There is a misconception about card counting in Blackjack that it takes somebody with a photographic memory to use it, or, that one has to be some kind of mathematician, or be otherwise brilliant. Before we take a basic look at the systems for counting cards, it would be best to go over the fundamental truths of this general technique as well as to debunk aspects of it, too.
Classifying, Not Counting
Card counting actually has nothing to do with watching the cards that enter visible circulation and counting their value. Instead, the running count that this technique produces is more like an ongoing score of the overall probability profile of the remaining cards undealt.
Card ‘counters’ are actually classifiers, who study the progress of the decks to predict how likely certain cards are to come up and adjust their bets accordingly. They use a chosen system of keeping a running tally based upon probability rather than strict counts of certain cards.
Not All Cards Matter
Card counting Blackjack players are interested in two types of cards:
- The low cards (3-6)
- The face cards, 10s and Aces
These are the cards that are tallied or factored into the overall score assigned mentally to the state of the game (that is, the decks in play). Other cards (particularly 7-9) do not affect a player’s mental scoring or count.
‘Effect of Removal’ (EOR)
Card counters have a special term for this general score they build about the decks in play, and it logically is based upon the effect on probability as certain cards are played out of the decks. The influence upon probabilities when particular cards are removed from play is termed the ‘effect of removal’ or EOR.
Different ‘levels’ of counting systems have varying degrees of precision when relating the EOR with the actual likelihoods of winning or losing at any given time. This could also be thought of as the link between EOR and the house’s advantage.
Successful card counting, combined with flawless Basic Strategy during play, actually can reverse the inherent house advantage and produce a positive edge for the player.
Counting Is Legal, But Disallowed
One the most important practical points about card counting refers to the real life setting of playing inside a casino, which is the most common way for so-called ‘advantage players’ who count to practice their skills. Online games, unless it is a live-dealer version, would make card counting less useful or not at all (because of automatic deck shuffles, for instance).
Casinos obviously do not want advantage players on their Blackjack tables because it means less profit, bottom line. Although laws in Nevada or New Jersey, USA, for example, protect those who track cards, there is a long list of countermeasures casinos will use to disrupt them or even eject them from the premises.
Systems of Card Counting
Now that we have some context about this basic technique, we come to the main issue of actual systems that players employ. There are more than just a few — so many that they are categorised into Levels 1-3 and so on, according to how precise and complicated they are.
One might think that if one is taking the trouble to use advantage play techniques at all, one might as well use the most powerful method. The trade-off is that a card counter must reserve a certain amount of brain cells, so to speak, that distracts from staying focused and participating fully in the game.
Using a higher-level system will slow down hands, which itself can have a negative effect upon overall winnings, so that would be counter-productive. If counting cards impairs the player from executing perfect Basic Strategy in every hand, that too is not helpful. And, of course, the player also needs to do everything possible not to show that a count is being maintained mentally.
Choose Your System
Lastly, if you like the idea of becoming a card counting player, and provided you have mastered Basic Strategy (which means having memorised how to respond to any situation of comparing one’s own cards to the dealer’s up card) then it is time to choose your weapon, if you will.
You can select a low-level system like Hi-Lo, in which important cards are only accounted for by adding or subtracting 1 or nothing during the count. Or, you can for a high-level system like Halves, in which various cards are assigned values with a 0.5 precision (from 0.5 to 1.5).
In addition to the main count method, or in concert with it, a player can also track Aces in a separate mental tally, which means comparing two forms of counting. These side-counts can provide even more clues during unusual circumstances and rules, or when playing Blackjack variations like Spanish 21.
To Count or Not to Count
Of course, even after learning how to count cards, you can choose in the end to just stick with good ol’ Basic Strategy, which can chip away at the house edge for one as low as 0.5%. Combine that with a more general sense of the decks, without maintaining a count. Add a sensible betting strategy, and practice strict discipline to retain bigger wins. This way, you could be more successful and have more fun that if you got into hardcore card counting.