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The rules of blackjack are straightforward. While there are a number of
blackjack variants most follow the same basic rules. The objective of the game
is to achieve a card total greater than the dealer without busting out (going
above 21). Blackjack is a game between the payer and the dealer - you are not
playing against anyone else at the table.
Blackjack can be played with between one and eight decks of cards. Numbered cards are worth their face value (two - ten). All face cards (jack, queen or king) are given a numerical value of ten. Ace is semi-wild because it can be valued at either one or eleven. The highest score in the game of blackjack is 21 (also called blackjack) and occurs when an ace and a face card are dealt. This results in an automatic win (unless the dealer also gets blackjack which results in a push or neutral score).
In blackjack, before cards are dealt out by the dealer, each player must place his bet. Bets are placed in the form of chips with various cash values. After every player has placed their bet the dealer will start dealing out two cards face up to each player starting with the individual to the dealers left (first base). The dealer will deal himself two cards, one face-up (the up card) and another face-down (the hole card).
In blackjack the players at the table act before the dealer. It is important to have a good understanding of basic strategy before playing blackjack because once the cards have been dealt you will be expected to know how to play the hand. It is this point where the player has a number of options, the most common being to hit, to stand, to double-down or to split. Some casinos also offer the option to [surrender] or to [take insurance].
Hit: means you would like another card from the dealer. You can
continue to hit until you wither bust (go above a total of 21) or decide to
Stand: means you do not want any additional cards.
Double-down: this is where you decide to double your bet and take just one more card. You may not hit after receiving this card.
Split: If you are dealt two cards with matching point values you have the option to split these into two hands but you will also have to add another bet of the same value of your original bet. When splitting the two original cards become the first cards of a new hand and the dealer will issue one card to each hand. From here you can hit, stand, double (or re-split) as above on each hand. Re-splitting aces is often not allowed however.
Once all the players at the table have played their hand the dealer will play
his. If the dealer busts, all players that did not bust will automatically win.
Likewise, if the dealer gets blackjack all players will automatically lose
(unless they also got blackjack resulting in a [push]).
While players can generally play their hand however they wish (within the limits of the rules) dealers have far more restrictions on how they play. While these rules are generally similar between casinos there can be some variations which give the house a better statistical advantage over the player. E.g. blackjack generally pays 3-2 however some casinos pay out at 2-1 or even 6-5. Likewise dealers will generally stand on a soft 17 but in some games the dealer will hit. It is important to know the rules of the casino because it will affect payout percentages as well as the strategy that you should follow.
Simplified basic strategy
For new blackjack players the thought of memorizing basic strategy rules or tables may seem daunting. For this reason we have outlined simplified basic strategy rules below. While these rules are ideal for those beginning in the game or for casual players, more prolific players will be disadvantaged by 0.35% following these rules as opposed to generic basic strategy.
Even following these simplified rules, in a 6 deck game you will have reduced
the house edge to less than 1%. So for every $100 you wager, it is expected that
you will lose only $1. Not too shabby. Especially if you are getting free
drinks, comp points or other benefits. Online, if this strategy is used with
some kind of bonus offer it is feasible (depending on wagering requirement) that
you could still make a sizable profit.
The simplified rules are below, remember, a hard hand is one which does not include an ace, or where ace is counted as one. Soft hands include an ace at one or eleven. Pairs are two cards of the same value e.g. 8,8 or A,A.
Never take insurance.
For hard hands:
With 17 or more, always stand.
With 12 to 16, stand against if the dealer has 6 or less, otherwise hit.
With 11 or less, always hit (unless doubling).
For soft hands:
With soft 18 or more, always stand.
With soft 17 or less, always hit.
For splitting pairs:
Always split pairs of aces, 8s or 9s.
For doubling down:
With 10 or 11, double down if the dealer has an up-card of 2-9.
Once you are confident playing with this simplified basic strategy be sure to read our generic basic strategy guide to reduce the house edge even further (less than 0.5%).
The table below shows optimal strategy for typical casino rules (Vegas Strip) 4 to 8 decks, dealer stands on soft 17, player may double any 2 cards, double after split (DAS) allowed, and dealer checks for blackjack. If you are were to learn only one strategy by heart, this should be it.
|Your hand||Dealer's face-up card|
|D||Double if Possible, Otherwise Hit|
|D/S||Double if Possible, Otherwise Stand|
|R||Surrender if Possible, Otherwise Hit|
Betfair zero blackjack
|S24||Hit on 2 or 4 cards, Otherwise stand|
|S4||Hit on 4 cards, Otherwise stand|
Double Attack Blackjack
The doubles shown below are in addition to the doubles that should be made based on the dealer's up-card. Remember, players should double if the dealer has an up-card of 2-8. This double is made before the player’s cards have been dealt. You then follow the table below.
