Blackjack Card Counting
Movies such as “Rain Man” are partly to blame, although you can’t entirely blame it on Hollywood as there are also some movies such as “21” (based on the true story of the MIT blackjack card counting group) that tell a more accurate story of what it means to count cards.
Are All Card Counters Math Geniuses?
The biggest misconception about card counting stems from its name and the subsequent belief that the only people who can count cards are Rain Man types that are able to count and memorize every card in a deck – and every card in four, six, or even eight decks at a time.
It’s an understandable mistake but far from the truth, as real card counters only focus on certain groups of cards. Those groups of cards are tracked in the counter’s head as they’re dealt so that the counter gains an important piece of knowledge: are there more ten value cards (face cards plus 10s) left in the shoe to be dealt than low cards such as 3, 4, 5, or 6.
Why is that important?
A deck rich with ten value cards are very good for the player, as it means the dealer is more likely to bust plus the player has a better chance of being dealt a blackjack; if the deck contains lots of low cards it’s typically bad for the player, as the dealer busts less on his 12-16 hands plus the odds of being dealt a blackjack decrease.
Card Counting Systems
Most card counting systems assign a value to one set of cards (usually -1 for ten value cards and aces) and another value to the other set (+1 for 2,3,4,5, and 6). As the cards are dealt the counter will tally up a running count for each card, either adding one if it’s a low card or subtracting one if it’s a 10 or an ace; all other cards count as zero and are ignored.
The running count is the indicator of whether the counter has an advantage or not. If the running count is +10 it means that many more low cards have been dealt, leaving lots of tens and aces to come (which is good for the player); a running count of -8 would mean lots of tens and aces have been dealt with more low cards lurking, which is bad for the player.
There are many different systems used to count cards but the above is the basic idea behind popular systems such s Hi-Lo, Hi Opt I, and KO.
More complicated systems such as Omega II, Hi Opt II, and Zen Count exist, which require more variables to be assigned and track than the simpler systems.
Small Edge over the House
With lots of practice nearly anyone can learn to count cards at blackjack and it doesn’t require math wizardy ala Rain Man. As far as the advantage gained by counting, depending on the type of game and blackjack rules being used, counters can expect an edge of 1%-3%. That may not sound like a lot but it can add up over time, much like casino profits in general.
Time, however, is what card counters often don’t have.
Not Illegal but They Might Toss You Out
Another popular myth is that counting cards at blackjack is illegal, which is completely false. As long as counters don’t use electronic devices, it’s completely legal for them to count cards. The reason many casinos ask them to leave (and sometimes escort them firmly out the door) is that casinos have the right to ask anyone to leave what is their private property.
The Achilles heel of card counting is that to make money a counter must vary their bet sizes significantly when the count is in their favor, and that’s an easy tip off for casinos, which now have software in place that analyzes the play of Online Blackjack players and can not just flag them as a counter but even identify what card counting system they’re using.
As shown by the famous MIT card counting team, successful card counters have to be skilled at more than just tracking the running count, as it’s just a matter of time before a solo counter is flagged by a casino and barred from playing there again.
By playing as a team (and even using elaborate disguises to hide their appearance) card counters can more easily avoid detection, working as a group to distract casino employees and setting up situations for one member of the group to realistically make very large bets when it is advantageous to do so, avoiding detection when he or she might otherwise be discovered.
Playing as a group also helps smooth out the inevitable variance of winning and losing streaks. Contrary to popular belief, card counting just signals you when the odds are in your favor but doesn’t guarantee a win, so you’ll still run into big losing streaks that playing as a team can help you pull through.
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