Counting Cards Explained

Posted On 28 Oct 2015
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When the first hand out of a six deck shoe is dealt the player is at about a -.57 disadvantage. If you always make the same size bet, the long term house edge will eventually have its effect and you will lose. However, there are times when the Player has the advantage because of the composition of the remaining cards to be played. If you only knew when the cards were in the Players favor, you could take advantage of this situation and bet more.
TJ Jorgensen-new photo inset for columnAs tens are removed from the deck it gives the House an advantage because the Players will get more stiff hands and the Dealer will make more hands. When you remove the small cards from the deck it gives the Player an advantage because they will get more solid hands. If I am playing a single deck game and I remove two small cards (2-6) it will put the Player at even odds with the house, so in theory the Player will win just as much as they lose. If I remove four small cards from the deck the player would have about a 1% advantage over the house on the upcoming hand.

This is basically how card counting works. The Player assigns a plus one (+1) value to cards 2-6 and a minus one (-1) value to 10 through Ace. By keeping track of the cards that are dealt the Counter knows if they or the House has an advantage on the upcoming hand.
The most powerful (legal) means of overcoming the casino’s edge in Blackjack is to vary your bets according to the true count. Additional gains of .2 to .3% are available to those who also vary the play of their hands according to the true count. You undoubtedly have had situations where so many small cards had been dealt that you just knew that hitting that 12 against the dealer’s 3 was going to get you a face card. There is a point, as measured by true count, where standing with a 12 against a 3 is more profitable than hitting. This is called a “basic strategy variation

Basic Strategy Variations
Modifying the play of your hand according to the true count will occur about 10% of the time. Should the count drop, you will double less, hit ‘stiff’ hands more and split pairs less often. As the count goes up, you will double more often, hit ‘stiffs’ less and split pairs more.

For each basic strategy play, there is only one variation – For example, the variation for the hand 10, 6 versus 10 is to stand instead of hit with a true count of 0 or more; you would never double and you obviously may not split. Another example is 5, 4 versus 2. Basic strategy says to hit, but if the count is high enough, you would double this hand. A good example on the minus side is A-2 versus 5; basic strategy says to double, but if the count is below 0, you should just hit. The easy way to remember something like that is “Double Ace-2 vs. 5 at 0 or higher.”

The Power of Basic Strategy Variations

The value of any variation is determined by how often it will, on average, be used. If you play 100,000 hands of Blackjack a year (about 20 hours a week, year round), you can expect to see a hand of 16 vs. 10 about 3500 times (3.5%). That’s actually the number 1 non-insurance situation. Any variation here has considerable value, simply because you’ll be using it relatively often. Conversely, you will receive 9, 9 vs. 2 only 43 times in that 100,000-hand sample, so the variation here is of little value, because you’ll rarely use it. The frequency of hands allows us to prioritize the learning of basic strategy variations.

One of the most important variations from basic strategy is the insurance bet. Since the dealer will show an Ace as an up card about 7.5% of the time, knowing when it’s profitable to take insurance is very important. If you are playing at a six deck game, insurance is worthwhile when the true count is +3 or higher. You should always make the insurance bet at that point, regardless of what cards you’re holding, since it has no relationship with your hand. The counting system has an ‘Insurance Efficiency’ of 80% which means that 8 out of 10 times you’ll be doing the right thing when you make an insurance bet based on the true count.

As mentioned earlier, considerable value is gained by learning those variations which involve starting hands of 12-16 vs. any up card, since they are the hands you’ll see most often. In fact, fully 54% of all your hands will be ‘stiff’ at some point in the playing. This is a good place to make an important point, basic strategy variations apply not just to your starting hands, but also to hands composed of 3 or more cards. You will stand on Ace, 2, 10, 3 (total of 16) versus 10 if the count is 0 or higher, as well as a hand of 10, 6. Doubling (or not doubling) is next in importance and splitting/not splitting pairs is least important.

I hope this gives you a basic understanding of how card counting works. If you would like to learn to count cards I give step by step details in my book. For a copy you can E mail me at

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