What is Counting Cards?

Blackjack is one of the few casino games which, when played optimally using a sound counting method, can offer players a mathematical edge over the house.

This is precisely why casinos reserve the right to refuse service to players identified as being proficient at counting cards (sometimes referred to as ‘advantage players’).

So how do you count cards? Blackjack card counting methods are surprisingly simple. You don’t need to be a genius savant. You don’t need to remember every card dealt. If you can add and subtract the number 1 you’re part way there.

The aim of any blackjack counting strategy is to give the player an idea of the composition of the remaining cards in the shoe. Not exactly what those cards are, but rather the broad composition (majority high cards, or majority low cards). Knowing whether the shoe is high card or low card rich, puts the player at an advantage over the house (hence the term advantage player).

The following discussion looks first at how to count cards using the Hi-Lo method, and second whether this skill can be effectively applied to live dealer blackjack.

How to count cards

There are a number of methods employed to count cards, and contrary to popular belief, none of them involve memorizing every card that has been dealt from a deck/shoe and computing each and every card still left.

One of the most commonly discussed and employed counting methods is the Hi-Lo method. You will not need a photographic memory or rain-man like savant abilities to pull it off…just the ability to add and subtract and pay attention.

Here’s how it works.

All cards in the deck are assigned a value as follows:

  • +1 for all 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s, 6’s
  • 0 for all 7’s, 8’s, 9’s
  • -1 for all A’s, K’s, Q’s, J’s, 10’s

As each card is dealt (not just to you…to all positions including the dealer), add the assigned value to a running count. An example deal and corresponding running count would be as follows:

Card dealt Assigned value Running count
10blank -1 -1
Ablank -1 -2
8blank 0 -2
4blank +1 -1
5blank +1 0
3blank +1 1
Jblank -1 0
2blank +1 1
6blank +1 2

That’s how you count cards! The next piece of the puzzle is betting to the count (see below). But before we discuss that, here’s a cool way to practice card counting.

Card counting practice

Keeping an accurate running count isn’t as simple as it sounds. Remember, when you play a game of blackjack in a traditional casino or online the deal happens fast. There are also numerous distractions, especially in a traditional casino (player chat, dealer chat, cute cocktail waitresses taking your order etc); and you don’t really want to appear as though you’re counting. Concentration faces aren’t ideal.

It helps if your ability to keep a tight running count is pretty much automatic. For this practice is key.

A great way to practice counting cards is to deal a deck to yourself and keep a running count. If at the completion of the deal you have a count of zero, you were spot on. Increase the deal speed until the count is pretty much second nature and then you’re ready to hit the casinos.

The significance of the running count

Underlying any counting method is the fact that a high card rich deck/shoe, combined with optimal play, increases the mathematical returns of blackjack. This is because a high card rich deck results in more pat hands for the player (ie hands where you will stand, eg 20) and increases the likelihood of dealer busts with forced hits on stiffs (stiff’s being 12’s to 16’s).

A high card rich deck also increases the chances of Blackjacks being dealt – both to the dealer and players, however for players Blackjack pays 3:2 swinging returns in their favour.

So in a nutshell, a high card rich shoe improves players’ chances of winning, and the running count tells you whether the remaining shoe is high card rich or not.

The running count gets high as more low cards have been dealt than high cards, meaning on balance there are more high cards remaining in the shoe. This is referred to as a positive count. The greater the positive the count closer to the end of the shoe, the better the odds for players.

Conversely, if the running count is less than zero (a negative count) then the remaining shoe is low card rich and not a good shoe for players.

Card counting is simply a means of calculating just how high-card-rich the remaining shoe/deck is so that you can bet accordingly.

Playing and betting to the count

Ok, you now know how to keep a tight running count. What do you then do with this count?

First and foremost you must play basic strategy at all times during your session. That is, choosing the optimal Hit, Stand, Split or Double Down decision given your cards and the dealer’s.

Playing Blackjack Basic Strategy is simple, because fortunately the experts have put together simple basic strategy charts (or Hit or Stand charts) that tell you exactly what you should do for every deal circumstance.

These charts will differ depending on the blackjack house rules applying, which do differ from casino to casino. Here’s a typical chart that applies to all live tables offered by Playtech and Evolution Gaming.

basic strategy

Second, you simply:

  • Increase your bets when you have a high (positive) count towards the end of a shoe; and
  • Decrease (or stop) your bets when you have a low (negative) count towards the end of a shoe.

The extent to which you increase or decrease your bets will be determined by how high the positive count is, or how low the negative count is.

Nice video explanation of card counting

Does card counting work at live dealer online casinos?

Traditional casinos don’t let players count cards. If they suspect a player is counting cards – and they are pretty good at detecting bet patterns consistent with card counting – they will ask that player to leave and not return. But what about online casinos?

RNG (random number generator) blackjack games preclude the possibility of an effective count because all online RNG games are dealt from a full shuffled deck/shoe. Online blackjack card counting is therefore totally useless as you are playing to a full deck/shoe with every deal.

The situation with live dealer games is very different though. This is not a computer generated deck that can be automatically replenished and shuffled every game.

So is a count effective here?

The answer to this question lies in the blackjack game rules stipulated at live dealer casinos – which are typically something like what you will find at BetFred (Playtech powered):

“We offer eight deck Live Blackjack with a live dealer and a real Blackjack table, with multiple players. The cards are shuffled when there are approximately four decks left in the shoe.”

Or at Victor Chandler (Evolution Gaming powered) …

“…shoe is shuffled at regular intervals”

In practice you will find this translates to an approximate mid shoe shuffle also.

In both cases players aren’t able to penetrate deep into the shoe with their count. Playing live dealer blackjack you aren’t given an opportunity to effectively gauge how high card rich the shoe is because the deal never runs to the (near) end of the shoe.

So playing live online, any counting strategy, while good counting practice, will not enable you to gain an edge over the house.