After doubling-down, surrender if:
You have 16 or less vs. 8-Ace
Your hand is 17 against the dealer's Ace.
|Your hand||Dealer's face-up card|
Below is the strategy card for European blackjack rules. The dealer gets one
card face up then draws their hole card after all players have made their
playing decisions. If the dealer gets blackjack players will lose their total
bet including doubles and splits unless they push blackjack.
Typically 6 decks are used, dealers stand on soft 17, players can double hard totals of 9-11 only, and double after split (DAS) is allowed. These rules give the house a 0.62% advantage over a player using perfect basic strategy play.
Note, in some UK casinos players are not permitted to split fours, fives or tens. In this case the only variation to the rules below is that pairs of fours should always be hit.
|Your hand||Dealer's face-up card|
|H2||Hit with 2 cards, otherwise Stand|
|D||Double if possible, otherwise Hit|
Pontoon basic strategy
|Your hand||Number of cards|
|D||Double (Buy) if possible, otherwise Hit (Twist)|
|D/S||Double (Buy) if possible, otherwise Stand (Stick)|
Blackjack is one of the most popular card games in casinos throughout the world. In casinos the game of blackjack can have a number of different rules, such as whether the dealer stands on soft 17s, whether players can double any two cards, and the number of splits permitted. As well as these rule variations, there are a number of different 21 game variants which have evolved as the popularity of blackjack has grown.
Betfair Zero Lounge Blackjack
Betfair is famous as the world’s largest betting exchange. What you may not know is that they also operate an online casino. The casino is split into two areas. The first is the casino lounge where you can find a huge variety of casino games. The second is the ‘zero lounge’. Here the most popular casino games, baccarat, blackjack, jacks or better and roulette have had their rules altered to benefit the player. In fact, Betfair has zero house edge on these games.
The zero lounge is the first in the world (either online or offline) to offer games with zero house edge. The blackjack game has a 2-1 payout for a suited natural blackjack or five cards totalling 21. The game can be played with the standard strategy card for an 8 deck game, double after split allowed, dealer stands on 17 and peeks for blackjack.
For optimal advantage play however, there are some slight strategy deviations because of the five card rule. These only apply when you have already been dealt four cards. In any other instance, basic strategy should be followed:
Hit 12 against 4-6
Hit 13 against 2-4
Hit 14 against 2
Hit 17 against an ace
Hit soft 18 against 2-6 or 8.
There is one further rule variation with two cards:
Double A7 against a 2.
Double Attack Blackjack
Double attack is another blackjack variant with a number of rule differences from the standard game. The biggest difference is the player’s ability to double their bet after seeing the dealer’s up-card (but before any player cards have been dealt). Around half of the casinos in Atlantic City offer this variant, as well as several online casinos using WagerWorks software.
Eight ‘Spanish decks’ are used. This means that the four 10 cards have been removed from each deck in use
Dealer stands on all 17s
Dealer peeks for blackjack
Players can double after splitting
Aces can only be split once and receive only one additional card
Blackjack pays even money, rather than the usual 3:2
Players may double or surrender at any time
Insurance pays 5:2 or 3:1 depending on house rules
Dealer’s up-card is the first to be dealt to allow for the ‘double attack’ rule.
An optional side bet is available for the player which states the dealer will bust with exactly three cards. This ‘bust it’ side bet is placed after the player has seen the dealer’s up-card. Payouts vary depending on which combination of cards caused the dealer to bust.
Payouts for successful “bust it” side bets are as follows:
Third card is a ten. Pays off 3 to 1.
Third card is a nine. Pays off 6 to 1.
Third card is an eight. Pays off 8 to 1.
Third card is a seven. Pays off 10 to 1.
Third card is a six. Pays off 15 to 1.
In order to gain the optimum advantage from the game players should double
their initial bet whenever the dealer has an up-card of 2-8. Similarly, bets
should not be doubled if the dealer has 9-A. This means that players should
double their initial steak 58.3% of the time.
