So, what is card counting?

By: Ed Teller

OK, let's answer some basic questions that a lot of want-to-be and beginning counters have.

Let’s start out with what counting is and, more importantly, isn’t. Card counting is a means of tracking the relationship between the high-value cards (good for the player) and the low-value cards (good for the dealer). It is not memorizing all the card values that have been seen in an effort to know exactly what cards remain.

Why are the low-value cards good for the dealer? Well, the dealer has to follow rigid rules regarding hitting. She must hit if she has less than 17. The most important card in the deck for the dealer is the lowly-appearing five, as this will make at least 17 out of any stiff hand. Card counting allows us to know when there are more high cards than low left in the deck(s). At this point, we raise our bet because we now have an advantage over the house.

How large is this house advantage? Depending on rules and other playing conditions the house edge, without counting, can be from -.5% to -8%. Our advantage when counting varys. On certain hands (when we have counting information) this can be as high as three or four percent, but overall we hold about a one percent advantage.

Counting does not give us an automatic winning edge on every hand - far from that. Statistically we will win about 44% of all hands played. With a high count the dealer has just as good a chance to get good hands as we do. However, the dealer can’t split or double, raise or lower his bet, and only gets even money on blackjack - these plus knowing when to bet aggressively is what  constitutes the player's edge. Many times in high counts our 20 will lose to the dealer’s blackjack (or push her 20) but over the long run we’ll win with that ~1% edge.

The long run is thought to be after about  50,000 hands, a number large enough that it can have some statistical meaning. An analogy: if we flip a coin ten times it would not be too unusual for tails to come up, say seven times. However, if we flip that same coin 50,000 times it’s much more likely that tails will come up very close to its expectation of 50% - maybe the number would be .4997. So it is with blackjack - the more hands we play the closer to the statistical curve we get, the closer to our mathematical expectation.

Most people do not have the time, desire, or energy to do what it takes to become an expert card counter. Card counting is not rocket science, but it does takes work. A lot of work. The time requirements to master this skill vary greatly by individual, but generally it takes about 125 learning hours to be ready for the casino. Spread out over you spare time you should be ready in a couple of months.

If you follow through, you will be part of a very small fraternity/sorority, more knowledgeable than perhaps 99% of the people sitting on either side of those tables. Is it worth all the effort?

In a word, yes.

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