What Is Card Counting?

Card counting is a controversial gambling aid by which blackjack players determine the probability of high value cards left in a deck.

Blackjack is actually one of the few card games in which the overall odds are relatively even over time. Blackjack players can expect to win 44% of the games they play, regardless of strategy or House winning streaks. This is also why casinos keep payoff odds in Blackjack at 2-1 or less. Blackjack is won or lost over time, not the occasional longshot hand as in poker.

Some gamblers, however, would like to gain even a slight advantage over the casino blackjack tables.

There is a controversial (if not universally illegal) method of discerning the unplayed contents of a deck called card counting.

Card counting involves keeping a running tally of all cards discarded from a single deck of cards. The most popular method of card counting is called Hi-Lo, which works best for single or double deck blackjack tables popular in Las Vegas-style casinos. A card counter keeps track of two sets of cards- the low cards between 2 and 6 and the high value cards between 10 and Kings. 7s, 8s, and 9s are neutral in value so they are generally not included in a Hi-Lo count.

The low value cards (2-6) are most beneficial for the dealer and are assigned a positive value (+1).

The high value cards (10-K) are better for the player and are assigned a negative value (-1). As the individual cards are revealed through normal blackjack play, the card counter maintains a running total in his head. If the cards are 2,Q, 7, 3, and 10, the running count would be +1, 0, 0, + 1, 0. The deck is considered neutral at this point and the player would bet conservatively.

If the cards had been 4, 8, 10, J, K, and Q, the count would change to -1, -1, O, -1, -2, -3. At this point the deck is considered negative and the player places a higher bet. Because the remaining deck contains more high value cards (10 points), the dealer is more likely to bust if his original hand is below 17. A player can stand on any number, but the dealer must take a hit on 16 or less. A player may also bust with a negative count, but the house loses more bets when it goes bust.

The same counting system may reveal a deck high in low value cards. When the deck is positive, card counters bet the minimal unit, usually the minimal bid allowed on that table. Low cards help the dealer, because they can build up a higher hand than the player without a bust. Card counters continue to evaluate cards until the decks are changed out. Many casinos place stoppers in decks to prevent counters from deducing the final cards in a deck. Some casinos also use multiple decks in a large dealing shoe, which makes card counting almost pointless.

Card counters are tolerated at some casinos because the owners don't believe the strategy works very well in reality. Blackjack tables are surrounded by dozens of distractions and cameras. Keeping an accurate count under these conditions is nearly impossible at best. Unusual betting changes are also noticed by dealers and pit bosses. Players who seem intently focused on the table are often escorted away from the table for interrogation. Professional card counters must spend hours learning the Basic Strategy betting chart, pretending to have natural conversations and maintaining an accurate count. Some card counters work with a professional blackjack player as an accomplice. When the count is positive or neutral, the card counter plays his normal game as he counts. If the count become very negative, the accomplice comes to the table and places larger bets.

Manual card counting has occasionally been replaced by electronics. Counters use secret switches to input the various card values as they see them. This information is fed into a central processing unit which signals positive and negative counts. When the count is especially negative, a secret signal is sent to the professional player and the higher betting begins.

Casino owners may tolerate manual card counters if they are discreet, but electronic card counting is completely illegal.

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