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Blackjack: Learning to Count Cards in 4 Steps

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If you’re familiar with blackjack, you’ve probably heard about card counting as a way of increasing one’s chances of winning. With an effective strategy, a player can realistically achieve an advantage of 1% – 2% over the house. How to do it then? Read on to find out more!


 #1. Learn Basic Strategy

Blackjack cards

Blackjack is different from certain casino games like roulette, in that the player is required to make decisions during the game: Hit or Stand? Insurance or no Insurance? Double Down or Hit? If you want to win money counting cards, you absolutely need to know which call to make without thinking twice.

For example, a lot of beginner players will hit on 12 vs 5 or 6 for a dealer, thinking they are more or less safe. This is a foolish move as there is always around a 30% chance of drawing a 10 and going bust. Plus, the dealer has a relatively high chance of going bust with a 5 or 6 upcard.

If you play the wrong strategy, you are going to cancel out any advantage you might be gaining by counting cards. There are many guides to basic strategy available for free online, so get to know your playbook before you go out on to the field!

#2. Do Your Homework

Blackjack theory books

In order to count cards effectively, you need to memorize the strategy, in order to replicate it for real at the casino, and have an understanding of the theory behind the strategy. Some card counting systems, like Hi-Lo, are relatively simple to learn and execute.

With this system, cards are assigned a value as follows:

Card ValueCount Value
2, 3, 4, 5, 6+1
7, 8, 90
10, J, Q, K, A-1

You need to keep a running count as each card is dealt and remember that a high count is good for the player because it means that there are more 10s, picture cards and aces remaining in the shoe. This in turn means a greater chance of the following favorable outcomes:

  • Player gets dealt blackjack, which is paid out at 3 to 2
  • Dealer goes bust, which means the player wins if they have not also gone bust
  • Double down bet wins, as basic strategy dictates taking this option in situations where a 10 or picture card is desirable

The idea is to increase the bet size when the card count is high, as the player will have a greater chance of winning. When the count is low, the player has less of a chance of winning.

There is some useful material available for free online, such as specialized websites and video tutorials. This one looks at some of the most common topics to do with card counting.

If you want to go deeper, why not invest in some literature on the subject? Many blackjack experts, such as Stanford Wong (Blackjack Secrets, Professional Blackjack), Ian Andersen (Turning the Tables on Las Vegas) and Don Schlesinger (Blackjack Attack), have published guides which could give you a competitive edge at the table. A small outlay will be worth it if you make a profit in the long run.

#3. Practice makes perfect

Practice time

Once you understand how to count cards, you’ll want to put some time into practicing this skill. Start out by dealing your way through a deck of 52 cards one by one, keeping a count throughout. When you get to the end of the deck, your count should be 0. If it isn’t, you’ve made a mistake along the way, so go back and repeat until you’ve got it down.

Casino blackjack games usually use multiple decks of cards to avoid shuffling too frequently. Add a second deck and so forth, until you are able to keep an accurate count with 8 decks in play. This is the maximum number of decks commonly used.

Practicing alone, there’s no way to perfectly imitate a casino environment. For one thing, at the casino you won’t be dealing the cards and you may have to keep a count based on cards dealt to several other players. Not to mention all the distractions that will hamper your concentration, like noise, interaction with other people and pressure.

So the best way to gain confidence is to get out there and play for small stakes to start with. Once you are comfortable with maintaining a count, you can think about integrating the next part of your strategy: varying your bet size.

#4. Team Up To Avoid Detection

Teamwork

While card counting is not illegal, one of the biggest challenges for players is keeping their activity secret. Casino staff know how to spot card counters and management have the right to refuse your custom. If there is a chance of you hurting the house’s bottom line, that’s a right they are going to exercise.

In theory, the player would like to bet big any time the count is high and small at other times, but this kind of unsubtle variation in bet size will give the game away quickly. You need to appear like a regular gambler at all costs, to avoid attracting suspicion. Remember, if your cover is blown, you’re going to have to find somewhere else to play.

If you’ve seen the casino movie 21, you’ll have heard about the MIT team who ran a professional organisation winning thousands of dollars at Vegas casinos in the 1990’s. If your friends are smart, trustworthy and interested in gambling, see if they want to form a team with you.

That way, one player can bet the minimum at the table and signal when the count is high, so another player can come in and bet big at the opportune moment.


If you’re serious about learning to count cards, you’ll need to be committed as it’s only in the long run and with perfect execution that you can be sure of a profit. Blackjack is game with high variance so there are bound to be some periods of losses along the way. Don’t let that discourage you – just remember to be responsible with the amounts of money you bet.

We hope you find these pointers a useful starting point and wish you good luck on the tables! 

If you want more poker advice, check out do I have to pay taxes on my poker winnings?

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