Learning Card Counting Indexes? Don’t Make This Mistake

Index Numbers

Once you have basic strategy committed to memory, and you have learned to count cards and vary your bet, the next step in fine-tuning your game is to add strategy variations using index numbers.

When I first began to learn about strategy variations, I found them confusing.  Based on the number of emails I get on the topic, I know that I am not the only one.

I was especially confused about the way indexes are presented.  I thought I could see a better way.  But eventually I switched to the standard method, and it definitely has its benefits.

If you are not familiar with strategy variations in card counting, this post is not where you should begin.  Instead, start with the introduction to index numbers on the instruction page for my Advanced Strategy Cards. In the middle of that page, you’ll find a section titled “Introduction to Card Counting with the Hi-Lo System”. If you need a primer, head over there first.

Strategy Variations Can Wait, Maybe Forever!

For over a year after I learned to count cards, I played straight basic strategy.  I was using the count to vary my bets, but I didn’t use any index numbers for strategy variation at all.

Actually, I recommend that for everyone.  Before you start worrying about strategy variation, card counting should be almost automatic for you.  The majority of the profit from card counting comes from varying your bet.  Bet more when you have the advantage, and bet less when the casino does.  Strategy variations are just the icing on the cake, letting you squeeze a little more profit out of the game.

In fact, many players don’t ever learn any strategy variation indexes, and play successfully for years without them.  For example, most users of unbalanced counting system don’t use indexes at all.  But if you are using a balanced counting system like Hi-Lo, and you want the extra challenge and profit that index numbers bring, it’s time to get to work.

I won’t tell you it’s easy or simple, because it is neither at first.  It will take study and concentration to understand what is involved.  But at least maybe with my help, you can avoid one of my mistakes.

How I Started Learning Indexes, The Wrong Way!

After a year of counting, I was ready to add some strategy variations to my game by learning a few key index numbers.  Almost immediately, I found that I was confused by the way index numbers are traditionally presented.

For my example, I’m going to use a few Hi-Lo index numbers for a 6 deck H17 game.

  • 12 vs 2: +3
  • 12 vs 3: +1
  • 12 vs 4: 0
  • 12 vs 5: -2
  • 12 vs 6: -4

Each of these indexes is a “Stand” index.  Let me translate a couple of them:

  • If you have 12 against a dealer 2, you should stand if the true count is +3 or higher.
  • If you have 12 against a dealer 6, you should stand if the true count is -4 or higher.

The first of these is pretty easy to understand.  In basic strategy, you hit 12 vs 2.  But if the true count is +3 or higher, you should stand instead because of the excess high cards in the remaining deck.

But I found the phrasing in the second example confusing.  Hey, I know basic strategy backwards and forwards.   It’s automatic for me, especially a simple hand like 12 against a 6.  That’s a Stand.  What I need to know is when I would want to hit it instead.  Shouldn’t the second version instead say “Hit 12 vs 6 when the true count is -5 or lower?”.

To be clear, these two statements mean exactly the same thing:

  • Stand with 12 vs 6 at -4 or better.”
  • Hit 12 vs 6 at -5 or worse.”

So, why not use the one that assumes you’ll play basic strategy unless the condition is met?  It just seemed odd to me to say it the first way.

In fact, I made myself flash cards of the index numbers that I wanted to learn, converting them to my way of thinking.  I learned about 20 index numbers this way, and used them successfully for a long while, probably two or three years.

But Then, I Finally “Got It”

After that, I decided to learn a few more index numbers, and it was then that I finally began to understand why the traditional method of learning indexes is superior.  It basically comes down to the amount of information that you need to remember.

Let’s look at how “Ken’s method” would represent the five strategy variations I mentioned above:

  • Stand with 12 vs 2 at +3 or higher
  • Stand with 12 vs 3 at +1 or higher
  • Hit 12 vs 4 at -1 or lower
  • Hit 12 vs 5 at -3 or lower
  • Hit 12 vs 6 at -5 or lower

And now, look at those same indexes shown in the traditional way (this is the same table shown earlier):

  • 12 vs 2: +3
  • 12 vs 3: +1
  • 12 vs 4: 0
  • 12 vs 5: -2
  • 12 vs 6: -4

There is much less information to remember if you just bite the bullet and learn the traditional way of doing this.  If you convert the rules the way I did, each decision has several parts.  I have to remember whether my rule starts with “Hit” or “Stand”;  Then I have to remember the index number; And then I have to remember the “direction” of higher or lower.

In the traditional version, every rule uses “Stand” as the action, and every “direction” is higher.  All you have to remember for each decision is one fact: the index number.

The same is true of the other types of decisions with “Double Down” or “Split” index numbers.  You automatically know what the decision action is.  All you need is the index number.

A Little Pain Now Prevents  a Lot of Pain Later

Switching from my own method to the traditional method was not a smooth and easy process.  I had spent a lot of time using my own version of index numbers, and now I had to change the way I used them, and many of the numbers were now different because of the change.  But I’m glad I finally made the switch.  It really did make adding more numbers easier.

Don’t handicap yourself by following my path.  Just start off on the right foot.  The extra time it takes to learn to think about indexes correctly in the beginning will pay off in the long run.

It’s not easy.  But you can get there with practice.

3 comments on “Learning Card Counting Indexes? Don’t Make This Mistake

  • Donald Lambertus said:

    Thanks for your article on memorizing the ‘Basic Strategy Variations’. I recently purchased Ken’s Index cards and was thinking along the same lines as you once did so thanks for sharing your experience and giving clarity.

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