Professional gambler and writer Michael Kaplan reveals his own first-hand card counting experience.  In this guide you’ll get real tips on how to count cards, a blackjack basic strategy that works, tips, and tricks as well as an insight into the wins and losses you can experience while card counting. 

Hear from Michael directly below as he outlines what you need to card count as a beginner or a seasoned blackjack player, the legality of it, and the truth behind it all. Whether you’re new to counting, or looking to improve, you’ll want to read this.

How to Count Cards in Blackjack – Step by Step

For starters, you need to learn to play basic strategy. This is a system doped out by four guys in the US military during the late 1950s. They did it with pencils, papers and calculators. Miraculously, basic strategy is a mode of playing that has held up, even as people with much more advanced technology ran the numbers to insure that they made sense. They do.

1. Learn Basic Blackjack Strategy

This is the way that everyone should be playing blackjack at an online casino or in person. Basic strategy tells you all the correct plays with any hand you might have. Actions are based on the player’s cards and the dealer’s up card. 

For example, you always double down with a 9 vs the dealer’s 3 through 6 (hit against everything else). Faced with a 12, you hit against 2 or 3, stand against 4 – 6, hit against 7 – Ace. And you split 8s, no matter what the dealer has (people, including me, find this to be terrifying when the dealer shows an Ace or a 10-value card, but it is what makes mathematical sense). 

The Basics of Blackjack

  1. Cards in Blackjack are given a negative, zero, or positive value by the player.
  2. As the round plays on, the player keeps a running count of the cards that have been dealt to themselves as well as other players at the table, if there are any.
  3. With confidence in the so-called true count, the player then decides whether he or she should increase the bets.
  4. As the game progresses and fewer cards are left in the shoe, the player updates the true count and continues to place bets that reflect this figure.

Basic strategy is best learned by memorizing the plays on a basic blackjack strategy chart. Much of it is common sense, a lot of it is easily memorized, some of it will take bit of practice.

If you’re new to blackjack, We suggest that you start by reading through our guide on how to play blackjack online. Once you’ve got the basics down, you can practice playing blackjack for free before placing real money bets.

2. Make it Count – Learn The Card Values

After basic strategy becomes second nature, it is time to actually learn to count cards and their value. You don’t need to remember all the cards that have been dealt, which is what a lot people mistakenly believe. That would make things way harder than they need to be.

Instead, employing what is known as the “high-low strategy,” (also referred to as hi-lo strategy) where you merely add and subtract 1s. 

Hi-Lo Card Strategy Card Values

    Cards that are 2 – 6 count as +1

    Cards that are 7, 8 and 9 are neutral and count as zero.

    Cards that are 10-value – Ace count as negative 1.

The point here is that the more 10 – Ace cards remain in the deck, the more advantageous it is for the player. That information is expressed by the running count.

The higher the running count is, the more 2 – 6 cards have been dealt and, as a function of that, the deck is richer in cards denominated at 10 – Ace. A good way to learn card counting is to shuffle a deck and actually count through it, adding and subtracting ones.

Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

Basic Tip For Learning To Count Cards

Start slowly, turning over the cards one at a time. Then speed it up, holding the deck in your hand and flicking through the cards.

The goal is to count down a deck in fewer than 30 seconds.

At the end, the count should be zero. You can increase your speed by counting several cards at a time.

For example, 6, 9, King, 2 will add +1 to the count (6 and King cancel each other out, 9 is neutral, 2 is +1).

3. Learn When to Deviate from The Norm

Indexes, or deviations, as I prefer to call them, are moves that override basic strategy, based on the count. 

For example, if you have 15 against the dealer’s 10 value card, basic strategy says to hit. But, if you are card counting, and the count is +4 or higher, the correct play is to stand. That is because the deck is rich enough in 10s that there is a high probability of busting if you hit. 

All told, there are some 80 deviations.

The good news is that you have to remember only 18 of them. Devised by a blackjack player and theoretician by the name of Don Schlesinger, these are known as the illustrious 18. 

