Blackjack is one of the most frequently-played casino banking games in the world, which gained paramount popularity in the sixties and since then has become the target of many players, looking to win big. It’s a game of probability that also requires lots of skill, concentration and discipline.
Also known as twenty-one, blackjack is a game between players and the dealer which basically means they do not play against each other but compete against the dealer. The player’s objective is to collect a hand which is as close in number to 21 as possible but not exceeding it, hence the name twenty-one. The aim is to collect a higher total point than the dealer but it should not go over 21. In case, the player collects a point which exceeds that number, they’re “busted” or in other words – lose. The players and the dealer take turns until all cards have been dealt.
The game can include several players, each competing against the dealer. Usually two to eight standard decks, containing 52 cards are used. Once the player has been dealt a two-card hand, he is faced with the option of getting a “hit” again and can request an additional card. If his hand is equal or less than 21, and the dealer “gets busted”, the result is a win for the player. Cards are dealt until 17 or more points are reached. If the dealer and the player both have an equal score, the latter neither loses, nor wins.
The best combination consists of an ace (which can be counted either as 1 or an 11) and a ten-point card (Queen, Jack, King and a 10). This combination is what is actually known as a “blackjack” or a “natural” 21 which automatically earns a win for the player, unless of course, the dealer has also collected a blackjack. In case both have a hand of 21, the player receives their bet back.
This is a probability game, however using an adequate strategy, greatly increases the player’s chances of winning against the house. This is the most commonly applied strategy.
The basic strategy is suitable for recreational players who partake in the game just for fun. In fact, learning and practising the basic strategy is essential in this game and it’s even advisable to memorise it. This minimises one’s loss rates and at least partially eliminates the advantage the house has over less skilled players.
The basic strategy may vary, depending on the number of decks that are used in the game. It is calculated on the basis of the cards a player is dealt, as well as of the card the dealer is shown. In some cases the up card of the dealer may help players decide what their next step should be. For instance if the up card’s value of the dealer is from 2 to 6 the player may hit.
This strategy helps players determine how to approach each situation that ensues on the blackjack table as it is based on mathematical probabilities in the respective situation. However, keep in mind the strategy may differ, depending on the rules of each game – sometimes for example players may not be allowed to split pairs in which case they should resort to another, more suitable basic strategy which complies with the game’s specifications.
In most cases the basic strategy is presented in the form of a chart which indicates when players should stand, hit, double or split a pair, depending on the hand of the dealer but memorising the scheme is a better idea as most casinos don’t allow players to bring the chart in and use it on the table.
Skilled and experienced blackjack players don’t have to resort to using the basic strategy chart. More so because their main objective is not gaining experience or playing recreationally but winning against the house and thus benefiting financially from the blackjack game.
Such players employ other techniques which allow them to gain advantage over the house. They, to a great extent, rely on their practice, memory and other so-called “honest” skills. Such methods are known as advantage play and are perfectly legal and safe as long as the player does not gain a considerable advantage over the house’s edge. Otherwise the player may be added to the casino’s blacklist and a complete ban from the casino is also a possible outcome. However, their behaviour and gestures while at the blackjack table may also be indicative of whether or not the player is using an advanced play strategy.
Basically the term advantage play refers to a number of practices the player can use to increase the mathematical probability of collecting a good hand and thus winning against the house.
The most common technique, employed by advanced players is card counting but it requires a good amount of time and concentration to master.
What is Card Counting?
As the dealer exposes cards from the shoe which have already been dealt, card counting makes it possible for the player to infer what are the remaining cards, left to be dealt and decide upon their further course of action. Thus, the player is able to determine whether or not he or she has an advantage over the dealer and act accordingly, for example by placing a larger bet.
Keeping track of dealt cards is by no means illegal as it is based chiefly on statistics and mathematical probability. After each round there are fewer cards left in the remaining deck and a correct count allows players to determine the value of the cards that remain to be dealt. On the other hand, the greater the number of players participating in the game, the more difficult it is to keep track of the dealt cards. An experienced player should be able to pay close attention to the cards dealt to other participants in the game as well, which further increases the complexity of this strategy.
