The term card counting has generally referred to blackjack, but actually applies to any table game in which keeping track of the cards that have been exposed is relevant to the player’s overall strategy. It tends to mostly apply to games played with a multi-deck shoe where the cards are not shuffled after each hand. Hence why it applies mostly to blackjack, which meets this qualification.
While keeping track of the cards that are exposed might be useful in some other games, the extent to which the player can fully exploit this is limited to the choices he has remaining in that game. For example, if a player is playing Three Card Poker and he sees the cards of the players to his right and left, this might help him decide whether to fold or play, but that is it.
If each of the players have three cards that are Queen-plus, this means the likelihood of the dealer qualifying goes way down and this might cause the player to play a hand he might otherwise fold. But, even if this is the case, this will not make a huge payback difference in the overall game because his original wager was set before he knew this information and it is the wager size that can make all the difference when counting. Again, this is why a game played with a shoe is a better target.
In the game of blackjack, the player has the ability to do two things when he is counting. The first is to change his strategy and the second is to wager more (or less) depending on what the count tells him. Changing the strategy will make minor tweaks to the overall payback, but by itself cannot turn the game positive in the long run. If you don’t change the wager amount and play nine hands at 99.5% and one hand at 101%, you’re still playing a negative game. But if that one hand is being played at 10x the base wager amount from the others, it becomes a positive expectation game.
The problem is, these changes in wager amount can be a quick tip-off to the casino that the player is counting cards. Sure, some players change the amount they wager on each hand. But, they are frequently riding a streak. If they win, they might increase their wager. If they lose, they go back to a base wager. Without counting, this doesn’t really do anything in the long run. But a player who plays hand after hand at table minimum and then all of a sudden bets 5-10 times that amount will quickly draw notice from the pit boss. If the pit boss notices the player is doing this when the shoe appears to be in his favor, the player can be exposed as a counter.
So, first, let’s discuss what it means to be a counter and then I’ll discuss the ramifications of being one. In general, a deck full of high cards (mostly 10’s and Aces) are good for the player. The player likes 10’s. The dealer is forced to hit more 12-16’s than the player and thus lots of 10’s means the dealer will bust more often. Conversely, lots of little cards is good for the house. When the dealer hits all those 12-16’s, little cards are the ones that allows him to sneak up on 20’s and 21’s. As proof of this, one just has to look at the game of Spanish 21, which uses a pontoon deck – with the 10’s missing. This creates a house advantage that allows the casino to offer the player a variety of options not available in regular blackjack.
Each rank of card has a certain “value” to the payback relative to the others. To figure out this “value,” we simply run a random simulation of blackjack with ONE card of that rank missing from the deck. We compare the payback of the simulation to the payback of a normal simulation. The difference is the value. In theory, a player could see every card and adjust the payback from that point forward of the shoe by this value. This is extremely difficult to do. You have to memorize the value of each rank, and quickly perform the addition or subtraction as needed. Because of the complexity, numerous simpler systems have been created to help the “average” player perform a simpler, yet slightly less accurate, count.
When the count shows the house has an advantage, the player should bet the table minimum. If the count gets to the point where the player has an advantage, he should bet as much as he can (in theory). Thus, most of the hands will be played with a house advantage, but the player will maximize the value of the hands in his favor, resulting in an overall advantage to the player.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
There are a few problems with all of this. First, it’s not that easy to count. It’s not impossible and you don’t have to be Rain Man, but you do have to be focused. You have to see every card. You can’t get distracted by that cocktail waitress or the dancing girl behind the table. The craps table goes wild? You can’t look over to it to see what is going on. You might miss some cards being dealt.
Second, you have to accurately do the math on the fly. Accidentally make a mistake adding and subtracting and you could find yourself wagering a lot of money on a hand that is still not in your favor. Third, it takes a lot of discipline to do it. Blackjack won’t go to 105%. It might go to 101 or 102%. This is hardly a guarantee of a winning hand. You better make sure you have a bankroll that can handle the extra wagers and the stomach to ride out the ups and downs. If you’re lucky, you’ll turn the overall payback to 100.5% or so.
This means you can expect to win 0.5% of your entire wager over time. So, even if you are now wagering $1,000 per hour (at 30 hands per house you’re averaging $30-$35 per hand), you are talking about winning $5 per hour. It is better than losing, but you’re not making a living off of this.
That brings me to the biggest issue about counting. It is not allowed. It is probably a stretch to say it is “illegal.” You can’t be arrested for doing it. But, you can be banned from a casino.
Yes, I’ve heard countless times how it is unfair. And I tend to agree. If a player is not using an electronic device and not slowing up the game, it seems as if he should be allowed to count. But he can’t. The regulations in most jurisdictions (and certainly here in Las Vegas) allow casinos to ban a player who counts cards. I have a friend who has been banned from a few and he’s far from a high roller. So, if you’re going to count, you’re going to have to find ways to be discreet, which unfortunately probably greatly diminishes your chance to win any real money doing it.
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Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Email: [email protected].