At a young age my gran taught me blackjack over long rainy weekends when I would stay at her caravan on holiday.
It wasn’t long before I was looking for more and more sneaky ways to win. My favourite trick was stacking the deck a little while before we played so that I would be likely to win every hand.
It wasn’t long before my gran cottoned onto this and the deck got shuffled regularly and my edge was gone.
As I grew older I discovered that people could actually gain a mathematical edge at blackjack by counting cards.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is the MIT blackjack team, made famous by the movie based on them “21”.
Students from Harvard Business School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known as the MIT blackjack team, were trained to count cards and would take regular weekend trips over to Vegas where they would consistently beat the casinos at their own game.
This was done back in the 1980’s but I was curious to learn how they did it and whether or not card counting could still be profitable.
As a teenager I spent countless hours learning the ins and outs or card counting, reading various books on the subject, memorising basic strategy and practising.
When I finally turned 18 and was of legal age to gamble I took a few trips to my local casino and tested my skills for real with mixed results before ultimately being bard for card counting.
My card counting endeavour finished with a profit of just over a £2000.00 which was a lot of money for me at the time, but given the time I spent learning to count cards combined with the hours spent playing blackjack it paid less than minimum wage.
I turned my focus to poker for a short period before finally settling on sports betting (mainly horse racing) as my preferred method of advantage betting.
I’d like to share with you a relatively brief guide on how to count cards (to varying degrees of skill level) starting with a count which anyone can learn up to some of the counts the pros use.
I’ll start by covering the rules of blackjack.
Originally blackjack was played with a single deck of cards but it is now more commonly played with anywhere between 2 to 8 decks. The decks are shuffled up and then dealt from a specially designed box called a shoe from the dealers left to right.
The aim of Blackjack is to have a hand of greater value than the dealers without exceeding a value of 21. Face cards count as a value of 10 and aces can be a 1 or an 11.
Once you place your bet you will be dealt two cards, both face up and the dealer will be dealt two cards, one is face up and the other is face down.
You can now either take another card (HIT), double your bet and receive only one more card (DOUBLE DOWN) or take no more cards (STAND) with the aim of beating the dealer’s hand. If you go over 21 you bust and lose your initial stake. If you get more than the dealer and get 21 or less you win. If this happens you win your bet back plus the same amount again.
If you are dealt an a ace and another card which has a value of 10 with your first 2 cards you have blackjack and will be paid 3 to 2 on your bet unless the dealer also has blackjack in which you will push and only receive your initial stake.
If you are dealt a pair you can place an additional bet the same size as your original bet and split the cards. An additional card will be dealt to each hand and you will play each of these hands as normal.
The dealer will deal themselves one card face up and one card face down. If the dealer’s upcard is an ace the dealer will offer the players insurance. By taking an insurance bet you are making a side bet that the dealers face down card (hole card) has a value of 10 meaning the dealer would have a blackjack and therefore beat all the players’ hands except those who also had blackjack, in which case they would push. An insurance bet can be made up to 1.5x the players initial bet. For example, if a player placed an initial bet of £10 they could then make an insurance bet up to £15.
Insurance bet’s pay 2 to 1 so if the player made a £5 insurance bet and the dealer did have blackjack he would lose his initial bet of £10 but he would win his insurance bet and therefore break even.
The blackjack rules at casinos may differ slightly. In some casinos they may allow the player to surrender. If a player was to surrender the two card hand they were dealt would not be played out and the player would only lose half their bet. Most casinos will not allow you to surrender if the dealers up card is an ace or a ten before the dealer has checked whether they have blackjack or not.
Once all players have finished playing their hands the dealer will complete their own hand. The dealer has no options and must follow the house rules. The dealer must hit until they have a hand value of 17 or greater and then stand. The only exception to this is that some casinos require the dealer to hit on a soft 17, for example (A, 6). In these casinos the dealer stands on a hard 17 or over and on a soft 18 or over.
That covers most of the standard blackjack rules. If you have never played blackjack before you might want to practice playing at home with a deck of cards or search for free blackjack online and play a few games to familiarize yourself with blackjack rules.
