Counting Cards in Blackjack — A Basic Guide

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Blackjack has always been one of the most popular table games in casinos around the world. But ever since the famous MIT Blackjack Team broke the news with their incredible success, people from all around the world started wanting a slice of the pie.

Suddenly, the world has changed. Gambling wasn’t just for those that wanted to rely on good old dumb luck. Instead, you could go to a casino and use your skills to reliably win more money than you lose. In fact, with a good enough investment, you would be capable of earning hundreds of dollars per hour of play! And the new ruling by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in Atlantic City made it impossible for casinos to prevent card counters from playing.

But card counting is not as easy as we might think. To master it, it will take a lot of time, effort, and dedication. For some, it’s just not worth it. But for others, it represents the noble cause of beating the house and walking away with a lot of money.

So let’s see the basic principles behind counting cards in blackjack.

Assigning Values to Cards

The game of card counting starts with you assigning a value to the deck you want to play with. Of course, the value itself starts out as a zero. But every single card has a rank that can be -1, 0, or +1. There are three ranges of cards you want to keep in mind while counting:

  1. 2–6 — Every time you see one of the cards in this range, add a point to the total value of the deck. This is the “+1” group.
  2. 7–9 — Cards in this group don’t affect the value of the deck overall. The count itself doesn’t shift at all. That means that these cards belong to the “0” group.
  3. 10–A — The high cards form a group of their own. These are the cards that you want to see while playing. So, whenever they get “spent,” reduce the value of the deck by one. This is the “-1” group.

The Count Value

Counting Cards in Blackjack — A Basic Guide The game of Blackjack starts with a shuffle. As soon as the cards get shuffled, you can be sure that the value of the deck is back at zero. That means that there are exactly as many high cards as there are small cards. The entire point of the value system is to see if the count is becoming positive or negative.

So while you’re focusing on the cards that get dealt, you are actually measuring the value of the undealt, remaining cards.

For example, if one round with two players shows a K and a J for one player, a 5, a 4, and a J for the dealer, and a 6, a 3, and a Q for the second player, you can quickly calculate if the count is positive or negative. As you can see, there are no “0” group cards. So just count the highs and the lows. There are four highs and four lows in this particular round. That means that the count remains unchanged — the only thing you can conclude is that the odds of you drawing a 7, an 8, or a 9 will increase.

But let’s imagine the exact same hand, but the first player (the K, J one) has 6, 6, 8 instead. What would happen to the count then? Well, instead of having an equal number of highs and lows, we would have only 2 highs and 6 lows, making it a +4 round. That makes the next round very likely to offer the player an advantage.

What to Do with That Information?

Now, we want to be perfectly clear about this — if we imagine a scenario where you play through an entire deck of cards (a single deck), the odds are that you will win as many hands as you will lose. In fact, even with good card counting, you will commonly see yourself losing more hands than you win.

So if this won’t help you win more hands, how can card counting actually help? Well, the answer to that question is rather simple. All you need to do is control the bet size. When the count is positive and your odds are good, bet more. When the count is negative and the dealer is the one with the better edge, bet less.

Betting Units

A “betting unit” is a term that card counters use to describe their basic bet size. The size of a betting unit is equal to the minimum bet at the table you want to play at. So if the minimum bet is $5, that is the value of your betting unit. The main reason for using the term “unit” instead of just speaking in terms of money is probably the fact that it is quite difficult to bet incredibly large sums of money when the count is good. However, you can easily bet 16 units if you don’t treat that bet as being equal to $160. And remember, if the math is good, the bet will probably stand on its own legs. Learn to trust yourself when doing so!

But then again, you don’t want to risk too much money on a single hand. Realistically, the count will not get to the positive value that would justify you risking more than 8 units. After all, even a really high count can lead to you losing the hand.

For that reason, the rule of thumb is to never bet more than a quarter of your stack per round. After all, you want to make sure to always have enough money both for splitting and doubling down.

So how many units should you bet? The answer is simple — get your count, subtract 1 from it, and bet that many units. So if your unit is $5 and the count is +5, you should bet 20 dollars. Can it be as simple as that? Well, yes; and no. It’s time to mention the true count.

The True Count

The odds of finding a casino that only uses a single deck for blackjack are slim to none. So you need to figure out exactly what the true count for your game is. Remember, it’s hard to get the true count right if you don’t know how many decks there are.

For starters, you have to know how many decks the casino uses in a single shoe. Then, you need to check how many decks were already discarded. Then, simply calculate how many decks are still in the game. So for example, if the casino uses 8 decks and you can see four decks in the discard tray, you can see that there are exactly 4 decks left. From there, take your count and divide it by the number of decks left. In this particular case, you would have to divide your count by 4. Then apply the same system to the number of units you should wager.


Card counting is probably the most popular playing strategy for reducing the house edge to just 0.5%. And with a bit of effort, blackjack players can use card counting strategies to make the game even favor the players instead of the casino.

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