The Basics of Card Counting

Learning the Basics of Card Counting

Card counting is one of those things that seems like it would be easy to do. Movies like 21, Rain Man, Breaking Vegas and others tell stories of how people were able to count cards and beat the casino at their own game. And with such a low house advantage, one would think that with some practice it wouldn't be hard to do.

But alas, it's not quite that simple. There's a lot more to it than just learning to count the high cards and low cards. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people try card counting every day and don't succeed. Below are the 5 steps needed to become a winning card counter.

Memorize Blackjack Strategy

The first thing you must do is not only learn basic blackjack strategy, but memorize it. There are 300 possible combinations of player and dealer starting hands. You have to know every proper decision when it is presented to you and you have to know it within seconds. Any mistakes is using basic strategy reduce the chances you will win in the long run. Simple mistakes like standing on a 16 against a dealer 7 will cost you hundreds of dollars per year. You must memorize basic blackjack strategy perfectly to succeed at card counting. You can find basic strategy charts and cheat sheets all over the internet for free.

Running Count

After you've memorized basic strategy, now you can start to learn how to count the cards. The best way to start is just with a deck of cards at your kitchen table. Once by one you flip cards over and practice counting. At the very end, you should come up with a count of 0.

  • To start out, use a high/low count. The high low count assigns a +1 to cards that help you when they have been used. Cards that hurt your future chances when played are assigned a -1. And cards that have little or no value in determining the strength of cards to come area assigned a 0 point value.
  • So, the cards 2-6 are assigned a +1. When these cards are exposed it means that a 10 valued card or Ace were not used up. These are great cards to see early in the game. Cards with ranks of 7, 8 or 9 are neutral. They get a 0 point value and in reality, you don't event count them.They are just ignored. Finally, all 10 value cards and Aces are a -1. When these cards are usedup they hurt your future chances.
  • You must practice counting the deck over and over and over again until you can get through an entire deck in accurately and consistently in 30 seconds or less. Once you can do this, you can now attempt some online counting trainers, having a friend or family member deal blackjack to you while you count or play and count on the free play of an online casino.

True Count

The above section explained how to learn and practice a basic count. This is called the running count. But to count cards properly, you have to convert this running count into what is called the true count. The true count takes the running count and changes it into an accurate number based on how many cards are left to be dealt. A +3 count with 4 decks remaining in the shoe is far less profitable than a +3 count with 1 deck left in the shoe.

  • To determine the true count you have to be able to estimate how many decks are left in the shoe. You then divide the number of decks remaining into the running count. A +3 count with 3 decks remaining would be a true count of +1. A + 6 count with 3 decks remaining would be a true count of +2. An easy way to bet these counts is to start with your base unit and then add one additional unit for each increase in true count over +1. So, if you are starting with a $5 unit or bet and the true count goes to +2, you would increase your bet to two units, or $10. A +3 would be 3 units, or $15, and so on. Don't forget to reduce your bet amount if the true count goes down after going up.
  • Knowing the true count not only helps you with how much you should be betting at specific times, but as you get more and more advanced, the true count will trigger times where you will deviate from basic strategy. For example, if you know the remaining shoe is very rich with 10 valued cards, this might be a time that you don't hit a 16 against a 17.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that you have foundation of basic strategy, the running count and converting into the true count, you will need to practice all of this under some stressful situations. Play music or have the TV on right near you when practicing. Practice somewhere where kids are playing. Trying to count cards in the casino is going to be very stressful at first. Dealers, players and Supervisors may talk to you. There will be slot machine noises and overhead announcements. You have to practice enough at home to be able to handle all the distractions of a casino.

Try it Out

And now finally, you are ready to jump into the real action. Of course you will want to start out with small bets and bet spreads. A $5 to $20 spread is a safe amount and won't attract any attention from the casino. You may not win every time you play, but over time you should win a small amount at this level. Once you are confident you can then bump up your base bet and spread. Because each increase in true count from 0 is equivalent to a 0.5% decrease in house advantage, you can see how the higher your bet spread the more you can win when the count is in your favor.


Those are the basics of card counting. Once mastered, even more advanced counts and techniques can be used to increase your advantage over the casino. But remember, although card counting is not illegal, it is seriously frowned upon by casinos and casinos can refuse service to anyone they think is counting (in most States). This is the reason you want to practice a lot before heading to the casino. Being exposed as a card counter could get you banned from playing at the casino of your choice.