Below is a list of alternative blackjack rules that you might find at some casinos. I have also included how each rule will affect your expected returns if you are playing using perfect basic strategy.
Rule Variations And Effect
Deck penetration is the term used to describe how many decks in a shoe are dealt before the shoe is changed. The penetration for an 8 deck shoe game where 6 of the decks were dealt would be 75%.
Deck penetration is very important and is going to have a large effect on how much money you are going to make from playing blackjack.
The greater the deck penetration the better as this is going to allow you to count more cards in the deck and therefor have a more accurate idea of what cards the remaining deck consists of.
By only playing games with a high penetration you minimize variance so you won’t have as many losing streaks as you would playing a lower penetration game.
Also, the less cards that are cut off at the end of a shoe, the more of a sure thing the game becomes. This means it will take you less time to win the same amount of money playing at a table with high penetration a pose to a table with low penetration.
Picking a Table
When you are picking a blackjack table to play at you should take into account both the rules and the penetration.
I would avoid any table playing with any of the negative rule variations from the table above and would not play at any table with a penetration less than 70% unless the rules were exceptionally good.
This is because you are going to have to invest too much time at these tables to make any money from. It’s a case of putting in a lot of effort for very little reward and doing this is pointless when there are better blackjack games out there.
If you are in a casino and can’t find any tables with alright rules and at least 70% penetration you should move on to the next casino.
Now you are familiar with blackjack rules and know how to pick a table to play at, it’s time to learn basic strategy.
There is only one mathematically correct way to play blackjack and that is to follow basic strategy. Basic strategy is the best way you can possibly play blackjack if you are not counting cards. If you are counting cards you will still mainly follow basic strategy but you will make a couple of adjustments to your play here and there depending on what the count is.
By playing using basic strategy depending on the table rules you will cut the house edge down to roughly no more than 0.5% over the player.
How does basic strategy work?
Unless you understand all the math that goes into basic strategy you are going to have to just accept that it is the most optimal way you can play blackjack however I would like to offer a rough explanation to the basic logic behind it.
In a deck of cards there are 16 cards that have a value of 10 and only four cards for every other value (four aces, four 2’s four 3’s etc.) This means you are four times more likely to draw a card with a value of 10 from the deck than you are to draw some other card such as a 6.
So when the dealer has a low upcard (2, 3, 4, 5 or 6) they are less likely to have a high total compared to if the dealer had a high upcard (7, 8, 9 or 10).
So if the dealer had a high upcard such as a 7 and you had a hard hand ranging from 12 – 16 you would hit as although you may be quite likely to bust it will yield greater results than standing due to the dealer having a high expected total.
When the dealer has a strong hand you do not want to stand with a mediocre hand. However if the dealers upcard was a 4 and you had a hard hand from 12 upwards you would stand as the dealer is showing a weak hand and is more likely to have to hit and go bust.
There is a lot more to it than that but that should give you a basic understanding of the logic behind basic strategy without having to be a math genius.
Below is the basic strategy chart. It may look quite intimidating at first but any blackjack player worth there salt needs to know this off the top of their head. In order to learn this chart you can start doing a couple training exercises every day until you know all the decisions of basic strategy inside and out.
Basic Strategy Chart
Grab a pack of cards and place a 2 face up on the table. This will represent the dealers’ upcard. I want you to then deal yourself two cards. This is your hand. You are then going to decide what you think the correct decision is. Once you have decided check the above chart to see if you were right or wrong. The put those two cards to the side and deal yourself another two cards leaving the 2 as the dealers’ upcard and do the same again. I want you to do this until you have dealt yourself the entire deck, then I want you change the dealers upcard to a 3 and go through the deck again. Continue to do this until you have gone through the entire deck 10 times with a different dealer upcard each time. Repeat this exercise until you no longer need to consult the basic strategy chart.
To practice splitting pairs I want you to do the same as above but in reverse. You will deal yourself a pair of 2’s and change the dealers’ upcard each hand whilst deciding what the correct decision would be and the consulting the basic strategy chart. You would then deal yourself a pair of 3’s and go through the deck changing the upcards and so on.
