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Is blackjack card counting for you?

16 September 2011

Do you remember the blackjack scene from the movie Rain Man? You know, that's where autistic Dustin Hoffman is card counting at the blackjack tables in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and telling his selfish brother (Tom Cruise) how to play and how much to bet. Cruise is winning and winning big. The scene shifts to the casino surveillance room (infamous eye-in-the-sky) where two employees are trying to figure out how Cruise is winning all that money playing blackjack. Finally, one says, "He is not catching a hole card, he isn't past-posting, and I don't see him using a computer. But something is not right -- you know there is no one in the world that can count into a 6-deck shoe".

Do you really have to have a photographic memory like Dustin Hoffman to be a card counter? And is it really true that no one can count into a six-deck shoe? The quick-and-dirty answer to both questions is, No and No. In fact, card counting is a strategy that anyone with average intelligence can learn. In fact, you can do it!

Unfortunately there are myths associated with card counting. We've already mentioned two of them, and here are a few more: card counters win every time they play; card counters can make millions; casinos ban all card counters from playing blackjack; and card counting is illegal.

I'm a blackjack card counter -- been one for 35 years. Even though most people are amazed that I can memorize the cards from a 6-deck shoe, that's not what I do. Nor do I win every time I play and I wouldn't be writing this column if I won millions of dollars. And no, I'm not writing this column from a jail cell but I'll admit that twice in my career I was barred from two different casinos from playing blackjack (that was a long, long time ago). Nowadays I play uninhibited.

So what is this thing called card counting and can you really do it? Follow along and I'll show you what it is and then you can decide if it's for you.

First, card counters do not memorize every card that is played. They keep track of the cards by assigning a value or tag to each card. For example, the popular High/Low card counting system assigns a tag of +1 (that's "plus" one) to every 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 value card and -1 ("minus" one) to every 10, jack, queen, king and ace. The 7, 8 and 9 value cards have a tag of 0 (these cards are ignored). Card counters then arithmetically add the tags of each card that they see on the layout. For example if player #1 has a two-card hand consisting of a 6 and a 4 and then drew a 10 for a 20, a card counter would add the tags for each of the cards to arrive at the sum of +1 (this is known as the "count").

  Card    Tag    Sum  

Note that because the tag for a 10-value card is -1, you must subtract 1 from your count.

Are you surprised that card counting is nothing more than adding "plus ones" and "minus ones" like you did back in grammar school? Obviously, at the end of a round and after you have counted all the player cards and the dealer cards, you will have a sum that is either a plus number or a negative number. This sum is known as the running count.

Suppose the running count is a positive number after the first round of play. What does this tell the card counter? In order for the running count to be a positive number, there must have been more small-value cards played in the previous rounds versus high-value cards (remember the small cards have a tag of +1 and the big cards have a -1 tag). If that's the case, then the opposite must be true for the undealt cards in the shoe, that is, there must be more big cards over small cards.

Let's recap. If your running count is positive, then the undealt cards are rich in big cards. On the other hand, if the running count is negative, the undealt cards are rich in small cards.

So card counters indirectly have some knowledge of the ratio of big cards to small cards on the next deal by keeping track of all the cards that were played in the previous rounds. Card counters then use their count to vary their bets on the next hand.

They INCREASE their bet size when the count is POSITIVE and DECREASE their bet size when the count is NEGATIVE.

Why do counters increase their bet size when the undealt cards are rich in big cards? The high-value cards are more favorable for the player because there will be more blackjack hands dealt and the players receive a bonus payoff when they get a blackjack. Here are some more reasons why a deck rich in high cards is player favorable.

  • High cards will bust a dealer's hand when they are forced to draw on 12 through 16.
  • A player will usually make good on double downs when the shoe is rich in big cards.
  • Many pair-splitting opportunities are more favorable with an abundance of big cards left in the deck, and
  • Insurance can become a more profitable bet when there is an excess of big cards.

The point is BIG CARDS are favorable for the player.

What about those small cards. Since dealers are forced to hit when their hands total 12 through 16, small cards prevent them from busting these hands. Therefore, small cards help the dealer more than the player.

Card counters gain the upper hand over the casinos because they have more money bet when they have they edge (positive counts) and less money bet when the casino has the edge (negative counts). Counters actually lose more hands than they win, but they win more money because they have a lot more bet on the hands that they win compared to the amount of money bet on the hands that they lose. It's that simple.

You are probably wondering that when the count is positive won't the dealer have just as much chance to get the big cards as you will? The answer is yes, but players can double down, pair split, get paid 3 to 2 on blackjacks, and unlike the dealer, don't have to hit a hard 12 through 16 when the shoe is rich in big cards. This is what creates our basic edge over the casino when the count is positive.

Now that you get the picture on the mechanics of how to count cards, you're probably wondering if it's still worth your time to become a card counter. There is certainly a lot more that you've got to learn, but here are some points that you need to consider before you decide to forge ahead.

Profit Potential

Suppose you play 5,000 hands of blackjack per year (about 60 hour's worth of blackjack) and your average bet size is $10. If you use an "intuitive" playing strategy, then your expectation is to lose about $1,000. If you are a good basic strategy player, you will cut your expected losses to $250. A card counter on the other hand has an expected win of $500, which is $1,500 more than the intuitive player and $750 more than the basic strategy player.

Don't play that much blackjack in a year? Here are the same expected results for 200 and 1000 hands. You still have the potential of being ahead with card counting but, of course, not as much as a player who plays more or bets more.

