It’s only natural for the human race to seek out perceived “get rich quick schemes”. After all, who doesn’t want stacks of cash to call upon?
Hollywood movies such as Rain Man, The Hangover and 21 have presented their own “maisonette today, mansion tomorrow” narratives based around the dark art of casino gaming: card counting.
It’s a glamorous world of complex mathematics, winning hands and casino bosses slumping to their knees as their profit margin is wiped out by one or more canny individuals.
Well, sadly, we’re here to tell you that the reality is rather different.
It’s funny, because it seems as though almost everyone who frequents either an online or brick-and-mortar casino wants in on the action. “Is card counting legal?” has recorded nearly 28 million search results in Google!
There is unique software available and also online classes that teach the basics of card counting, and you can even attend training courses to learn more about it.
Card counting is big business outside of the casino, let alone inside the four walls, but this notion that it can make you an overnight millionaire is, sadly, a myth.
However, knowing when high or low-value cards are set to be dealt is clearly a huge advantage to the player, and as such, card counting does chip away at the house’s edge somewhat.
Should you be counting cards next time you take to the blackjack table? Here’s a look at five myths that may help you make your decision.
You’ve got Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt and the rather less likely figure of Zach Galifianakis’ Alan in The Hangover to thank for peddling the myth that card counting is a shortcut to instant wealth.
It will surely be raining money in a matter of minutes if you count the cards at the blackjack table, right?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite pan out that way as blackjack is a game in which players accumulate their way to a winning position. Card counting – when performed correctly – can only accelerate that process by a small amount.
Blackjack, as a game of luck, mostly, almost guarantees streaks – winning and losing – that can be explained away by the laws of probability. Being able to count cards effectively cannot turn a bad hand into a winning one – though it might just save you from hitting or standing at the wrong time.
Put it this way: card counting does not suddenly turn the tables on the house, rendering their edge obsolete. The casino still has the wood on you even if you can count well – it’s just that you might claw back a tiny percentage of said edge.
Do card counters always win? Of course not – if they did, everybody would be at it!
We can all count to ten, right, but can we all remember sequences and patterns when we have a myriad of distractions going on around us?
The key to card counting is discipline and concentration, and so while anybody could technically count cards successfully, it actually takes a lot of inherent skill to do so. If you lose track of where the cards in the shoe are, you are at danger of embarking on a losing streak as you “guess” where the tens and the picture cards may be.
When playing online blackjack, it’s possible that you will encounter all sorts of unwanted noise. When playing at home, you might have phones ringing, loved ones barking at you from all angles, people coming and going, and even the dreaded social media to avoid.
Are you able to zone in, focus and concentrate on your card counting with all of that going on?
That’s what we mean when we say that distractions can bring even the most accurate of counters down.
Another factor to consider is that card counters also need to be disciplined when it comes to money management. Knowing when to hit and when to stand is one thing, but knowing when to bet big and small – pre-empting a strong hand (or otherwise) – is key.
If you cannot size your wagers appropriately, then even accurate counters will lose money – it’s as simple as that.
With “the Rain Man” being a genius, you might think that only those with a supreme IQ need apply to be a card counter.
It’s not about intelligence, as such, and you don’t need a photographic memory – but you will need to be able to memorise sequences and/or follow strategies in order to make it work for you.
Remember, the basic aim of card counting is to predict what cards are going to be dealt next. Are you “due” an ace, or maybe a picture card? Keeping track of a pattern of cards in single-deck blackjack is a lot easier than when you add multiple decks, but again with discipline and concentration, it can be done.
A lot has been written about card counting strategies, and you can read up on these with a cursory search online. The concept behind such a strategy is to make the job of tracking cards easier, usually by assigning them a numerical value beyond that which is displayed on the card.
One of the most commonly used is the Hi-Lo system, which aims to simplify the method of card counting. Here, cards worth six or less are given a value of +1, while tens, picture cards and aces are scored -1. The “middle” cards are ignored.
The concept is to make the count easier, so if a sequence of cards went queen, seven, three, ace, then in your head, you’d have -1, 0, +1, -1, and so on.
In answering the question, “Do card counters need a photographic memory?”, we can say no, they don’t, thanks to systems like Hi-Lo.
However, you will need to be disciplined and be able to mentally record and remember patterns of numbers.
When you’re playing single-deck blackjack, it is pretty easy for a dealer to work out when you’re engaging in card counting.
It will be evident from strange behaviour and unusual wagering patterns. If you’re hitting hard on 17, for example, then that might set alarms bell ringing, as will unexpected splits and double-downs.
Taking out insurance at an inappropriate moment, betting through the whole gamut of options, or sitting out a few hands randomly are sure signs that you are keeping tabs on the cards in the shoe.
There’s ample reason why card counters avoid single-deck blackjack: to avoid detection, mostly, and also to get around the maximum bet limits in place.
Newcomers to blackjack don’t really worry about classical strategy, and are often just feeling their way into the game. That’s why their movements at the table are occasionally eyebrow-raising.
For more experienced types, counting leads to a movement away from basic strategy to what is often termed “situational blackjack”, where actions are altered because of the count and the knowledge that a high or low card is incoming.
For instance, if you’re sat on 12 and your count dictates that there’s still plenty of 10s and picture cards in the deck, then you’d be tempted to stand. A dealer can read this sort of thing from miles away!
This is your classic casino myth.
Many people assume that card counting is illegal because they see so many gamers being kicked out of a casino when caught out.
The truth is that card counting is not a crime – it is simply frowned upon because, when done well, it can minimise the casino’s house edge just a little.
You could even make an argument that says that card counting isn’t even cheating. Instead, you are simply using your brainpower to tilt the tables back in your own favour somewhat.
Casinos have the authority to ask you to leave, granted, but don’t worry: you won’t be spending the night in the cells if caught!
The beauty of playing in a brick-and-mortar casino is that you are aware of everything that is going on around you, and that includes the movements of the dealer and their habits when it comes to shuffling the cards.
Knowing when a dealer will shuffle is crucial to counting cards, and without this knowledge, players really can be in trouble when attempting to card count online.
For that reason, it is perhaps a wise idea to not try to count cards when playing online blackjack, simply because the shuffle occurs more frequently and is software based, rather than given the human touch. This is called a “continuous shuffle machine”.
However, there is a solution at hand: specifically, live blackjack.
Here, you can monitor the behaviour of the dealer while playing because, after all, you are playing at a working casino, just from the comfort of your own home.
The great thing about live dealer blackjack is that the continuous shuffle machine is rarely used in these versions of the game, with the dealer tasked with making the shuffle. This makes card counting much easier.
Another thing to remember is that to turn a profit as a card counter, you need to be playing plenty of quick-fire rounds.
In a traditional casino, you can play anything from between 100 and 300 hands per hour, depending on the competency of the dealer and the actions of your fellow players at the table.
Unfortunately, online blackjack tends to be slower, as different players will be reliant on various internet speeds, and they may also become distracted, and so on. The gameplay online is much slower, and this means that turning positive numbers over is much more difficult.
The conclusion that we can draw about card counting is that yes, it is impossible; no, you don’t need to be a genius dreamt up by a Hollywood scriptwriter to do it; and yes, you can make a profit from counting cards. However, doing so online is very difficult, and instead you might be better off spending your time researching blackjack strategies in order to maximise your chances of winning.
Remember, you can play blackjack here at Bitcasino either for real money or in demo mode, helping you to hone your craft! Sign up for a new player account today to get started.
Words: Sean McNulty