The purpose of this article is to give people interested in card counting an introduction about the subject. This is hardly a comprehensive presentation of the subject. There are many good books that cover the topic thoroughly that the reader is highly encouraged to read. My personal favorites are: Stanford Wong’s Professional Blackjack, Don Schlesinger’s Blackjack Attack and Peter Griffin’s Theory of Blackjack.
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I. What you need to know before learning card counting:
a. Clearing up all the Myths
It is very important to get out of your head all the myths that have plagued card counting in blackjack such as : winning all the time or most of the time when the count is favorable, getting super rich overnight, you have to be a mathematical genius or have excellent photographic memory, making a steady weekly income at the tables. You have to clear all this non-sense out of your head if you wish to become a successful card counter otherwise you will be very disappointed.
b. Knowing the different Blackjack rules and their corresponding favorability
I am not talking in here about the different side games or bonuses that the different casinos offer(even though you will find that some side games can be very profitable) but the different playing rules such as: Dealer stand on soft 17 or hits soft 17, late surrender, double after split, resplit… It is also important to know how valuable certain rules are for instance if you find a casino that offers the early surrender rule, you should walk up to the casino commissioner and give him a long big hug!!!
c. Know your basic strategy
It is very sad and unfortunate when I see people who want to learn how to count cards without knowing their basic strategy. Basic strategy is the optimum mathematically calculated strategy that maximizes your expectation value. You must know the basic strategy for the game you are playing. Yes, there is no universal basic strategy, basic strategies change depending on the rules of the game you chose to play. You need to practice and practice your basic strategy until you become an automated robot that hardly makes any errors.
d. Learn Some Basic Statistics
A basic knowledge of statistical terms is a must if you are serious about becoming a card counter terms like: expectation value or average, standard deviation, variance, probability. You will soon learn hopefully that blackjack even with the best possible playing strategies is a game with very large variance (a measure of statistical dispersion) meaning your short term results can show very large fluctuations in terms of winning or losing.
e. Invest in a Blackjack Simulator
For a card counter a major task is to scout for good games, you certainly don’t want to play those horrible 6:5 BJ payoffs or an ugly 8 deck dealer hits soft 17 game. You shouldn’t also take people’s word about how good of a game a casino is offering unless you trust them and they back their statements with simulations. So you will find yourself often in a need to run simulations for games you find or for games that other people have told you about/ For that matter, having a blackjack simulator handy is really important. In my opinion, the best simulator is QFIT’s CVData and CVCX.
II. Card Counting Basics
a. Choosing you counting system
The title is pretty indicative of that fact that there is a variety of card counting systems. There are balanced (total running count of one deck is zero) and unbalanced count (total running is different than zero). There are level I, level II counts and level III counts (where the level is indicative of the highest point card value). For a list of the most popular counting systems:
For pitch games(1 or 2 decks) it is important to chose a count with a high playing efficiency, while for shoe games a count betting correlation is more important. In the past more difficult counting systems were preferred but now the simpler ones are more popular. There is a popular myth within the card counting community that if one uses a more popular count such as hi-low or KO, there is a higher chance that he/she will be detected by the casino. In reality it doesn’t really matter what counting system as long as it is a good system!!
From this point on, unless indicated otherwise the card counting discussion will be pertinent to the hi-low system(my personal favorite )a level I balanced system.
b. Practicing counting
There are many ways and many different resources about learning how to count cards so I won’t go into too much details, you need to practice, practice and practice until you can count 1 deck in less than 25 seconds. This is one part of the task; the other part of the task is to train yourself to never lose the count in the loud noisy casino environment, so practice counting while watching TV, having dinner at a restaurant, and while your wife is nagging you. Some people use their chips, some people use their fingers, some people use the number of unbuttoned buttons on the cocktail girl’s shirt, but remember never lose the count!!!
c. Running and True Count
The count mentioned in section b is called the running count. It is basically the total sum of the point values of the card dealt. For a balanced count, the running count is insufficient to determine the deck or shoe favorability that is why it is necessary to convert running count to true count. True count is equal to running count divided by the number of unplayed decks. The number of unplayed decks is calculated by estimating the number of decks played from the discard tray and subtracting that number from the shoe size.
d. True Count is not “Truly” a count!!!