Player200 Hands1000 Hands
Basic Strategy   -$10-$50

The above expected results are averages. Most likely a player will win or lose more than this, however, as a general rule the more hands of blackjack you play the closer you will come to your expected results.

Bankroll Fluctuation

Accurate card counting will give you about a 1 percent long-term edge over the casino in most games. It does not guarantee that you will win every time you play blackjack. In fact, 95 percent of the time a counter with a 1 percent edge playing 5000 hands of blackjack with an average bet of $10 most likely will wind up somewhere between a gain of $2,260 and a loss of $1,140 or any amount in between (even though his expectation is to win $500).

The point is that card counters experience fluctuations in their bankroll over the short term and sustain losing sessions even though they have the long-term edge. These swings are normal and to be expected. Because they may go for long periods of time without winning, it is extremely important that they have enough bankroll to sustain them during these inevitable losing streaks. How much is enough? At least 125 times their maximum bet. That's a $2,500 bankroll for a typical low-rolling counter that spreads from $5 to $20 maximum bet. If you bet more, then your bankroll requirements are more.

Practice, Practice and Practice

It will take you about 100-150 hours of practice at home to become proficient at counting cards (you must be able to count down a single deck accurately in less than 30 seconds). Then you've got to learn to count in a casino environment, which is not the same thing as at the kitchen table. There are blackjack software programs that will drill you on your card-counting skills. These programs can cut down on the time required to learn how to count accurately (two of the best programs are Blackjack Trainer by Conjelco and Smart Cards by Extreme Blackjack).

Adjusting for Multiple-Deck Games

Most casinos use multiple decks of cards rather than a single deck of cards. Card counters must adjust their count to take this under consideration because a running count of, say, +4 off the top of a six-deck shoe in not nearly as important as the same running count in a single-deck game. Counters normalize the running count to arrive at the true count by dividing the running count by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. Computing a true count is not as difficult a task as it first appears, but you've got to learn how to do it quickly and fairly accurately. Alternately there are "unbalanced" counting systems that eliminate this conversion to the true count.

Betting Spreads

You'll need a bigger bet spread in multiple-deck games to get the same edge as in single-deck games. A 1 to 4 bet spread is okay in single-deck games, but when it comes to six-deck games you'll need at least a 1 to 10 bet spread (this, of course, will increase your bankroll fluctuations).

Game Selection

You've got to be selective in deciding where you play blackjack. You must not only play where the rules are good. The most important variable for card counters is the penetration, or how far into the shoe does the dealer go before shuffling. In fact, blackjack isn't worth playing no matter how good the rules if the penetration is bad. For example, multiple-deck games with 50 percent penetration are not very profitable for counters. At least 75 percent or higher penetration is ideal (that's a blackjack table where the dealer deals out at least 4.5 out of the 6 decks of cards prior to the shuffle).

Deviating from Basic Strategy

Once you learn how to use the count for betting purposes, you also want to use it to vary your basic strategy. This will require learning what are known as index numbers that tell the counter when to depart from the basic playing strategy depending upon the value of the count and whether the count is positive or negative. For example, basic strategy says to hit on hard 12 when the dealer shows a 2 or 3. However, if a card counter has a moderately positive count, the better play is to stand. Likewise, making the insurance bet is a lousy bet for the average blackjack player, but it becomes a profitable bet for a card counter when the count becomes moderately positive.

Casino Comportment

Since casino bosses are not enthralled with having blackjack players that know how to win play on their tables (they much rather have players that know how to lose), you must disguise the fact that you are card counting. You obviously can't move your lips while you are counting (that's a dead give away) and you must not increase your betting level in large increments no matter how high your count goes (big jumps in bet size are another give away that a player may be counting). Casinos in most gaming jurisdictions can and do bar suspected counters, especially those that bet large amounts of money. At the minimum, if they suspect a person is card counting, they will shuffle up for no reason thus eliminating a counter's potential advantage.

Obviously, how much you bet and whether it's a single- or multiple-deck game has a great influence on how much scrutiny you get from the casino bosses when you play. But don't let this fact of card counting stop you from becoming a card counter. By following the betting recommendations that you'll find in most blackjack books that cover card counting and casino comportment, it's possible to have longevity as a card counter.

To summarize here's what you have to master if you want to be a successful card counter.

  • Basic playing strategy
  • A card counting system
  • Speed and accuracy in keeping the count
  • Learning how to adjust your count in multiple deck games
  • Playing in games with good penetration and good rules.
  • Varying your bet size and playing strategy based upon the count
  • Having a decent betting spread for the type of game you are playing
  • Having the right bankroll to avoid going broke in the short term
  • Having the right "act" when you play to minimize scrutiny from casino bosses.

Card counting is not rocket science, but it does require work on your part to become an expert, successful card counter. Most wannabe card counters fail, not because they can't count accurately, but because of these two main reasons.

  • They overbet in relation to their bankroll.
  • They underestimate the mental stress and frustration of losing for days, weeks and sometimes even months (your edge is long term; short term you can and will lose).

If you're still game and want to become a card counter, I'd suggest you get yourself a deck of playing cards and start practicing.

Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at

Henry Tamburin Websites:

Books by Henry Tamburin:

Winning Baccarat Strategies

> More Books By Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at

Henry Tamburin Websites:

Books by Henry Tamburin:

> More Books By Henry Tamburin