Blackjack Series: Counting Cards - Caleb Jones

Today we’re going to talk about the most difficult and challenging part of playing blackjack: counting cards. Before I get to that, I’ll show you the results of my blackjack games since my last post in this series. As you can see, I’ve ratcheted up my bet amount and starting base amount, keeping my ratio of 20 units as always, and have been playing much more often. All the games I played below were using double deck tables.

In my next post in this series, I’ll publish all the numbers from today back to early February in more easy-to-read charts and graphs and provide a full analysis. That will give you a better feel for how much money I’ve made this year playing blackjack, which I jokingly call my “fourth income source.”

Date: 08/08/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 15 minutes
Result: Won $300

Date: 08/22/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 9 minutes
Result: Won $650

Date: 08/23/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 11 minutes
Result: Lost $1200

Date: 08/25/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 17 minutes
Result: Lost $350

Date: 08/23/15 (2nd)
Starting Pot: $1650
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 9 minutes
Result: Won $50

Date: 08/23/15 (3rd)
Starting Pot: $1700
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 10 minutes
Result: Won $1100

Date: 09/2/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 13 minutes
Result: Won $900

Date: 09/2/15 (2nd)
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 9 minutes
Result: Lost $50

Date: 09/3/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 9 minutes
Result: Won $550

Date: 09/3/15 (2nd)
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 16 minutes
Result: Won $200

Date: 09/5/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 12 minutes
Result: Won $400

Date: 09/5/15 (2nd)
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 10 minutes
Result: Won $200

Date: 09/8/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 14 minutes
Result: Lost $950

Date: 09/8/15 (2nd)
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 14 minutes
Result: Won $400

Date: 09/15/15
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 2 minutes
Result: Won $600

Date: 09/15/15 (2nd)
Starting Pot: $2000
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 17 minutes
Result: Lost $1360

Date: 09/15/15 (3rd)
Starting Pot: $1600
Base Bet: $100
Time played: 9 minutes
Result: Won $1900

As you can see, the overall pattern continues, in that I win far more often than I lose, but my losses are usually much larger than my wins. Regardless, the sheer amount of smaller wins adds up to more than the small amount of large losses, resulting in a net profit for me over time. Doing the math on all my results in my last few blackjack updates, as of September 15th, I’ve made a net profit of $5,532 since February 1st playing blackjack exactly the way I’ve been describing. This represents an average monthly income of about $737. Not bad, especially considering there was a month or two in there when I barely played blackjack at all.

We’ll dig into the numbers in more detail next time. Today let’s talk about card counting.

Card Counting

Let’s get this out of the way first. Card counting is very, very hard. It is not nearly as easy, fun, or cool as it seems in the movies or when you hear your buddies (who are likely full of shit) brag about it. It’s extremely difficult and super hard work, even if you have a good short-term memory (which I do) and even if you’re a math genius (which I am certainly not). It’s so damn hard that, as you’ll see in a minute, I don’t even do it the way they show in the movies unless I’m experimenting.

Don’t expect that card counting is something you can learn about online or read about in a book and then be functionally good at it after you practice a few times.

Oh no. Card counting, at least in the most traditional, effective way, is nightmarishly difficult. Anyone who tells you it’s no big deal is either lying to you or trying to sell you something.

At some point next year, I plan on spending some real money going to some intense card counting boot camps in Vegas where they drill you over and over again for several days on end. Unless you literally play blackjack every day, that’s usually what’s required if you want to get good at card counting unless you’re Rain Man.

Think about it. To count cards, you need to perform mathematics on two different levels (adding up the cards and adding and subtracting from the current count) AND be very careful to adhere to play basic strategy even if your emotions don’t want to AND remember the current count AND vary your play based on the current count, which constantly changes. You need to do all four of those things at the same time. In my experience, doing just the first two takes a huge amount of concentration and emotional control, and that’s without counting at all. This stuff is hard for me, I’m an experienced blackjack player with higher than average level of emotional control.

Bottom line, card counting is not for the faint of heart. As they say, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Hi-Lo

All card counting is based on the following mathematical reality: a deck rich in tens and aces is good for the player, a deck rich in small cards is good for the dealer. When you know for sure that a deck you’re playing has less tens and aces, you can raise your bets and play more aggressively, and statistically you’ll win more often.

There are many different methods used to count cards in blackjack, many of them with cool sounding names. Omega II, Red 7, Zen Count, etc. The standard way, and most likely the most effective way to count cards is the one you’re probably already somewhat familiar with: Hi-Lo.

This is when you assign cards 2-6 a value of +1, 10s, face cards, and aces a value of -1, and all other cards a value of zero. As you play, you add or subtract these values to get a “running count.” If you’re playing any number of decks beyond single deck, you also need to divide the running count by the number of decks to get the “true count.”