This might be a shock to a lot of people but the true count is not really a count it is a density, a concentration, after all it is a ratio of two quantities. Another shocker point: it is common belief that the player’s advantage at positive true count stems from the fact that the true count is bound to decrease. This statement is totally erroneous. The player’s advantage at positive true counts comes from the fact that at any given moment there is a higher probability that the next card drawn will be a high card thus making your doubles and splits (the money making hands) more successful, increased probability of getting a blackjack or 20, dealer will bust stiff hands more often (does not necessarily mean he will bust more often). For the hi-low system each true count unit is worth about +0.5% increase for you expectation value for a typical blackjack game.
e. Choosing your Betting Strategy
There is a lot of material about betting strategies to cover in one paragraph, so I am just going to talk about the basics. The two most common betting strategies are: The play-all and back-counting.
In play-all you play through all negative and positive counts and place your bets according to the true count i.e (your advantage) this technique is called spreading your bet. When playing-all you normally go for the highest possible spread without getting booted out of the casino, pitch games typically require a smaller bet spread than shoe games.
In back-counting, you sit out count the shoe and then when TC>0 (normally +2) you sit in or “wong in” and you leave the table or “wong out” when TC<0 (normally -1).
Choosing between play-all or back-counting will depend on several factors such as: casino playing conditions (a crowded casino is obviously no good for back-counting), your personal preferences, your cover plays, your bankroll. For instance, if you just started card counting and trying to build-up your bankroll, back-counting would be better since you play fewer hands in a hour and the variance is significantly smaller.
f. Playing Strategy: Deviations from Basic Strategy
Most counting systems will offer a set of index tables for playing decisions. An index is a value that is compared to the true count in order to make a playing decision that may differ from basic strategy. For instance, basic strategy says that the player should hit his hard 16 vs the dealer’s 10 (in case surrender is not available), but it turns out it becomes more favorable for the player to stand when the true count is >0. And while basic strategies tells us to never take insurance it turns out that taking insurance is a profitable bet when true count is ≥ 3.
It happened that some indices are more valuable than other indices because they are used more frequently. A set of very popular indices for positive true counts called the illustrious 18, supplemented by the fabulous 4 (whenever surrender is available) are commonly used. If you are a play-all type of player you will get about 0.15% increase in your expectation value if you use the full indices for the hi-low system.
III Out in the Real World
As it was mentioned earlier, a major task for a successful card counter is scouting for the best games, and sometimes you will find that you will have to travel thousands of miles to find excellent games. Besides the favorable game rules already mentioned, for a card counter a combination of fewer decks and a deeper penetration(percentage of shoe played before a new shuffle) is dearest of all!!
When scouting make sure you take as many notes as possible: game rules, number of decks, penetration, you should record playing conditions as the time shift changes: How crowded are the tables, how consistent are the dealers with the cut cards, how much can you spread your bet without getting a lot of heat…
Always be wary of special promotions that some casinos offer, for instance some casinos will offer a special 2:1 BJ payout or player’s blackjack wins all on certain days, in that event you should camp next to the casino 2 days ahead of the scheduled promotion date to ensure you have a spot at the BJ table!!!
b. Before you Play it, Analyze it!
Analyzing your blackjack game (house rules, playing and betting strategy) using a good BJ simulator is a must before sitting at the table: for one it is important to know what is the expectation value (popularly known as ev) which is the maximum statistically possible average value that the player aspire to meet in the long run.
Another important aspect of analyzing is to compare the ”juiciness” of the different games that you might encounter. For instance, given the same rules, the same playing and betting strategies, which is more attractive? a 4D game with 80% penetration or 8D game with 95%? Answer: 4D game (very slightly!!!)
There are many norms to compare the attractiveness of blackjack games, one of the more popular ones is SCORE (acronym for Standardized Comparison Of Risk and Expectation). A popular myth within the card counting community is that SCORE is a unitless scale while it is in fact a win rate for a standard bankroll size (10K), number of hands (100 hands), and using optimum betting.
c. Bankroll Requirements and Optimum Betting
Strictly speaking (and correctly for that matter!!!) your bankroll is the cash worth value of everything you own (property, cars, bank accounts, stocks, pocket change) minus the total debt that you owe. However most people have a more conservative definition of a bankroll and allocate only a certain fraction of their total wealth to play blackjack. Conventionally, you divide your bankroll into a certain number of betting units. The number of betting units in your bankroll will depend on the game you are playing AND the risk of ruin (probability of going bankrupt before reaching a certain goal) that you accept to play with. For instance, let’s say you have a game where you bankroll consists of 800 betting units and your risk of ruin is 10%, if you find a better game you can divide your bankroll into 500 betting units (increasing your bet sizes, i.e winning more) while having the same risk.