Keep practicing the two exercises above until you have memorized all the basic strategy decisions.
Simplified Basic Strategy
For those of you who don’t want to go to all the effort of memorizing basic strategy. There’s a simpler version of basic strategy that was designed by WizardOfOdds.com This is not as effective as basic strategy but is much easier to memorize and will knock the house advantage down to about 1.5%.
I highly recommend you take the time to learn proper basic strategy as a pose to the simplified version above if you are to have any chance at winning money in the long run. If you pair the simplified strategy with a reasonable counting system you may be able to get the casino’s edge down to practically zero or slightly in your favour depending on what count you are using and you’ll end up breaking even in the long run. This is great if you’re just at the casino to have fun and a great strategy to use if you’re trying to hustle comps and want to avoid being suspected of card counting. However if your main goal is to maximize your winnings playing blackjack, learn basic strategy.
Once you have mastered basic strategy you can start to count cards.
Card counting is what allows us to turn blackjack from a negative into a positive expectancy game. Basic strategy can only take you so far by minimizing the house edge down to 0.5% so in order to make money from playing blackjack we have to count cards. The theory behind card counting is simple. When there are more high cards in the remaining deck than low cards the player can expect to win more often and vice versa so by card counting you keep track of how many high and low cards have been dealt and bet more when there are a greater number of high cards left in the deck and less when there are a greater number of low cards in the deck.
There are lots of different methods to counting cards all with the pros and cons and different people will prefer to use different methods. On this site you’ll find details of a number of them explaining how to use them and the advantages and disadvantages to each giving you all the information to allow you to decide which strategy will work best for you.
The Ace Five count is one of the simplest counts out there. All blackjack counting systems work off of the basis that low cards (2’s through 7’s) are favourable to the dealer and high cards (10’s through to Ace’s) are favourable to the player. This is because if there is more 10’s and Ace’s in the deck the more blackjacks will be dealt. Now these blackjacks will be shared between the players and the dealer but a players blackjack pays 3 to 2 whereas the dealers blackjack only pays them 1 to 1. More 10’s and Ace’s in the deck also means you will win more of your double downs and that the dealer is more likely to go bust.
How it works
The Ace Five count is based off the fact that a 5 is the best card that could be removed from the deck and the ace is the worst card that can be removed from the deck. The player starts the count at 0 at the start of the shoe and every time a 5 is dealt they add 1 to the count. Every time an ace is dealt they will subtract 1 from the count. If at the start of a hand the count is above +2 the player will double their previous bet. They will continue to do this until they reach their maximum bet or until the count drops below +2 in which case they would return to their minimum bet until the count went above +2 again.
To play using the Ace Five count you must establish a minimum and maximum bet. Your maximum bet using the Ace Five count should be 16 or 32x the size of your minimum bet depending on what table limits allow for. For example, if you’re minimum bet was £5 and you were playing at a table where the limits were £5-£100 your maximum bet would be £80 as this is 16x your minimum bet and the table limits won’t allow for a maximum bet of £160. If during the first hand of the shoe the dealer dealt 3 five’s and 1 ace the count would be +2 and the next hand you would double your bet to £10. If the count at the end of the second hand was still +2 or greater you would then double your bet to £20. So long as the count stayed equal to or greater than +2 you would continue to double your bet until you were betting £80 each hand. However if the count was to drop below +2 at any point you would return to betting your minimum bet of £5 until the count was equal to or greater than +2 again.
The Ace Five count is one of the easiest to implement but also unfortunately one of the least effective counts as far as getting an advantage over the casino goes. If you are using a bet spread of 1 to 32 Ace Five will give you around a 0.6% edge above basic strategy and if you are only using a 1 to 16 spread as shown in our example you can only expect to have a 0.5% edge above basic strategy. This means if you are using Ace Five you can expect to break even with the casinos in the long run. This isn’t terrible considering that almost everyone else playing blackjack will lose in the long run and also because the Ace Five count is so simple. That said there are better counting systems that will yield better results so long as you put in the time and effort to learn them.
