Card Counting in Blackjack – Can You Bring Down the House?

10 minutes

Last Updated: February 3, 2024

card counting in blackjack

Blackjack players consider counting cards the ultimate technique for reliably obtaining an advantage over the casino and beating it consistently in its own game.

On the other hand, casinos consider it cheating or at the very least advantage play and have a firm stance against it.

But, is this strategy really efficient nowadays, and can you bring down the house with it? If so, which card-counting system should you choose for the best results?

In this detailed discussion on counting cards in blackjack, we’ll go over precise steps on how to count cards, consider how effective it is in modern casinos, and cover other important aspects you take into account for the best results at the blackjack table.

What Is Card Counting?

Card counting is an infamous blackjack strategy that players can use to get an advantage over the casino. As such, it’s a form of advantage play that casinos frown upon and disallow at the blackjack table.

Card counters must keep track of the deck and make decisions accordingly. The simple principle of this form of advantage play is to make more sizable bets when you have an advantage and bet less when you don’t.

Of course, as the situation can change with every deal, this requires a lot of attention and constant focus. This is why many experienced blackjack players often say that card counting is easy to learn but hard to master.

How Difficult Is Blackjack Card Counting to Learn?

Blackjack card counters are often depicted as math and statistics prodigies who can visualize the cards and make optimal decisions instantly.

While card counting is challenging to master, most players can do it if they put in the effort. In fact, it’s more about concentration, attention, and good memory rather than mathematical capabilities.

Still, this doesn’t make it any easier to learn. The main challenge that comes with counting cards is that you need to constantly pay attention to all of the action at the table.

You need to keep the correct tally of the cards and always remember to count even while making betting decisions.

This is why you need to put in countless hours of practice if you want to become a prolific card counter.

Even then, there’s no guarantee that you can stay prolific over time unless you also master basic blackjack strategies to ensure optimal decision-making.

How to Count Cards in Blackjack – A Step-by-Step Guide

blackjack card counting

From Hi-Opt to Knock Out, Red Seven, and many other card counting systems, there’s no shortage of options. That said, High-low (Hi-Lo) card counting remains the most popular and widely used system.

As this strategy is also among the best for blackjack players of all skill levels, it’s the one we’ll focus on on this page.

With that in mind, let’s go over the entire process step-by-step on how you can use High-Low card counting to get an advantage over the casino when playing blackjack:

1. Assigning Values to Cards

Before you can use the Hi-Lo system, you need to establish an evaluating system you’ll use when tracking the cards.

This step is fairly easy to learn, but it’s crucial to memorize all of the card values correctly. Here’s how you assign values to each card in the Hi-Lo system:

  • +1 Cards – 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6
  • -1 Cards – 10, J, Q, K, and A
  • Cards Worth 0 – 7, 8, and 9

You should use this system to assign a value to every card that comes up. This doesn’t only include your cards, but the dealer’s as well, and the cards of any other player in the game.

This first step is critical and must be done without fault. Missing out on even a single card can completely throw off the system and lead you to make poor decisions.

2. Using the Values to Count Cards

When you know how to properly assign values to each card, you can start keeping a running count in the game. This step takes a lot of practice, as you need to keep the count while still focusing on the action.

That said, it’s mostly a memory game, and you don’t need to do any complicated math.

So, using the card values we assigned in the previous step, you can keep a count after every card comes up.

For instance, let’s say that you have a Q (-1), 3 (+1) hand, and the dealer is showing a 5 (+1) and hits a 9(0). At the end of this hand, the count is -1+1+1+0, equalling +1.

For this step, it’s best to practice at home using multiple card decks and dealing them out until you play through all of the cards. This way, you can practice for free and easily check cards or start again if you make a mistake.

3. Convert Your Running Count to a True Count

Okay, so you’ve kept a running count for a number of hands, but how can you actually know what it means? As the vast majority of today’s blackjack games use multiple decks, you need to factor in all of the cards by calculating the true count.

This is a fairly easy step, as all you have to do to get the true count is to divide your current running count by the number of decks in the game.

For instance, if you’re playing a six-deck blackjack game and have a running count of +10, you would divide 10 by 6 to get the true count.

In this case, you would get 1.66, which you can round up to +2. In this case, it would mean that the house no longer has the edge, which brings us to the fourth and final step of the Hi-Lo card counting system.

4. Use the True Count to Your Advantage

After keeping track of all of the cards and determining the true count, the last step is to size your bets accordingly.