Deviations & Strategy in Blackjack

These are the deviations for shoe games of 6 or 8 decks; for single- and double-deck games, the deviations are slightly different:

The Count What To Do
If the count is +3 or higher Take insurance –

That is, when the dealer has an Ace showing, you put up half your bet.

If the dealer has blackjack, you break even on your original bet and the insurance bet is returned; if the dealer does not have blackjack, you lose the insurance bet and play your hand as your ordinarily would.

If the count is zero or higher Stick with 16 against a dealer’s 10-value card
If the count is +4 or higher Stick with 15 against a dealer’s 10-value card
If the count is +5 or higher Split 10-value cards against a dealer’s 5

Note that splitting 10s is a high value play, but it will likely rouse suspicion in the pit and cause players at the table to freak out, accusing you of “messing up the shoe,” which, of course, is nonsense.

If the count is +4 or higher Split 10s against a dealer’s 6

See the parenthetical above. It applies here as well

If the count is +4 or higher Double with 10 against the dealer’s 10-value card
If the count is +2 or higher Stand with 12 against the dealer’s 3
If the count is +3 or higher Stand with 12 against the dealer’s 2
If the count is +1 or higher Double with 11 against the dealer’s Ace
If the count is +1 or higher Double with 9 against the dealer’s 2
If the count is +4 or higher Double with 10 against the dealer’s Ace
If the count is +3 or higher Double down with 9 against the dealer’s 7
If the count is +5 or higher Stand with 16 against the dealer’s 9
If the count is -1 or lower Hit with 13 against the dealer’s 2
If the count is zero or lower Hit with 12 against the dealer’s 4
If the count is -2 or lower Hit with 12 against the dealer’s 5
If the count is -1 or lower Hit with 12 against the dealer’s 6
If the count is -2 Hit with 13 against the dealer’s 3

The Fab 4 Deviations Strategy

In addition to deviations mentioned above, there are four deviations for surrendering (known as the Fab 4).

This is an acknowledgment that you will probably lose the hand, so you take back half your bet and surrender the other half to the casino. As per basic strategy, you always surrender 16 against the dealer’s 9, 10-value card or Ace.

When card counting, you do it in these situations as well:

  1. If the count is +3 or higher and you have 14 against the dealer’s 10-value card.
  2. If the count is zero or higher and you have 15 against the dealer’s 10-value card.
  3. If the count is +2 or higher and you have 15 against the dealer’s 9.
  4. If the count is +1 or higher and you have 15 against the dealer’s Ace.
Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

How To Practice Deviations

A good way to practice this is to take 22 index cards and, on the front of each index card, you write the situation. On the back, you write what to do. For example, for deviation number 2, the front of the card would read, “16 against a dealer’s 10-value card.” The back would read, “Stick if the count is zero or higher.” 

Look at the front of the card, call out the play, flip the card and see if you have it right. Keep practicing like this until the Illustrious 18 becomes ingrained.

4. Learn The Play Mechanics

Congratulations! You now have the strategies under control. Next we attack the play mechanics. These include converting the running count to a true count and your betting plan (that’s the fun part).

     

For starters, let’s assume you are playing in a casino that deals the cards out of a six deck shoe. This means that the game begins with 312 cards. Having, say, a +6 running-count when there are five complete decks left to play (that would be 260 cards) and having a +6 count when there just two decks (or 104 cards) left to play are very different. 

At five decks, the +6 has a pretty small amount of value. But at two decks it has much more value. So, we do a round of division to reflect that and to arrive at the true count. In the above scenario, when there are five decks left to go, we divide the running count by 5. That would result in a true count of +1.2. When there are just two decks left to play, we get a true count of +3.

Playing with +3 is a lot stronger than playing with +1.2.

You’ll figure out how many decks are left to play by looking at the discard tray. That is the tall plastic rectangle into which the dealer stacks cards that have already been played. You need to learn to visually recognize one through six decks in the discard try.

