Card counting is a strategy used by casino gamblers to try to determine whether the next hand dealt will give an advantage to the player or the dealer. It is commonly used when playing Blackjack, in all its many variations, and has probably been around for almost as long as the game itself.
You may have heard that counting cards is an easy way to overcome the house edge, beat the dealer and take home consistent winnings from any casino. It’s true that card counting is a strategy widely used when casino gambling and some experienced players certainly make it work for them, but it’s not as easy as many new players assume. First, let’s address a few common questions.
Many people believe so, but no, counting cards in a casino game is not illegal, nor is it considered cheating. However, you should note that casinos obviously do not welcome anything that overcomes their house edge, which is already very low when playing Blackjack. Any casino can suspend your right to play at any time, and if you get caught successfully counting cards, that is a possibility. As we will discuss, counting cards successfully is not easy. Of course, if you’re counting cards unsuccessfully, you probably have little to worry about!
Card counting is a strategy where you keep track of how many high- and low-value cards have been played, allowing you to gauge, more importantly, how many high- and low-value cards remain in the shoe. As with any casino gambling strategy, card counting is not infallible, even when done expertly. You can only estimate the odds of drawing a high-value card. The exact card drawn is still a gamble.
Perhaps more significantly, card counting requires an excellent memory and a lot of mathematical mental agility. The main reason card counting will not work for most inexperienced players is simply that it’s quite hard to do.
Most players will use a system to assign values to cards. Commonly, cards with a value of two through six will be given a +1 value. Tens through aces will be assigned a -1 value, and the middle cards (sevens, eights and nines) will be given a value of 0. By mentally totalling these values as the cards are played, players maintain a running count in their heads.
The higher the running count, the more low-value cards have been played, meaning more high-value cards remain to be played. This is significant, as basic Blackjack strategy works on the likelihood of the next card dealt having a value of ten. The card counting strategy allows the player to assess what the odds are that the next card will be a ten-value card. This, in turn, affects what move the player will make, as well as how big a wager they place.
When card counting, why are higher cards are better for the player?
So, why exactly are higher cards better for the player in Blackjack? Surely, in a straight game between a player and a dealer, what benefits the player also benefits the dealer? This is a common question from players who are not familiar with the finer points of the game. There are a few reasons why a shoe with a higher percentage of high-value cards is better for the player.
The player is permitted to stand on a hard total of 12 to 16, whereas the dealer may not stand until he is holding at least 17. When the likelihood of a high-value card is high, the play riskier for the dealer.
Players who double are usually looking for a ten-value card. When the odds are stacked in favour of a ten being dealt, the player will double more often, getting closer to 21.
The player gets paid 3:2 for a Blackjack, so even though a high percentage of high-value cards can lead to more Blackjacks for both player and dealer, the player will earn 50% more than the dealer for each one.
This point is linked to the standing limits mentioned above. The dealer must keep hitting until they have at least 17, whereas the player can choose to stand at anywhere between 12 and 16. When both the player and the dealer are at 15 or 16 and there is a surplus of high-value cards in the shoe, the likelihood of a dealer bust is increased.
Surrendering becomes a safer option when playing with higher-value cards. If the player must make a choice to either hit or surrender, it is safer to surrender when the probability of a 10-value card is high. Card counters may choose to surrender more frequently in high-count hands, but the overall savings will be bigger.
Even card counters are not actually in any way in control of the outcome of any hand. They are simply making strategic decisions based on probability. In a situation where players are aware of how many high-value cards there are left in the pack, they will slowly adjust their betting strategy. As the running count increases, betting strategies change. The higher the count, the more advantageous it is to the player to increase the bet, or double down aggressively, leading to bigger wins.
These are the main reasons why the player has an advantage when there is a high percentage of high-value cards left in the shoe. However, you should remember that it is still only a small advantage, and it relies on making good playing and betting decisions throughout the game.
Words: Sean McNulty