about the game. The Basic Strategy can be learned in 20 hours of gameplay on average.
Now we can confidently start counting. There are several systems to count cards in blackjack, divided into two categories: symmetric and asymmetric. Asymmetric systems, such as the Knock Out system (KO), are designed to eliminate the proper value of the cards (more in step 3). Generally speaking, simpler systems are less efficient.
That’s why we’ll use the High-Low (sometimes also Hi-lo) system for our example because it uses very easy calculations and is also one of the most used blackjack card counting systems. We recommend this method as very suitable for the beginning, while in terms of efficiency it ranks among the average systems. Then you will understand and experience more complicated systems far better and easier. However, start with mastering the High-Low system.
The Hi-lo points:
As we already know, low cards are good for the dealer, so why do they have a value of +1? Because as soon as such a card arrives, their number in the package decreases and our advantage grows.
First, we start with one deck, we turn one card after the other and count them. Let's say that we turned cards 8, K, 3, 3, 6, 2, 7, A. So we can count: 0,-1, 0, +1, +2, +3, +3, +2. At the end of the deck, we should get a 0. But not at the beginning.
This is where we have to start working hard and training the speed of our calculations. Finally, we should count one deck within 25 seconds. We emphasize that our calculations must be perfect. This will guarantee that no dealer in the world will deal cards faster than you can count.
Try turning one card out of the deck face down, then count all the cards in the deck and try to estimate the value of this turned card. Say: "this card should be 10 or an ace" and then turn it around to see if you've counted correctly.
As the next step, try turning two cards face down. We usually see this situation in the so-called "pitch games", which are mostly hand-held single or double deck blackjack. If the dealer overshoots, he turns the first two player’s cards. This is a very good way to learn the disadvantageous card combinations such as Q, 5.
In the actual game, however, you may encounter a number of various card counting styles. In the face-up shoe, some players wait until each player is dealt two cards and then start counting, because they consider each hand as a separate set, often ending immediately after dealing, such as 10-6. Or two consecutive hands such as 10, K - 3, 5.
Other players, on the other hand, swear by an easier version of card counting and count each card separately. Try both methods and choose the one that suits you best. But it's a bit different in a pitch game. First, count your cards and the dealer’s show-up card and only after that count all the cards that have been dealt, split or doubled. Also, add cards that have been used to overshoot.
Then count the dealer's hidden card and his other drawn cards. As the dealer reveals his hidden cards, you have to be very fast and count their value. But this should not be anything hard for a more experienced computer. Practice counting on your favourite game, but try other variants too - it's quite possible that you will not be able to play your game due to a full table, wrong rules, etc.
It is very important to mention the rules! Never play under bad conditions. If the only game your casino offers is six decks, a game with two fewer decks, save your money and go elsewhere. You will surely find much better conditions. But you can also encounter a lot of worse games, such as a double-deck game with a removed deck and a quarter.
How rules change the house edge
Better for player | House edge change |
Double after split | -0,14 % |
Resplit Aces | -0,07 |
Early surrender against everything | -0,7 % |
Early surrender against 10 | -0,3 % |
Late surrender | -0,08 % |
One deck | -0,5 % |
Two decks | -0,2 % |
Four decks | -0,05 % |
Better for casino | House edge change |
Dealer hits on A-6 | +0,2 % |
Double only on 11 | +0,46 % |
Double only on 10,11 | +0,09 % |
Double only on 9,10,11 | +0,09 % |
No split pairs | +0,04 % |
No insurance bet | +0,4 % |
You can also run into a six-deck version in which three hands are dealt in heads-up, even though you would typically get five or six. All of these variations are disadvantageous to you as a player, so we do not recommend them.
We should be able to count cards like this after 20 hours of honest training on average.
We need to actually apply this counting. That's in order to be fully effective in betting and game decisions. To do that, we must subtract the number of decks that have not been turned yet.
For example, in double deck blackjack, we play the first game. Current counts indicate a value of +4, but because we still have two decks less a few cards, we have to divide +4 by two. Therefore, the actual value is +2.
Remaining decks | Running Count | True Count |
4 | 4 | 1 |
2 | 8 | 4 |
1 | 5 | 5 |
3 | 9 | 3 |
6 | 18 | 3 |
In a multi-deck game, we must pay close attention to how many still remain. In this case, you must accurately estimate the number of decks. So if we have spent 2 decks, then only 4 remain (in the six-deck variant).