Because insurance pays at 5:2/3:1, insurance is a more favorable proposition for the player. Unlike traditional blackjack where insurance should always be declined, when playing double attack players should buy insurance unless a 10 value card is on the table. For instance in a heads-up game, players should buy insurance with a 9,9 against an Ace but not a K,8 against an Ace.
Pontoon is a British variant of standard blackjack. When played with 8 decks, the house edge is only 0.38%, lower than almost any other blackjack variant. As with traditional blackjack the object of the game is to get a total as close to 21 without busting. The main difference between pontoon and blackjack is that the dealer’s cards are dealt face down. This means that playing strategy is based on your hand alone and cannot be altered based on the dealer’s card.
Getting 21 is called ‘pontoon’ rather than blackjack and pays at 2:1. Additionally the game has the additional benefit of the ‘five card Charlie’. This means that if a player gets five cards without busting they beat any other hand (except pontoon) and are also paid at 2:1.
The basic game rules are as follows:
Generally played with eight decks
Pontoon pays 2 to 1
5 card trick/Charlie pays 2 to 1
Dealer wins ties (no ‘push’)
Dealer’s cards dealt face down
Dealer must hit on soft 17
Player must hit any total of 14 or less
Player can double once in the hand after being dealt any number of cards
Hit after double allowed
Hands can be split twice.
As well as having different rules, pontoon also has its own game terms. As mentioned above, an ace and ten is called ‘pontoon’ rather than ‘blackjack’. If a player wants another card they ‘twist’ rather than ‘hit’. The term to stand is ‘stick’. Rather than ‘doubling down’ the player ‘buys’. As with blackjack when buying the player doubles their original bet and is dealt just one more card.
Since the rules differ quite substantially from blackjack the player will see advantages and disadvantages of playing pontoon. Clearly the biggest disadvantage is that the dealer’s cards are dealt face down, meaning the player has no idea what the dealer has. Also the dealer wins any ties between them and the player (no pushes).
On the other hand there are a number of advantageous rules for the player. Being paid 2:1 on pontoons and five card Charlie’s is the biggest advantage. Also the ability to double after any number of hands means a player with a soft 19 can always double and be assured a sizable win without busting (provided the dealer does not also make a five card hand). Clearly then pontoon is no better or worse than blackjack. Individual player preference will dictate which they prefer to play.
Pontoon has a different basic strategy to blackjack because of the five card rule. The strategy card is based on the number of cards that the player has, rather than what the dealer holds. For example with a total of 17 over two or three cards, pontoon strategy says to stick. The same total over four hands dictates that you should twist because the chance of being paid 2:1 on a five card Charlie outweighs the risk of busting.
In pontoon, we double all soft hands and any hard hand with a total of less
than 17 when we have four cards. In fact, the only four card hand that you would
stand with in pontoon is one totalling 18 or more.
For a blackjack player hitting a four-card hard 17, or doubling a four-card hard 16 may seem crazy. It is important to follow the correct basic strategy for the game. You will quickly learn that the chance of making a five-card hand (and being paid 2:1) outweighs your gut saying you’ll bust. By doubling soft four-card hands, as we know they cannot be busted we are guaranteed a 4:1 payout on our original bet provided the dealer does not also make a five card Charlie. Good times!
Spanish 21 is a blackjack variant that offers low house edge, and a change in game rules for those looking to play something a little different from traditional blackjack. The game uses Spanish decks of cards (with the ten cards removed), thus the name, Spanish 21.
Either six or eight Spanish decks of 48 cards can be used for the game. Dealers can either hit or stand on soft 17 depending upon house rules. In a normal game of blackjack removing ten value cards benefits the house, rather than the player. To make up for this the game offers a number of liberal rules that more than compensate for the missing 10s.
Game rules can differ from casino to casino but the most common rules are outlined below:
Late surrender is offered
Double after splitting (DAS) is allowed
Aces may be re-split
Player 21s beat house 21s
Player blackjacks beat dealer blackjacks
Players can double once per hand (on any number of cards)
Players can usually hit and double split aces
Players can surrender after doubling ‘rescuing’ the double-down portion of their bet. This is known as the ‘double down rescue’.