      

Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

How to Know What's Coming Next

To practice this, I suggest buying a plastic discard tray for a six-deck blackjack game and buying six decks of cards. The former you can get from any number of casino supply companies. Then you can number the cards 1 through 312 on their faces, randomly cut a number off the top and put the remaining cards, below, in the tray. Practice looking at them and guessing how many decks are in the tray. Eventually, you will get good at estimating the number.

Then you do the round of division, come up with the true count and you always know where the game is at.

Besides using the true count to make deviation plays, we also use that number to known how much to bet. Ideally you want to play with a 1 – 15 spread of bets. That means betting anywhere from 1 to 15 units. If you want to bet units of $100, that would mean betting between $100 and $1,500 per hand. If you want to bet units of $25, the bet spread goes from $25 to $375 per hand. 

How To Spread Your Bets – Counting Cards in Blackjack

The Count What To Do
True count of +1 or lower Bet 1 unit
True count of +2 or higher Bet 2 units
True count of +3 or higher Bet 4 units
True count of +4 of higher Bet 8 units
True count of +5 or higher Bet 15 units

Of course, there is some flexibility in here. You don’t want to seem robotic. So, if you have a count of +3, you win a hand and the count does not change, you can throw a couple of extra units into the betting circle. 

How To Perfect Your Card Counting Strategy

To perfect your blackjack strategy, I would combine and perfect all of this at home before going to a casino. One way to do it would be to work with a friend on learning the fundamentals of card counting. Then you can take turns dealing hands of blackjack to one another.

I got a little lucky with this and was taught card counting by a seasoned player named Rick Blaine (he authored a book called “Blackjack Blueprint”). 

Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

How Practicing With Friends Worked For Me

We met once a week in his New Jersey apartment and we worked on card counting for a few hours at a time. During the other six days, I practiced on my own. I used a piece of instructional software called Casino Verite. This was great in that it allowed me to play countless hands of blackjack and the software notified me when I did something wrong. 

It helped me to get good enough that Blaine and I put together a small bankroll out of which I played the lowest stakes games I could find at casinos in Atlantic City, Connecticut and Las Vegas. Not long after, he was involved in launching a card counting team that was financed with Wall Street money. I tried out – it was a little bit like the try-out in “21,” except that I did not have a sack thrown over my head in the middle of the tryout. 

I made the team and spent a few years spreading from $100 to $1,500 in the US, Caribbean and France (there were particular games in Nice and Cannes that we liked playing). 

What’s it Like Card Counting in Real Life?

Card counting at blackjack is a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve done it at high stakes while playing on the team. On my own, I’m likely to do it for minuscule stakes in downtown Las Vegas. 

Either way, I find it relaxing and intriguing. It’s fun to watch the flow of cards, with the count rising up and down like a tide. There’s also something to be said for the ego stroke that comes from sitting at a table and knowing that you understand the game at a level that one else who’s there – usually, including the dealer – actually does.

Challenges When Card Counting in Real Life

There’ve been many times when dealers offer advice, which is dead wrong, even from a basic strategy standpoint. I generally respond by crinkling my eyes, like I’m taking the suggestion to heart, and then do what I know is the right thing. 

Even when it looks like the wrong thing, such as hitting with 13 against the dealer’s 2 because the count is -1.

Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

That Time I Drew Unwanted Attention

 If there is a single moment that stands out (in a good way), it’s one that took place at Caesars Palace. I was dealt a pair of deuces in one hand and an 11 in the other. I doubled down with the latter and drew a 10.

I split the 2s, and a third 2 materialized as did a 9. I double down and re-split the 2s. They resulted in live hands at the higher end of the blackjack range (I won’t lie and tell you exactly what they were; I don’t remember).

Considering that I had max bets up, all the activity drew unwanted attention from the pit and just-fine attention from a fellow player at the table. 

There were a lot of hands and a lot of chips in front of me. That other player had a 15 against the dealer’s 8 and did not want to mess things up for me by, say, taking the dealer’s bust card.

    “What should I do?” he asked.

    “Unless you know the next card, do whatever you want,” I told him, sounding cool but feeling antsy for him to make a move and get it over with.