At this point, we can let you in on a trick. Try to estimate the number of remaining cards at the end of each game. This gives you better chances in the next one. You do not have to concentrate on one more thing, and you can calmly count the value of the cards on the table. It will be easier for you to count in dealer's winning rounds.
In a single deck game when a quarter of a deck is dealt, we still have three quarters left. But such counting would take too long for normal people. Instead, we first multiply +4 by 4, which equals 16, and then we divide 3 to yield a score of 5.33. If you count with fractions, use this simple method. It will make it easier for you to play.
One thing about single deck games: In this variant of the game, always use real counting, not just cursory numbers (positive or negative), whenever less than the whole deck remains. If we get lazy and use cursory counts instead of real numbers in a single deck game, taking into account the deviations in the Basic Strategy, we would lose our advantage.
We will now start dealing a hand. Deal one to yourself and one to the dealer. Do it as slowly as you need to get the most accurate numbers. Although you will never see it in the casino, deal at least six or eight cards. Once you have played the last hand, the remaining deck will help you check your count.
When you’re dealing, play all the hands according to the blackjack Basic Strategy (correctly). Use actual counts, winning hands and check the remaining decks. In the single deck variant, you should be able to count the whole deck in about two minutes.
To achieve a sufficient counting speed, replace the table with a book for a quality game software such as Norm Wattenberg's Casino Verite. Programs like this one automatically track every game, move and card, and will greatly help you improve your game. This will probably be the longest training, which will take you about 60 hours of gameplay on average.
Be careful about the range of your bets. Maths tells you to bet, let's say from $5 to $100. However, this is undesirable because you would immediately reveal what you’re doing. If you want to survive in a casino, you need to limit your maximum bets significantly. Do not be stupid, a casino knows very well what card counting looks like and how it works.
In pitch games a normal scatter is between 1 to 5 units; shoe games give us a far greater range - 1 to 8 or even 6 units for each of two hands. In general, players increase their bets along with the value they have calculated. They’re betting 1 or 0 if the situation is unfavourable to them, then they are gradually rising.
To find out more about betting, read books such as Stanford Wong's Professional Blackjack and Don Schlesinger's Blackjack Attack. Or you can read all the available books from these two men. Other blackjack books aren’t useless, either.
At this point, it is very reasonable to start at the lowest limits. Refine your game before you go into the real action. Choose games where the minimum bets are up to $1. Also, read the available books on bankroll and its management.
For bets from 1 to 5 units, you must have a bankroll worth at least hundreds. Never play using someone else’s money. Blackjack is like a swing, so you have to count with a series of defeats. And always remember. A high-quality player who counts cards will win in the long run.
Cards are counted in a much more accurate and more sophisticated way compared to simple counting. Here's how:
A series of the first seven cards in the order of ace, king, 4, ace, 9, 8 gives the sum (-3, -2.5, +2.5, -3, -0.5, 0, -2.5) = -9. A series of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 yields a sum of +9.
However, professional counting cards does not stop here and allows you to accurately determine your chances at any point in the game. To determine your standing, divide the total (+9 in the last example) by the number of cards remaining in the bundle (here 52-7 = 45), which yields 9/45 = 1/5. This is a very nice and easy fraction, it is rarely so simple. To simplify the calculation in your head, multiply the result by *100 which yields 900/45 = 20. The result is called a professional sum. In a two-deck game, the sum of the above example is 900/97 = approx. 9 and in a four-deck game 900/21 = approx. 4.5.
The higher the total, the higher the stakes for the next game, as shown in the following table:
Sum | Bet | ||
1 deck | 2 decks | 4 decks | |
up to +3 | up to +4 | up to +5 | minimum |
+4 to 7 | +5 to 8 | +6 to 9 | double |
+8 to 11 | +9 to 12 | +10 to 13 | triple |
+12 to 15 | +13 to 16 | +14 to 17 | quadruple |
+16 to 19 | +17 to 20 | +18 to 21 | quintuple |
etc |
The betting schedule based on the professional method applied to the core strategy of blackjack is a system that delivers steady and significant game profits. It does not guarantee to win in every session, but will certainly benefit in the long term. Anyone who wants to go so far must, of course, expect to go through the whole process. That means to work on the fundamental strategy very diligently. Please, keep in mind that mastering the calculation requires a very detailed study!
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