Bonuses are not paid after doubling or splitting
Various bonuses are offered in the game:
Card combination === Pays
Five card 21 === 3:2
Six card 21 === 2:1
Seven plus card 21 === 3:1
6-7-8 or 7-7-7 (mixed suit) === 3:2
6-7-8 or 7-7-7
(same suit) === 2:1
6-7-8 or 7-7-7
(of spades) === 3:1
7-7-7 (same suit)
vs. Dealer 7 === Super bonus: $1000 ($5-$25 bet) or $5000
($25+ bet). Other players at the table each receive a $50 ‘envy bonus’. *
* The odds of hitting the 7-7-7 super bonus is 1 in 668,382 in a six deck game, and 1 in 549,188 in an eight deck game.
This positive progression system was devised by Donald Dahl and published in
his book ‘Progression Blackjack’. Since it is a positive progression system, the
player will only increase their bet size following wins, losses result in
returning to the start of the sequence.
In his book, Dahl outlines various progression sequences based on different minimum bet amounts:
The player only advances to the next bet if they win. If the player receives
blackjack or wins a double-down or split, they can skip the next bet and proceed
to the next highest. If for instance we won the first hand, then won a
double-down on the second, we would skip to the second bet of three (the fourth
bet in the sequence) rather than only advancing to the third bet.
Dahl also suggests minimum bankrolls necessary to use each of the progression systems as follows:
The bankroll is broken down into the number of sessions (or days) you wish to
play. Dahl also advises moving tables if you lose four or five hands in a row.
If the player reaches the end of the sequence they may choose to either continuing at the maximum level of 10 units, or revert to the start of the sequence. They may even choose to end the game if their winnings have met or exceeded their win-limit.
Dahl says that at any point the player is only ever risking one unit of their own money since the remainder is “the casino’s money”. This seems like a dangerous scheme to advise. Thinking that your winnings are somehow the property of the casino means you are more likely to feel that they are entitled to have your winnings back.
The system is also reliant on the player hitting a ‘winning streak’ in order to extract profits from the casino. Like most other positive progression systems, without knowing when to stop, the player is risking their profits in the aim of winning another hand.
While I think the system is not nearly as effective as Dahl states, his writing style is unlike that of any other blackjack book you may read. He suggests that casinos and card counters are in cahoots and that the casinos are powerless against the might of his progression system. Big words Dahl. He also calls card counters “suckers” and says that card counting is ineffective because of the betting spreads necessary, this when his own system uses a 1-10 spread!
Most blackjack players have two basic goals, to win and to have fun. Since
losing is no fun, players basically just want to win. The best strategy is to
find a game with the least house edge and to learn basic strategy play for that
game. A slightly more advanced strategy is to combine favourable games, basic
strategy and card counting to gain a slight edge over the house. A player using
all of these smart strategies can expect a modest return on their gambling in
the long run.
For some players, these strategies are not enough. They take time to learn and perfect, can take time to work and returns can be modest. This kind of player is also interested in betting systems such as the martingale. Where a strategy dictates how to play any given hand, a system dictates how much to wager (usually based on previous successes or losses).
The martingale system is one of the best known systems in gambling. There are a few reasons for this: It is very simple to use, can be applied to all kinds of casino games and it has been used for a long time. The martingale system is categorised as a ‘negative progression system’ meaning bets are raised after a loss. The opposite of this would be a positive progression system such as Parlay, Paroli or Oscar’s grind to name a few.
To use the martingale system, bets begin by wagering one unit. If you win, wagering returns to this initial point of one unit. If you lose however, the martingale system dictates that you double your previous bet. Successive losses mean you have to keep doubling your previous bet. When you eventually win a bet your losses will be covered by this win, and you will be up by a total of one unit.
For example starting with a $1 per hand bet: fist bet loses, next bet doubles to $2. The second bet also loses so the third bet will be $4. The third bet loses so the fourth bet is $8 which wins. Total losses = 1+2+4=$7. The fourth bet returns $16, the $8 bet plus $8 profit. Subtract the losses from the profit $8-$7=$1 up. When you win you will always be up by your initial betting amount. After a win you return to base bets of $1.
The system works on the presumption that you will win eventually. The problem with martingale is that within a relatively short string of losses, you will either not afford to place the required bet size, or will reach the table maximum bet limit.
To calculate the probability of losing x hands in a row we use the probability of losing any hand in blackjack which is 52.51%. From this we calculate the odds of losing x hands in a row as 1/(0.5251^x). These probabilities are outlined in the table below.
|3||1 in 7|
|4||1 in 13|
|5||1 in 25|
|6||1 in 48|
|7||1 in 91|
|8||1 in 173|
As you can see the odds of getting several successive losses are not that remote. A table with a $10 minimum will likely have a $500 table limit. Using martingale, after just 6 successive losses you would be unable to make the $640 bet needed to continue.
