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Counting cards in blackjack is the only way to beat the house. Basic strategy does what it does and it’s an essential tool if you want to play at an advantage. Only when you combine mastery of basic strategy with skills as a card counter can you hope to play with a positive expectation and avoid the house edge. Experts talk about beating the dealer in other casino games, but only in blackjack and one or two others do you really have a chance to win.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Counting cards takes more than just math skills. In fact, those are actually pretty far down the list of traits a good card counter must have. Don’t assume it’s a task for math whizzes and bean counters. Players with the gift of gab are more likely to be good. Someone who can count while chatting with someone is more important. Let us explain.
The basic idea behind counting cards is to figure out when you have the advantage over the casino, then exploit that advantage by making much larger bets on those hands. Those who keep an accurate count can seize their opportunity and gain an overall statistical edge over the house. The trick is doing all that and not getting caught.
It is not illegal. Players use tells or simple human psychology in Texas holdem to get an advantage. They use good strategy in video poker to maintain a low house edge, or even an advantage. It’s not illegal to use your brain to select when to bet the most. Casinos don’t like it, though, and they have the right to deny you access to their games. The real danger of getting caught at card counting is being escorted to the door and being put on a blacklist. Players with a reputation as card counters sometimes have a hard time finding a place to play.
The basic system involving taking off points when good (high) cards leave the deck and adding points when bad (low) cards leave the deck. High cards allow you to hit 21 or close to 21 more often. Low cards put you in a position where you either have to risk busting or using a low hand, while it also means the dealer is likelier to have to stand. In the basic system, the 10 through ace is considered high, while the 2 through 6 is considered low. When a high card appear, you subtract 1. When a low card appears, you add 1.
When an individual gambler works alone, they simply walk up to the table and start playing. Teams of blackjack players also work together. One is the spotter, who watches a table and does the math. When they find a table with a good ratio, they signal the “big player”, who moves in to the table and pretends to be a high roller. This was the method used by the MIT card counting team depicted in the Kevin Spacey movie, 21, which was based (somewhat loosely) on real life events.
Another method is back-counting or “Wonging”, a term derived from its first proponent Stanford Wong. In this instance, you stand behind the dealer and maintain a count. When it’s to your advantage, you “Wong in” and start to play. Some of these players make flat bets, to avoid notice. Others modify their wagers according to need. When the count moves against them, they “Wong out” and leave the table.
The basic system is called “High-Low” or “Hi-Lo”. Other systems include the Hi-Opt I, Hi-Opt II, Zen Count, Wong Halves, KO, Red 7, and Omega II. Each of these is discussed in multiple books. These can be more accurate than the basic hi-lo game, though they’re more complicated, thus harder to use in a real money environment.
Operators use many forms of countermeasures. A common one is to use a bigger deck, which is a major reason so many games have 6-deck or 8-deck shoes these days. Another is to have less penetration of the shoe. The deeper you go into a multi-deck, the bigger the advantage can become, which increases the payout percentage of a player. This is a reason people pursue single-deck and 2-deck games, because they get a good idea of which cards are about to be dealt. Casinos tend to limit the penetration of single-deck and double-deck games these days.
Many casinos maintain a black book on players. If you’re a known card counter, you can’t play in the casino. Photos and facial recognition cameras are used. Scanner systems can be used to spot counters, too. An example of this is the MindPlay software, though this stopped being used back in 2007.
Casinos might harass players, too. This is likely to be no more elaborate than having an employee walk up and talk to the gambler while they play. Fast dealers can be used to thwart a counter, too. When this doesn’t stop the count, it might force them to reveal their methods to other employees more. Specific rules, such as flat betting or a reshuffle when the count gets too high, are also used to counter gamblers with specialized knowledge. The fact the casino keeps its own math on the game should be an indication of how serious they take these methods.