Beginner Guide to Counting Cards in Blackjack

Beginner Guide to Counting Cards in Blackjack
By Jon Young

Counting cards has been a tool of blackjack gamblers for decades. But is it difficult to implement, and is it worth the effort?

On this page, you will learn how to count cards to give you an edge when playing blackjack. The basic strategy is easy to learn but casinos have learned to make it hard for any counting system to work, no matter how good your card counting technique. With the advent of automatic shufflers, NJ casinos make card counting nearly impossible.

If you’re interested to know how counting cards can improve a blackjack player’s results, we have the full lowdown.

What is Card Counting in Blackjack?

Card counting is a system used by blackjack gamblers to gain an edge over the dealer. By assigning points to cards, the player can gauge whether a shoe is full of high value or low value cards. The higher the count, the higher the stake. If the count is lower, you bet less.

A method for counting cards was first developed by mathematician Edward O. Thorp in the mid-1960s. His book “Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One,” was hugely successful and paved the way for thousands of successful card counters.

Thorp’s methods were improved upon by the infamous MIT blackjack teams, who took Vegas casinos for millions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s.

Brick-and-mortar casinos have become experts at spotting card counters. Erratic betting patterns easily reveal a counter, and they will usually be banned for life if caught.

How Does Card Counting Work?

So, how does counting cards work? The simplest method is to assign point values to every card that comes out. A value of 0, +1 or -1 is assigned depending on the card.

CardPoint Value
2, 3, 4, 5, 6+1
10, J, Q, K, A -1
7, 8, 9 0

You’re sitting at a blackjack table that uses six decks. There are four players, plus the dealer. The decks are shuffled and you begin counting. The count starts at zero.

The first five cards dealt out are as follows:

  • Player 1: 10
  • Player 2: J
  • Player 3: 7
  • Player 4: 8
  • Dealer: 9

The count after five cards is therefore -1-1+0+0+0 = -2

Time for the next card. Then the dealer pulls out five more cards:

  • Player 1: 2
  • Player 2: 3
  • Player 3: K
  • Player 4: 7
  • Dealer: 6

The count is now -1-1+0+0+0+1+1-1+0+1 = 0

The hand progresses, and more cards are dealt out. Once the round is over, the running count is +2.

Now it’s time to adjust your stakes. Let’s imagine you started the hand playing at $1 stakes. With the count at +2 you need to increase your bets, to $2. Essentially, the higher the count, the more you should bet. If the count is +1 or lower, your stake should be a base unit of 1.

Here’s an easy way to remember what to bet when:

CountUnit Bets
+1 or lower1
+4 and higher4

Understanding the True Count When Counting Cards in Blackjack

If you’re new to counting cards in a blackjack game, the running count is the easiest method to use. It’s the most basic card counting strategy out there. But what if you want a betting strategy with a more accurate way of working out the count? That’s where the True Count comes in.

The True Count is used in blackjack games that use multiple decks. You simply divide the running count by the number of unplayed decks left in the shoe.

For example, let’s say you’re playing Atlantic City Blackjack with six decks. The running count is +2 and there are two decks left in the shoe. The True Count would therefore be +2 divided by 2, or +1.

With a True Count figure, you can adjust your bet sizes accordingly. For a True Count of +1 or lower, your bet size is unchanged at one unit. For a True Count of +2 or +3, the bet size is two units, and three units for a True Count of +4 or +5.

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Blackjack Card Counting Systems

The easiest method for counting cards in blackjack is the Hi-Lo card counting system, as we have outlined above. But there are many systems that assign different point values. Some are easier to follow than others, while the more complex strategies offer a better chance of returns – though require better card counting skills.

System2345678910, J, Q, K A
Hi-Opt I0+1+1+1+1000−10
Hi-Opt II+1+1+2+2+1+100−20
Omega II+1+1+2+2+2+10−1−20
Red 7+1+1+1+1+10 or +100−1−1
Wong Halves+0.5+1+1+1.5+1+0.50-0.5−1−1
Zen Count+1+1+2+2+2+100−2−1

Hi-Lo Method: This is the easiest and most basic strategy for counting cards. Assign +1 to all 2-6 cards, zero to 7-9, and -1 to 10-thru-Ace.

