Counting cards is a technique used to improve the house edge and even overcome it in blackjack. It is easier to learn than it may first appear and our complete guide will show you how to count cards like a pro. Learn the best techniques, how to practice card counting, and more useful information that will help you at the tables from this guide.
How Does Card Counting Work?
Contrary to popular belief, card counting is not about memorizing which cards have been dealt from the shoe. You don’t need to keep a perfect record of how many 3s and 4s were in the previous hands. Instead, you just have to have an idea of what value the remaining deck has. This way, you can change the playstyle and the size of the bets accordingly.
While blackjack is already one of the games with the best odds in the casino, it allows for additional strategies. Since the players have a decision to make every hand, they can actually influence the outcome. So, in addition to using blackjack basic strategy, you can also use card counting to earn an edge over the casino.
In blackjack, the player is more likely to win when there are more cards worth 10 or 11 points in the deck. So, by counting cards, you can keep better track of the ratio between low cards and high cards still left.
Card Counting Tutorial
Now, let’s see how to count cards and use the strategy to win in blackjack. Keep in mind that this technique only works in land-based casinos that don’t shuffle the deck after every hand, or not very often. You will also need to start the count from the very first hand from a new shoe.
Step 1 – Learn the Card Values
For the first step, you just have to assign values to the cards. The standard blackjack card counting technique uses the following values for the cards:
- 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – Each worth +1
- 7, 8, 9 – Each worth 0
- 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace – Each worth -1
Step 2 – Counting Cards
With every card that hits the table, you need to use the values from above and keep a running count. So, for example, if the dealer shows a 6 (+1), the count goes up by one. If you have a 7 (0) and a Jack (-1), the count is now 0. Then, if the dealer shows a 3 (+1) and then hits for an 8 (0), the count at the end of the hand is +1.
You can practice card counting at home by shuffling six or eight decks of cards and then dealing them out. If you think you lost the running count, you can take the dealt cards and check them without any issues. It is better to practice for free, at home, than lose real money at a casino.
You can also try counting with online blackjack to sharpen your skills, even if the deck is shuffled after every hand.
Step 3 – Calculate the True Count
Blackjack used to be played with one single deck, which gave the players the lowest house edge. With blackjack basic strategy, you can almost eliminate the casino advantage when playing with only one deck of cards. It also makes it much easier to count cards.
However, those days are long gone and most casinos now use 6-8 decks at the blackjack table. This increases the house edge and also makes it more difficult to count the cards before they are shuffled.
As a result, we need to calculate the true count based on the numbers of decks in play. We can do this by taking the running count and dividing it by the number of decks. For example, if the running count is +12 and the game has six decks, the true count is +2.
The counting cards blackjack true count affects the house edge for the remaining deck. Having a true count +1 with six decks of cards basically means that the casino no longer has an advantage, given optimal play. A true +3 makes the casino edge -1%, making blackjack more favorable for the player.
Step 4 – Take Advantage of the Count
The point of learning how to card count in blackjack is to win more. So, after establishing a count, we need to change the bet accordingly. We recommend starting with a small bet and then increasing the stakes for a positive true count. This will allow you to take advantage of the better house edge and net you more profits.
While a card counting movie will likely show this process as a team strategy where a rich player comes in at a high count and starts betting big, you can definitely do it alone. Just increase the bet as you go. A general rule of thumb is to establish a betting unit and then set the bet to match the true count in betting units. This can also help you keep track of the count, but it can draw attention to what you are doing.
Step 5 – Change the Basics
This is where things can get a bit more complicated. As you are counting cards and the total value goes up, you can deviate from the blackjack basic strategy. However, you shouldn’t start relying on gut feelings, and instead use mathematically driven statistics to drive your decisions.
Some of the main deviations when playing with a true count of +3 or more are:
- Buy insurance on dealer’s Ace.
- Stand with 16 vs dealer’s 10.
- Split tens instead of standing.
- Stand with 13 vs dealer’s 2.
- Stand with 12 vs dealer’s 2 or 3.
- Double Down on 10 vs dealer’s Ace.
- Double Down on 9 vs dealer’s 7.
Is Card Counting Illegal?
The short answer is no, card counting is not illegal. However, there are some aspects worth mentioning here.
First of all, counting cards is only legal as long as you do it without using any machines. Cheating with a gaming device in Nevada is a serious crime that can result in up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine. So, if you are going to be counting cards in blackjack, make sure to do it in your mind and not with an illegal device that scans the cards.
Secondly, while card counting is legal, casino operators can choose to ban players from the premises. Since casinos are private property, the managers can deny access to anyone. This includes players found guilty of hi lo card counting. Coming back to the casino is categorized as trespassing in Nevada and in other states, which is both a civil and a criminal offense.
