Blackjack may just be the most popular card game in the world, and it’s one that most people who frequent casinos have played at least a few times.
Like other gambling games, blackjack is, in fact, a game of math, where frequencies and probabilities determine the final outcome.
Unlike games like baccarat or roulette, though, blackjack is not purely a game of chance. The player actually gets a say in what happens, and by playing the correct strategy, you give yourself a better winning chance.
However, the sad truth is that even when playing perfect basic strategy, you will still end up losing by a very slight margin in this game. The house edge is just 0.5% if you play perfectly, but it still exists.
This, of course, is only true if you don’t use another extra strategy on top of your basic strategy, and that’s counting cards.
Counting cards is a skill that can only be used in the game of blackjack, and in this article, I am going to teach you how to count cards, how it will improve your chance to win, and how it can potentially completely negate the house edge.
You may not believe it’s possible to turn the tables around and become a favorite in a gambling game, but in blackjack, it very much is.
Let’s talk about blackjack card counting and how you can use it in an actual casino to gain a significant edge without any further ado.
Where Did Counting Cards Come From?
Card counting is a blackjack technique that was invented by a mathematician by the name of Edward O. Thorpe. Thorpe was fascinated by probability, permutations, and games. He took a particular interest in the blackjack game as he realized it might be possible to beat it.
Thorpe quickly discovered that the house edge in the blackjack game is very small and that removing a single deuce from a deck of cards would actually make the player a favorite, so long as they played the perfect strategy.
This discovery gave him an idea!
If he could know how many small and big cards were removed from the deck at any point, he could know whether or not he was the favorite at that particular moment.
In 1962, Thorpe released a book titled “Beat the Dealer” and officially became the blackjack card counting technique’s father. The book also outlined how one should play when counting cards.
However, the main part of the book focused on how exactly one could gain an edge by taking note of which cards were being dealt out of the deck. At that time, a single card deck was used to deal the game.
Counting Cards in Action
Now that I have talked about where it comes from, it’s time to teach you how to count cards in blackjack.
The process of card counting is actually very simple, but it requires a sharp mind and lots of focus more than anything else.
This technique aims to take a mental note of every card that is dealt out from the deck or the shoe.
If you think that you can’t remember all those cards, you would probably be right. Fortunately, you don’t really need to! All you need is some simple counting and keeping track of the running count.
The running count is calculated in the following way:
- When the dealer deals out a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, add +1 to the running count
- When the dealer deals out a 7, 8, or 9, do not change the running count
- When the dealer deals out a 10, J, Q, K, or A, subtract – 1 from the running count
Every time there is a new card shown on the table, you should update your count in your brain. It doesn’t matter whether the card was dealt to you, the dealer, or another player at the table.
This way, you will always know the actual running count of the remaining deck. The higher the running count, the better your odds become. If the running count is +3 or +4, you should start betting bigger if the game is being dealt out of a single deck of cards.
The reasons behind the higher count working in your favor include the fact you are more likely to make a blackjack, and the dealer is more likely to bust with the hit/stand rules that only apply to them.
Blackjack Shoes and True Count Explained
In the early days, card counters had a very easy job. The games were dealt out of a single card deck, and card counting in blackjack was very simple. You could easily sit down and find yourself at a table with a hot deck within a short time.
After some time of losing money to card counters, the casinos realized that there was a way to counter them quite effectively.
By adding more decks of cards to the table, the casino can make it more difficult for counters to have an edge over them by counting cards.
Modern shoes were introduced, containing six decks of cards. If you have ever been to Las Vegas, you have probably seen the dealer taking cards out of a plastic box on the side of the table loaded with cards. This box is called the shoe!
Now, having a high running count when a single deck is in play will give you a significant advantage. The same count on a six-deck shoe may not be enough to even have an edge at all.
This is why counters came up with the concept of a true count. The true count depends on the number of decks that are in play. If there are six decks in play (which is usually the case), you will reach the true count of 1 when the running count is 6.
To calculate the true count, all you need to do is divide the running count number with the number of decks in the shoe. As the shoe is emptied, you will need to know how many decks are still in play to determine the true count. A good counter will be able to tell this by simply looking at the shoe.
Remember, you will need a true count of at least +1 to have an edge over the house, and in reality, a higher count will be needed to actually crush the casino.
Counting Cards with a Team
The point of counting cards in blackjack is not simply to know the count and possibly gain a tiny edge over the house. Instead, the goal is to win as much money as possible once the deck becomes hot.
To do this, you will have to play the perfect basic strategy and know your count, but also bet much bigger when the deck is hot and much smaller when the deck is cold.
This is not easy to do if you are playing alone, especially in modern-day casinos, since the staff may be aware that card counting is a thing and may ask you to stop playing if they become suspicious.
This will never happen when you play slots, for example, as casinos know that their edge there is fixed and can’t be changed. With blackjack, they’re much more careful.
