Blackjack Card Counting
Card counting: the stuff of casino myths and legends. There are no shortage of tall tales in books and online about "breaking" blackjack codes and making millions overnight.
We're not going to tell you that you can always win. But the simple fact is that card counting, when done properly, will lower the house edge.
On this page you'll get the top expert advice on card counting.
And, yes, there are also some great, well-documented stories of making millions in blackjack!
Why Count Cards?
Now, there is one way that you can actually have the edge working in your favor when you play blackjack and that's by becoming a card counter.
As mentioned before, card counting is not for the average person but I do think it's important that you understand the concept of card counting. If you think you'd like to learn more about counting cards then it is something you can follow up on later.
Can I count cards?
Many people think that to be a card counter you have to have a photographic memory and remember every single card that's been played. Fortunately, it's not quite that difficult.
Actually, the main concept behind card counting is the assumption that the dealer will bust more often when there is a lot of 10's in the deck and that he will complete more hands when there are a lot of smaller cards in the deck.
Now, if you stop to think about it, it makes sense, doesn't it? After all, the dealer has to play by set rules that make him take a card until he has a total of 17 or more.
If there are a lot of 2's, 3's and 4's in the deck the dealer won't bust very often when he draws cards, but if there are a lot of 10's in the deck then chances are he will bust more often when he is forced to draw cards.
How To Count Cards
The card counter tries to take advantage of this fact by keeping a running total of the cards that have been played to give him an idea of what kind of cards remain in the deck.
If there are a lot of 10 cards remaining in the deck then the counter will bet more money because the odds are slightly in his favor.
Of course, if there are a lot of small cards remaining then the counter would only make a small bet because the odds would be slightly in favor of the dealer.
Another thing that the card counter can do is to change his basic strategy to take advantage of the differences in the deck.
High-low count system
There are at least a dozen different card counting systems but let's take a quick look at a relatively simple one (it's also the most popular) and it's called the high-low count. With this system, you assign a value of +1 to all 2's, 3's, 4's, 5's, and 6's, while all 10's, Jacks, Queen, Kings, and Aces are assigned a value of -1. The remaining cards: 7, 8, and 9 have no value and are not counted.
+1 = 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
-1 = 10, J, Q, K, A
When you look at these numbers you'll see that there is an equal number of cards in each group: there are five cards valued at +1 and five cards valued at -1. This means that they balance each other out and if you go through the deck and add them all together the end result will always be a total of exactly zero.
What a card counter does is to keep a running total of all the cards as they're played out and whenever the total has a plus value he knows that a lot of small cards have appeared and the remaining deck is rich in 10's which is good for the player. But, if the total is a minus value then the counter knows that a lot of 10-value cards have appeared and the remaining deck must be rich in low cards which is bad for the player. To give you an example of how to count let's say the following cards have been dealt on the first hand from a single deck:
2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5, 6, = +8
J, K, Q, A, = -4
Total = +4
As you can see, there were eight plus-value cards and four minus-value cards which resulted in a total count of +4. This means that there are now four more 10-value cards than low cards remaining in the deck and the advantage is with the player. Naturally, the higher the plus count, the more advantageous it is for the player and counters would be proportionally increasing their bets as the count got higher. The card counter would also be using the same basic strategy we spoke about previously, except for certain instances where a slight change would be called for.
On the other hand, if the count is negative, a card counter will always bet the minimum amount. Of course, they would prefer not to bet at all, but the casinos don't like you to sit at their tables and not bet so the counter has to bet something and the minimum is the least they can get by with.
The True Count vs Running Count
There is one more important thing to explain about card counting and it's called the true count. The true count is a measure of the count per deck rather than a running count of all the cards that have been played and to get the true count you simply divide the running count by the number of decks remaining to be played. As an illustration, let's say you're playing in a 6-deck game and the count is +9. You look at the shoe and estimate that 3 decks remain to be played. You then divide the count of +9 by 3 to get +3 which is the true count.
As another example, let's say you're in an 8-deck game with a count of +12 and there are 6 decks left to be played. You divide +12 by 6 to get +2 which is the true count. To put it another way, a +2 count in a double-deck game with 1 deck left to be played is the same as a +4 count in a 4-deck game with 2 decks left to be played, which is the same as a +6 count is a 6-deck game with 3 decks left to be played, which is the same as a +12 count in an 8-deck game with 6 decks left to be played.
