Counting Cards in Blackjack – A Full Guide on How It’s Done, and What to Expect

Whether you’re a veteran gambler or someone who hasn’t set foot in a casino even once, there is a good chance that you’ve heard of the term “card counting”. Whether you’ve heard it from someone else or from a movie, we are 100% sure that regardless of where you heard this phrase, it was connected with the game of Blackjack!

So What Does Counting Cards in Blackjack Mean?

What Does Counting Cards in Blackjack Mean

The most general definition of “counting”, is basically to remember which cards have been played out, after a Blackjack round has been resolved. This is very important, because every type of Blackjack game starts with a number of decks that are housed in a “dealer shoe”. The fewer cards are in the shoe, the better are the chances for a player to remember which cards have been played out, therefore increasing their chances for correctly predicting the next hand they will receive from the dealer.

Card counting in Blackjack looks very doable, even for a beginner – if casinos used only one single deck of cards. After 1961, casinos worldwide accepted a new gameplay standard, which effectively increased the number of card decks used in a game. This was an efficient strategy, as it prevented a good percentage of Blackjack players from correctly memorizing which cards were already in the discarded pile, and which ones remained in the deck.

Today, the most widely accepted standard for the number of decks used in the most common form of Blackjack is four; however, there are versions of the game that are played with six and even eight decks! Although rare, it’s not impossible to find Blackjack variants that are played with two decks, or even with one.

There Are Different Tactics for Card Reading

The first thing that should be mentioned is that the more card decks are in a game of Blackjack, the higher will be a casino’s edge. With that being said, simple memorization of what type of card was moved to the discarded pile, is nearly impossible, because the more decks are in a shoe, the more card duplicates there will be. Because of this, players that were into reading cards in Blackjack, created a plethora of “counting systems”, which allowed them to tip the scales their way. Before explaining any of them, however, you will need to understand the difference between “true count” and “running count”.

Different Tactics for Card Reading

The Running Count Determines Favourability

When a player counts the cards during the course of a Blackjack game, that will help them determine whether or not the remaining decks in the shoe are filled with more powerful cards. This is done by mentally assigning a negative, positive, or “zero” value to the cards that have been dealt and remembering them after each round. Determining the true ratio of low cards to high cards in the shoe will require immense focus! For most professional blackjack players, keeping track of the running count is considered priority number one.

Deck Estimation Helps You with the True Count

The true count is also a system that will give players the chance to further determine the potential profitability of the game. This will allow you to determine whether or not you should make a bigger bet, and which time for that action will be the most appropriate. Once you have the value of a running count, you must divide them by the number of decks that are remaining – the theoretical number that is produced, will be defined as your “true count”. The rule of thumb states, that the game is profitable when a True Count has a +2 value or higher.

Both Counts Are Necessary for an Effective Card Counting Strategy

There are a few important tips that you have to follow, in order to determine both counts with maximum accuracy. First and foremost, the player will need to start their Blackjack gaming session with a full shoe. If a shoe has already been depleted by even 30%, there will be no way for you to determine which cards have passed, therefore making any count estimations unreliable. Determining a True Count will require the player to keep track of their running count and perform simple mental math.

Always Mind the Cut Card – How Deck Penetration Affects Card Counting

 How Deck Penetration Affects Card Counting

Just before the stacks of decks is inserted in a shoe, the dealer will use a (usually) yellow plastic card to cut the stack and leave it there, to be loaded in the shoe among all other cards. The thing with the cut card is the following; when the dealer has reached the cut card, the shoe will be refilled with a new stack of cards – meaning that any cards behind the cut card aren’t going to be played. Bear in mind that this is quite important, because cards located behind the “yellow cut” will always be unplayable; however, they are still shuffled with all others before being put in the shoe.

Suppose you’re seriously considering picking up card counting in Blackjack. In that case, you will need to hear the advice of professionals, and pay special attention to cut card penetration when a new shoe is loaded. The ideal variant is when the cut card is placed in front of a little over a deck of cards; this will allow the player to go through enough playing rounds to establish a correct true count.

Suppose you see that a dealer places the cut card in the dead centre of the card stack. In that case, you shouldn’t waste your money, because playing only on three out of six decks won’t provide card counters with the necessary information needed to determine if the outcome of any potential hands will be profitable.

Reading the Game Is Not Illegal – But It Can Be

Using your own brainpower to play the game according to its rules is not illegal; however, there is one very significant catch – the casino doesn’t like its players to lose. Because people that are good at counting cards aren’t technically cheating, the casino cannot implicate them in any foul play. On the other hand, gambling establishments have developed their own methods to deal with players who exercise a so-called “advantage play” tactic. Advantage play refers to the event where a player efficiently utilizes their skill to significantly lower the casino’s house edge.

This Is What Happens to Card Counters When They Get “Caught”

If Card Counters Get Caught

Gambling houses approach each and every case with the utmost finality; for example, if a player who counts cards is detected to count cards, they will be immediately asked to leave. Casino grounds are private properties, and a person is basically a guest – even if they haven’t done anything wrong (but play Blackjack successfully), the management of the gambling house can still evacuate the player from the premises. If a player is not cooperative, the casino will ban him forever from the establishment!