When the true count gets high enough, you can jack up your bets and start making more aggressive moves in opposition to basic strategy. These are called “deviations” and it’s the only time you should ever deviate from basic strategy if your goal is to make money. It’s an entirely separate chart from the standard basic strategy system.

Do I use Hi-Lo when I count cards? No. Or should I say, rarely. It’s too hard. I dabble in it when I play single deck, sometimes. As you can see, I usually play double deck (since as I’ve discussed before single deck is rarer and/or has more house rules that increase the house edge). This means I’ll have to not only keep track of the running count, but constantly be dividing it by two to get the true count. “So what?” you ask. Well, like I said, it sounds easy on paper, but go play blackjack while doing everything else correctly and you’ll see how hard this is.

Instead, I count cards using easier, albeit much less effective methods. I usually do Ace Count or Ace/Five.

Ace Count

This is how I usually count cards. It’s by far the easiest way I know. This also means it’s the least effective. It’s also a very controversial way to count cards (among blackjack players that is), but in my experience it does work and I swear by it. In my experience, it has at least an 80% success rate when conditions are favorable. The problem is, they usually aren’t favorable.

Ace count violates the common wisdom that the more aces left in the deck, the better for the player. This is true with tens and tens mixed with aces. But with aces alone, things get weird when you know there are zero aces left in the deck. The math here is pretty complicated, but the bottom line is that aces (completely irrelevant of tens) tend to help the dealer more than they help you. Thus if there are no more aces, the dealer has lost that edge over you.

So lots of aces = good for you, and zero aces also = good for you. I know that sounds weird, but in my experience this is the truth.

All you do during Ace Count is to count the aces. That’s it. Every new shoe, reset the count to zero, and every time you see an ace, add one. That’s all you need to do. Sometimes, if I’m feeling tired, I will take a stack of eight chips (representing the eight aces in a double deck game) and move one chip to a new stack every time I see an ace. The chips keep track of the count for me. Be very careful doing this though; this could get you thrown out of a casino if they figure out what you’re doing. For this reason, it’s better to slightly move the chips on the pile instead of creating a new pile and physically moving them.

Once the count reaches 4 in a single deck game or 8 in a double deck game, it’s party time. The lack of aces in the deck make the odds shoot up in your favor. When this happens I double or triple my bet. Other people quadruple their bet or more, but again, doing this pretty much screams to the cameras that you’re counting cards, and you’ll risk getting kicked out of the casino.

I can’t remember a time when I raised my bet like this when all the aces were gone and didn’t make a lot of money.

The catch? Casinos know people try this, so they don’t use the entire shoe. They end the shoe when they reach the cut card. Therefore, the vast majority of the time, the shoe will end before the aces are depleted. It does happen though, and knowing that count will help.

Ace/Five

I only do Ace/Five when I’m feeling very refreshed, rested, excited, and 100% “on.” It’s harder than Ace Count but still not nearly as hard as Hi-Lo. Instead of counting aces, you count fives. However, whenever you see an ace, you deduct one from the count.

That’s it! Whenever the count is two or higher, you double your bet, and keep it doubled until the count goes below two. Technically, you’re supposed to keep doubling your bet, forever, until the count goes below two, then you drop it back to your original starting bet. However, as you can see from past blackjack articles, I play very conservatively so I don’t do this. I just bet two units instead of my usual one and keep it there.

Once again, it’s not super common when the count actually gets to two or higher. Another problem is that if the count is immediately two at the start of the shoe, that doesn’t really help you much. I will often wait until the shoe is 50% played out before I raise my bets. But again, I play very conservatively.

Ace/Five is better used on multi-deck games (four, six or eight decks), and as you know, I only play single or double exclusively (better odds for me that way). Again though, it does help when the count is favorable, particularly towards the end of the shoe, and this does happen.

In the next post in this series, I’ll get into a more deep analysis of how much money I’ve won this year, and why.

Category: Fun

4 Comments on “Blackjack Series: Counting Cards

  1. I love reading these articles, thanks mate. By the way, when you come to Melbourne, there’s a large casino complex that is in the center of the city called Crown Casino. Except for a few tables of larger base bets, all the blackjack tables here play a new game called Blackjack Plus – which is basically where if the dealer gets 22, it’s called a standoff and all players get their bets back. It’s bullshit and it’s shitty odds. Something to watch out for.

  2. Wow, that sucks, but most blackjack variants do.

    I’m definitely going to be playing blackjack in Macau; not sure if I’ll have time in Australia but I’ll try.

  3. I’ve begun my journey of playing blackjack as a source of income and am learning hi-lo. It is NOT easy and getting an exact true count is deceptively difficult to do. All of the houses I play in use six decks so if I am interested in winning, then card counting is a must. But the thing is, even if you can make rough predictions with the true count as well as playing by the book, you’ll generally come out on top quite a bit.

  4. You say the math on this is complicated. Im interested on the math behind this that you know. Do you have any sources i can look at or a way of explaining the complicated math behind this.

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