In the beginning casinos used only one standard deck of cards in the blackjack game. However, as keeping track on dealt cards from a single deck is easier, and thus helps players to gain advantage over the house, at present time most casinos resort to using up to eight decks in the shoe.
Furthermore, card counting may be essential for skilled blackjack players as their chances of winning greatly depend on the value of the cards obviously. Face cards such as kings, queens and jacks are of a 10-point value; the Ace, on the other hand, is a special case as its value can be either 1 or 11, so respectively the Ace can also be a high-value card. What makes the Ace special is that players are allowed to determine its value, depending on the situation – they can either use it as a 1 or 11. For instance, if the player has been dealt an Ace, a 6 and a 10, they should count the Ace as 1 because otherwise the total value of the hand will go over 21, resulting in a loss for the player.
This is important as being dealt higher-value cards, increases players’ chance of winning while lower-value cards are more beneficial for the dealer as they decrease the chance of pulling out a face card and going over 21.
Even though card counting is not considered illegal, most dealers are wary of the practice and a problem might ensue. Because of this keeping an accurate track of dealt cards is only one aspect of the card counting strategy, what’s also important is to do it as inconspicuously as possible. This requires practice and above all composure.
Card Counting Systems
Choosing a suitable card counting system largely depends on the degree of skill and experience of the players. There are simpler counting systems which are more suitable for beginners, as well as more complex ones which can be employed effectively only by expert players. The following systems of counting cards are arranged in accordance with their level of complexity, starting from the more simpler ones and proceeding with those that are more elaborate.
Thorp’s Ten-Count System
Let’s start from the very beginning. The first card counting system ever, was introduced in the sixties when blackjack gained more popularity. The man behind it is Edward Thorp, a professor of mathematics with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thorp systematised the so called Ten Count system in his book Beat the Dealer. Today, his system is used in specific cases as it was originally created for a single-deck blackjack games while at the present moment most casinos employ more than one deck to decrease the probability of players counting the cards correctly. However, it’s suitable for beginners who wish to practice and improve their skills.
What’s the principle of Thorp’s system? The cards are counted throughout the game and special attention is paid to their value. This helps players decide when to bet and and how high their stakes should be. The higher the total sum of the dealt cards is, the more 10-value cards have remained in the deck. This situation is favourable for players so they might opt for placing a higher bet.
On the contrary, if the total value of the cards is negative or is close to zero, the player’s chances of winning decrease and he/she should place a lower bet.
Here’s how Thorp counted the cards: the Ace with a value of 1 and cards from 1 through 9 are counted as + 4; the 10, Jack, Queen and King are counted as -9, so basically +4 and -9 are the only values the player should remember which makes keeping track of the dealt cards easier.
Let’s say the player have kept track of the following cards in the course of a game: 5, 2, Ace, Queen, 3, 4, 8, 9, 7, King. This means the cards should be counted as follows 4, 4, 4, -9, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, -9. Let’s do the math now 4×4= +32, 32-18= +14, the positive number is relatively high, which means the player can place a higher bet as his chances of winning are better.
The Ace/Five Count
The Ace/Five Count can also come handy to blackjack players, especially when they’re beginners and new to counting cards. It helps neutralise, though only partially, the advantage the house has over players.
At the beginning of the first deck, starting from 0, add the number 1 for each dealt 5-value card you notice. When an Ace is dealt, subtract 1 from the sum. If the final result is equal to two or surpasses it, you can double the amount you’ve bet, however, when it’s equal to one or lower, avoid placing high bets.
As this system takes into consideration only two card values, it’s much easier to keep track of. What you need to bear in mind is, though effective, the Ace/Five system is influenced by blackjack rules variations and works mostly when the dealer does not reshuffle the remaining cards in the shoe that often.
When using this method, it would be a good idea to double your bet only after a win to make your card counting less conspicuous. Even though it helps players gain advantage over the dealers, their edge is relatively small as it usually consists of only 1%.
