Card counting? Don’t you have to be some sort of mathematical genius or have a photographic memory to count cards?

Not really. Even if the casino is using multiple decks, keeping track of the cards is a only a matter of counting. All you really need to count cards is the ability to count up to plus or minus twelve or so… by ones.

The first card counting systems were developed by our old friend Dr. Thorp. He determined through mathematical computation that the card that has the most influence on the deck being in a favorable condition (for the player) was the five. When the deck is low in fives, the player has a higher advantage than if it’s sparse in any other card. Logic dictated that for a very simple card counting strategy, simply keep track of the abundance (or lack thereof) of fives. This is the basis of his “Five Count” system which was later improved to include tens and renamed the “Ten Count” system.

Today, there are many different card counting systems. Typically, the more complex a system is, the better your advantage should you master it. However, the difference between card counting System X and System Y is usually so small that ease of using the system becomes more important than gaining an additional .15 % advantage (or whatever it is). This discussion is restricted to a single card counting system: the high/low (also called the plus/minus) point count. This strategy is very easy to master. Two other methods that I recommend if you’re serious are the Advanced Plus/Minus and the “Hi-Opt I” systems. The former is similar to the high/low but assigns fractional values to certain cards as opposed to integer values which are easier to add in your head. The latter method is considered one of the most powerful counting systems of all time.

The quick and dirty reason why card counting works is this: The player gains an advantage when a deck has a shortage of cards valued 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. When a deck has a shortage of cards valued 9, 10, Ace; the player has a disadvantage. If you can tell when the deck is rich in 9’s, 10’s, and Aces you can do one of the following things:

- Bet more money when the deck is favorable to you.
- Alter your Basic Strategy play to account for the favorability, thereby increasing the odds of winning a particular hand.

Now lets discuss the +/- Point Count. As you can see from the small chart below, a plus value is given to low cards, and a minus value is given to high cards. Notice that 7, 8, and 9 have a value of zero. This is because their overall effect is negligible as compared to the others. Some systems use a value of -2 for the Ace instead of -1 and give a value of +1 to the seven instead of zero.

PLUS (+1) |
MINUS (-1) |

As you may notice, this is a balanced system. There are 20 cards in a deck that are valued +1: two through six. There are 16 ten value cards and 4 Aces in a deck (20 total) that are valued -1. The remaining 12 cards (7, 8, 9) have a value of zero. At the end of a deck the count should be zero. A good drill to practice is to get a deck of cards, turn them over one by one, and keep track of the count. If you enter a game mid-way between the deck or shoe, flat bet until the cards are shuffled. Once the cards are shuffled commence counting from zero.

A quick example using ten cards: the following cards are shown in the course of a hand: A, 4, 7, 10, 10, 9, 10, 2, 10, 5. The first value is -1 (the Ace) & the second is +1 (the 4) = 0 (the current total hand count). The next card is the 7 which is zero so disregard it. The next card is a ten so the total count is now -1. The next card is another ten, giving a total count of -2. The next card is a nine which has a value of zero so ignore it, total count is still at -2. Next is a ten, total count is at -3. Next is a two which adds +1 to the minus three yielding a total of -2. A quick look at the next two cards shows that the two will cancel each other out (-1+1=0). So at the end of a hand of ten cards dealt to 2 players and the dealer, the point count is minus two. This provides you with the knowledge that your are at a slight disadvantage. Your next bet should either be the same or a unit or two lower.

From this example you see that it would be easier to count cards if you play in a “cards-up” game. That way you can see all the cards as they are dealt and count them as they go by. When the dealer deals fast, just count every two cards. You still count each card but you only add to your total count after every two cards since many times the two values will cancel each other out to give a net value of zero, which doesn’t need to be added to your total. If you play in a cards-down game, you may want to consider playing at third base. The reason being is that in a cards-down game you only see the other players’ cards:

- if you peek at their hand (not polite but it’s not cheating like in poker)
- if a player busts
- when the dealer settles each players’ hand.

When there are other people at a table, all this happens rather quickly and you may miss a few cards here and there, which essentially invalidates your count. You can’t control how fast the dealer deals, but you can slow things down when the dealer prompts you for a play decision.

For one deck, alter your wager according to the following table:

Bet Units |
+/- Running Counts |

2 3 4 5 |
+2 or +3 +4 or +5 +6 or +7 +8 or more |

Example: After the first hand of a one deck game, the point count is plus four and you just bet a $5.00 chip. Before the next hand is dealt, wager $15.00 (three units of $5.00) as the above table mandates.

What if there are four, six, or more decks instead of just one? I recommend that you perform a “true-count” rather than trying to remember different betting strategies for different number of deck games. By doing a true count, the above table can still be used.

The True Count is found with the equation below. I provide an example along with it for the case of having a running count of +9 with one and a half decks left un played. It doesn’t matter how many decks are used, you just have to have a good eye at guesstimating the number of decks that are left in the shoe. I just measured the thickness of a deck of cards to be 5/8 (10/16) of an inch. Hence the thickness of a half deck is 5/16 of an inch. One and a half decks would be 10/16 + 10/16 + 5/16 = 25/16 or a little over an inch and a half. You probably see a relationship here. The number of decks is approximately equal to the height of the cards in inches.

Looking at the table of betting units above, the proper wager would be four units.

If you have trouble keeping the count straight in your head, you can use your chips as a memory storage device. After every hand tally up the net count and update the running or true count by rearranging your chips.

One last thing. There is no law or rule that says a dealer cannot count cards. A dealer may count cards because he or she is bored but more likely is that the casino may encourage counting. The reason being that if the deck is favorable to the player, the house can know this and “shuffle up”. This is also called preferential shuffling (a game control measure) and it vaporizes your advantage.