The higher the count, the bigger the ratio of high to low cards in the remaining deck is. Naturally, the higher this concentration is, the bigger your advantage is over the casino.

For example, if a true count is at least positive, you should double the table’s minimum bet you previously wagered. If the true count is +2, +3, or +4, you should continue increasing your bet adequately and take advantage of the favorable odds you’re facing.

That said, it’s essential to keep your bet sizing inconspicuous to the casino staff, as you don’t want to let them know you’re counting cards.

A good rule of thumb is to not increase your bet sizes dramatically after a seemingly set pattern. Ideally, keep a “bet spread” that will allow you to size bets without raising any suspicions.

Alternative Card Counting Systems Besides Hi-Lo

While the vast majority of blackjack card counters use Hi-Lo, you can also explore other systems to see which one suits you best. With that in mind, here are a few alternative card-counting systems you can try out if you don’t want to use Hi-Lo:

  • Hi-Opt – This card counting system comes in two variations, the Hi-Opt I and the Hi-Opt II. The two are very similar, although the latter is a bit more complex. So, depending on your overall strategic knowledge of blackjack, you can pick a version that works better for you.
  • K-O (Knock Out) – The Knock Out card counting system is one of the easiest to learn, making it a great pick for novice card counters. That said, it’s not as precise as Hi-Opt or Hi-Lo, so is something you should progress from as you gain confidence and learn more.
  • KISS – Like Hi-Opt, this system comes in multiple variations. In this case, you can choose between KISS I, KISS II, or KISS III. Starting from simplest to most complex, these three systems are an excellent pick if you want to stick with one system that evolves in both accuracy and complexity.

How Effective Is Counting Cards in Blackjack?

blackjack card counting strategy

With everything above in mind, it’s also essential to understand just how effective counting cards is in blackjack. White it can undeniably get you an edge over the house, you shouldn’t overestimate its usefulness.

When properly executed, card counting can completely nullify the casino’s edge and give you an advantage of up to 0.5%, sometimes even up to 1%. However, as there are several variables in play, it’s impossible to say exactly what scenario you’ll experience.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that counting cards in blackjack most likely won’t win you big money overnight, as it’s usually depicted in movies.

Counting cards is for those focused on the long game, as it's all about adding up small numbers and building a more sizable bankroll.

Will The Casino Let You Beat It By Counting Cards?

The answer to this is pretty obvious, and it’s that the casino will have zero tolerance for any player counting cards. Casinos consider this advantage play cheating and won’t hesitate to throw you out of the building if you get caught.

Having said that, counting cards is not illegal, despite what most casino players believe. So, while you will most likely be asked to leave the premises, you won’t actually get into any legal trouble for counting cards.

Nonetheless, it might lead to a permanent ban from the casino, and other casinos as well, if the establishment you were banned for spreads the word.

Why a Blackjack Strategy Is Key When Counting Cards

While counting cards is an effective way to gain an advantage over the casino, it’s not very useful if you don’t have a solid grasp of the basic blackjack strategies.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much effort to find fully detailed blackjack strategy charts online. These charts indicate the optimal decision you should make depending on the situation.

If you’re a complete beginner, you can even bring these charts with you to the blackjack table. Most casinos do not prohibit the use of blackjack strategy charts.

Nevertheless, constantly consulting with these charts will slow down the game, so it’s best to try to memorize them.

Additionally, if you want to maximally boost your long-term winnings, you should look for tables that pay 3:2 for a natural blackjack and ideally offer the surrender option.

All of these strategies and small rules combined can make a noticeable difference in your favor, especially in the long run.

Does Card Counting Work In Modern Casinos?

tips for card counting

Needless to say, counting cards in online blackjack is impossible, as these games are completely software-powered. They use RNGs, so everything is automated and randomized, removing the chance of any manipulation.

What’s more, even in land-based casinos, counting cards has become an increasingly challenging feat. While the math behind card counting hasn’t changed, the casinos have certainly become more sophisticated in detecting these activities.

Casinos nowadays closely monitor blackjack players in an effort to perceive even the smallest signs of suspicious behavior. Some casinos even use software to track bets so they can see if players display any patterns of card counting.

So, if you’re ready to try counting cards in a casino near you, remember that there’s a high chance of getting caught.

That said, it’s not impossible, as some players can pull off counting cards without being busted. So perhaps, the odds being this stacked against you will make this activity even more rewarding to try.

Blackjack Card Counting FAQ

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