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Card Counting

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In Blackjack, as each card is dealt over successive hands, one after the other, the deck subtly changes in composition with respect to the number of high cards versus low cards left in pack. Thus, during the deal of a game, the odds lilt subtly back and forth in favour of Dealer and Player. The purpose of card counting is to identify those periods along the deal where the odds favour the player, and bet higher in order to win more. In this way, the overall odds swing in favour of the Player, as each time he is presented with a situation he is more likely to win and win more often he bets higher making his wins larger, but each time the Player is presented with a situation which he is likely to lose and to lose more often, then he bets lower, and his losses are smaller.

In Blackjack, there are two things a player has control over. One is the way he plays his cards, the other is how much he bets. Well, the Basic Strategy has the card playing all sorted out. All we have to do now is turn our attention to how we manage our betting. And this is exactly what we are doing with card counting � identifying those periods along the deal where the odds favour the Player verses those periods along the deal which favour the Dealer.

Keep in mind, however, that for all the hype around card counting, just remember that with every publication of books like �Beat the Dealer� (1963), or �Million Dollar BlackJack�, the games has only grown in popularity, and along with it, the casinos ever richer. But if you�re just happy to give it a go, learn your Basic Strategy, and get a handle on counting your cards, then at least you just might be able to enjoy the game and not lose too much money. Make no mistake! This is not an easy task. It takes practice, commitment, and the acquisition of skill to master card counting and to win at BlackJack.

How to Count Cards

In card counting, the idea is to keep track of how many high cards have gone past and how many low cards have gone past in order to make an informed estimate of what kind of cards are yet to come. Low cards are those 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 that we count as �+1�. High cards are those 10, J, Q, K, A that we count as �-1�. Those cards 7, 8, 9 are counted as �0�, with no value at all.

In any standard deck of 52 cards, there are twenty low cards and twenty high cards. So that means that if you count +1 for each low card (2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and -1 for each high card (10, J, Q, K, A) then if you count through an entire deck you should end up back at 0. Well done, you have counted correctly.

If we takes this example below, by following the �running count�, you can see how the low cards, +1, will count off against the high cards, -1, till you arrive back at zero by the end of the deck. This just tells us that we have counted the cards correctly, if going through at deck at home for practice.

LOW CARDS (+1) No Count Value HIGH CARDS (-1)
THE CARDS 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 J Q K A
COUNT VALUE +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 0 0 0 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1
THE COUNT +1 +2 +3 +4 +5 +5 +5 +5 +4 +3 +2 +1 0

So, what do we learn from this? Well, in a standard deck of 52 cards, there are five low cards, and five high cards in each suit, making a total of twenty high cards and twenty low cards each. So, that means at the beginning of a deal the Player has exactly the same chance of receiving a high card as he does a low card � that is a 38.4% chance. But, if we remove just one low card, then the chances of receiving a high card, that is a 10, J, Q, K or Ace, are now 39.2% verses 36.5% - which means we have a slightly better chance of receiving a high card then we do a low card. Although the percentage differences are not much, you can imagine that as we progress along the deal, and that �running count� starts getting up to +3 or +4, (meaning more low cards have gone past than high cards) then our chances of receiving high cards become significantly greater than receiving low cards. Conversely, if we have a count of something like -3 or -4, then it becomes more likely that we will receive low cards rather than high cards.

What we�re identifying here is that as the deal proceeds, the deck will change in composition with respect to the ratio of high cards versus low cards left to come, meaning that the odds will lilt back forth in favour between Player and Dealer.

�But why should this matter?� I hear you ask. What�s the difference if the deck is rich in low cards or rich in high cards? Why should a deck rich in high cards favour the Player more than the Dealer? Well, for two very important reasons. The first is that 10s and Aces are the very two cards the Player needs to make a BlackJack � which, incidentally, pays 3-2, rather than standard win of 1-1. Even without a Blackjack, a 10 and 10 is a pretty good score of 20 that more often than not beats the Dealer. But there is another important factor at work here. The Player always has a choice on whether to �HIT� or �STAND� on any total he receives of his first two cards. The Dealer, on the other hand, has no choice at all � The Dealer must draw on 16 and stand on 17. When the deck is rich in high cards, it generally works against the Dealer, causing him bust more often than he wins. It is these two factors that work in favour of the Player when the deck is rich in high cards, and work in favour of the Dealer when the deck is rich in low cards.

