Lesson 6 – Card Counting – Single-deck Play

This free course on blackjack and card counting was created by the GameMaster, publisher of the GameMaster Online website. It is reproduced here in its entirety with permission of the author. His 24-lesson course is an excellent introduction to winning blackjack.

To start at the beginning, visit the Welcome page.

Every serious counter should have a good knowledge of how to play single-deck Blackjack, even if you spend 90% of your time at multi-deck games, because when you are able to get to a single deck game, it can be very profitable. The primary lure of the game will become more evident as we get into betting strategies, but take my word for it now: any “big” money you’ll make at Blackjack will probably come from a single-deck game.

Most of you — especially those who are close to Atlantic City — should spend your time practicing instead of playing, all with the idea of taking 5 or 6 trips a year to areas such as Reno or Laughlin. You’ll be much better off playing 60 or 70 hours a year at the single-deck games there than you would be playing several hundred hours at the dismal games A.C. is currently offering. Most of my students from the St. Louis area can fly to Reno on a 3 or 4 day trip for under $300, which includes round-trip airfare and hotel, and since they usually make that much in Blackjack profits per day, they often come home with a $1000 or more in net winnings. You “Eastcoasters” can find similar action in Tunica, MS.

Counting at the Table

To win at single-deck games, you first need to learn another method of counting at a table where the cards are dealt face down. As you will recall from Lesson 5, there is a very structured approach required for counting in order to make sure you’re doing it accurately. I’ll never forget the first time I played single-deck; it was in Vegas and I was used to the, then, four-deck game in Atlantic City. On about the second or third hand, the dealer had a “Blackjack” and everybody threw their cards in, face up. Talk about scrambling; my speed training was tested to its limit, but I got the count before the next hand was dealt. That’s a situation for which you’ll have to be ready and only practice will get you there.

Cards get turned face up for various reasons at a single-deck game, so let’s go through a hand and see when you will count them. Begin by counting your two cards, then dealer’s up card. Count any hit cards for the players since those will be delivered face up. If a player doubles , s/he will turn his or her first two cards face up, so you’ll count them. However, the “double” card will usually be dealt face down, so you won’t count it yet. If a player splits a pair, those will be turned face up so count them and then count the “hit” cards as they come out. In a single-deck game, a player signifies a “stand” by placing the cards underneath the bet so you don’t see them, consequently you can’t count them — yet. Should a player bust, s/he will toss in his or her first two cards, so count them as you see them. Play ends at the dealer’s hand, so count the dealer’s hole card as it’s turned up and any hit cards for that hand.

Now comes the tricky part. The dealer will begin at the “third base” side and turn over any “hole” cards (as well as double-down cards) from underneath the bet and set them above any other cards in the hand. They will end up as the two cards closest to the dealer; count them as they’re exposed. A typical hand will look like this:

Hand Example Before
Hand Before Dealer Turns Over Cards

Hand Example After
Hand After Dealer Turns Over Cards

As you can see, this player had a hand totaling 7 and took a hit. The dealer has pulled the cards over the top and will now pay it as a winner. Count those two cards as they’re exposed, but DO NOT count the Jack again, since you would have counted it when the player “scratched” for a hit.

This may still be a bit confusing, but once you fit the idea in your mind, you’ll quickly get into the scheme of things when you watch a real game in action. You should just stand behind and observe until you’re sure you’ve got the technique, but it won’t take long. The ideal way to practice is to have someone deal for you, but make sure they use the procedures shown above.

Developing Your Speed and Endurance

I often use the analogy of a prize fighter when I discuss practicing your counting; a fighter trains for both speed and endurance. They use a “speed bag” for the short, fast jab and a big, heavy bag for the hard punches. A single-deck countdown is your “speed bag”; try to get through it as quickly as possible while maintaining your accuracy. To build your endurance, begin by counting down two decks shuffled together (don’t forget to remove 3 cards to check your accuracy). Once you’re doing two decks under 40 seconds, go to 6 decks. Shuffle all six together, then break them down to 5 or 6 separate piles on a table top and count them all down as quickly as possible. Your goal here is to do it under 2 minutes; under 1:30 is ideal. The reason why we do so many decks, whether we’re training for a single-deck or multi-deck game, is to not only get used to retaining the count for a long period of time, but also to get used to wide swings in the count. The running count for a single deck will seldom go above or below 10, but you’ll often get such counts in a six-deck countdown and you need to get used to that. Practicing like this with a lot of distractions around is good. Do it with the kids bugging you, with the TV on, or with Fido barking and you’ll develop your ability to keep track while you’re in a casino.

A Few More Tricks

Learn to count backward from an odd number by 2’s. We can all count “2, 4, 6,” etc., but few of us can count “11, 9, 7, 5, 3” very quickly. This is a good exercise to do while you’re driving. Start at 25 and take it to M5, over and over again; it will “imprint” in your mind and serve you well at a full table when the count is high and all those 20’s and Blackjacks come out. When you get bored, do it backward from an even number just to keep yourself in shape.

