Counting Cards at Blackjack
Last update: March 2022
Top 10 things to know
- Yes, it's a real thing. Card counters flip the odds in their favor. I used to do it myself, and won thousands of dollars.
- It's not illegal. Counting happens in your head, and they can't criminalize your thoughts.
- They can kick you out. While counting isn't illegal, the casino doesn't have to let you play. If they think you're counting, they'll either tell you no more blackjack ("backing you off"), or they'll kick you out and tell you that you'll be arrested for trespassing if you return ("barred"). I've been both backed off and barred.
- It's usually not worth it. It takes money to make money. To win $25 an hour safely, you need to have $25,000 in the bank, to weather losses. So, if you can afford to do it, you don't need to, because you're already loaded.
- How it works. You make small bets until you see that you have an advantage, then you make big bets. As a counter, you won't win any more hands than anyone else. But when you do win, you'll generally have more money on the table.
- The advantage is tiny. Regular players have about a 49% chance of winning. Counters flip that, and have about a 51% chance of winning. It's still almost a coin toss. You could easily lose for days, weeks, or months.
- It's easier than you think. You don't have to memorize all the cards, you have to memorize just a single number. As you count, that number goes up and down, like a thermometer. When the count gets high enough, you bet big.
- You have to learn basic strategy first. Counting won't give you an advantage unless you play proper strategy. If you just wing it, the odds are still against you. And learning basic strategy is harder than learning to count cards.
- Counting is easy, not getting caught is hard. Casino surveillance knows how to count, too. They'll watch you on the cameras and see if you're raising your bet when the count gets good, or if you're raising it just randomly. It's pretty trivial for them to detect.
- The best counting system is Knock-Out. There are various counting systems, but Knock-Out is the easiest but still very effective. It's what I used when I counted.
- You can't win online. Online games shuffle the deck after every round, so the odds never shift into your favor. But, you can still use the online games for practice. Bovada has a good blackjack game, which takes either fake money or real money.
How to count cards
That's the topic for an entire book, too much for a mere website article. Fortunately some books are pretty short. I like Knock-Out Blackjack.
If I'm playing blackjack anyway, should I learn to count?
Probably. If you have the time to learn how to do it, then go for it. If you're playing anyway, then you might as well play with an advantage.
Should I count cards for a living?
Probably not. To make $25/hr. safely, you need to have $25,000 cash to weather losing streaks. If you have $25k in cash, you probably already have a better gig than counting cards. If you have $25k but don't have a good, job, invest that $25k in a community college degree in healthcare, tech, or building trades, and then you will have a good gig.
It takes money to make money. If you try to count without the capital to back you up, you'll probably go bust.
Casinos are good at catching counters. After you keep getting kicked out of casino after casino, soon there will be nowhere to play.
You'd have to live in Vegas. You can't practically count anywhere else because there aren't enough casinos. You don't want to play for more than an hour at a time, because the longer you play, the more likely they are to identify you as a counter.
Casinos are smoky and that could take years off your life.
Card-counting in the movies
The movies always get card-counting wrong. For starters, they show the counter winning hand after hand after hand, usually getting blackjacks. The truth is that counters don't win more hands than anyone else. Their advantage is simply that when they do win, they have more money on the table.
In Rain Main, Raymond literally kept track of all the cards that were played. While he had that special ability, that's not how it's normally done. Card counters keep track of just a single number, adding or subtracting to it based on what cards were played. If you had to memorize all the cards, nobody would be a card counter.
Likewise, I think in the same movie, casino surveillance said something like, "There's no one on the planet who can count down a six-deck shoe." They're again propagating the idea that card counters memorize all the cards played, which is not how it works. Since card counters keep track of only a single number, it's no harder to count a six-deck shoe than it is to count a single deck of cards. There are a couple of problems for counters with lots of decks, but difficulty in counting isn't one of them. (To wit: If you forget the count in a multi-deck game, it's gonna be a while before the shuffle so you can start over. Also, six deck shoes require a wider ratio of large to small bets in order to have the same advantage versus single-deck games, making it easier for the casino to identify you as a counter.)
I saw 21 with the Wizard of Odds when it came out and he bemoaned how inaccurate the movie was. I didn't think it was that bad. I wrote an article about what was true and what wasn't, and the main guy the movie was based on, said that my article was a good take.
- Knock-Out Blackjack book. The easiest system for counting cards, without sacrificing effectiveness.
- Card Counting Strategy Comparison. Shows how different card-counting methods stack up.
- Bovada online blackjack game. You can't win by counting cards because all online games shuffle after each round, but you can use it for practice. They let you play with either fake money or real money. (advertisement)