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Best of Henry Tamburin

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Blackjack card counting 101 - part 1

19 June 2009

Do you remember the blackjack scene from the movie Rain Man? You know that's where autistic Dustin Hoffman is card counting at the blackjack tables at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and telling his selfish brother (Tom Cruise) how to play and how much to bet. Cruise is winning and winning big. The scene shifts to the casino surveillance room (infamous eye-in-the-sky) where two employees are trying to figure out how Cruise is winning all that money playing blackjack. Finally, one says, "He is not catching a hole card, he isn't past-posting, and I don't see him using a computer. But something is not right -- you know there is no one in the world that can count into a six-deck shoe."

Do you really have to have a photographic memory like Dustin Hoffman to be a card counter? And is it really true that "no one can count into a six-deck shoe?" The quick and dirty answers to both questions are no and no. Card counting is a strategy that anyone with average intelligence can learn. In fact, you can do it.

Unfortunately there are myths associated with card counting. We've already mentioned two of them and here are a few more: card counters win every time they play; card counters can make millions; casinos ban all card counters from playing blackjack; and card counting is illegal.

I'm a blackjack card counter -- been one for 38 years. Even though most people are amazed that I can memorize the cards from a six-deck shoe that's not what I do. Nor do I win every time I play or I wouldn't be writing this article. And no, I'm not writing this article from a jail cell but I'll admit that a few times in my career I was barred from playing blackjack (that was a long, long time ago). Nowadays, I play uninhibited.

So what is this thing called card counting and can you really do it? Follow along and I'll show you what it is and then you can decide if it's for you.

First, card counters do not memorize every card that is played. They keep track of the cards by assigning a value or tag to each card. For example, the popular High/Low card counting system assigns a tag of +1 (that's "plus" one) to every 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 value card and -1 ("minus" one) to every 10, jack, queen, king and ace. The 7, 8, and 9 value cards have a tag of 0 (these cards are ignored). Card counters then arithmetically add the tags of each card that they see on the layout. For example, if player #1 has a two-card hand consisting of a 6 and a 4 and then drew a 10 for a 20, a card counter would add the tags for each of the cards to arrive at the sum of +1 (this is known as the "count").

  Card    Tag    Sum  
6+1+1
4+1+2
10-1+1

Note that because the tag for a 10 value card is -1, you must subtract 1 from your count.

Are you surprised that card counting is nothing more than adding "plus ones" and "minus ones" like you did back in grammar school? Obviously, at the end of a round and after you have counted all the player cards and the dealer cards, you will have a sum that is either a plus number or a negative number. This sum is known as the running count.

Suppose the running count is a positive number after the first round of play. What does this tell the card counter? In order for the running count to be a positive number, there must have been more small value cards played in the previous round vs. high value cards (remember the small cards have a tag of +1 and the big cards have a -1 tag). If that's the case then the opposite must be true for the undealt cards in the shoe, namely, they must contain more big cards over small cards.

Let's recap. If your running count is positive, then the undealt cards are rich in big cards. On the other hand, if the running count is negative, the undealt cards are rich in small cards.

So card counters indirectly have some knowledge of the ratio of big cards to small cards on the next deal by keeping track of all the cards that were played in the previous rounds. Card counters then use their count to vary their bets on the next hand.

They INCREASE their bet size when the count is POSITIVE and DECREASE their bet size when the count is NEGATIVE.

Why do counters increase their bet size when the undealt cards are rich in big cards? The high value cards are more favorable for the player because there will be more blackjack hands dealt and the players receive a bonus payoff when they get a blackjack (not the case when the dealer gets a blackjack). Here are some more reasons why a deck rich in high cards is player favorable.

  • High cards will bust a dealer's hand when they are forced to draw on 12 through 16.
  • A player will usually make good on double downs when the shoe is rich in big cards.
  • Many pair splitting opportunities are more favorable with an abundance of big cards left in the deck and
  • Insurance can become a more profitable bet when there is an excess of big cards.

The point is: BIG CARDS are favorable for the player.

What about those small cards? Since dealers are forced to hit when they their hands total 12 through 16, small cards prevent them from busting these hands. Therefore, small cards help the dealer more than the player.

Card counters gain the upper hand over the casinos because they have more money bet when they have they edge (positive counts), and less money bet when the casino has the edge (negative counts). Counters actually lose more hands than they win but they win more money because they have a lot more bet on the hands that they win compared to the amount of money bet on the hands that they lose. It's that simple.

You are probably wondering, when the count is positive, won't the dealer have just as much chance to get the big cards as you will? The answer is yes, but players can double down, pair split, get paid 3 to 2 on blackjacks and, unlike the dealer, don't have to hit a hard 12 through 16 when the shoe is rich in big cards. This is what creates our basic edge over the casino when the count is positive.

Now that you get the picture on the mechanics of how to count cards, you're probably wondering if it's still worth your time to become a card counter. There is certainly a lot more that you've got to learn, but here are some points that you need to consider before you decide to forge ahead.

Profit Potential

Suppose you play 5,000 hands of blackjack per year (about 60 hours' worth of blackjack) and you average bet size is $10. If you use an "intuitive" playing strategy, your expectation is to lose about $1,000. If you are a good basic strategy player, you will cut your expected losses to $250. A card counter, on the other hand, has an expected win of $500, which is $1,500 more than the intuitive player and $750 more than the basic strategy player.

Don't play that much blackjack in a year? Here are the same expected results for 200 and 1,000 hands. You still have the potential of being ahead with card counting but of course not as much as a player who plays more or bets more.

Player  200 hands    1000 hands  
Intuitive-$40-$200
Basic Strategy-$10-$50
Counter+$20+$100

The above expected results are averages. Most likely, a player will win or lose more than this; however, as a general rule, the more hands of blackjack you play, the closer you will come to your expected results.

In my next article I'll continue the discussion on how to be a successful card counter.

Recent Articles
Best of Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit www.bjinsider.com/free. For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit www.goldentouchblackjack.com or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at www.smartgaming.com.

Henry Tamburin Websites:

www.smartgaming.com

Books by Henry Tamburin:

> More Books By Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit www.bjinsider.com/free. For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit www.goldentouchblackjack.com or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at www.smartgaming.com.

Henry Tamburin Websites:

www.smartgaming.com

Books by Henry Tamburin:

> More Books By Henry Tamburin