Blackjack card counting really works! You win by betting more when the remaining deck is favorable, and less when it is unfavorable, allowing you to gain an overall advantage and win in the long run. However, for practical purposes, card counting doesn't work because you need to risk huge amounts to win just a little.
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How does card counting work?
How do you “count” the cards?
Why are certain cards “good” and “bad”?
How do you use the count?
What is the “true” count?
How much is your advantage or disadvantage as the count varies?
How often is the count favorable?
How risky is card counting?
Is the card counting shown in the movies realistic?
Do casinos let card counters win?
How difficult is card counting?
Does card counting work with 6 decks?
Does card counting work with continuously shuffling machines (CSMs)?
Does card counting work with online casinos?
Basic Strategies: Perfect and Simplified
Bad cards Medium Good cards
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 J K Q A
1 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1
The low cards 2 through 6 have a value of +1. The high cards, 10 through Ace, have a value of -1. The cards in the middle have a value of 0. You can see that the numbers of good and bad cards are balanced.
As each card is dealt out and revealed, you add 1, 0, or -1 to the running count. The starting count, average count, and ending count are all zero. But any mismatch between low and high cards dealt out causes the running count to fluctuate around zero. A positive count means extra “bad cards” have been used up, and extra“good cards” remain in the deck, which is favorable for future hands. A negative count means the opposite.
- An abundance Aces and 10s means more blackjacks. This is good because when you get a blackjack, you win one and one-half bets; when the dealer gets a blackjack, you lose only one bet.
- When both you and the dealer have a bad hand, you can stand on yours; the dealer must hit, and maybe bust. In this situation, the dealer is even more likely to bust with many 10s remaining.
- When it's to your advantage, you can double down on 10 or 11; the dealer cannot. Many 10s remaining in the deck increases your chances of making a good hand with your one hit card.
To get the same effect from a 6-deck game, proportion-wise, you need to remove 1 low card from each of the 6 decks, or a total of 6 low cards. This is a running count of +6, which is the same as a true count of +1.
In general, the true count is the running count divided by the number of decks remaining. For example, in a 6-deck game, with 1 deck used and 5 decks remaining, when running count is +10, the true count is +10 divided by 5, or +2 (which is equivalent to removing 2 small cards from a single deck).
Looking at the graph, you can see that with a count of zero, which is the average count, you have an average loss of one-half of 1%. A true count of +1 is enough to offset the dealer advantage and give you a fair game -- no win or loss on average. You need a true count of +2 to have an advantage of one-half of 1%. To get as much as a 1% advantage, you need a true count of +3.
About 15% of the time you're in the green zone, and the count is good enough that you can make some profitable bets. For example, when the true count is +2, you have an advantage of one-half of 1%. You need to bet much more during these favorable times to make up for losses during the other 85% of the time. When the count goes deeply negative, you're playing at a strong disadvantage, which is a good time to quit or take a restroom break.
Winning $100 or $200 or “pushing” is not a problem, but can you afford to lose $100 or $200 in an attempt to earn 50 cents? And can you afford a 10-bet losing streak ($1,000)? Streaks like this definitely happen. You'll also have big winning streaks, but you can't count on them happening at any particular time. One big losing streak can easily be followed by another.
- Win $100 (or maybe $200 if you double down or split)
- Lose $100 (or maybe $200 if you double down or split)
- Tie (“Push”)
Why you need a $10,000 bankroll to win $10 per hour (video)
To win $5 or $10 per hour card counting, you need make bets of $100 and more, and experience winning and losing streaks in the thousands. If losing $1000 or $2000 would upset you or cause financial hardship, then card counting is not for you. On the other hand, if you can afford to risk that much, you're probably not much interested in earning what amounts to the minimum wage.
If you want to do card counting, it should be for the entertainment value. It's not a good way to make money.
And finally, casinos can impose unfavorable rules, like a 6:5 payoff for blackjacks instead of the usual 3:2, which ruins the odds for everyone, not just card counters. You can see in the following graph that everyone plays deep in negative zone practically all the time, losing 2% on average.
Average loss of 2% with 6:5 blackjack payoff
- Learn the “basic strategy,” without card counting. This means memorizing the best action to take for every combination of player total and dealer’s up card. You need to know this well enough to act without even thinking about it.
- Learn how to count cards, keep track of the count, and modify your betting based on the count. With the addition of this skill, you can play with an advantage.
- To gain the maximum advantage, you can also learn how to modify the basic strategy decisions in a few marginal situations, based on the count. For example, when you get the worst possible hand, 16 vs. a dealer 10, it is slightly better to stand with many 10s left in the deck, and slightly better to hit with many low cards left in the deck.
- Don't gamble if you're prone to compulsive behavior. Some people get addicted, which is a serious problem
- Don't play 6:5 blackjack games. You can almost always find a full-pay game nearby.
- Risk only what you can afford.
- Gamble only for as long as you're having a good time. Whether you're winning or losing, stop when you have negative feelings like anger, fear, or despair.
- Be prepared for losing streaks, which will definitely happen, card counting or not.
- Learn a basic strategy first, and practice using it for real in the casino, before you try card counting.
Most websites and books teach the perfect basic strategy, which is really good, but it takes weeks of study and practice to become proficient. Why not learn a simplified strategy instead, which is faster and easier, and nearly as good? The following chart shows you the details.
||Effort to learn
||lose $130 or win $120
||lose $130 or win $120
||lose $125 or win $120|
||lose $125 or win $120|
||lose $500 or win $505
* A “session” is 100 hands, about an hour of play.
For more information about the simplified strategies, go to BlackjackCalculation.com
For a good introduction to blackjack, go to the Wizard of Odds web site
For a very good and free online book on blackjack, see Modern Blackjack, An Illustrated Guide to Blackjack Advantage Play, by Norman Wattenberger