For the card counter, it is crucial to always take the running count and then divide it by the number of decks remaining in order to get the true count because all betting and playing decisions are based on the true count rather than the running count.
Of course, if you're playing in a single-deck game the running count and the true count are initially the same. The more you get into the deck, however, the more weight is given to the running count because there is less than one deck remaining. So, if the running count was +3 and only a 1/2-deck remained you would calculate the true count by dividing +3 by 1/2 (which is the same as multiplying by 2/1, or 2) to get a true count of +6. As another example, if the running count was +2 and about 2/3 of the deck remained you would divide +2 by 2/3 (the same as multiplying by 3/2 or, 1 and 1/2) to get +3.
As you can see, the count becomes much more meaningful as you get closer to the last cards in the deck and that's why casinos never deal down to the end. Instead, the dealer will insert a plastic card about 2/3 or 3/4 of the way in the deck and when that card is reached the dealer will finish that particular round and then shuffle the cards. How far into the deck(s) that plastic card is inserted is known as the penetration point and card counters always look for a dealer that offers good penetration. The card counter knows that the further into the deck(s) the plastic card is placed the more meaningful the true count will be and the more advantageous it will be for the card counter.
So, now that you know how those card counters keep track of the cards, what kind of advantage do you think they have over the casino? Well, not too much. Depending on the number of decks used, the rules in force, and the skill of the counter, it could be as much as 2% but that would be at the high end. Probably 1% would be closer to the actual truth. This means that for every $1,000 in bets that are made the card counter will win $10. Not exactly a huge amount but there are people out there who do make a living playing the game.
How to count cards in blackjack (beginners)
How to count cards in blackjack (expert)
Interview with a Blackjack Card Counting Team Member Colin Jones
by Steve Bourie
Colin was involved in running one of the largest professional blackjack teams of the past decade. He now runs www.blackjackapprenticeship.com with previous team co-manager Ben to teach people professional card counting.
Their former blackjack team is also the focus of a feature-length documentary, Holy Rollers, which is currently playing in dozens of film festivals around the world. The movie chronicles their exploits in forming a successful blackjack team composed entirely of Christian church-goers.
SB: How did you get into playing blackjack professionally?
CJ: Ben and I were friends from a Bible camp, and he told me about a book he was reading about card counting (Stanford Wong's Professional Blackjack). After reading it, I thought it sounded easy enough, so I started teaching myself. I had never even been in a casino until I knew basic strategy and how to count cards. I decided to give it a serious go after convincing my wife to let me give it a try with $2,000 of our savings. Within a few months, Ben and I decided to pool our money and resources, and our first "team" officially started.
SB: Where did you find players for the blackjack team?
CJ: That's what makes our story interesting (and is one of the main angles of the documentary about us). One of our main networks were people we knew through our churches. Our blackjack team even got labeled "the Church Team" because many of the people who joined the team were friends we knew closely through our churches or ministries. We didn't set out to hire people through our church networks, but those were the people we hung out with from week to week and were able to establish relationships with. To us, the blackjack team was a business, but since trust is paramount to the business, we chose to work with people we knew closely and trusted, then teach them how to play blackjack from scratch.
Watch “Does Blackjack Card Counting Still Work? Interview With a Pro Player”
Steve and Matt Bourie, from the American Casino Guide, interview Colin Jones, from blackjackapprenticeship.com to discuss whether or not card counting still works in blackjack.
Colin formerly ran a professional blackjack team that earned more than $3 million and was the subject of the documentary movie, "Holy Rollers: the true story of card counting Christians." Topics covered include:
- his background as a pro player
- why you should play on teams
- his best and worst day
- his best tip for casino gamblers
- plus much more
SB: How large did the team actually get?
CJ: At one point, we had over 30 people who were either playing for the team or training to join the team. We had over a $1,000,000 bankroll with people playing all over the country. But we quickly learned that we couldn't maintain the quality necessary to keep winning with that many players, so we typically kept the team to around 10 players.
SB: What are the largest wins and losses anyone on the team experienced?