He hit, which was the correct play, and drew a 10. When the dealer turned over a 4, he started to apologize for, indeed, taking the dealer’s bust card. I told him not to worry and enjoyed a sweat as the dealer drew a 4 prior to busting.

Phew. 

When Things Go Right

Turning things around, grinding back from a losing session, is particularly rewarding. I played in Monte Carlo on a couple of occasions, both times as respites from playing the better games in Cannes and Nice. The guys running the blackjack team told me to go up there and take a shot.

Monte Carlo rules were the same as those in Atlantic City (not very good). But I stayed at Hotel de Paris on a comp, and it ranks among the nicest hotels I’ve been to.

When I emailed a snooty editor friend that I was there, he responded by writing, “You lucky bastard.”

He was right, in more ways than he realized. After hitting a costly and unfortunate losing streak, things turned around and I couldn’t help but win. I left the casino with a single chip: a rectangle, known as a plaque, which was worth 25,000 euros. After wrapping up, I supped on a comped dinner at Alain Ducasse’s fabulous Louis XV, enjoyed a Montecristo No 2 Cuban cigar with a glass of cognac and photographed myself holding up that 25,000 euro plaque. 

     It was an excellent session. Others are not so good.

When Things Go South

During a particularly bad run at Wynn Las Vegas, my brother saw me playing from about 10 feet away. Nothing was going right, great hands turned into dogs and my $1,000 chips diminished to what gamblers like to call quarters. He saw it all go down and offered one comment: “Dude, you keep hitting yourself in the head every time you lose.”

He was right. I was miserable. Not so much because I was dropping money, but more because hands that should have been winners turned into losers.

Even worse: What later on proved to be my final period of play at the Wynn.

The Truth About Card Counting – Movies vs Reality

card-counting-in-blackjack

Learning to card count is easy. Pulling it off in the casino? Well…

We’ve all seen the elaborate card counting scenes in attention-grabbing, gambling-tinged movies.

  • Rain Man has the character played by Dustin Hoffman, Raymond “Rain Man” Babbit, using his savant syndrome to count cards.
  • In ‘The Hangover’  card counting’s trickiness is illustrated by complicated mathematics that are super-imposed over Zach Galifianakis’s Alan as he crushes the casino.
  • In ’21’, adapted from liberty-taking book ‘Bringing Down the House’, one gets the impression that you have to be MIT smart in order to card count and never lose.
Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

The Truth

Movies are great. But here’s the truth: you don’t need to be all that bright or suffer from a form of autism in order to count cards. Hell, I’ve never come close to possessing MIT-caliber smarts and I have had my share of game-killing sessions. 

Counting Cards In Real Life – The Good News

I’ve had game killing sessions. Like the time in the Bahamas when the count soared through the roof and everything went as it should. I was betting two spots of $1,500, double-downs drew the 10s I needed, stiff hands were helped out by serious luck.

The dealer busted when I stood against his 16s.

A crowd formed around me and people began back-betting – that is, putting up chips and betting that I’d continue to beat the house.

I did. It worked! By the time the dealer dealt his last hand of the shoe, chips were stacked high, folks were cheering and the table felt like it might levitate from all the energy.

That’s the good news. 

What You Should Know About Card Counting – The Bad News

The bad news is, unlike what the movies would have you believe, card counting is not a license to print money. Play perfectly, make no mistakes, take advantage of every opportunity and you will be playing at a 1 percent advantage.

Theoretically that is great. Just do the math: 

Let’s say your average bet is $500 and you play 100 hands per hour. With decent rules and penetration, you should be able to earn $500 per hour.

Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

The Catch

The game is extremely volatile. In any hour of play, luck has a major role. The more hours you play, however, the likelier it is that variance will iron itself out and the luck factor will diminish. I’ve seen estimates that some 1,400 hours of play are required to curb the dreaded element of fortune.

If you commit to card counting, bet units of $100 (the $100 minimum tables will get you the best rules), have a $40,000 bankroll and average five hours per week for some 17 months, you should smooth the variance and make your $500 per hour. Of course, should is the operative word here. A lot of bad things can happen with a 1 percent edge. 