Red 7 Count
The red 7 count is one of the most simple but powerful counting systems to be invented. It will give you the majority of the power that a more complex count such as hi lo would whilst be simple and easy to learn. It was invented by Arnold Snyder and he writes about it in great detail in his book Blackbelt in Blackjack.
When using the red 7 count you will assign a value of -1 to all aces and tens (including face cards) because when these cards are dealt the remaining deck becomes worse for the player.
The low cards (2, 3, 4, 5 and 6’s) are given the value of +1 because every time one of these cards are dealt the remaining deck becomes better for the player.
8’s and 9’s are neutral cards and you will count them a zero. This means you can ignore them when they are dealt.
Finally we count red 7’s as +1 and black 7’s as zero. The black 7’s are like the 8’s and 9’s and you can also ignore them. By counting only the red 7’s we create an imbalance which allows this count to work without having to convert the running count to a true count.
Table Of Values
Just like any other count you are going to have to practice counting through a deck of cards to make sure the values are engrained in your memory. To do this take a deck of cards, start at a count of zero and count through each card one by one using the values in the table above. If you have done it correctly and have counted through the whole deck the running count should be +2. Keep practicing this until you can do it fast and with little effort.
How to Implement the Red 7 Count in a Casino
So far I have only written about the values used in the red 7 count. I am now going to show you how you can use this count to gain an advantage over of the casinos.
In order to establish what your starting running count will be for a casino blackjack game you will have to look at the shoe and see how many decks are being used in the game. For every deck of cards you will need to subtract 2 from your starting running count. For example if you wished to use the red 7 count in a 6 deck blackjack game your starting running count would be -12. If you were using the red seven count in a 4 deck game your starting count would be -8.
We alter the starting count based on the number of decks in play in order to create a pivot point. This pivot point will always be 0. Once the running count in a game has reached 0 you will have about a 0.5% advantage over the casino.
We will decide how much we are going to bet based on the running count. The idea is to keep your bets small when the casino has an advantage over you and to bet bigger when the odds are in your favour. We can determine whether the odds are in our or not by checking the running count. If the running count is passed the pivot point of zero it is time to start increasing your bets as you have around a 0.5% advantage over the casino.
Bet sizing is more of an art than a science and a lot of variables come into play. For example (size of your bankroll, risk of ruin, arousing suspicion) You don’t want to bet bigger than you can afford because despite the odds being in your favour you might have an unlucky run and lose ten hands in a row.
You also don’t want to have a bet spread too large or the casino management may suspect you of being a card counter and ask you to leave. Learning how to size your bets in different situations will come with experience and you will learn to know how much you can get away with betting. However for those just starting out with the red 7 count I have made a table for you to base your bet sizes off. The following table refers to units to bet. The value of one unit is whatever your minimum bet is.
One last thing to note that when using this count if the count is 0 or higher you should always take insurance. Doing so will give you even more of an advantage over the casino and will win you more money.
The red 7 count is the perfect count for most blackjack players looking to make some money from the game. It stays simplistic whilst keeping the power needed to get a good edge over the casino. This is the count I would recommend most of you start out with and start using on a regular basis. It is very possible to make a living from using this count and unless you wish to play as a part of a blackjack team I see little reason for learning a count any more complex than this.
The Hi Lo count is probably the most well-known card counting strategy and since being invented in 1963 it has stood the test of time and is still used frequently today. Hi Lo is a far more complex count than the ace/five or red seven counts but it will provided us with a greater advantage over the house which means we can expect to win more money. It is also worth mentioning Hi-Lo is the industry standard and mastering it is usually a requirement if you want to join a professional card counting team.
The Hi Lo count works by assigning a value to every card in the deck and counting them as they are dealt. The values are as follows.
Practice Makes Perfect
Unlike some simpler counts you are going to be counting every card that is dealt as a pose to just the aces and fives. This will take more concentration so you should get in a lot of practice with a deck of cards at home before you try this at a casino.