To use martingale in even money bets games (craps or roulette), you need a bank roll 200x greater than your base bet. Using a $1 base requires a bankroll of at least $200 for these games. In blackjack your required bankroll is four times greater because of splits or double downs. This is why table limits can be so problematic (that’s if you can afford the necessary bankroll in the first place).
- No betting system will work in the long run.
- You can be risking huge sums of money just to make a profit of your original one unit bet.
- Table maximums often make martingale unworkable.
- There are other betting systems that put your money at far less risk.
If you absolutely have to try the martingale system, please keep your play as short as possible.
We don’t advocate the use of any betting strategy. While such systems can work in the short term they can be financially devastating in the longer term. Loss odds calculated above are indicative only and are based on a blackjack loss percentage derived by the wizardofodds.com. We advise all players to stick to basic strategy, betting spreads they can afford and most importantly so set gambling budgets.
Card counting is a strategy employed by some blackjack players to determine when they have a probability advantage over the house. Almost universally, this means that the player is tracking the ratio of high to low cards remaining in the shoe. The basic premise is that a deck rich in aces and tens is good for the player. A deck rich in small cards is good for the dealer. When the odds are in the players favour bet amounts and playing strategy may be altered from standard basic strategy.
The advantage that an experienced card counter has over the house is between
0.5% and 1.5%. Due to this relatively small advantage, any gains will only be
noticeable over hundreds of hands of play. Even then, financially it is not
likely to be as rewarding as films (like 21) make card counting out to be. It
would be better to see card counting as a strategy to milk casinos for comp
points, hospitality and other offers.
There are a number of different card counting strategies that the player can employ. However simple or complex the strategy all systems will assign positive, negative or neutral values to the cards that are dealt in the game. Low cards are assigned a positive value because they increase the percentage of high cards remaining in the shoe. High cards are assigned a negative value for the opposite reason.
All of the various card counting strategies can be classified as either balanced or unbalanced systems. A balanced system (such as Hi-Lo) requires that the count (the total of the values from dealt cards) is converted into a ‘true count’ by dividing by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. For example, in a single deck game where half the cards have been dealt and the running count is +2, the true count would be 2/0.5 = 4. This would be considered a very high count in a single deck game and the bet stake should be increased accordingly. Only a rough estimate is required for this conversion. In another example if the running count was +7 with approximately 4 decks left the true count would be 7/4 = 1.74. This figure is rounded to +2 to keep things simple.
Unbalanced card counting systems do not require this conversion from running count to true count. Examples of unbalanced systems include the Knockout count (K-O) and the wizard’s Ace/Five count. Because these counts do not require the additional conversion step needed in balanced systems they are considered more suitable for beginners.
Advanced strategies (those that have multiple simultaneous counts or require frequent conversions) offer a slight statistical advantage over some of the more simplistic unbalanced systems but in reality gains are small. It is better to know a ‘simple’ strategy well and to play more hands per hour than to employ a complex strategy, forcing you to play slower and therefore play fewer hands.
Important note: please be aware that card counting will generally not work online. This is because most online casinos shuffle the deck after every round making any counting strategy useless. There are however, a minority of casinos that shuffle after a set number of cards have been dealt. Please satisfy yourself of the methods employed by the particular casino before playing.
The Ace/Five count developed by Michael Shackleford allowing players to overcome the house edge without being recognised as a card counter. This strategy is often used for building up casino comps (or just getting a couple more free drinks). In my opinion this is the most straightforward of all card counting strategies.
The strategy is to add one to the count when a five is observed, and to subtract one from the count every time an ace is dealt. Basic strategy is used at all times, but betting amount is increased when the count is greater than or equal to two. If the count is one or less, then the minimum bet should be placed. This method is used until the shoe is reshuffled and the count resets to zero.
Why track only the ace and five cards? Because the ace is important to the player because it forms the basis of ‘blackjack’ paying 3 to 2 (don’t play 6 to 5 or other variants). The five is useful to the dealer in turning stiff hands of 12 to 16 into good hands of 17 to 21.
When the count is plus two or greater the player should double their previous bet up to the maximum bet level. The maximum bet should therefore be established before sitting at the table. Normally this will be somewhere in the region of eight to 16 times the minimum bet but any spread can be used. The important part is establishing the maximum bet and not going above this level.