Before that moment comes, however, there are four types of “backoffs”. Backoffs are essential tactics that are utilized by a pit boss or a casino manager once the player has been confronted about counting cards. The four most common types of backoffs that are used, are:

  • The Friendly Approach

    When the casino boss has approached you, they will politely praise your success, and inform you that you’re “too good” for their blackjack table, which is why they can’t accept your business anymore. They will cordially tell you that any other table or game in the casino will be open for you; however, for now, they can’t accept your business on their Blackjack table. Out of all “backoff” types, the Friendly Approach is the best one a card counter can receive.

  • The Straightforward Command

    You’re bluntly told by either a pit boss or a table manager that you are “done here”, after which they tell you in a commanding tone of voice to cash out all of your chips, and then leave the premises. Although this approach is a lot more intimidating, the casino will neither touch your winnings, nor place a ban on you. The best course of action when such a backoff is presented, is to abide by the staff’s instruction.

  • The Trespassing Act Play

    You will be informed in the harshest, straightforward, and intimidating manner, that you are trespassing on private property, and they can call the police to arrest you for “trespassing”. Also, you will be informed never to come back to this casino! On the upside, however, the Trespass Act is considered to be the one that happens on the rarest of occasions, while the Straightforward Command backoff is deemed to be the most common of all.

  • Extra Round – The Flat-Betting Backoff

    This is a rare backoff technique, but it does happen. Essentially, when you’re approached by a pit boss, they will tell you that they don’t want to “book your action” anymore, and if you wish to continue playing on this table, you can do so, under the condition that you’re flat-betted. What this means, is that if you start playing with a £5 bet, you will be obliged to continue playing with that very same bet amount for each new hand, until playing through the entire shoe.

    Waiting for a good count is also not allowed, which means that the staff obligate you to bet every time the same bet amount until you’ve run out of money, leave the game, or the shoe runs out of cards. Even though that might seem like some kind of a compromise on the casino’s side, you will be essentially playing at the mercy of the house edge, which is not going to be profitable for you.

Acting or Not Acting during the Confrontation Itself

Regardless of what type of backoff technique was used on you as a player, the best thing to do that will guarantee that you leave peacefully with your winnings, is to be fully compliant with what they are asking you to do. On the other hand, the worst thing you can do is try to contest or defy the casino staff in any way – which will lead to an unpleasant escalation of the situation.

What you should always do, is abide by the instructions of the pit boss or casino manager, with politeness and common courtesy – regardless of the type of backoff technique that was implemented on you. Even if you received the Friendly Approach or the Flat bet, with permission to try your luck in any of the other games available in the casino, simply call it quits and leave with your winnings intact.

Actual Cheating Is the Worst Thing That Can Happen to a Card Counter

Actual Cheating in Blackjack Game

An interesting observation is that not all cheaters are card counters, and vice versa! Alas, Blackjack cheaters were honing their sleight of hand skills to maximize profits and minimize losses, with physical manipulation. Since the majority of casinos worldwide implemented a policy for “no touching cards”, sleight of hand cheating on the Blackjack table was basically eradicated.

On the other hand, card counters that are cheaters, are a highly coordinated bunch. We say “a bunch”, because for a cheat to work, it requires a team of at least two people. By utilizing signals delivered either through intricate concealed devices or hand gestures, Blackjack cheater teams exploit dealer weaknesses in order to tip the scales in their favour. Regardless of the number of people involved, cheating is not only wrong, but it is also a felony that can land you in prison – not to mention that any winnings amassed by the cheaters will be confiscated by the casino.

Card Counting in Online Casinos

When it comes to RNG games, card counting is impossible, because a computer will generate new cards after each round; what this means, is that there won’t be any “discarded” cards, which can help you determine the running count and the true count. With that being said, RNG Blackjack is usually played by beginners that are not interested in card counting, or by professionals for fun.

Live dealer Blackjack in online casinos might be what you’re looking forward to, if you wish to practice your card counting skills. The gameplay on live dealer tables in online casinos is usually the same as the one in a real brick and mortar gambling house; however, there might be additional benefits. The primary one is a relaxed atmosphere – this allows players to be more focused when following the running count!

Bear in mind, however, that some live dealer tables also implement a number of interesting techniques in order to minimize the possibility of players counting cards. The most common tactic is to insert a new stack of decks in the game, after the shoe has been depleted only by 50%. Another casino strategy includes the use of automatic shoes – in addition to their card dispensing functions, they are also used for reshuffling playing card decks. The fact that they are also enclosed, means that players who are trying to determine how many decks are left in the shoe, won’t be able to do so, especially if “spent” cards are placed in a non-transparent discard tray (which is quite rare).

Success Is Guaranteed with Patience and Moderation

The most common mistake made by beginner card counters in Blackjack, is to bring too much attention to them during their session. Their desire to score as much money as possible and cash out swiftly, is what makes them increase their bets proportionally, and expose their abilities to read cards. Although not illegal, casinos will always be on the lookout to backoff someone who has come to make a profit for themselves on the Blackjack table.

Stretch out your game. Make a few bad bets, just so those that observe you see that you’re a casual player, who has an average play style, and is not looking to progressively increase their bets when they are winning. Sure, this road is much slower, and the wins won’t be as big as the ones you can risk when trying to rush it, but this allows you to cash your winnings at the end of the day and come back tomorrow. If you’re lucky, you might just find yourself in a casino that allows card counting!

Morgan Bartlett
Dedicated to keeping the spirit of casino alive. I think casino sites translate tradition into a modern context and I aim to provide our readers with the latest from the world of online casino, including industry news, launches, and promotions.
Author: Morgan Bartlett