Maybe that explains why James Grosjean, a very sharp gambler who exploits things that are way more profitable and way more difficult than card counting, has cheekily described one counter’s profession as her “gambling habit.”

      But who cares what he thinks.

Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

Consider this...

If, like me, you enjoy playing blackjack, card counting is a great way to make the game more interesting (knowing what’s happening and playing appropriately is a lot more fun than flying blind) and statistically profitable.

Why not give yourself a mathematically sound shot at winning? Considering how easy it is to learn card counting, I’m always shocked that more people don’t do it. Maybe, after reading through this article, you’ll join the minority of us counters.

Is Card Counting Illegal?

Card counting is not illegal, but casinos do not like when people do it.

If they figure that it’s what you’re up to, they tell you that you can no longer play blackjack. Casino security keeps your picture and the fun stops.

Michael Kaplan profile-image
Michael Kaplan

Getting Asked To Leave a Casino

At the Wynn this time, I was on a nice little streak when I happened to look down at a small monitor next to the dealer. I saw a giant picture of my driver’s license, which I used as ID to get a player’s card. That was required for me to enjoy free rooms and meals and even promotional chips at Wynn.

I turned to my left and saw a pit boss scurrying over. The dealer ceased divvying out cards and the pit boss got close to me. “Mr. Kaplan,” he said, “we appreciate your business but your action at blackjack is a little strong for us. You can play any other game in the casino. But we are not going to let you play blackjack here.”

Picking up my chips and feeling defeated (even though I was in the midst of a winning session), I headed to the cage and thought of something that a horse racing billionaire once told me about gambling in casinos: “If they’re not chasing you out, you’re doing something wrong.”

I cashed my chips, went across the street to the less ritzy Treasure Island, made my way to the high limit room there and kept on playing.

Understand the Risks: Consequences of Getting Caught Card Counting

Casino Ban

The most common consequence of being caught card counting is a casino ban. If a player is suspected of counting cards, the casino may ask them to leave and refuse future entry. This ban could extend to other properties owned by the same casino group, limiting the player’s options for gambling.

Casino Surveillance and Countermeasures

Some casinos employ sophisticated surveillance systems and countermeasures to detect potential card counters. These measures can include using facial recognition technology, analyzing betting patterns, and monitoring player behavior. If a player is identified as a card counter, the casino may take action against them.

While rare, there have been instances where casinos have taken legal action against individuals they believe to be engaged in card counting. These cases are often based on accusations of fraud or unfair advantage. Legal consequences can range from fines to more severe penalties, depending on local laws and regulations.

Card Counting in The United States

Card counting is generally legal in the United States. However, individual casinos have the right to refuse service to any player they suspect of counting cards, and they may ban such players from their premises. While there are no federal laws against card counting, players should be aware of casino policies and the potential risks associated with this strategy.
Europe.

In most European countries, card counting is legal, and players are generally allowed to employ this strategy in casinos. However, just like in the United States, casinos reserve the right to ban players they believe are counting cards, even if it is not explicitly illegal in the region.

Card Counting in Asia

In countries like China, India, Singapore, and Malaysia, where gambling is legally permitted, there are no specific regulations against card counting. However, individual casinos may have their own policies regarding card counting and can take actions against players they suspect of using this strategy.

Responsible Gaming and Fair Play

Understanding the difference between advantage play and cheating underscores the importance of responsible gaming and maintaining the integrity of casino experiences. While card counting is a legitimate strategy, it’s essential to approach it ethically and within the boundaries set by the casino.

By embracing a responsible approach to gaming and upholding ethical standards, players can ensure that their actions remain aligned with the spirit of fair competition within the casino arena.

Card Counting in Blackjack FAQs

What is counting cards?

How hard is it to count cards?

Is it possible to become rich by counting cards?

Are wins or losses due in Blackjack when card counting?

Will my cards be affected by other players?

Does card counting make you lose less?

What is the best casino for card counting in online blackjack?

Is counting cards cheating?

What is the best blackjack card counting strategy?