The Ultimate Guide to Casinos


The Basics of Card Counting

Card games are not like other table games played in casinos. A European Roulette wheel can never “run out” of zeroes. Each spin is an independent event, and the odds of catching a zero are always 1 in 37 or 2.7%.  Similarly, at the Craps table there’s no limit on how many sevens can be rolled. The dice have no memory. Rolling three or four sevens in a row doesn’t change the likelihood of rolling another seven, which is always 6 out of 36 or 16.7%.

But at the Baccarat, Pai Gow Poker or Blackjack tables, when all of the Aces have been played from a deck of cards, there is no possibility of another Ace coming up. From a fresh deck of 52 cards with four Aces, the odds of an Ace being dealt are 4 in 52 or 7.7%. Remove one Ace and the percentage dips to 3 in 51 or 5.9%. Remove any card other than an Ace and the chances increase to 4 in 51 or 7.8%. In other words, the deck really does have a memory and each card played changes the odds of the game.

It stands to reason, then, that a player with knack for remembering what cards have gone before can gain an advantage. Such a player could wager more when the deck contains a higher percentage of “favorable” cards and decrease the size of bets when the deck is depleted of such cards. That is exactly the strategy behind the practice of “card counting,” which can be defined as the art and science of keeping track of what cards have been played, knowing how it affects the odds, and then betting and playing accordingly, taking advantage of situations when the remaining cards favor the player.

The Origins of Counting

In 1962, M.I.T. mathematics professor Dr. Edward O. Thorp wrote a ground-breaking book called “Beat the Dealer.” In it, he described the so-called “Basic Strategy for Blackjack,” showing the optimum way to play any hand as proven by mathematics. The professor then used statistics and calculations to show that when a deck is poor in 5s, a card typically ignored, it actually benefits the player compared to a shortage of other cards. Counting the number of 5s dealt and remaining can help a player know what to bet and how to play each hand.

Thorp’s observation became the basis for the “Five Count Strategy,” the world’s first Blackjack card counting system. Still used today, it recommends wagering big whenever all 5s have been removed from the deck. Thorp also developed a chart indicating the proper amount to wager for other situations, all based upon the number of 5s removed and remaining.

Once this simple strategy has been mastered, the player can advance to counting 10s and face cards using the “Ten Count” system. Thorp noted that the removal of cards valued at ten favors the House. Betting should be increased when the deck is “rich” in such high-value cards and decreased when it is “poor.” During play, the House Edge will be 4% or higher about one third of the time, and the player will have a 4% advantage or better for about a third of the hands. All other deals fall somewhere in between. Knowing which situation is which must be the card counter’s goal.

Learning to Count

Without the benefit of a photographic memory, any player with an average IQ would find it almost impossible to count individual cards. Especially when playing Blackjack against shoe containing multiple decks and surrounded by distractions, it is all too easy to lose track of the count. For that reason, professional card player Lawrence Revere pioneered a system he called the “Plus/Minus Strategy” and wrote about it in his 1969 book entitled “Playing Blackjack as a Business.”

Revere taught that every card in the deck must be assigned a value. Cards valued 2~6 are worth +1 point each as they are removed from the deck. Cards 7~9 count as zero and can be ignored. High cards, 10~Ace, count as -1 point apiece as they are played. Using this approach, there is no need to recall exactly what cards have been removed from the deck. The player keeps track of just one number, the “Count,” starting at zero and adding to it or subtracting from it as each card is dealt.

As the beginner becomes comfortable and quick in tracking cards in this way, a betting strategy is added, whereby one unit is wagered when the Count is +1 or less and two units are bet when the Count is +2 or more. This procedure has led to a wide variety of more advanced variations, such as the KO Count, Hi-Lo Count, Hi-Opt I, Hi-Opt II and other card counting systems.

Theoretically, card counting could be applied to any type of card game. In fact, some players have worked out Baccarat systems based upon tracking cards. However, it is Blackjack that has gained the most attention and proven the most lucrative game for card counters over time. A good card counter can actually beat the House Edge and win consistently, so it is certainly worth adding the ability to count cards to one’s skill set in playing casino games.