Blackjack Card Counting

Most people have heard the term "blackjack card counting" used before, but do they truly know what it means? You most likely know what it is; in truth, it is the gateway toward achieving a long-run edge over the house in the game of blackjack. Though there is a certain amount mythology surrounding it, card counting in blackjack is not a "deep, dark secret." In fact, it is actually something that is rather easily explained. The hard part is implementing it to the point where it is an effective weapon. 

There has been quite a bit of mathematical analysis of blackjack, and it has been determined that when there is an excess of ten-value cards and Aces among the remaining cards, the player can be at an advantage. Why is this? Well, it has its roots in the rules of the game. Remember that the very basic rules require that the dealer has to hit any total of 16 and stand on 17 or higher. The player does not have to do those things. The dealer cannot split pairs, double down or take insurance, while the player can. 

What does all this mean? Well, if the objective of the player is to beat the dealer, by any means possible, then it certainly would be useful for the player to know when there is an excess or shortage of tens and Aces, because that would inform him or her as to when it made sense to, for example, stand when the dealer had a high probability of busting; when to double when there is a good chance of achieving a very good hand, or when to split when there is a likelihood of two or more "pat" hands coming out of the transaction.

Blackjack card counting is designed to alert the player as to when these situations arise. But it is not just something that will help with making playing decisions. Actually, card counters derive much more value out of a card count when it comes to their betting strategy. And that makes all the sense in the world, since you want to wager more money when you know that you are at an advantage. So you, as the player, would bet more money when the count is "positive." 

So what does THAT mean? Well, a basic look at card counting in blackjack indicates that you would be required to assign a plus (+) value to the "low" cards (which can be anywhere from 2 though 6, or in some counts, 3 through 7), and a minus (-) value to cards that have a value of ten (10, Jack, Queen King) as well as nines and Aces. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you are going to use +1 or -1 for these values, with the eight (8) considered to be neutral. As the cards are shown to you at the table, you will add or subtract as you see them and keep a "running count." For the sake of speed, you will condition yourself to count combinations, so for example, if a three (3) and a ten (10) came out as  a combination, the cumulative value is zero.  In a 52-card deck, all the values added together would come to zero. 

When the running count is in "plus" (+) territory, you are at an advantage, because you know that there is a cumulative minus value in the remaining deck or show, and that means there must be an overabundance of cards that are good for you. It gets a little more involved than that, but this shows you the basic principle of what the card counting blackjack player is involved with.

Card Counting - How Much Can You Make?

There are few subjects in the world of gambling that are as intriguing as that of beating the blackjack odds. The game is a mathematical exercise, in a different way then, say, poker is, in the sense that there is a right and wrong way to play hands. There is a house edge, and a way to beat that house edge. That way is to utilize the card count.

There are different blackjack strategies that make use of a card count. They carry differing degrees of strength, all yielding certain advantages against the blackjack odds. They all require a tremendous amount of work and preparation in order to implement effectively. They aren't always effective when it comes to playing blackjack online, but in the land-based casino, you can make it work easier. 

Some people are under the impression that because someone might have an edge over the house by being able to play card counting blackjack strategies, anyone who can do it is rich. But that is certainly not the case. In fact, for most people who do it alone (that is to say, not in conjunction with a team), it is a grind. 

The advantage you're going to have over the casino with blackjack strategies centered around card counting will yield something in the neighborhood of 1.5%. That is a long-run edge, but it has to be developed very carefully. 

The one thing you certainly have to remember about card counting is that when we talk about an advantage in the blackjack odds, it is something that works on every hand. And it can calculated into a formula that could supply you with an expectation as to how much money you can make. 

The earnings potential itself does not depend so much on how much of an edge you have over the house as much as it does on the bankroll that you are bringing to your playing sessions, along with the kind of table conditions you can get. 

This is what we mean; you have to have an average bet that is high enough that it can make it worth your while to implement the strategy. If you're playing a few dollars a hand, you'll have fun, and you'll prove yourself to be skillful, but it won't be a bonanza. 

You must also be able to play enough hands during the course of an hour. What kind of table can you find?: That's a factor, because you will make more money at a table where you are able to play 100 hands an hour than one where you are playing just 60. When it comes to blackjack online; well, that can be a little different. 

The formula takes the advantage you have, times the average bet, times the number of hands you can play per hour. Therefore, if you are betting $10 per hand, and can play 80 hands an hour, your expectation of earnings would be the following:

.015 (advantage) x 10 (average bet) x 80 (hands per hour) = $12

That's right; you can expect to make $12 per hour under these circumstances. If you could play $100 per hand, you could make $120 per hour. 

So card counting in blackjack is not the kind of thing that is going to make you wealthy, unless you are going to take a big bankroll into the casino.