Another plus of the Ace/Five system is its simplicity – inexperienced card counters can use it to develop their skills before they switch to more elaborate options like the one that follows.
The Hi-Lo System
The Hi-Lo system was proposed in 1963 by Harvey Dubner and is based on Thorp’s Ten-Count. The strategy is suitable for beginners as well as for intermediate players. In fact it’s one of the most frequently used card counting systems in the world because it’s relatively simple and easy to memorise.
It’s actually quite similar to what Thorp proposed as each card’s value is assigned with a specific number. Dubner practically picked different numbers for the cards’ values as cards from 2 to 6 are marked with the number +1, these are named “low” cards. On the other hand, the 10, the Ace and the other face cards (King, Queen and Jack) are assigned with the number -1 and go by the name of “high” cards, due to their higher value. The in-between cards with values 7,8 and 9 are marked as 0.
Counting the cards begins with the first dealt card from the deck. Now let’s illustrate this with the following example: assume the player have tracked these cards – King, 6, 10, 2, Jack. These are marked as -1,+1,-1 ,+1, -1, so the total is -1. The higher the positive number, the more high-value cards are in the remaining deck. If the number is in the negative, this means most face cards with a value of 10 have already been dealt.
Players usually begin with a “running count” of zero when the cards are first dealt. In our example we have a running count of -1. This number is then divided by the number of decks remaining in the shoe to calculate what is called “a true count”. If your running count is -1 and there are three decks to be dealt in the shoe, your true count is -0,33 or so. Beginners usually loath this part but the good news is they don’t have to be precise, a rough estimate will suffice to determine one’s chances.
It’s advisable to practice with a single deck of cards and master the Hi-Lo system of Dubner, prior to proceeding with more complex card counting systems.
The Knock Out Count System
This is yet another card counting system suitable for beginners and intermediate players. Also known as the K-O, it was first introduced in a book called Knock Out Blackjack – the Easiest Card Counting System Ever Devised, written by Fuchs and Vancura. Again cards are assigned with a value and in the process of dealing them, the player is supposed to keep track and add or subtract the respective value.
Similarly to the Hi-Lo method, 10s, Aces, Queens, Jacks and King go by the value of -1, while those from 2 to 7 are assigned as +1. 8s and 9s on the other hand are marked as 0 here. The system is obviously not balanced as in the end after all cards have been dealt, the final count won’t amount to a zero.
This is an example of the Knock Out System: the player has tracked 4, 3, Jack, 9, 7 and Queen. This sequence of cards corresponds to +1, +1, -1, 0, +1, -1. The final calculation of this count is +1. Generally, it’s advisable to start raising one’s bet if the count is +2, so in the case this would not be a good idea.
The system is easy to memorise and convenient to use, but unfortunately less accurate than more advanced card counting methods like those that follow.
The Red Seven Count
The Red Seven is another card counting system, beginners can easily master, as it too is one-level. The Red Seven is built on the principle high versus low cards. The higher-value cards such as tens and Aces, that are more advantageous to players, are assigned as -1, as after each hit fewer of those are left in the remaining deck. Cards, lower in value (from 2 to 6) are marked as +1.
Similarly to the Knock Out system, neutral 8s and 9s are marked by a zero. Colour here also plays a role, in relation to 7s. If the 7 is red in colour, it is treated as a low-value card and is thus marked as +1. If it’s black, however, the 7 is considered neutral and as such is again noted with a zero.
This method of card counting, though simple, also requires some practice. What makes the 7s’ values easier to remember is the name of the system itself as Red 7s are assigned with a positive value, while black 7s’ worth equals zero.
Another thing to take into account is that the Red Seven system is unbalanced too – if you count all the pieces in a 52-card deck, your final count won’t be a zero but +2. There are two ways to even the imbalance out, depending on the number of decks dealt in the game.
