Card Counting Basics for Beginners

Blackjack Hand With Money and Numbers in Background

Before we get down and dirty, you should know that it’s not recommended that you count cards. Though it’s not illegal, it can get you in a world of trouble at major casinos and if you’re thinking of counting in a friendly game, then you’re not really playing with friends, are you?

Now that’s out of the way, and we can get to the fun stuff. After watching Rainman as a child, I became fascinated with card counting. It seems like magic when it’s possible to predict what card will come up next in an exciting game of chance like blackjack.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need unusual mental abilities to count cards. There is no memorization or tracking of cards. The strategies we’re going to cover here apply to blackjack, though it’s possible to count in other card games as well. It’s imperative that you first learn blackjack strategy.

House Edge

The house edge is inevitable. This term is used to describe the mathematical advantage that a game has over you as you play, ensuring a statistical return to the venue over time.

Unless you’ve got a group of good Samaritans opening a casino with the desire to give a fortune over to players and be bankrupt in a matter of minutes after opening, the investors are going to look at the brass tacks before allowing a game to be run in their operation.

The house edge for blackjack varies based on the variant you’re playing. A single deck classic blackjack game that allows you to double down when holding value of 9-11 and forces the dealer to stand on a soft 17 will give you the lowest house edge (down to .13% when playing with perfect strategy—meaning the house gets a minute $.13 return on a wager of $100).

Counting cards significantly reduces the house edge, regardless of the variant being played.

Tens to Triumph

The most common variants of counting cards in blackjack are based on the statistical evidence that high cards give a better edge to the player than the dealer, while low cards benefit the dealer and hurt the player.

A denser concentration of high cards is beneficial because: it increases your chances of hitting a natural blackjack (player payout 3:2), doubling down on additional hands can increase expected profit (dealers can’t double), it provides additional splitting opportunities for the player (no dealer splits), and a high enough concentration of 10’s can make insurance bets more profitable (increasing probability of dealer blackjack).

Closeup of Multiple Blackjack Hands

On the other side of the coin, low cards benefit the dealer because according to blackjack rules, a dealer must hit stiff hands (12-16) and low cards are safer in these common hands. The most common card to come up is the 10 (there are a total of 16 cards valued at ten in a deck of 52-30. 77% of the cards laid down are 10’s), so if the dealer has a stiff hand & gets a 10, they will bust, making this card essential to track when counting.

Brass Tacks

Instead of memorizing and tracking each card you see, you’re merely assigning a point value to each card you see that estimates the card’s value, and then track the sum of the values. This is called keeping a running count.

The designers of the systems have done the leg work, and all you have to do is keep track of the running count, betting when the count is up to a certain value.

The basic systems assign positive, negative, or zero values to each card value available. As each card comes up, you adjust the count based on the value assigned to that card. Low cards increase the count as they increase the percentage of high cards remaining in the set of cards, and high cards decrease the value for the opposite reason.

The goal here is to assign point values to roughly correlate to a card’s Effect of Removal (EOR). The EOR is the estimated effect of removing a given card from play, and the resulting impact on the house advantage.

Gauging the effect of the cards removed from the deck (dealt) helps the player assess the current house advantage of the game based on the cards remaining. To increase efficiency, larger ratios between point values are used to create better correlation to the effect of removal.

These systems use more and different numbers and are placed into classes (such as level 1, 2, and 3), with the higher ranked levels being more complicated, thus assisting in more accurate predictions of what card value is likely to appear next.

Count Levels

Level 1 counts never increase or decrease the running count by more than a single, predetermined value. Level 2 counts increase or decrease the running count by two different predetermined values, and level 3 counts increase or decrease the running count by three different predetermined values.

The multilevel counts (2 and 3) make finer distinctions between card values to gain greater play accuracy. Instead of assigning the single plus 1, minus 1, or zero (such as Hi Lo listed below), the multilevel may also assign plus 2 and minus 2 (making it a level 2 count).

A level three count may assign a plus 1, minus 1, and zero, as well as a plus .5, minus .5, AND plus 1.5, minus 1.5. As you can see this stands to make things exponentially more complicated.

While you may get a better read on the next likely card to be dealt, you will be playing much slower until you can get the hang of the system. The additional information may detract from your ability to play quickly and accurately. Some card counters will fare better by playing a simple count quickly (more hands per hour) than by playing a complex count slowly. Practice makes perfect.

Hi Lo

Hi Lo is a level 1 count. The Hi-Lo system subtracts one for each 10, ace, or face card that comes up, and adds one for any card 2-6; 7-9 are assigned a value of zero, thereby causing the count to remain the same. While this seems simple enough, it can be a little mind boggling to process.

Begin your running count when a new deck is used. Your running count will begin at zero. As you get more accustomed to counting you will need to incorporate the true count. The true count is calculated by taking the running count and dividing it by the number of decks remaining to play. As an example, if the running count is plus 6 and 3 decks remain, your true count will be plus 2.

An estimation will work as you become acclimated to calculating your true count. It is imperative for you to utilize these steps in order to get the best outcome, however the true count only needs to be calculated in borderline cases. Usually the right play will be obvious.

Blackjack Table and View of Casino

The greater the true count, the higher you should bet. This is the point where card counting strays from the cold hard facts and you need to implement a little finesse. Books exist with rigid rules, but casino managers have read these books and this behavior sets off red flags. As you become more experienced, you’ll develop your own style, so use it when the heat is up.

Developing a limited bet spread is helpful keeping the heat down. This is a ratio of maximum bet to minimum bet. Only increase bets after a win, only decreasing after a loss, and staying the same after a push will make play look more natural, affecting profitability; keep in mind though that your profitability will go down to 0% if you throw up too many red flags and get the boot from the casino. Play it smart and play it cool.

Rather than using basic strategy, some hands will require you to play according to the True Count we discussed and a table of index numbers.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In order to calculate how many decks remain so that you can get your true count, you’ll need to get to know what a stack of 6 decks looks like, then as it begins to dwindle to 5, then 4, then 3, knowing by sight is important to calculate your true count. This is crucial. I would practice first by watching the movie 21. It’s pretty enjoyable, and after reading this post, you’ll be able to gather some ideas on how to hone your skills.


Don’t worry about why it works. Give it a shot with a deck you have at home. So that you can get the hang of it, try laying down fifteen cards and then see what your count is. If it’s a high count, that means the deck is HOT and you can predict a card value of ten or an ace is likely to come up. Oppositely, if the count is low, you can assume you’re going to get a lower valued card.

Have some expertise to add or a suggestion for something you’d like to see here? Please comment below and let us know. Play it cool with finesse, sharks and whales. Good luck!