Is Anything Simple About Card Counting?

Many people think that it is a very easy thing to beat the house in blackjack, because after all, there are blackjack strategies that have been devised to do it, right? 

One of those, of course, is through counting the cards. 

When card counting in a blackjack game, your mission is to keep a "running count" of the cards, which is designated by a single number. When you are counting, you are not counting individual cards one at a time, but instead are doing so in pairs. So for example, if you are counting a hand as it is dealt to you, or to another player, a Jack and a three would be counted as a plus-one (+1) and a minus-one (-1) which will amount to zero (0). 

That seems simple enough, doesn't it? Well, it is, and that is why, for example, authors like the renowned Ken Uston have referred to such a strategy as the "Simple Plus-Minus." If you can add or subtract one or two from any number, you can certainly handle the mental gymnastics that are necessary. But that's only what appears on the surface. 

The part that isn't so simple is to learn the count and master it, so that it can be played under fast casino conditions that are out of your control, unlike the kitchen table where you might have conducted your practice sessions. 

Before any of this can be done, however, you need to get a foundation, which means you need to learn the Basic Strategy, which outlines a set of playing decisions that you will make in response to any given player vs. dealer situation. No one should undertake a card counting blackjack system unless this is done.

Assuming you have learned that, however, you are going to have to prepare to the point where you can see card combinations in your sleep. Remember, you are not counting cards one at a time, but in combinations, and when you have those combinations, you have to add or subtract them from other combinations and be able to keep a running count perfectly. Honestly, if you cannot count down an entire 52-card deck in 20 seconds or less, you are not even close to being ready to employ a card count in the casinos. 

Furthermore, if you are playing with blackjack strategies like a simple plus-minus count, you are going to have to use a "true count," which means you will have to become very proficient in looking at a discard rack and estimating, in terms of decks, how many have been played and how many remain to be played.  You may be playing a six-deck game, so you'll have to put six decks together and pull out random stacks so that you can practice doing this. If you cannot do this consistently, and with a very high degree of accuracy, you are not going to be ready to beat a multiple-deck game. 

So the lesson to be learned, for those of you who believe it is so "simple" to employ a card counting blackjack system, even a rudimentary one, is that beating the house takes a lot of work and a lot of precision. 

Beating Blackjack With a Simple Plus/Minus Count

Can blackjack be beaten? It sure can. There are various methods available for overcoming the house edge and gaining a long-term advantage, and one of those is by employing a rather simple blackjack plus-minus count. 

The idea is this: when you are aware that there is an abundance of high cards (ten-value cards and Aces) left to be played, you can be holding an edge over the house, because of the fact that you will be able to take advantage of the options that are allowed; e.g., splitting, doubling and insurance. Also, while the dealer is constrained to playing within a strict set of rules, in which he must hit 16 and stand on 17, you don't, which means that you can use this to your advantage as well. 

Mathematical studies that have been done on the game, going all the way back to the pioneer of blackjack card counting, Dr. Edward O. Thorp, have demonstrated that when an abundance of these cards is left, the player has the edge. The question is how to exploit it. 

One way this is done is with the blackjack plus-minus count, in which numerical values are assigned to cards as they are played from the deck or shoe. These values will be either plus-one (+1), minus-one (-1) or zero (0). When the low cards are removed (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), you will count them as plus-one (+1). When the high cards (Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10) are removed, they are counted as minus-one (-1). There are three cards in this count that are not counted at all. Those would be 7, 8 and 9. They are known as "neutral" cards. 

In the blackjack plus-minus count you are going to train yourself to count the cards not individually, but in combinations. So if a combination of a King and an eight (8) is dealt to you, that would constitute a minus-one (-1) combination. You will add and subtract combinations, then individual cards as they are given to each player. Count every card you see. 

The count that you have at any given time will govern a couple of things: what variations on your playing strategy you are going to make, and how much you are going to bet on any given hand. However, the running count alone isn't going to get the job done. For this, you are going to have to convert your blackjack plus-minus count to "count per deck." This is also known as the "true count." 

What you'll do is divide the running count you have compiled by the number of decks that remain to be played. This requires another blackjack card counting skill, which is the ability to estimate the number of decks that are in the discard rack. So for example, if your running count is +6, and there have been two decks played out of a six-deck shoe, that means there are four remaining. You'll divide +6 by four and your true count is +1.5. You may want to raise your bet one unit when you get to this point. In fact, you may want to lay out a betting strategy that raises the bet one unit for every half-point above +1 you come to in the true count. 

Estimating remaining decks is one part of the game that involves a little more art than science, but if you are going to play the blackjack plus-minus count, it's something you want to practice, over and over again!

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