If you’re playing a single-deck blackjack (which is unlikely in a casino but still can be used as a method of practising one’s counting skills), you should begin your running count from -2. In the case of a six-deck blackjack, players should multiply the number of decks by -2 and respectively start with a running count of -12.
The higher the final count, the better for the players. Avoid doubling or placing higher bets when the number is in the negative – do it when your final count is about +15, there is a good chance to win the round.
An example of the Red Seven system: 3, 4, Jack, 7 Red, 9, 6, 8 are the cards the player has been keeping a running count of. These correspond to the following values: +1, +1, -1, +1, 0, +1, 0 and a running count of +4. In case there are 2 decks in the shoe, remaining to be dealt, your total count will be +2, a positive number, though not very high but after all the example consists of only six counted cards.
The Omega II System
Let’s proceed with an intermediate level system, developed by Bruce Carlson, namely the Omega II which Carlson first introduced in his book Blackjack for Blood in 2001. What makes it more complex, compared to the previous card counting methods is that the Omega II is a multi-level system. Some cards are counted as two-point, others as one-point. Its efficiency is much higher but at the same time this method is more difficult to master and as such, it requires more concentration, time and practice.
As this is a multi-level system, certain cards can have a value of +/-1 and +/-2. According to the Omega II system, the cards 2,3 and 7 have a value of +1, while other low cards such as 4, 5 and 6 are worth +2. The 9 is equal to -1 while 10 and the face cards King, Queen, Jack are marked with -2. The Aces and the eights are counted as 0 and it would be advisable to keep a separate count of the Aces, dealt during the game.
This is a balanced card counting system, meaning that if the player manages to keep a correct track of all cards from the deck, he or she will be come up with a zero when all cards have been dealt.
Similarly to the Hi-Lo system of Dubner, the player should keep a running count in the course of the game and then determine the true count by dividing the running count to the number of decks, remaining in the shoe.
Here’s an example to illustrate this more elaborate, two-level system:
Imagine you’ve kept a running count of the following cards 2, 6, Queen, 4, 8. These correspond to +1, +2, -2, +2, 0 and a running count of +3. In case there are two decks, remaining in the shoe, the total count so far is 1,5.
The Wong Halves System
This is by far the most elaborate system on the list as it’s a three-level card counting method, introduced and developed by Stanford Wong. Wong published his Halves system in his book Professional Blackjack and as the title itself suggests it’s rather advanced, so card-counting beginners will hardly make any head or tail of it.
Developed in 1975, the Wong Halves system requires a good amount of persistence and practice but once you master it, it can prove to be very accurate. Like the Omega II, this also is a balanced system which means once all cards in the deck have been dealt, the final result of your calculations should amount to zero. Players are advised to calculate their true counts after each deck has been dealt. What further increases the difficulty of the system is that some cards are attributed a fraction value and of course, calculating fractions in one’s head may prove to be rather taxing to some players.
Wong attributes the following values to cards: the 10s, Jacks, Kings, Queens and Aces are given a value of -1; 8s are valued -1/2, 9s have the neutral value of 0; 5s are 1 ½, 3s, 4s and 6s are valued 1 and 2s and 7s are given the value of ½. To avoid fractions, players can double the values of ½.
Again the running count should be converted to a true count to determine what are the odds of winning. It would be a good idea to calculate the final count after each deck is dealt – this is easier than calculating a final count, based on several dealt decks of cards.
When the final count is higher, chances of winning the hand increase and the player should bet higher. When the count is lower they better restrain from placing the high bet.
Of course, there is a number of other card counting systems, not mentioned here. Some are simple, others less so. Other balanced systems that begin and end at 0 are the Zen system, the Highly Optimum, the Upton Advanced Point Count, the Revere Point Count and Canfield Master.
In finality, players must recognise the fact card counting is efficient but it won’t do without a sufficient amount of practice, concentration and patience. This technique of gaining an advantage over the house’s edge does not end with memorising the values of the cards. It’s advisable to start practising with a single deck, turning one card at a time. Only then you can progress to turning over two cards to count them as a pair.