To practice the Hi Lo count take a deck of cards and deal through the deck keeping track of the running count. If you have done it correctly the running count should be zero once you have counted the whole deck.
When you get good at that start to practice counting the cards in pairs looking out for pairs of cards which cancel each other out. Once you have gotten quick at doing this you should try it with some distractions. In a casino you are not going to be sitting in a quiet room which allows you to pay full attention to the cards being dealt so you need to learn to count Hi Lo in a noisy environment. When playing blackjack at a casino it would also be wise to make small talk with the dealer or other players at the table to make it look like you are there just to have a good time. You want to do everything in your power to convince the casino staff that you’re just a regular gambler and not a card counter.
The next time you are at home and need to make a phone call put the phone on loud speaker, grab a pack of cards and while you are having your conversation with your friend, mum or whoever, practice counting through the cards just like above while trying to keep the conversation going. This may be difficult at first but as you practice more and more it will become like second nature. Your mind will make connections when it see’s certain pairs of cards together and you will instantly know if you can ignore certain pairs because they cancel each other out.
The goal is to be able to count through an entire deck of cards using Hi Lo in less than 40 seconds with distractions before you take this counting strategy to the casino.
The true count is what you are going to use to determine how much of an advantage you have over the house and how much you should be betting.
To calculate the true count all you have to do is divide the current running count by the number of decks still left in play. For example if it’s a six deck game and about two of the decks have been played through so there is four decks remaining in the shoe. Let’s say the running count at this point is 12, which would make the true count 3 as 12 divided by 4 equals 3.
The true count is what we will use to determine bet size and to determine how we should deviate from basic strategy according to the indices as detailed below.
Once you can count a deck using the Hi Lo values to the standard described above it is time to learn the Hi-Lo Indices. Sometimes it is optimal to deviate from basic strategy depending on what the true count is at any given time. This can be done by following a table of indices which correspond to the value of the Hi Lo true count.
The original Hi Lo count had over a hundred indices and the complete table of all the indices can be found in Chapter 3, and Appendix A, of Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong. This details the most mathematically correct way you can play blackjack whilst using the Hi Lo count.
Professional blackjack players used to overestimate how important knowing every index was but since then computer simulations have been done showing that knowing only the 22 most important indices will give you 80 percent of the power of knowing absolutely every hi-lo index in a 6 deck game and even more in games with less decks.
The 22 most important indices are known as the illustrious 18 and the fab 4 surrenders and I have detailed them all in the table below.
Again, it may look quite intimidating at first but if you just learn 1 index at a time and start incorporating it into your play you will soon know them all.
The player should stand/double/split if the True Count equals or exceeds the Index Number, otherwise hit. The player should take insurance if the True Count is +3 or greater.
Fab 4 Surrenders
The player should surrender if the True Count equals or exceeds the Index Number.
Make no mistake, just because this count has been made simpler than the original Hi Lo count it is by no means an easy count to learn. This is for the more serious blackjack players who want to take their game to the next level.
Some blackjack authors will give you strict instructions on how to size your bets but the casino pit bosses have seen it all before and will spot you a mile off.
The key to sizing your bets right is reading the situation and knowing when you can place a large bet without too much suspicion being raised. There are thousands of different bet sizing camouflage techniques and some work better than others. The trick is to finding a few that work well for you that don’t sacrifice too much of your hard earned advantage over the casino.
Even with simplified indices, Hi Lo is still a very complex count. It will take a long time to learn and an even longer time to master but it is one of the best counts there is and there is a reason it still the most used count among professional blackjack players today.
Whenever you’re playing blackjack it is very important that you apply sound bankroll management. If you are counting cards and playing using basic strategy you can expect to win more than you lose in the long run but your bankroll must be able to sustain large losing streaks which can occur in a game of chance like blackjack.
Your bankroll is how much money you have set aside for betting on blackjack. Not all the money in your bank account.
Even some people who have used effective bankroll management have been unlucky enough to lose their entire bankroll and for this reason your blackjack bankroll should be an amount of money that you can afford to lose and not be in financial difficulty.