Seeing as this being the case, All we have to do now, is to count off +1 for every 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 we see, and -1 for every 10, J, Q, K, A. In this way we will be able to identify those periods along the deal where the odds favour the Player, and thereby bet higher, and those periods along the deal when the odds favour the Dealer, and thereby bet lower. In this way we maximize our winnings when we are winning more often, and minimize our losses where we are losing more often.

However, the whole strategy relies upon being able to keep an accurate count of the cards in real time as they come rolling out of the shoe and onto the table � that is, not only of our own cards, but of all cards spread across the table, including those of other players and those of the Dealer�s.

Multiple Decks

So, just when you thought you had it all sorted out, you have to remember, of course, that no commercial casinos are ever going to use just a single deck of cards in a deal of BlackJack. If that were so, they would have all gone broke long ago and we�d be forced to play Baccarat instead. Counting down a single deck of cards may have been cutting edge way back in 1963, when Professor Edward O. Thorp was showing off the technique, but these days casinos are way ahead of the game, and have a variety of creative measures to hinder card counters.

The most obvious of these, of course, would be the introduction of multiple decks which has the effect of vastly reducing the significance of any anomalies in the ratio of high cards verses low cards along the course of the deal. If you�ll remember the example given above � �Remove just one low card and the chances of receiving a high card increases by some 2.5% or so�. But that�s in a standard deck of 52 cards. Start using 6 or 8 decks, and a difference of one low or high card is now compared against a pool of anything from 312 to 416 cards, which means that the differences are much less significant, and your count much less indicative of the overall composition of the deck left in the shoe.

This now introduces us to the concept of the �True Count� verses the �Running Count�.

The "True Count" Versus the "Running Count"

When playing a multiple deck game of BlackJack � which is the way it is dealt in casinos � players apply a simple formula to calculate the significance of the count against the large pool of cards that�s left in the shoe to be dealt. The �Running Count� is essentially the count you count off as the cards are dealt across the table to you and all the other players. You�ve counted so many �highs�, so many �lows�, that�s the count of the cards � the �Running Count�.

However, a running count of �4� or �5� may be significant against a single deck of cards left in the shoe, but what does it really mean against a pool of 300 or more cards left to come. To reconcile this �running count� against the much bigger picture of the multiple decks that are left to come, we have to calculate the �True Count�. And how do we do this?

Well, what you do is you take the �Running Count� and you divide it by the number of half decks left in the shoe.

Running Count / No. of Half Decks left in the Shoe = True Count.

So, for example, lets say you were playing a 6 deck game. Around half the cards of the shoe have been dealt and you have a running count of +6. Your �True Count� is calculated thus:

6 divided by 6 (the number of � decks left in the shoe) = a True Count of 1.

It�s basically a representation of the significance of the count we�ve made as we�ve been playing, against the broader context of the pool of cards left to come. What we learn from this is that as the number of cards in the shoe is depleted, the running count gradually becomes a more accurate picture of what our count really is. That is, a running count of +6 or any amount is not very significant toward the beginning of a deal, but becomes much more significant towards the end of a deal.

Learn to Play!

If you are at all considering dabbling in BlackJack, then there is one simple thing you must absolutely learn to do. You must learn to play the game properly before you even consider placing a single dime on a bet. And what does that mean? It means that you must learn the Basic Strategy, and learn to do this fluidly and properly, without hesitation. I cannot emphasize this enough � There is only one single way to play BlackJack properly. There is only one, perfect, mathematically proven way to play BlackJack and make the best decisions that favour the Player over a large number of hands and that is the Basic Strategy.

Without it, card counting, side counts, and any other techniques will avail you nothing unless you get this simple, basic technique: emphasized, prescribed, and demanded by every single protagonist of the game from Ken Uston � Mr Million Dollar BlackJack � all the way to Bill Kaplan, J. Massar, Stanford Wong, to the very founder of the technique, Eddie O Thorpe (Beat the Dealer � 1963) way back in 1963. The formula is mathematically proven set of best choices over time. And the beauty of Basic Strategy is this: even if you can�t count cards � which is very difficult, anyway � then at least you will minimize your losses by playing a sensible, proper game. So before you go anywhere, make sure you learn Basic Strategy »

Some people think counting cards in a casino is illegal, but actually there are no laws against counting cards in any U.S. state. However, you can be barred from a casino if they realize you are counting cards. If you are barred by a casino and you return, you could face a trespassing charge and have to go to court.

Further Reading:

Ken Uston's Blackjack World - The Official Ken Uston Web Site
WikiPedia - Ken Uston


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