CJ: I can remember a few distinct losses of about $85,000. It feels like a kick in the stomach getting a phone call that someone lost that much in one session. On the flip side, our largest win in one session was just under $100,000. It's very rare that a casino hasn't backed you off as a card counter by the time you've won even half that. More memorably, I remember a new trainee who went out on his first trip with about $70,000. By the end of the first day, he had lost over $50,000 and been kicked out of every casino in the area. We told him to drive to another casino about 3 hours away. We didn't hear from him for a day, and when we finally got ahold of him, he was driving home after winning $87,000 at that casino. He said he didn't bother calling because he figured that was probably a pretty typical result!
SB: "21" the movie portrays card counters getting chased with guns and beat up in back rooms. Is that really the life of a professional card counter?
CJ: Not really. Nowadays, most casinos are major corporations who wouldn't risk the lawsuit and bad PR involved with something like that. We have, however, had someone get arrested (the money he'd been paid out has marked from a bank robbery) We've had players get investigated by the DEA, FBI, Homeland Security, Border Patrol, IRS and local police departments. We always passed all the inspections, though we once had $110,000 seized by the US Border Patrol because it wasn't properly declared. It took us about 3 months, but we got it all back, minus a $10,000 fine. Other than that, it's just getting harassed by casinos because they know we have the advantage over them. But never really anything physical.
SB: Why did you guys decide to close up shop?
CJ: Both Ben and I got into card counting thinking it would be something we'd do for a few months or at most a few years. Our goals were always to start other businesses. Believe it or not, after enough years, running a blackjack team had lost its excitement. We are still good friends with many of the people who played on the team and continue to work with each other on many other businesses and ministries. But the blackjack team itself ran its course, putting us in a place where we were comfortable letting the documentary get released.
SB: Can people still make money at Card Counting?
CJ: Absolutely. For over 40 years, casinos have slowly made the games worse, causing card counters to grumble about the deteriorating conditions. But at the same time, there are more and more casinos popping up around the country. There are also more and more variations of blackjack, each with the potential of being exploited by the savvy advantage player. It became tough for us to be betting thousands of dollars each hand, but there are still plenty of places across the country that I could make money at if I wanted to. You just have to put the time into mastering the skill, then have the fortitude to stick to it amongst big wins and losses and getting asked to leave some casinos along the way.
To find out more about Colin's work as a blackjack card counter, plus details on how to learn card counting on your own, visit his web site at: www.blackjackapprenticeship.com
Steve interviews Tommy Hyland who has run one of the country's most successful card counting teams for more than 20 years. They discuss:
- his opinion of the "21" movie
- how he got started
- how teams work
- problems that teams encounter
- what the future looks like for card counters
- and his general advice for blackjack players
Watch: “All About Card Counting with Blackjack Expert Henry Tamburin” (August 2011)
In this video, gambling author and blackjack expert Henry Tamburin answers some of the most common questions that players have about card counting in blackjack.
Topics covered are:
- what is card counting?
- how does it work?
- is it legal?
- how does a casino know if you are card counting?
- how to learn card counting; and much more
Watch “How To Count Cards with the Blackjack Apprenticeship Training Course” (July 2015)
In this video American Casino Guide associate editor, Matt Bourie, learns how to count cards at the Blackjack Apprenticeship training course in Las Vegas.
The class is taught by two former pro players: Colin Jones and Ben Crawford, who led a successful card counting team that won millions of dollars. Their team was composed primarily of members of their church and a documentary film was made about their exploits: Holy Rollers - The True Story of Card Counting Christians.
Following that there is an interview with American Casino Guide author Steve Bourie and Colin Jones who is a co-founder of the Blackjack Apprenticeship training course.
Watch: “Interview with Christian Blackjack Card Counting Team Co-founder, Colin Jones” (April 2012)
In this video, American Casino Guide author Steve Bourie interviews Colin Jones, co-founder of the Christian blackjack card counting team that won over $3 million from casinos. The team was the subject of a documentary movie called: "Holy Rollers - The True Story of Card Counting Christians."
Topics covered include:
- how the blackjack team was formed
- their best winning day, their worst losing day
- how often he was forced to leave a casino
- how the team was trained
- plus much more