Counting Cards in Blackjack

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Card counting is one of the most popular strategies used to try and “beat” the game of blackjack. In layman’s terms, card counting requires players to memorize the running count in the dealer’s deck of cards to try and ascertain how many high-value cards are left in the deck. Using this approach, players can determine how likely it is for a high-value card to land in the next hand, allowing them to size their bets accordingly.

Learning how to count cards blackjack-style was originally reserved for land-based casino tables, especially those running single-deck games. However, with the advent of live dealer casinos, we wanted to explore whether it’s possible to win at live blackjack tables using card counting strategies.

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Counting Cards in an Online Casino with Live Dealers

There are three factors needed for card counting to work at a live dealer blackjack table.

First, the in-game rules need to result in a house edge small enough for card counting to be effective.

Secondly, the live dealer must deal enough rounds of hands before the shoe is shuffled for card counting to be effective.

Finally, a live blackjack game must play an adequate number of hands per hour to maximize any positive expected value from your count.

The reality is that most live casinos offer generally uncompetitive rules, but there are occasions where you can find tables that carry no more than a 0.5% house edge that are worth your time. For optimal deck penetration, you’ll need to avoid tables that use continuous shuffle machines – more on that later. Meanwhile, most live blackjack tables will play no more than 50 hands per hour, which is somewhat sluggish compared with the 100-300 hands per hour that many professional card counters seek.

How to Count Cards in Live Dealer Games

From the outset, you should look to adopt the basic blackjack card counting strategy listed in the section below. You should also focus on playing one hand at a time rather than multiple hands. Try and sit as far away from the dealer’s left as possible, as this will give you enough time to count the cards of the other players at your table before you make your betting decision.

Another important strategy to adopt is to avoid taking insurance. Although card counters will tell you to take it when they have an accurate running count, it’s harder to maintain an accurate count when you play a live blackjack game with six-to-eight decks of cards in play.

How to Count Cards for Beginners

If you are starting out with card counting for the first time, you’ll need to memorize the following values for each card:

  • 10s and all face cards = -1
  • 2 to 6 = +1
  • 7 to 9 = 0

Try to keep a running count on the cards dealt from the shoe by your live blackjack dealer. Whenever the running count is significantly in positive territory, this means you are statistically more likely to land high-value cards in your next hand.

Advanced Card Counting Strategies

Aside from the basic “Hi-Lo” card counting blackjack strategy, you may consider the two following advanced methods to improve the accuracy of your running count:

  • Omega II
    The brainchild of Bryce Carlson, this system is considered a more sophisticated version of Hi-Lo.
    • Cards worth 2, 3, and 7 are valued at +1
    • Cards worth 4, 5, and 6 are valued at +2
    • Cards worth 9 are valued at -1
    • Cards worth 8 and Ace cards are valued at zero
    • Cards worth 10 and all other face cards are valued at -2 

As with the Hi-Lo strategy, a positive count suggests a higher percentage of high-value cards left in the deck.

  • Wong Halves
    This system, devised by Stanford Wong, uses fractional values to count cards.
    • Cards worth 3, 4 and 6 are valued at +1
    • Cards worth 2 and 7 are valued at +0.5
    • Cards worth 5 are valued at +1.5
    • Cards worth 8 are valued at zero
    • Cards worth 9 are valued at -0.5
    • Cards worth 10 and all Ace and face cards are valued at -1.

Is it Legal to Count Cards?

Card counting at blackjack tables is not illegal under federal, state, or local laws in the US. Providing you do not utilize external card-counting devices or seek the assistance of other persons at the table or nearby. That doesn’t mean casino establishments are happy about you doing so. In fact, most land-based casinos wholly object to the practice of card counting. Live dealer casinos are also under no obligation to take your bets, so if they deem your betting patterns to be tantamount to card counting, you could be banned from playing at your chosen live casino altogether.

How to Practice Counting Cards

One of the most effective ways to practice card counting before a live blackjack session is to deal out a deck to yourself. Try and do so at the same speed as a conventional dealer. Your goal is then to keep a running count using the beginner strategy listed above. If your count is zero once you’ve dealt all 52 cards, your math was impeccable. Try and speed up the deal every time until your count is second nature.

Counting Cards FAQs

What is a continuous shuffle machine and how does it affect card counting?

A continuous shuffle machine (CSM) is used by some land-based and live dealer casinos. These establishments use CSMs to combat card counting. You can spot if a dealer is using a CSM by checking to see if they return used cards from the previous game into the machine. If they do, you can be sure the dealer’s shoe is a CSM. This renders card counting almost null and void as the outcome of each hand is totally randomized.

How to win at blackjack without counting cards?

Instead of learning how to count cards, blackjack beginners may prefer to adopt the “basic” blackjack strategy. It’s the strategy printed on strategy cards in land-based casinos and the one you can find easily online. It recommends your betting decisions based on the scenario of your hand value against the dealer’s hand value. It can slash the casino’s house edge to less than 0.5%.

Do dealer tells exist in live dealer blackjack?

Some card counting online blackjack tipsters suggest you can use dealer tells to influence how you play each hand. This is entirely wrong. The reality is that the dealers within the live studio don’t know the cards they’ve been dealt at the same time as you. The software only reveals their down card once the full round of betting has been completed.

Why are live blackjack tables better than RNG-powered blackjack tables for card counting?

Live dealer blackjack tables that don’t use continuous shuffle machines (CSMs) are more effective for card counting than conventional online blackjack games powered by RNGs. That’s because RNGs act in the same way as a CSM. They continually randomize the outcome of each hand, making it impossible to get a clear handle on the count within the deck.

What deck penetration is preferable for live blackjack card counting?

Theoretically speaking, if you choose to count cards at a live blackjack table with a minute house edge, it’s possible to gain a fractional advantage when the table’s deck penetration is at least 50% before the card shoe is reshuffled. Ideally, you’ll find a live casino that allows deck penetration of up to 75% to get a more accurate handle on the high card count.