You can find your bankroll requirements by using a blackjack simulator or checking some reliable tables (BlackJack Attack), but for a typical average game with a 10% risk of ruin a bankroll of about 1000 units is what you should expect to have.
Optimum betting is betting according to your advantage (True Count!) that leads to large winnings while limiting the total amount of risk. Optimal betting will often lead to fractional number of betting units, so will have to round your bets to simplify them. For instance, at a True Count of +2, the optimum bet might 2.34 units so if your betting unit is $10 you will have to make a simplified bet of $25 instead of $23.4
d. When you are at the Casino
There is a lot of material in here for one paragraph. But the most important thing that you need to realize is that the casino is the only place where you can expect to meet your expectation value. For that matter it is important to rack up as many hands as possible every time you are in the casino. Try to avoid as much as possible bringing family or friends to the casino because they can significantly distract you resulting in reduced playing time.
Avoid playing when the casino is very crowded because this means less hands per hour rather go eat and rest and come back to the tables when it gets less crowded. Avoid having alcoholic beverages in case you have weak tolerance because it can seriously impair your skills.
I have seen card counters with very gloomy faces at the tables, never saying anything, completely emotionless. You don’t need a poker face for advantage play, you can show your emotions if you win a hand, or curse the cards (in a different language) if the dealer doesn’t bust. Remember to blend in with the crowd, never give the impression of being a blackjack savvy and refrain as much as possible from giving other players advice.
e. Cover Playing
One you find that very juicy game that you have always dreamed of, you will always cherish it as long as you can play it! Finding a good game is important but it is no less important to extend the longevity of playing that game. It doesn’t take much to realize that the casinos are aware of the advantages that card counting offer (luckily not always fully), but what is important is not to have them detect or label you as a card counter because then it will be game over for you.
I am not going to talk much about specific cover plays but this is a good place for your creativity and originality to go wild. Cover plays can include anything from making some weird playing decisions, to making a large bet at negative True Counts, to putting on some crazy but believable acts. Cover plays can reduce your expectation value, some blackjack simulators will allow you to input your cover plays to calculate the effect. Keep in mind that what you really are looking for is to maximize the product of win rate and time.
Remember the idea is to keep ‘em guessing!!!
f.Team Vs Solo Play
Simply put the pros and cons of advantage play in blackjack of playing on a team vs playing solo are very similar to have to the pros and cons of having a business partner or having your own business. There is no universal “better” approach as it all depends on your personality, your preferences, your expectations… There is a lot of successful blackjack players who have played solo most of their career and some who have always had or been on a team.
My personal opinion is to start developing your skills on your own, and to join a team later to fine tune them. Moreover, if you chose a good team, you will also learn acquire a lot of discipline a quality that is vital for a card counter. At a later stage you decide whether to stick with team play or whether is not really for you.
Team play offers obviously broader opportunities for betting and cover playing, but unfortunately it also presents a lot of extra variables that need to be controlled. As a team manager you will need to keep an eye on the quality of the players , on their honesty. You got to work on keeping the team together when there is some disdain and mistrust amongst the players when the team is having losing streaks. For the reasons mentioned blackjack teams have high turnover rates.
g. Playing Blackjack for a Living
This is a question that certainly crosses the mind of every person who aspires to become a card counter .Sadly only a few have a clear conception of the ins and outs of playing blackjack professionally. It is very distressing when I see twenty year olds dropping out of college to go and play blackjack with a 5000 dollar bankroll thinking they will be making 6 figures a year! With that bankroll size and for a typical game the hourly expectation value is about $8 which they can probably make working at McDonalds with much less hassle. There is an old French saying that loosely translates into “It takes a million to make a million”. In other words to make big bucks playing blackjack you will need to have big stacks of cash.
Besides the bankroll requirement, there is no question that the games conditions have deteriorated over the years, so you might have to travel a lot to find those games that were around the corner. Dealing with obnoxious or annoying people at the tables for many hours straight, playing cat and mouse with the casino…
Always keep in mind card counting is not gambling so you will not get the rush that people get when gambling, so at one point you might find yourself popping Prozac like you would pop Skittles!
This article was not written to incite the reader to start card counting nor to discourage him. The main purpose was to present an objective overview of important topics that are pertinent to card counting. If you can understand the meaning of the short term fluctuations of your bankroll and believe in the long term effect as shown in the following than maybe you can give card counting a try