I’ve done a lot of writing in the past regarding card counting in blackjack. I’ve looked at the basics of how to count cards and discussed how hard it actually is or isn’t, as well as covering some of the intricacies involved in actually counting cards.
In this particular post, I’m looking at some of the strategy (rather than sheerly tactical) factors involved in a card counting. In other words, what factors affect your overall approach to counting cards in blackjack successfully?
The Long Run Versus the Short Term
The most important thing for every real money blackjack player to understand is that the math behind card counting is a long-term phenomenon.
You’re not going to learn how to count cards this week and come home rich next week. In fact, most card counters don’t ever get rich.
In the short run, anything can happen. Even the worst blackjack player can have a big winning streak, and even the best blackjack player can have a losing streak. And these streaks often last longer than you’d ever expect.
The best way to keep a long-term perspective is to keep records. You should track how many hours you’re spending at the blackjack tables along with how much you’ve won or lost during each session. Your average hourly win or loss rate will be easy to calculate if you’re tracking those numbers.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even when you’re counting cards, you’re still going to lose more than half the time. In fact, if you want a better probability of winning a single bet, you can find it at the roulette table.
A bet on black in roulette wins 47% of the time. A bet on a hand of blackjack only wins 43% of the time.
The reason the house edge in blackjack is lower relates to the payouts in various situations – especially when you get the occasional “natural” or “blackjack.”
You also have opportunities to double down and split when it’s a good idea to do so.
Even when the count is positive, you won’t win more often. You WILL see naturals more often, which means you’ll see that sweet 3-to-2 payout more often. That’s why you bet more – not because you’re hoping to win more often because the count is high.
And I don’t mean that a losing streak might go on for an hour or two. Losing streaks can last for days, weeks, and sometimes even months.
Some people get discouraged when learning how to count cards, but if you’re doing it right, it will work.
But you’re still not a huge favorite over the house. The average card counter gets a 1% edge over the house, and someone who’s really good maxes out with an edge of 2% over the casino.
Until you’ve gotten about 10 hours at the table under your belt, you’re still very much in the short run. If you’re playing at full tables – where you’re seeing fewer hands per hour – you’ll need more like 20 hours at the table under your belt.
Casino Bankroll Management for Card Counters
This focus on the long term versus the short run has some implications regarding your casino bankroll management. If you can have a losing streak that lasts for days or weeks on end, it’s possible to go broke even if you have a mathematical edge over the casino.
You need to have enough money in your bankroll to prevent that from happening. You need to avoid going broke before you reach the “large numbers” in the “Law of Large Numbers.” (The Law of Large Numbers suggests that the closer you get to an infinite number of trials, the closer your results are going to get to the mathematically expected results.)
When you’re deciding what limits to play, you need to decide on your betting spread and the amount of money you can afford to sink into your blackjack hobby. Let’s assume you want to play lower stakes with a 1-to-4 betting spread. You’ve found a casino with a minimum bet of $5.
This means that the biggest bet you’ll be placing is four units, or $20.
You should have at least 100 times that amount in your bankroll.
In this case, you need a bankroll of $2000 to play at this level to avoid a high probability of going broke because of variance.
The more money you have in your bankroll, the bigger stakes you can afford to play without stressing out about going broke.
Most card counters base the size of their bet on the count. If the count is zero or lower, they bet the minimum. In the example we’ve been using, they’ll bet $5.
Then when the count hits +1, they’ll add a unit – betting $10.
If the count hits +2, they raise their bet to $15.
If the count gets to +3 or higher, they raise the size of their bet to $20.
Also, the bigger your bet spread is, the higher your edge over the house becomes. With a count of +1, your edge over the casino is only 0.4%. With a count of +3, your edge is at 1.6%.
But if you get to a count of +6, your edge over the casino is 3.3%. The more money you can get into action with an edge of 3.3%, the better off you’ll be.
Penetration and Number of Decks
I wrote a lot about rules changes and game conditions in my previous post, and I addressed the number of decks in that post. Put simply, the fewer decks in play, the better off you are.
You’ll do better in a game with a single deck or two decks than you will in a game with eight decks.
But you should also consider penetration.
That’s just a word that describes how far into the deck the dealer plays before shuffling the cards. At some tables, the cards are shuffled continuously. This gives such a table a penetration of 0%. It also makes a game effectively unbeatable.
The deeper into the deck the game goes, the more opportunities you have to get a big variance in the composition of the deck. That variance is where you make your money.
Your goal should be to find a game with a penetration of 75%, and this is almost more important than any of the blackjack variations or game conditions I mentioned in my previous post.
Any game with a penetration of less than 50% is probably best avoided. You’ll wind up finding few situations where the count is positive enough to raise your bets, and even when you do, that advantage won’t last long at all.
Camouflage and Heat
I haven’t gone into a lot of detail about the practicalities of this, but I’ve mentioned that casinos will back you off if they realize you’re counting cards. When you attract this kind of attention, you’re getting “heat.”
One of the biggest factors the casino is going to look at is the size of your betting spread. At lower stakes, the casinos might tolerate a large bet spread.
But at high stakes, the casinos stand to lose a lot more money, so they’re less tolerant of a big betting spread.
I discussed camouflaging your play by only increasing the size of your bet after a winning hand and only reducing the size of your bet after a losing hand. This cuts into your advantage, but it’ a good way to camouflage that your counting cards.
The practical limit for a betting spread is to have a large bet of eight units.
Also, some casinos are so paranoid about card counters that they’ll back you off just for getting on a winning streak even if you’re not counting.
I think wearing a disguise is overkill for most counters, but if you’re serious and big time, it might be necessary.
Those are some of the biggest issues to account for when planning your card counting strategy in blackjack.
You can execute all of this perfectly and still have some big losses in your future.
Card counting’s not for everyone, and it’s less than impossible but harder than it seems.