You don’t have to be a math genius to learn blackjack card counting. It’s actually so simple that a 10-year old can master it with a little practice. The math behind the method is elementary. You only need to know how to add and subtract tiny numbers in your head. Honest.
Blackjack card counting is a strategy based on the principles of probability. Applied correctly, it gives the player an advantage over the house (casino), boiling down to one basic fact: if the ratio of 10-value cards (Ten, Jack, Queen, King) in the deck significantly exceeds the ratio of smaller-value cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), then the player has an advantage.
This is due to how the game is played in the casino. The rules are cast in stone for the dealer. So although your cards are dealt face up for everyone to see, it doesn’t matter. Even if the dealer sees you have a 20, he still has to stand on 17 and take the loss. Blackjack dealers have no flexibility to use their own initiative and Hit whenever they wish. If they did, they would probably be among the most popular people in the world.
The Origin And Mechanics Of Blackjack Card Counting
If you’re curious about the origin of blackjack card counting, google Edward O. Thorp (or click this link). You’ll learn that the good thing about Uncle Eddie is that he figured out how to win at Blackjack. The bad thing, however, is that he published a book about it in 1962. So every casino got to know of this wonderful loophole. (I agree — dick move.)
Every card-counting method aims to simplify the process of accurately keeping track of cards yet to be dealt. As I said, we want to get to the point where there’s a high percentage of 10-value cards remaining. That’s when we start placing big bets — since we now have an advantage. It’s because, while we have the luxury of choosing when we want to Hit or Stand, the dealer doesn’t.
Every casino plays this game ‘mechanically’, requiring the dealer to get to 17 or higher, and then stop. This means the dealer must take a card if he has 16, even if you’ve chosen to Stand at 15. This is a common scenario. And when there are more 10-value cards in the deck, it increases the chances of the dealer busting. Several other factors raise the player’s advantage: more Blackjacks (that is, Ace + 10-value card), better Splits, better Double Down bets, etc.
The Hi-Lo Method
There are numerous card-counting strategies; some work, some don’t. The most popular one is doubtless the Hi-Lo or High-Low method. (My friend calls it ‘The-Reason-I-Got-Kicked-Out-Of-The-Casino’ method.) Its popularity is due to its simplicity as well as its effectiveness. While there are several variations, I’ll only discuss the one I found easiest to grasp and use.
Here’s how to do it:
Just keep a running count in your head of simple +1 and -1 calculations.
Start with 0.
For every 2,3,4,5 or 6 dealt: +1.
For every T,J,Q or K dealt: -1.
Disregard all remaining cards (A,7,8 and 9).
Aim to make your count equal to or higher than the number of decks remaining in the shoe. For example, say, the casino is using a 6-deck shoe, and you estimate there are 4 decks left. If your count is +8 or more, make bigger bets — because you’re in a position of advantage then.
Fast Track To Riches?
Sounds ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? I guess you have an obvious question then. If it’s that easy to gain an edge over the casino, why isn’t everyone using it to get rich quickly?
Actually, many people have successfully used Blackjack card counting to make a pile swiftly. But there are other factors to consider. Note, first of all, that the method I’ve described is a simplified one (but accurate enough nonetheless). Card counting in its ‘mathematically purest’ form is more complex. I personally find it unnecessary for my purposes, however. Because it’s like comparing calculations with 2 decimal places against 5 decimal places. You rarely need that extra degree of accuracy.
The Casino’s Game
Regardless of the method you use, it’s the casino that makes things tough — and tips the scales against you.
Every element in the casino is planted there for a reason. (That even includes the air you breathe — believe it or not, it contains more oxygen than normal.) All these elements make things challenging for you to implement any strategy against the house effectively.
Here’s a short list of those elements. A Blackjack table is a busy place that’s full of distractions. There are people cheering, chips moving, loud noises from other tables, etc. Casino staff are even trained to make you lose focus if they suspect you’re ‘up to something’. Plus, you’re constantly in the spotlight: there’s always a camera overhead monitoring your every move. And, in these hi-tech days, the camera can even be programmed to spot abnormal behaviour on its own.
TLC? Not For You
Consider this scenario. You’re betting $10 chips and keeping count till you reach favourable odds. Then you suddenly start betting $200. At this point, before you even realise it, you find one (or more) of several ‘unexpected’ things happening. A sexy cocktail waitress distracts you by offering you a drink (or maybe even spilling it on you). Or the dealer ‘accidentally’ messes up a deal and has to reshuffle. Or the pit boss simply asks you to leave, because he suspects you’re counting cards — and therefore not ‘playing fair’. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you keep the few hundred you’ve made. Then they’ll blacklist you, barring you from entering their casino in future.
This is assuming, of course, that the casino isn’t already using Continuous Shuffling Machines. That would make counting cards pointless. It’s simple to understand, actually: casinos love their money way more than you do. And you can be damn sure they’ll do everything they can to maintain any advantage they have over you.
I studied Blackjack Card Counting out of curiosity. While it hasn’t made me any big money at the casino, I feel it’s improved my ability to focus. So I reckon it could do the same for you, ‘enriching’ you in other ways as well. There are plenty of iPhone and iPad apps that simulate the experience. I use one called Card Counter. Once you’re able to conquer the scenarios presented, make things more challenging by, say, blasting music or doing it in public. It could be a great educational experience for you.
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Images: alancleaver, kaysha, stephen_rees, jasoneppink, plethr