Here is a betting schedule that I would use for both ‘hit 17’ and ‘stand 17’ games. It assumes that the table minimum is $5:
|1 or lower||$5|
|4 or higher||$40|
While this may seem like an aggressive approach statistically while you are
betting more with this structure than flat betting, you should actually lose
less. Plus because of the larger bets, you will accumulate more comp points,
which clearly have a monetary value.
Another ‘trick’ to using the ace/five count is to leave the table if the count drops to minus three or lower. By taking a bathroom break or stepping out for a few minutes until the shoe is reshuffled you can gain a significant statistical advantage. While it is not always possible to leave the table with a low count without looking suspicious, any time you do will save cash in the long run.
So while players should not expect to be ‘up’ after any length of playing time using the ace/five strategy, they have essentially made blackjack an even money game. The comp points which are offered by almost all of the larger casinos can be exchanged for meals, show tickets or even rooms for the night.
For the biggest advantage the ace/five count should be employed in combination with a liberal rules game. This means playing with the fewest decks possible in a game where the dealer stands on a soft 17. In Vegas, these rules are generally only available on tables with a higher minimum bet so shop around.
Counting – live dealer blackjack
We already know that card counting at online casinos doesn’t work.
Essentially the deck(s) are shuffled after every single hand, so there is no
discard pile or opportunity to assess removed cards. Some however have
questioned whether it is possible to card count when playing against a live
dealer in online blackjack.
Rather than playing against a random number generator (RNG) you are playing against a live human dealer. The dealer has to manually shuffle the deck(s) every so often, but not after every hand. This raises the question as to whether a card counting strategy can be effectively utilized against a live dealer online.
The answer depends on the rules of the casino operator for the game. For instance, BetFred casino utilizes eight decks of cards, and offers only around 50% penetration. That means that approximately four decks will remain in the shoe when the dealer reshuffles. This is not adequate penetration with the number of decks for a counter to be able to accurately assess their advantage at that point in the game.
The rules of Victor Chandler casino state that cards are shuffled ‘at regular intervals’. While less specific, you can be sure that they will employ a cautious shuffle strategy so that penetration never goes to a counter-advantageous level. Indeed some operations utilize the infamous ‘continuous shuffle machines’ so that cards are shuffled before every hand, alleviating any possibility of card counting.
Essentially then, the number of decks used and the low penetration level means that card counting is not an effective strategy against live dealer blackjack online. If, however anyone can find a game with good rules that would mean a counter can gain an edge, do please contact me and I will amend this page.
While there are numerous card counting systems available to players, the Hi/Lo system is undoubtedly the most popular. Hi/Lo is easy to learn and relatively easy to use in a casino situation. Also known as the plus/minus system, the strategy is basically a simplified version of Edward Thorps famous ten-count. Hi/Lo was the counting system employed by the MIT blackjack team, as well as the movie 21.
Hi/Lo is a balanced level one count. Being a balanced count means that conversion between running count and true count is required. This is done by dividing the running count by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. If all cards from the shoe were dealt the running and true count would be the same, zero.
The first stage in learning the Hi/Lo count is to learn the card count values:
|Face value||Count value|
|2, 3, 4, 5, 6||+1|
|7, 8, 9||0|
|10, J, Q, K, A||-1|
We can divide cards into three groups; low, medium and high value cards. In a
standard 52 card deck there are 20 small cards (2-6), 12 medium value cards
(7,8,9) and 20 high value cards (10-Ace).
As will all counting strategies, the more low value cards that have been dealt, the better the player’s odds of winning any hand. This is because with high value cards to be dealt your first two cards will be stronger, you will get blackjack- and the dealer will bust more often.
Once you have committed the card count values to memory you should practice counting down a deck at home. Shuffle the pack and turn over the cards one by one keeping a running count. Don’t worry about the true count conversion at this point. Focus on accuracy before speed. Check that your count is zero at the end of the pack every time you count. Once you can accurately count a pack try to increase speed. A good rule of thumb is to be able to count down a pack in less than 30 seconds.
Remember that counting at home is very different to counting in a casino situation. To emulate the distractions of the casino at home, play loud music while counting, or try to have a conversation. While this will undoubtedly be difficult, mastering this is absolutely vital for success in the casino where the dealer or pit boss may be talking to you during the game.
When you can successfully count down one pack, add more and more packs until you reach casino shoe levels – 6 to 8 decks. With time and practice you will have good accuracy, speed and you will not be easily distracted.