If you are asked to leave the casino, make sure to not assault the employees in the process. Assault and battery laws can lead to serious penalties, jail time, and extra fines. It is better to remain civil and just exit the premises. Some card counting movies may depict players getting beaten up, but that is not the case in reality.
To sum up and better answer the question “Is card counting illegal?”, you should know that it is not illegal, but it can lead to a casino ban. It is best to avoid drawing attention and not tell everyone at the table that you are a counting cards expert.
Best Online Casinos for Card Counting
Counting cards is best done in land-based casinos, at tables that don’t shuffle the cards very often. With that being said, online casinos also come with some important benefits. First of all, they allow you to practice strategies for free, or starting from really low stakes. Plus, you can play at your own pace, which is great for learning how to count cards in blackjack.
Secondly, the best real money online casinos also host live dealer games, such as blackjack. These use similar rules found in land-based casinos, including using actual cards from a shoe that isn’t shuffled after every hand. Instead, the dealer will replace the shoe after dealing around 50% of the cards.
Moreover, you can also benefit from casino bonuses, promotions, and loyalty rewards when playing online. With the house edge being so low, these can further increase the profits from the tables.
Top 10 Casinos
The following is a list of the top 10 online casinos in the US, available in states with regulated real money gaming. Not only are these some of the best gambling sites, but some of the operators also run land-based casinos throughout the nation and some of the loyalty perks can carry over.
- BetMGM – The overall best online casino for playing virtual and live blackjack due to its reliable platform, high-end mobile apps, and generous bonuses.
- FanDuel – Hosts some of the best live blackjack tables, including VIP options with high stakes and personalized dealer support that can benefit high rollers.
- BetRivers – Offers a 100% casino welcome bonus for up to $500 in extra funds that players can use on online blackjack while completing the wagering requirement.
- DraftKings – User-friendly mobile apps that include live dealer games available on iPhone and Android devices to play from anywhere within regulated states.
- Caesars – Earn Caesars Rewards points when playing online for benefits in almost 40 resorts and casinos to upgrade rooms, pay for food, and more.
- WynnBET – Best for earning VIP experiences just for playing casino games online and on mobile, including exclusive access to VIP sections in stadiums.
- PointsBet – Exclusive live tables and easy banking through a range of payment methods, including PayPal, cards, and bank transfer services with high limits.
- Bet365 – New players receive a 100% bonus match on the first deposit for up to $1,000, available on standard blackjack games, increasing the available bankroll.
- Barstool – Solid range of table games with wide betting limits available in regulated states that covers multiple versions of 21 with extra side bets.
- FOX Bet – Players can take part in live casino races with big prizes and check out exclusive PokerStars blackjack tables in some states, like New Jersey.
Card Counting Tips
Now that you know what card counting is, there are some key tips to keep in mind before you apply the knowledge to the casino floor.
1. Learn the Basic Strategy Perfectly
Blackjack basic strategy is a must for the best results at the table. You first need to know it inside and out before you can even consider counting cards like a professional. The goal here is to lower the house edge as much as possible, and even eliminate it altogether. To do this, you need to know the best decisions in every spot based on real data.
Only after you perfectly know the basic strategy can you learn the deviations based on the current count. These only represent a portion of the perfect playing package, with the strategy chart having the most impact.
2. Check the Blackjack Rules
First of all, you need to look for the right blackjack rules, like blackjack hands paying 3:2 and the dealer standing on 17. Then, you should also check the other aspects. An important rule is for insurance to pay 2:1 since this becomes a solid option when the count is high. Being able to split multiple times and doubling down on all hands are also beneficial rules.
Moreover, you should check the number of decks that the game uses. If this is not clearly visible on the table, you can always ask the dealer how many decks are in the shoe. Having fewer decks is better, but most casinos have six or eight.
3. Study the Tables
Another important aspect that you should check in advance is how often the dealer changes the shoe or shuffles the cards. What is card counting for when the shoe is replaced every few hands? You need to find a table where the casino shuffles the cards less frequently. This is so that you have time to reach a solid count. Also, check the betting limits for the table in order to avoid stakes that don’t allow you to start small and then bet big when beneficial.
4. Manage Your Bankroll
Bankroll management plays a very big role when it comes to card counting. The whole concept is to rely on actual statistics to have an advantage over the casino. But, this will only be a small edge and requires a long time to profit from. As a result, you will need to properly manage your bankroll over a long period if you want to be successful.
Even with perfect strategy and the right counting skills, you can still lose money in the short term. It is important to not chase losses and to set the right budget from the very start. Don’t expect instant profits.
5. Practice Makes Perfect
While it can seem difficult to learn how to count cards, the truth is that you can get better at it with the right practice. It is best to practice for free, online on demo versions of blackjack games, and at home with decks of cards.