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How to Count Cards – Ultimate Guide

Sergio Zammit
Last updated: | 11 min read

how to count cards

When at the blackjack table, there are multiple strategies you can employ to win. However, card counting remains a favorite for many players. The technique is not just popular; it’s also effective if you implement it correctly. If you’re reading this, it means you want to learn how to count cards in blackjack. Well, we’ll explain all you need to know about the strategy in this article so you can move from beginner to pro.

Blackjack Rules

In short, Blackjack, also known as Twenty-One, is a popular card game with simple yet engaging rules. The main objective is to beat the dealer’s hand without going over 21. Each player competes only against the dealer, not against other players.

The game begins with players placing their bets, followed by the dealer handing out two cards to each player and themselves. Players then decide to ‘hit’ (take another card) or ‘stand’ (keep their current hand), aiming to get as close to 21 as possible without exceeding it.

Key rules include the option to ‘double down’ (double the bet and receive only one more card), ‘split’ pairs, and the understanding that an Ace can count as either 1 or 11, while face cards count as 10. The dealer typically must hit until their cards total 17 or higher. There are variations in rules like Doubling After Splitting (DAS) and specific conditions for the dealer’s gameplay, which can affect the odds and strategy of the game

Basic Blackjack Strategy

Let’s remind ourselves of the basic blackjack strategy. This strategy minimizes the house edge and increases the player’s chances of winning. It involves decisions like when to hit, stand, split, or double down. For instance, it’s generally recommended to always double down on a hard 11, split a pair of 8s and Aces, and stand on a hand value of 17 or higher. Memorizing these actions can significantly improve your game.

Basic strategy charts are available to help players make these decisions during the game. These charts are created based on mathematical probabilities and vary slightly depending on the specific rules of the blackjack game, such as the number of decks used. Adhering to these basic strategies is essential for any player looking to play blackjack effectively and increase their odds of winning. If you want to know everything in detail about this topic, read our ultimate blackjack strategy guide.

What is Card Counting?

Like any other blackjack strategy, the primary goal of card counting is to get an edge over the house. The technique involves monitoring cards as they are dealt on the table and tracking whether there are more high or low-value cards in the deck. As a result, if you know how to count cards in blackjack, you can tell whether you’ll have an advantage when you hit.

Different card counting systems exist, including basic and advanced ones. However, the basic methods are more widespread because of their simplicity. One of the most popular is High-Low — also Hi-Lo — which assigns point values to cards ranging from -1 to +1. Particularly, cards from 2 to 6 are counted as +1, 7 to 9 are counted as 0, while 10 to A takes a -1 value.

It’s worth noting that card counting is a continuous activity. You’ll need to maintain a running count as the dealer deals the cards by adding and subtracting. Then, you get the true count from the running account, which you’ll base your actions on.

Clearly, to be successful at card counting, you need to be familiar with basic mathematics and also have a good memory. However, the true value comes from the decisions you make. So, you must also know how to adapt your strategy and bet sizes based on your counts.

How to Count Cards in 4 Steps

Card counting may be an advanced blackjack winning strategy, but it doesn’t have to be challenging. You can learn how to count cards in blackjack by simply following the below steps:

Step 1: Assign A Value To Every Card

The first thing to do is to give each card a value based on their rankings. As mentioned, Hi-Lo is the most popular method, and it’s recommended when learning how to count cards in blackjack for dummies. With the Hi-Lo pattern, these are the values you assign to each card:

  • 2 to 6: +1
  • 7 to 9: 0
  • 10 to Ace: -1

What this means is that you’ll either add 1, do nothing, or subtract 1, depending on the card dealt. So, if the two initial cards you get are 3 and 6, while the dealer receives a K card, that’ll be +1 +0 -1, which equals 0.

Step 2: Calculate the Running Count

You’ll calculate the running count as each new card is dealt. That means you’ll need to update it for as long as the round lasts. Notably, if the running count is positive (the sum of all card values gives a + number), the odds are in your favor. When at 0, things are neutral, while the casino gets the upper hand if the running count is negative.

Using the previous example where you get 3 and 6, and the dealer’s upcard is a K card, the running count at that stage is 0. Now, if the next card dealt is 4, it gets the value +1, and the running count is updated to +1 (0+1). If there’s another hit, and a 2 is drawn, the running count becomes +2, and so on.

Maintaining a running count can be challenging, especially if you’re learning how to count cards in blackjack with multiple decks. That’s why many players use card counter systems to keep track of the values. If it’s a single deck, it’s a lot simpler.

Step 3: Calculate A “True Count” Or Count Per Deck

While the running count is reliable, the “true count” gives a more accurate prediction of your odds. It’s particularly helpful if the table has multiple decks. To calculate the true count, you divide the current running count by the number of decks remaining. So, it’s more or less like calculating an average.

Let’s look at an example of how to count cards in blackjack with 8 decks. In such a setting, you’ll need to calculate the running count and estimate the number of decks remaining. Suppose the running count is +2, and you have 3 decks remaining; the true count will be +2/3 = +0.67. That means the odds are still in your favor as a player, although low.

Note that the standard blackjack house edge is at around 2%. For some variants, however, it’s lower at 1%. Regardless of the variant you’re playing, always compare the house edge with the true count to know where you stand.

Step 4: Change Your Bets Following The True Count

Based on your true count, you can decide what action to take at the blackjack table. In particular, you’ll know the perfect bet size to place. This is where the real strategy comes in.

