Blackjack Card Counting

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Card counting is a strategy that a player may use to reduce the house edge. A player can do this by tracking the cards already dealt; this gives him an idea of the cards left in the deck. This in turn helps him figure out if he would have an advantage over the dealer in the next hand dealt. Basically, it is a way of tracking the ratio of high cards to low cards in a game of blackjack. When a player knows this he can optimise his betting – bet low or high in a pattern that ensures he wins more often than most other players.

A player using a specific card counting technique can cause them huge losses. That is why card counting, while being legal, is frowned upon by casinos; if you are caught counting cards you may be thrown out of the casino.

Brief History of Card Counting

  • Card counting came into the spotlight when Edward Oakley Thorp, an American mathematics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and blackjack player, proved that the house edge could be brought down by card counting, in his book ‘Beat the Dealer’ published in 1962.
  • Before him, players like Jess Marcum and Joe Bernstein were using different blackjack counting methods.
  • A counting system that used mechanical calculators was introduced in 1957 by the Four Horsemen – Roger Baldwin, James McDermott, Wilbert Canteny and Herbert Maisel.
  • After Ed Thorp’s book came out Harvey Dubner, a computer scientist, introduced the Hi-Lo card counting system, which was optimised later by Julian, a computer programmer. The concept of team play in card counting was introduced by Al Francesco in 1971 and this was made popular later by another player who had trained under Francesco, Ken Uston, who published a book on it titled The Big Player, in 1977. The team play strategy was at the core of the way the MIT blackjack team operated, a subject captured on celluloid in the Hollywood blockbuster 21 and made famous in the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich.
  • The first group of MIT students and residents who played at Atlantic City and used card counting also offered a course on blackjack during the Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January, 1980.
  • One of the MIT card counters, J.P. Massar, teamed up with Bill Kaplan, a 1980 Harvard graduate who was also running a successful blackjack team in Las Vegas.
  • After being around for years, Kaplan, Massar and John Chang, another of the counters, formed a business entity in 1992 to bankroll the new blackjack team, raising more than a million dollars. The team initially comprised a big player, a controller and a spotter and over the next 2 years, grew to a mammoth 80 members that played in different casinos across the world.
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Card counting went mainstream, thanks to the move “21” featuring Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne.

Popular Card Counting Systems

One of the first card counting systems was the Hi-Lo system introduced by Harvey Dubner and modified by Julian Braun and Stanley Wong. There are a number of other card counting systems in use today. The most well-known of these include:

  • KO
  • Halves
  • Zen
  • Hi Opt I
  • Hi Opt II
  • Red 7
  • Omega II

Is Card Counting for Everyone?

Card counting is not for everyone as it involves specific skill and requires a thorough knowledge of the game and patience. You need the following to be a good card counter:

  • Knowledge of blackjack and blackjack strategy
  • Keen eyes and a sharp brain to be able to count through a deck quickly
  • A calm demeanour that does not betray nervousness or excitement as you are counting cards
  • Extensive practice sessions to hone your card counting skills

Card Counting – How It Works

Card counting can be broken down into 4 simple steps:

Essentially, a deck with more 10-value cards works well for the player, while a deck with low-value cards is great for the dealer. If a deck has more 10-value cards, the following moves/hands are great for a player:

  • Blackjack: 7% benefit
  • Doubling down: 9% benefit
  • Stand: 40% benefit
  • Split: 4% benefit
  • Surrender: 6% benefit
  • Insurance bet: 34% benefit

Different card counting systems assign different values to the cards. For instance, the Hi-Lo card counting system assigns a value of +1 to cards 2 to 6, 0 to cards 7 to 9 and -1 for the cards from 10 through to the Ace.

Getting Started with Card Counting

There are quite a few options open if you are looking to get started with card counting. We list the top ones below:

  • Learn from the experts: Experts like to share their knowledge and this can be found in documentaries and movies, tons of books and also the Internet.
  • Pick a good system: The next option is to choose from the different card counting systems available. Once you know the basics you can look around online and zero in on a counting system that works for you.
  • Read up and be aware of legal issues: Card counting is officially not illegal as long as you are just using your math skills and memory to count cards. However, it raises a lot of red flags with casino management as it could bleed them. A casino can throw you out if it catches you counting cards at one of their blackjack games. That is why only being at card counting is not enough; you have to learn not to show any signs that you are doing it.