For that exact reason, card counters came up with the idea of playing as a team. The way that works is one player will sit at a table, bet small, and count the cards. Once the deck is hot, they will signal the “big player” who will come up to the table and start betting big.
Many things need to be done to pull this off correctly, such as finding appropriate signals, telling the big player the running count without tipping the staff off, and making sure you are not detected.
This all may seem like a criminal enterprise, but it is really not. Everything done when counting cards is perfectly legal in most countries, although it was highly debated in the USA.
Is Blackjack Card Counting Really Legal?
The art of blackjack card counting gives players an edge over the casinos. As such, it may feel like cheating, but it really isn’t. The nature of the game is simply such that some extra intellectual work can give you an edge.
Of course, the casinos would love it if card counting was completely illegal, but despite multiple attempts in American courts, there was never any law on the state or federal level that made the activity illegal. Counting cards is also legal in the rest of the world, at least for the most part.
However, while counting may be legal, it is very important not to tip the casino staff off to the fact you are doing it.
If they realize what you are up to, they will ban you from playing blackjack or from entering their property altogether.
Once this happens, you will not have any options to fight the decision. The casino has every right to ban any customer, and they don’t need a reason to do it. Once you are banned, you can be arrested for trespassing if you still decide to come into the casino.
Also, remember that there is a thin line between giving yourself an advantage through counting and creating it by actually cheating. The use of any electronic devices, card switching, counterfeiting casino chips, and other techniques may land you in jail for fraud.
Remember to stay under the radar and do your card counting manually. As long as the casino you are playing in is located in a lawful country, you will not get in any trouble with the authorities for it.
The MIT Blackjack Team – Counting Cards the Right Way
Counting cards actually made it into mainstream television, movies, and books, mostly due to the infamous MIT team’s actions.
The team was formed back in 1979 by a group of students at MIT, one of the world’s best technology schools.
Over a period of some 20 years, the team and its members changed in many ways, but they were consistently successful at beating casinos in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and other parts of the USA at blackjack.
As you would expect, such an enterprise had its ups and downs, but they conclusively proved that card counting works in a very big way.
The MIT team became history in 2000 when the last of its members went their separate ways, but the idea of card counting still remains one that is worth considering.
The MIT was an inspiration for books like “Bringing Down the House” and gambling movies like “21,” which starred Kevin Spacey and added some glamour to the MIT team’s actual story.
Counting Cards in Blackjack in 2021 – Is It Still Valid?
It’s not that hard to learn how to count cards in blackjack, although it takes some time and effort. However, the technique was invented back in the 60s when the game was different, and the casinos were easier to beat.
All of this takes nothing away from the basic premise and the fact that blackjack can still be beaten with card counting, even with six decks in the shoe.
All it takes is dedication, focus, and discipline. If you were to do it today, you would also have to be very careful not to get detected, but as long as you don’t get too greedy, that’s also possible.
I’m not saying you should go to your local casino and start counting cards at the blackjack table, but if you want to do it, remember that it’s perfectly legal and one of few ways to make money in a casino.
Card Counting FAQs
If you still have some questions remaining about counting cards in blackjack after reading this article or aren’t sure about particular aspects of the technique, check these frequently asked questions to find the answers you need.
How to count cards in blackjack?
Card counting in blackjack is not too hard. Whenever you see a 2-6 on the table, add one to your count. When you see a 7, 8, or 9, leave the count as is. When you see a 10 or a face card, subtract one from the count. The higher the count, the more advantage you have against the dealer.
What are the running count and the true count?
The running count is the number you get by adding and subtracting 1 every time a new card is dealt on the table. When multiple decks are in play, you must divide this number by the number of decks remaining in the shoe to get the true count. Always use the true count to determine how much you should bet.
Can I win money with card counting in blackjack?
Absolutely! Over the years, multiple card counting teams have been able to win significant amounts of money by applying simple systems for counting cards. If you can count right, play a good basic strategy, and remain disciplined, you will win money.
Is card counting illegal?
Counting cards is not illegal in the USA or any other western country. You can count cards and change bets as you deem fit at all times. As far as the authorities are concerned, this is not cheating or fraud, and there is nothing illegal about it.
Can I get banned from the casino if I count cards?
While blackjack card counting is legal, it is frowned upon by casinos. This is why you may very well get banned from the property you are playing in if you are found to be counting cards. Try to stay under the radar when, and you should be just fine.
What is basic strategy, and why should I know it?
Without playing blackjack the correct way, it won’t matter if you are counting cards or not. You will have to learn the basic strategy first, as this is the optimal way to play blackjack in every situation. Once you have this strategy down, you can start thinking of giving yourself an edge by counting cards.
When should I bet big when counting cards?
You can start betting bigger the moment your true count becomes positive. However, remember that the higher the count is, the higher your theoretical advantage becomes. This is why big bets can be made at counts of +5 or higher, while only a small increase should be made when the deck is at +1.