When converting the running count to true count many players estimate the number of decks to the nearest half deck. With practice you will become fairly accurate in estimating the number of remaining decks in the shoe. When starting out with Hi/Lo it is acceptable to estimate remaining decks to the nearest full deck. You establish the number of decks remaining by looking at the discard pile. Practice at home by stacking x number of decks or half decks. Practice until you become accurate. You then subtract the number of decks on the discard pile from the number of decks you started with to establish the number of decks remaining in the shoe.
The card counters real advantage comes from being able to increase their bet when the count is favorable. The ideal betting spread will depend on the number of decks but a real advantage can be had in a double deck game using a 1-6 spread, and a six deck game with a 1-12 spread. The table below outlines the ideal bet to place depending on decks and true count:
|True count ↓||Bet units|
Here are a few things to remember when using a counting strategy:
- Keep focused. If you fail to count even just one or two cards your presumed edge will be inaccurate.
- Casinos do not deal through the entire shoe. Counters have the biggest advantage towards the end of the shoe and casinos know this. Deck penetration can be as low as 60%.
- Practice to become more accurate. If you round the dealt cards to whole decks try to get accurate to half or quarter decks. Also practice to increase counting speed.
- While the math of counting is easy, many counters simply cannot concentrate in casino conditions. Noise, other players, security, chatty dealers… practice, practice and more practice is in order to overcome these issues.
- Never sit down at a table in the middle of a shoe if you plan to count. You have no idea of the value of the cards that have been dealt and therefore no way to know what’s remaining.
Probably the most important aspect of card counting is to be confident with whatever strategy you use. Statistical advantages of one system over another are incredibly small.
Knock-Out (K-O) count
The knock-out counting system was devised by Ken Fuchs and Olaf Vancura, and named from their first names K & O. The authors say they devised the system to dispel the myth that card counting ‘requires a mind like Albert Einstein’s, together with a memory tantamount to that of a Pentium computer’ (i, 1998). In blackjack the cards that have already been dealt affect the composition of cards remaining in the shoe, so tracking dealt cards allows the counter to assess the favorability of undealt cards.
As with all card counting strategies, knowledge of basic strategy is absolutely essential. In most cases card counters will still play according to basic strategy, often only adjusting the amount of their bet.
The knock-out card counting system is known as an unbalanced system. This means that unlike with say Hi/Lo or another balanced system, counting through an entire deck of cards would not result in a count of zero. In fact, using the K-O count you would have a count of +4 after counting a deck.
K-O is a single level count, meaning you only need to add +/-1. The problem as I see it with more ‘advanced’ card counting strategies is that if they are any more difficult to use than they need to be, after a long session of play it will become easy to make mistakes. So although other count methods may offer statistically greater benefits to the player, if even a single mistake is made, then these benefits are wiped out. It is for this reason that I recommend the K-O count to all beginning and casual blackjack players. Once any counting strategy has been mastered it is easy to move on to another system if you think this to be necessary.
In order to learn the knock-out count you must first learn the values assigned to each card:
|Face value||Count value|
|2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7||+1|
|8 & 9||0|
|10, J, Q, K, A||-1|
The best way to learn the values is to test yourself with a single deck of
cards at home. Turn over each card in turn and mentally keep track of the count.
If done correctly a single deck should give a +4 count. Keep trying to increase
the speed until you can count the deck in less than 30 seconds. Although this
sounds difficult with a little practice this is certainly an achievable target.
Once you are proficient try counting two cards at a time or multiple decks. It
is best to avoid bad habits early so make sure that you keep a mental tally and
do not say the count aloud or move your lips. This is a sure fire way to get the
attention of the pit boss in a casino.
In a single deck game we begin with a count of zero and add or subtract the value of each card dealt from this initial count. For multideck games we start with an initial count (IC) other than zero. To calculate the IC we use the following formula:
IC = 4 – (4×number of decks).
The table below shows the IC values for various deck games:
|Decks||Initial Count (IC)|
No matter what the IC value, counting through the entire shoe would always
give a final count of +4.
Another important value to memorise is the ‘key count’. This is the value at which the player has the advantage (and should therefore up their bet). The key count (KC) is shown in the table below together with the IC values. This table should be memorised, so that whatever type of game you are playing you will know when you have the advantage.
|Decks||Initial Count (IC)||Key Count (KC)|
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