When your counting is interrupted for any reason, recite the count to yourself over and over again. Let’s say you’re practicing at home and little Margaux or your son, Corky (isn’t every card counter also a wine fanatic?), has a “life or death” question. If the count at that point is M6, just keep repeating “M6, M6, M6” in your mind as you listen to them. You’ll know you’re making real progress when you can then TALK to them and remember the count! Practice is what allows that to happen.


Continue working on your speed with a single-deck countdown, but also work in some two-deck exercises as well. When you can do two decks accurately in under 40 seconds, go to a six-deck countdown.

Important: All I’ve shown you here also applies to most double-deck games, but you must remember that the basic strategy does change a bit when you’re playing a game dealt from less than four decks. See Lesson 1 for how to learn the single-deck basic strategy.

Next we’ll begin discussing the only reason for playing Blackjack: Money.

Until then, school’s out.

← Previous:

18 comments on “Lesson 6 – Card Counting – Single-deck Play

  • Hi thanks for the tips I have started practicing about 2 months ago and I am at 33 second’s a deck a long way to go yet but I love the challenge and and learning more each day thanks again

  • Slow Learner said:

    There is actually an Apple App names “31-in-1 Casino and Sportsbook” that has a black jack option labeled as “count”. This allows you to play up to three hands at once and has the option to pick how many decks you wouild like to play with 1-6. Also, you can have it show you the current Hi-Lo count or you can hide it and keep it yourself, then check it periodically to see if you are accurate. It is PERFECT for practicing and even better it is all FREE.

  • Joe said:

    I know this term might seem like form the movie 21, but when is it best to bet high in single deck game? is it when the count is in the (+) or the (-)?

  • Hey , I was wondering if there is any advantage to playing at different spots of the table?

    • There is a very small advantage to playing your hands late, so sitting close to third base would allow that. The benefit is that you get to see the hit cards of others at the table before you have to make a decision on your hand. This benefit is a very small one. I generally don’t worry about which seat I am in at all.

      My advice is simple: Sit where you can comfortably see all the cards. For new counters, it can be intimidating to sit in first base, because the dealer will be looking to you to make a decision while you may still be busy counting the rest of the table’s cards.

      Many players mistakenly believe that the first base spot is more likely than other spots to be dealt good cards in high counts. This is simply not true at all. Generally, players who fall for this myth do not understand the “True Count Theorem”. If that’s you, search for explanations here at BlackjackInfo.

    • For East Texas, head to Lake Charles, LA. All the casinos there have decent games, including good double decks.
      If you are in North Texas, shop the casinos in Oklahoma for times and weekdays when they waive the ante. These games often have very good rules, except for the horrible ante. Drop the ante, and they’re quite good.

  • can you use the same betting index for different counting systems? For example, if you have a betting index for Hi-Lo, can it also apply to Omega and Zen?


    • Since the card tags are often similar between systems, the index numbers will often also be similar. But, no, there are usually notable differences too. You should use indexes customized for your system. That’s especially true when you start comparing multi-level counts and single-level counts. Index numbers for Omega would usually be substantially larger values than Hi-Lo indexes, because the card tags are higher.

  • Jake said:


    So when you say that you need to be able to get through 2 decks in 40 seconds, is that doing one card at a time or in pairs?


  • Mark said:

    I disagree. 1-deck games are not lucrative, they always come with horrible caveats, like blackjack paying 1-1. I’d even say the 6 deck games are better than the 2 deck games. The 6 deck games, they usually have the cutcard 1 deck before the end. The 2 deck games, they also have the cutcard 1 deck before the end. But the standard deviation of the count is a parabolic function of your progress through the shoe. Meaning 1 deck before the end, you’ll be at the top of the parabola of a 2-deck game, in a 6-deck game, it’s most of the way to the base of it. The bottom line is that the standard deviation of the count, 1 deck before the end of a 6-deck shoe, will be sqrt(5/3) times as high as it is 1 deck before the end of a 2-deck shoe. It’s easier for that 1 deck at the end to be jampacked full of the high cards from all 6 decks than it is to be jampacked with just the high cards of 2 decks, basically. You just have to suffer through counting through 5 decks accurately, that’s the cost. But the minimum bet of a 6 deck game is generally 5 and sometimes 3 dollars as opposed to 25 or 15 in the 2 deck game. Your expected earnings are actually about the same if you play to minimize risk of ruin in either case, except the risk of ruin in the 6 deck game is smaller for a given bankroll size.

    As for playing face down, what I do is just count them when they’re overturned and I don’t play if there are more than 2 other people at the table face down. But who needs that, 6 deck games are almost always face up.

    • There are still good one-deck games in northern Nevada, but you are right that the games are rarely found elsewhere. The GameMaster’s lessons were obviously written a few years ago when 1-deck 3:2 games were not dinosaurs.

Leave a Reply

Advanced Formatting?

If you are familiar with HTML, you can use these tags and attributes in your comment:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


A valid URL is required.