Generally, if the true count is a high positive value, it’s a good time to increase the bet size. You can place large bets if the number of decks remaining is few, as you’ll likely win at the end. On the contrary, if the count is negative, you’ll want to place small bets. Suppose the value is a neutral zero; it’s not ideal to bet big since the default house edge still puts you at a disadvantage.

Does Card Counting Work?

It’s possible to beat the house using a card-counting system when done correctly. In other words, card counting works, but it depends on how you use it. However, the technique is usually limited to land-based casinos.

If you know how to count cards at land-based casinos, you can get up to a 1% edge over the house in 6-deck blackjack. In some variants, it’s possible to get up to a 2.5% advantage, although it depends on different factors. Generally, whether card counting works will depend on your skill level, the house rules, and other factors like penetration.

When it comes to the online gaming scene, you can’t rely on card counting as a strategy as much. There’s little to gain if you learn how to count cards in online blackjack. That’s because the games are digital and managed using Random Number Generators (RNGs). The value of cards dealt is entirely random and not based on their positions during shuffling.

You may be able to apply the card counting strategy when playing live dealer blackjack through an online casino app. In these variants, the game is live-streamed from an actual casino or studio, similar to land-based tables. However, the technique is still difficult to apply because you may not get a good view of the cards from your screen.

counting cards at a casino

Is Card Counting Illegal?

There’s no casino gambling law — online or offline — that marks card counting system as illegal. So, if you learn how to count cards in blackjack, you’re not breaking any law. However, at some casinos, the house rules may prohibit card counting.

It’s easy to understand why many casinos don’t allow counting cards at their tables. The activity puts them at a disadvantage and gives players the upper hand. Basically, they see it as cheating.

So, if you want to know whether card counting is allowed, you should check the specific rules of the casino you’re playing at. This particularly applies to land-based gambling locations. As mentioned earlier, counting cards doesn’t work well at online casinos.

5 Card Counting Tips for Beginners

Many players new to casino tables wonder how hard it is to count cards in blackjack. It’s true the strategy can be complicated since it requires mathematical tools. Nevertheless, if you’re a beginner, you can start counting cards easily by following the tips below:

  1. Get familiar with the rules. Before you begin counting cards, you should first have a complete understanding of how blackjack works. Ideally, you need to know the different cards in the deck and their values.
  2. Perfect the basic moves. You probably know the goal is to get a hand close to 21 without surpassing it. However, you also need to become familiar with actions like stand, hit, split, double, and surrender, as these are the moves to take after counting cards.
  3. Go with a simple system. Without debate, the Hi-Lo system is the simplest to start with when learning how to count cards in blackjack. It’s a level-1 system, so the values are +1, 0, and -1. That means for every count, you’re either adding or subtracting one or doing nothing.
  4. Constantly practice. You’ll improve card counting over time as you continue using the strategy. So, as a beginner, you’ll want to practice regularly. You can get a deck of cards at home and play with family and friends to improve your skills.
  5. Don’t forget to manage your bankroll! While you might be focused on practicing your card-counting skills, it’s important to remember to play within your budget. Knowing how to count cards might improve your chances, but gambling always comes with the risk of losing your bets.

Card Counting in Other Casino Games

If you know how to count cards, you can apply the strategy in other casino games besides blackjack. How it works may vary, but the core principle remains the same — you assign value to cards and calculate. That said, here are other casino games where you can use card counting.

Seven-Card Stud Card Counting

Here, you’ll be employing the card-counting strategy in poker. It’s worth noting that Seven-Card Stud Card poker isn’t as popular as it once was. Nevertheless, if you find a table, counting cards can give you an edge.

If you want to count cards when playing poker, there should be multiple players. As players get their faceup cards, look at them and try to memorize them all. Then, you can apply this knowledge in subsequent stages of the game to know whether to call or raise the bet — or fold to cut losses.

Baccarat Card Counting

Baccarat is perhaps the most popular casino card game after blackjack. So, you’ll find it in many variants at online and land-based casinos. However, baccarat is very different from blackjack because you can’t influence the game outcome after betting.

In baccarat, you bet on the Banker’s or Player’s hand. You can’t take actions like hit, stand, or double. The best approach when counting cards in baccarat is to monitor cards with zero points. Suppose the deck has many zero-point cards; you can back the Player’s hand instead of the Banker.

How to Count Cards FAQs

What is the easiest way to count cards?

The easiest way to count cards is the Hi-Lo system. With this strategy, you give cards from 2 to 6 a +1 value, while cards from 7 to 9 are counted as 0. For 10 through to A, the value is -1.

What is the formula for counting cards?

The formula for counting cards varies depending on the system you’re using. However, you’ll usually add the value of the dealt cards to get the running count. Then, you divide the running count by the number of decks remaining to get the true count.

What are the basic rules for counting cards?

The basic rules of counting cards are different for varying methods. However, the standard rule for the Hi-Lo system is to assign +1 to cards labeled 2 to 6, 0 to cards labeled 7 to 9, and -1 to cards having 10 through to A.

How do you number cards in blackjack?

You can number cards in blackjack using the value-assigning system for the card counting method you use. Generally, there are level-1 systems that number cards from -1 to +1 and multi-level systems that number from -2 to +2.

Is it illegal to count cards in blackjack?

It’s not illegal to count cards in blackjack. However, individual casinos may not allow the activity.

How does card counting work for beginners?

Card count for beginners works by assigning values to different blackjack cards. Then, you calculate the running and true count based on the value of the drawn cards and the number of decks remaining.