In my previous post in this series, “How Hard Is It to Count Cards in Blackjack?”, I covered some of the basic concepts that underly card counting in blackjack. I explained a little about the history of this advantage play technique and discussed a couple of different card counting systems anyone could use.
The conclusion I arrived at in that post is that card counting is easier than a lot of people think, but it’s still relatively hard compared to most endeavors.
In this post, I’m going to get into some of the other intricacies involved in counting cards. You could probably make some money by reading no more than that first post, but you can do even better if you get more comfortable with some of the complexities involved.
How to Practice Counting Cards
I’m going to suggest that you stick with the hi-lo card counting system I described in my last post. These are the cards and values for that system:
- Any 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 counts as +1.
- Any ace or card worth 10 counts as -1.
You have a total of 6 cards worth +1 each, and you have a total of 6 cards worth -1 each. If you count through a deck of cards using this system, you’ll start with 0, but since the count is balanced, you’ll also end with 0.
The first step in learning how to count cards is to practice at home by counting through a single deck of cards. You’ll have a reasonably good idea of how well you’re doing by whether you end up with 0. If you have another count at the end of the deck, you’ve made a mistake.
Just go through the deck one card at a time keeping up with the running count. Once you get to where you can wind up with 0 at the end of every count, you can start trying to speed things up with a stopwatch of some kind.
Another trick is to start dealing the cards out 2 at a time, then 4 at a time, and so on. You’ll start to recognize cards which cancel themselves out in these pairings. This will make you even faster.
Once you can do that, start adding distractions. Turn the radio up. Put the TV on. Encourage the kids to play in the same room as you count cards.
When you’re counting cards in a casino, you’ll need to be able to do so without being distracted by the sensory overload there. Keep in mind you need to be able to keep up with the count without giving it away that you’re counting. You can’t be moving your lips, look like you’re concentrating hard, or anything else of that nature.
Practicing at home in a quiet room won’t prepare you for a casino environment.
Deviating From Basic Strategy Based on the Count
I know I’ve mentioned that the main way you get an edge playing blackjack for real money is by changing the size of your bets based on the count.
But you can (and should) also deviate from basic strategy when warranted.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you have a hard total of 16, and the basic strategy suggests that you should hit in this situation.
But you know the deck is proportionately rich in 10s because the count is so positive.
If you’re guessing that you should stand instead, you’re right.
The deviations from basic strategy based on the count are called “indexes.”
For example, how often are you going to be playing in a game where the count is +9?
The main situations where you need to deviate are called “the illustrious 18” and “the fabulous 4.”
The Illustrious 18 and the Fabulous 4
The fabulous 4 are the situations in which you should take late surrender as an option. Since not all casinos offer late surrender, these situations might be moot.
But when they’re in play, they make a big difference.
Here are the fabulous 4:
- You’re holding a 15 versus a dealer 9. Surrender if the count is +3 or higher.
- You’re holding a 15 versus a dealer 10. Surrender if the count is 0 or higher.
- You’re holding a 15 versus a dealer ace. Surrender if the count is +2 or higher.
- You’re holding a 14 versus a dealer 10. Surrender if the count is +4 or higher.
Those aren’t hard to memorize, because they’re such a limited number of situations.
The illustrious 18 are the other 18 biggest situations where you’ll deviate from basic strategy. They’re the ones that come up most often and matter more to your bottom line.
Here are the illustrious 18:
- Any time the count is +3 or higher, insurance becomes a profitable bet.
- You’re holding a 16 versus a dealer 9. Stand if the count is +5 or higher.
- You’re holding a 16 versus a dealer 10. Stand if the count is 0 or higher.
- You’re holding a 15 versus a dealer 10. Stand if the count is +4 or higher.
- You’re holding a 13 versus a dealer 2. Stand if the count is -1 or higher.
- You’re holding a 13 versus a dealer 3. Stand if the count is -2 or higher.
- You’re holding a 12 versus a dealer 2. Stand if the count is +4 or higher.
- You’re holding a 12 versus a dealer 3. Stand if the count is +2 or higher.
- You’re holding a 12 versus a dealer 4. Stand if the count is 0 or higher.
- You’re holding a 12 versus a dealer 5. Stand if the count is -1 or higher.
- You’re holding a 12 versus a dealer 6. Stand if the count is -3 or higher.
- You’re holding an 11 versus a dealer ace. Double down if the count is -1 or higher.
- You’re holding a 10 versus a dealer 10. Double down if the count is +4 or higher.
- You’re holding a 10 versus a dealer ace. Double down if the count is +3 or higher.
- You’re holding a 9 versus a dealer 2. Double down if the count is +1 or higher.
- You’re holding a 9 versus a dealer 7. Double down if the count is +4 or higher.
- You’re holding a pair of 10s versus a dealer 5. Split if the count is +5 or higher.
- You’re holding a pair of 10s versus a dealer 6. Split if the count is +5 or higher.
I should mention that these deviations are based on a single deck game. If you’re playing in a game with multiple decks, you’ll want to convert the running count into a true count. I explained how to do that in my previous post in this series.
Accounting for Variations in Casino Rules and Conditions
You’ll find plenty of blackjack articles that mention that the house edge is 0.5%. You’ll see some that use the number 1%, instead. The truth, though, is that the edge is based on the rules and game conditions in place where you’re gambling.
If you’re new to blackjack or counting cards, you might think that the difference in game conditions isn’t that important. You’d be wrong, though – every tenth of a percentage point in expectation counts.
Assume that the standard blackjack game is one with 8 decks, where the dealer hits a soft 17, and you’re allowed to double after split. The house edge for this game, if you use perfect blackjack strategy, is about 0.64%. When you adjust the following rules, the house edge changes by the amount listed:
- A single deck game has a house edge of about 0.48% better. If all the other rules were the same, the house edge for this game would drop to 0.16%, which is about as close to a break-even game as you’ll find in a casino. Even a double deck game has a significant effect on the house edge – 0.19%.
- If you’re allowed to take early surrender against a 10, you get 0.24% back. (The default rules above assume that surrender isn’t an option.)
- If you can double down on any number of cards (instead of just being able to double down on your initial 2 cards), you get 0.23%.
- If the dealer has to stand on a soft 17, you get 0.22% from that, too.
- Being allowed to resplit aces gives you 0.08%.
- Being allowed to take late surrender is also worth 0.08%.
Those are rules conditions you’d like to find. Other rules changes can make the house edge higher, as follows:
- If blackjack only pays even money, the house edge increases 2.27% in favor of the house. This isn’t common.
- A 6/5 blackjack game, though, IS common, and it still has a devastating effect on your odds. It adds 1.39% to the house edge.
- If you’re only allowed to double down on 10 or 11, you lose 0.18% to the house.
- If you’re not allowed to double after splitting, you lose 0.14%.
- If you’re only allowed to split once (no re-splitting), you lose another 0.10%.
Keep in mind that conditions don’t just vary from casino to casino. They often vary from table to table, especially when you’re playing at tables with different limits.
Entire books have been about advantage gambling with card counting, and you can only go into so much depth in a single blog post.
This post has delved into some of the stuff beyond the basics outlined in the first post of this series.
Stay tuned for more posts that will cover even more details that matter to card counters.