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 do not need to keep a perfect record of how many 3s and 4s were in the previous hands. Instead, you just need to have an idea of what value the remaining deck has. This way, you can change the play style 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.
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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 of 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 number 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.
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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 make 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.
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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.
How to Count Cards in Blackjack
To sum up and to make it easier for beginners to start counting cards in blackjack, let’s take another look at the basics.
For starters, you have to learn the card values for the count. This can take some practice, especially if you are going to keep up with a fast dealer at a table. So, anything from 2 to 6 will give your count +1, while any 10-point card or an Ace is worth -1. For 7, 8, and 9, the count stays the same.
Once you have these values in your mind, it is time to start counting cards. Keep in mind that you also have to apply basic strategy in order to not lose while focusing on keeping the count. Again, practice makes perfect and we recommend a lot of it.
When the count is high, keeping the true count in mind as well, you can now start increasing the bet. Slightly changing the strategy is also recommended, so maybe keep a note close by to remind you of the key hands covered above.
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.
Card Counting in Other Casino Games
Although card counting is mostly used in blackjack, the technique also has some value in other casino games. Some variations of casino poker are played with multiple players and all of their cards are shown facing up. This can give the players more information about the remaining cards in the deck, which can then influence their betting.
Seven-Card Stud Card Counting
Multiplayer poker almost requires you to keep track of the cards and the best in this regard is Seven-Card Stud. While it has dropped in popularity in recent years, you can still find tables in most casinos and also on online gaming sites. We should note that in order to count cards in a Stud game, there should be multiple players at the table.
The game starts with every player receiving one card facing up. You should memorize all of these even if some players fold their hands. The folded cards represent valuable information and if you don’t keep track of them, you risk letting your opponents have more information.
Baccarat Card Counting
Another game where players can use card counting is baccarat, but the returns are very small. Since baccarat is a game where you don’t have any influence on the outcome after placing the bet, the only decision you can make is on which side to place the chips.
So, the goal is to keep track of the cards worth zero points. If there are more remaining in the deck, the Player bet is slightly more favored to win than the Banker. However, we should note that the math indicates that you would make a $3 profit on $1,000 in bets if you are correctly counting cards in baccarat. The returns are not worth the effort.
Another tactic is to play for ties, since these pay more in baccarat. Here, you will need to memorize the group of cards dealt. If there are more zero cards in the deck, there is a higher chance of the result being a 0-0 tie. Same goes for other groups of cards that can be predominant towards the end of the shoe. Again, the drawback is that waiting for the right spots would take too long and of course, a win is never guaranteed.
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.
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Top 12 Casinos
- Wild Casino – The overall best online casino for playing virtual and live blackjack for real money.
- TG.Casino – Best for playing on mobile devices thanks to the Telegram-based gaming platform.
- Bovada – Simple rewards program that can add more perks for every bet placed on the tables.
- BetOnline – Rich selection of blackjack games for practicing card counting at any time.
- BetUS – Recommended casino for free casino games in demo mode and for low-stakes gaming.
- MyB Casino – Choose from more than 25 variations of 21 and try out special features.
- Everygame – Exclusive bonuses and promotions for the live casino that can be very rewarding.
- Mega Dice – Premium gaming platform with the largest collection of games, including tens of tables.
- Lucky Creek – Best for promotions that have large prizes, even including a new car.
- Black Lotus – Generous welcome bonus that can provide a great bankroll boost for players.
- Drake – Simple lobby for finding the preferred gaming options out of the large collection.
- Ignition – Solid range of table games that covers multiple versions of 21 with extra side bets.
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