One of the best ways of minimizing the risk of losing your bankroll is to use a formula called the Kelly criterion. This formula is used to determine the optimal bet size for bankroll growth depending on the size of your bankroll and has been proven to do better than any other bankroll management strategy in the long run.
The Kelly formula is as follows:
- f* is the fraction of the current bankroll to wager;
- b is the net odds received on the wager (“b to 1”); that is, you could win £b (and get a return of your £1 wagered) for a £1 bet
- p is the probability of winning;
- q is the probability of losing, which is 1 − p.
If this is all looking a bit complicated so far, don’t worry. It’s actually really simple. If you are playing blackjack and using a counting system like red 7 or something that will yield a greater edge your advantage over the house is around 1% – 2% depending on what count you are using. This means according to the Kelly criterion your maximum bet should be around about 1% to 2% of your current bankroll. For example if you were using the red 7 count and you had a bankroll of £10,000 your minimum bet would be £100.
You would of course increase this bet according to the bet spread you were using when the count increased and lower it back down to £100 as the count decreased.
The Kelly criterion takes into account what your current bankroll is at any given moment so if you are on a losing streak you will start to bet less, for example if you lost £1000 and your bankroll was now £9000 your maximum bet would decrease to £90. You would do the opposite if you were on a winning streak. If your bankroll increased to £11,000 then your maximum bet would increase to £110.
This helps minimize your loses and maximise your winnings so not only is this a great bankroll management system. It will also allow you to win more money and grow your bankroll quicker.
Basic Bankroll Management
If you decide that calculating your bet size on the fly based on your constantly changing bankroll isn’t for you, you could instead use a more simple form of bankroll management.
You must understand that even if you’re counting cards your statistical advantage will only be effective in the long run.
In the short run it is entirely possible to lose your bankroll with a streak of bad luck. The chances of this happening is called your Risk of Ruin or RoR for short.
When using simple bankroll management you will have to decide how cautious you want to be. Being more cautious will minimize your RoR but will limit your bet sizes.
If you wanted your RoR to be no more than 5% you would want to have a bankroll that consisted of 100 maximum bets. For example if your minimum bet was £5 and you were betting with a spread of 1 to 8 you would need a bankroll of £4000.
If you wanted to reduce your RoR further you would need to have a larger bankroll.
If you couldn’t afford such a large bankroll you could use a bankroll of 50 maximum bets but this would increase your RoR to 13%.
If you are serious about counting cards and want to do it professionally then I would recommend a 5% RoR being the highest you go and would even consider being more cautious than that. This is because the more time you spend playing blackjack, the more you expose yourself to larger downswings.
If you have a day job and just play blackjack casually you can get away with a larger RoR because you are going to be playing blackjack less than a professional and therefore will experience less variance. This will also allow you to bet more money and therefore win more money. Of course having a larger bankroll to accommodate for RoR is always preferred but sometimes this isn’t practical.
A key element of bankroll management is to reduce fluctuation. Table hopping although not strictly considered bankroll management will help you achieve this goal by only betting on tables when the count is good.
The goal of table hopping is to play as few negative expectancy hands as possible. This will increase your edge over the casino because when you play hands when the count is negative you are basically paying to wait for the count to go positive so you can make your money.
However if you table hop too much you may end up drawing unwanted attention to yourself.
This is why I recommend only switching tables if the count has been negative for more than 2 decks of a shoe.
By not playing as many negative count hands by moving from table to table you can reduce the amount you pay whilst waiting for the count to increase.
I could go into a lot more detail but this article is long enough already.
As I said before, I do not play blackjack anymore. Blackjack can be still be very profitable although it is a lot harder than it used to be due to more decks being used and casinos being more geared up for spotting counters.
There are certainly easier ways to earn money so I would only recommend getting involved in card counting as a hobby if it is something which interests you.
If you are interested in learning more about card counting then I would recommend you read Blackbelt in Blackjack which is a great book for beginners to intermediate skilled blackjack players.
Until next time,