When I tell people that I am a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, one topic that inevitably arises is the subject of counting cards. There is a great lure when discussing card counters, as to many it seems like card counters are earning “free money.”
Several myths have come to pass, and rather surprisingly, these myths are not limited to casino patrons. Many members of the casino staff – even members of the casino surveillance teams and casino executives – have false perceptions about counting.
Before I get into specifics, I’d like to debunk the biggest myth of all. Contrary to popular opinion, card counters do not have to be excessively good at math. They don’t have to be highly intelligent. They don’t have to have a lick of common sense. All that a card counter has to do is simple math. And by simple math, I mean that if you can add 1+1+1+0, you are on your way to becoming a highly skilled card counter.
I own a dealing school in Las Vegas, and when my students ask questions about counting, I usually can’t resist being a killjoy. I tell them that I can teach them how to count cards in about five minutes and then I do just that. They are completely unimpressed. So before I get into more card counting myths, please allow me to be a killjoy for you, as if you were one of the students at my Las Vegas dealer school, so you may be unimpressed too.
The most basic (and arguably the most effective) card counting system is the “plus minus” system. All cards are assigned a value. Low cards, 2-6, are assigned a value of plus one. Medium cards, 7-9, are discounted, with a value of zero. High cards, 10-A, are assigned a value of negative one. As the game proceeds, the total count is called the running count. The running count divided by the number of decks already in play is called the true count. And the higher the value of the true count, the better the odds for the player.
The deck is juicier when the count is higher because that means there are more high value cards in the deck. When players make a blackjack, they are paid 3:2. However, when the casino has a blackjack, the player only loses 1:1.
That is all there is to it. Some people get fancy with counting – tracking aces and running different counting systems – but you get the gist. It requires a bit of practice to be able to count cards effectively, but it likely doesn’t take as much training as you think. Most of the cards cancel each other out. If your blackjack had is a 10-6, it has a value of zero. (The 10 is worth negative one and the 6 is worth positive one.)
So, let’s discuss a few myths…
There is a myth that players don’t need to know perfect basic strategy when counting cards. Nothing could be further from the truth. Card counters have to know perfect basic strategy inside out and upside down. It needs to be automatic and unemotional. Basic strategy is the optimal way to play a hand of blackjack. It works out to a chart that shows the players hand versus the dealer’s up-card. Every different rule on a blackjack game (whether the dealer stands or hits soft 17, whether doubling after split is allowed, whether surrender is allowed, etc.) produces a different chart. So not only do good card counters need to know perfect basic strategy for the game they are playing, they also need to know how that strategy changes based on the count.
There is also a myth that the player will always win when they are counting cards. Again, this could not be further from the truth. Rarely is there an “always” in gambling. Things should only be viewed from the perspective of the “long run.” The house advantage on your average blackjack game on the Las Vegas strip is very low. A six deck shoe where the dealer hits soft 17, double after split is allowed, no re-splitting aces, only one card received when splitting aces, and no surrender yields a house edge of merely.616%. That’s all. That’s it. That’s the whole edge right there.
Now, granted, a.616% edge is what is expected against a player who makes no mistakes against basic strategy and those players don’t come around very often. But with that slight edge, the casinos in Las Vegas generate billions of dollars of profit every year. It is all about the long run.
When players count cards, they may have a slight edge against the casino, but still the numbers are small. Just like the casino must have a large bankroll to weather the storm and play for the long run, so must the card counter. The count will not always be positive. Sometimes counters will have to sit through poor decks to get to the good ones. It’s a game that requires time and a large enough bankroll. No one will ever win every blackjack session they play – neither a casino patron nor the casino. That is why the long run is so important.
Whenever a movie like “21” or a book like “Bringing Down the House” comes out, the amateur card counters come out from every which way and every direction. One of the biggest mistakes that the casinos make is in chasing them away.
Card counting is not illegal. It is not a form of cheating. It is not something that the Gaming Control Board will fine or ban someone for partaking in. But in Las Vegas, casinos are private property. Often when a surveillance operator or an attentive floor supervisor detects a card counter, they ask the counter to leave. There is a list that casinos share with one another, naming card counters. So sometimes just walking in the front door of a casino, a counter may be asked to leave or refused to be served.
This overwhelming fear of card counters is erroneous for two reasons. First of all, most counters are not very good at counting cards. They learn how to do it because it is easy, but they don’t know what to do with the information. If they know the running count is +10, they know that is supposed to be a good thing, so they bet a whole chunk of casino chips. But what if that running count of +10 is after the first hand of an 8-deck shoe, so the true count is insignificant? Or what if they receive a 16 vs. a dealer’s up-card of 9? Have they studied their charts? Do they know what to do? Most people are hobbyists; they have not a clue what they’re doing. Casinos aren’t doing their bottom line any favors chasing away wannabe card counters. They tend to be worth way more than flat betters.
Also, in an effort to proof the game, making it “safe” from counters, casinos have actually shot themselves in the foot. A favorite method of theirs is to perform an early shuffle. In a six deck shoe, casinos sometimes instruct dealers to cut off two full decks, that way the true count rarely becomes significant for a card counter. However, this defies mathematical logic. Casinos make money by time and motion. The more time casinos can get out of a player – the more decisions per hour – the more of a long run game they are playing. In an effort to protect themselves from the few card counters who actually know what they’re doing, the casinos lose money they should be earning.
My advice to you, dear reader, is the same advice that I give my students at my Las Vegas dealing school. If you want to count cards, keep it as a parlor trick or else get very, very serious about it. If your goal is to amuse yourself, occasional card counting is just fine. But to make a living at counting cards requires a lot of studying, discipline, patience, time, and most importantly the bankroll to take you to the “long run.”