Hi-Opt I/Hi-Opt II: Hi-Opt is a balanced card counting strategy where aces are valued at 0. Hi-Opt II weights the running count more toward low-value cards like 4 and 5. That’s why the Hi-Opt II counting system offers a better chance of bigger profits as the stakes increase more on high counts.

Omega II: This is a comparable card counting technique to Hi-Opt II where the 4-6 cards are assigned a value of +2. 10-thru-K cards are valued at -2, making this a much less risky option for players hitting low counts.

Wong Halves/Halves: Wong Halves is a complex betting strategy for counting cards that uses half-points. It’s a more accurate method for counting cards in blackjack but you’ll need to be expert at counting to keeping track of the running total.

Zen Count: Like Omega II, Zen Count is a balanced system for counting cards in blackjack. However, the 9 is valued at 0 instead of -1.

Is This Still an Effective Method?

If you learn how to count cards, you could gain an extra advantage of 0.5-1% over the casino. And if you’re betting for high stakes, that kind of edge can make a real difference. The biggest problem with online blackjack is that cards are shuffled before every new hand. This makes it virtually impossible to keep a running count on the shoe.

You can download software to count cards for you, but you still have to contend with random shuffles on every hand, making it nearly impossible to anticipate the next card or what is in the remaining deck.

In a land-based casino game, cards are shuffled with an automatic shuffler in the blackjack table. The dealer may shuffle the deck regularly if suspected card counters are at the table.

Is Counting Cards Illegal?

The good news is that counting cards isn’t against the law. The bad news is that casinos will do their best to put off gamblers from trying to use a card counting system or any kind in a blackjack game.

New Jersey blackjack players have a long history of fighting casinos over bans for card counting. In the 1980s, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Atlantic City casinos couldn’t exclude players for trying to use “skill” to win a hand of blackjack.

So, while counting cards in blackjack isn’t against the law, casinos don’t want professionals cleaning up. They have introduced more regular card shuffles and will limit bet sizes for suspected or known card counters. Shoes regularly contain eight decks as well to make it harder for counters to keep track.

The only time counting cards is illegal in New Jersey is if a player is caught tampering with the decks, or using others to keep count for them.

Casinos know that even successful card counters will be fighting the house edge no matter how strong their card counting skills might be. And most gamblers who try to count cards just aren’t good enough to make long-term profits anyway.

RELATED: When to Hit or Stand In Blackjack

Can You Count Cards Playing Online Blackjack?

Now you know how to count cards, you might want to know whether it’s possible online. Online blackjack games use computerized software instead of human dealers. That also means that the computer can shuffle the decks on a regular basis.

In fact, in a standard online casino game of online blackjack, the cards are shuffled after each hand. That makes it impossible to count cards.

You can also play against a human croupier in live blackjack games. In these games, you can bet real money on real cards being shuffled and dealt by a real-life dealer. It’s just like being on the casino floor in Atlantic City.

While real cards are used in live dealer blackjack, counting cards is still difficult. Many live blackjack dealers will simply shuffle the deck once half the shoe has emptied instead of playing out the remaining deck. That makes it very hard for a card counter to keep a running count or true count.

In addition, live blackjack is a slow-moving game online. You won’t be able to play enough hands per hour to warrant all the effort it takes to count the cards.

Counting Cards FAQ

Is it hard to count cards?

Basic card counting is easy as long as you can keep track of the running count and adjust your bets at the same time.

Can casinos tell if you’re counting cards?

Yes. Card counters give themselves away by betting erratically and betting hard when the shoe is coming to an end.

Can you get banned for counting cards?

Yes, but it’s not illegal to count cards in the US. Most casinos will simply limit your bets or make you to play at a different casino.

How can you get better at counting cards?

Yes. There are many tools online that help you to hone your skills. Try downloading an easy tool like Blackjack Card Counter.

Are there other casino games where card counting works?

As well as classic blackjack, counting cards also works in casino card game variants like Spanish 21 and Free Bet Blackjack. You can also count cards in baccarat, but the long-term returns are too small to make it worth the time and effort.

Is learning to card count necessary for winning in blackjack?

No. You can win at blackjack by employing optimal strategy and using a cheat sheet. Avoid the insurance bet, double down on the right numbers, and understand which pairs to split.



Jon Young is a writer and magazine editor with over 12 years' experience in the gaming sector. He has written on everything from poker and slots to casino, sports betting and mobile gambling. When not trying to take down the Mega Moolah jackpot he can be found playing poker tournaments in casinos.

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