What’s the Best Card Counting Method in Blackjack in 2019?
Suppose you’ve read my post about how to make money playing blackjack, and you’ve decided you want to become a card counter. You thought the section describing the hi-lo count was interesting, but you’re not interested in being average.
You want to know what the best card counting method in blackjack is so that you can use that instead of the hi-lo system.
This post provides enough background about casino games, blackjack, and how card counting works that you don’t need to read that other post.
Understanding that introductory material is essential to understanding how to choose the best method for counting cards.
I go on to explain how the pros look at the different card counting methods and how you can use those measurements (like betting correlation and playing efficiency) to choose the card counting strategy for your goals.
Card Counting Can’t Be Used in Most Casino Games
Obviously, card counting is an advantage strategy that you’ll use in a casino game, but it won’t work in a game that doesn’t use cards. You can’t count cards in roulette or at the craps table, for example. There’s no equivalent strategy for either game.
That’s excruciatingly obvious, but it’s important to the discussion because of the reason why,
In craps or roulette, every bet is made on a distinct event. These independent events don’t affect the probability on subsequent events. For example, there are 38 numbers on a standard roulette wheel. No matter what number hits on the previous spin, the odds of winning a single-number bet on the next spin are still 1/38.
But what if you eliminated a number once it had been hit?
That would change the probability on the next spin to 1/37.
This is, in effect, what’s going on in blackjack. The composition of the deck changes. Instead of having a deck with 52 cards in it, after the first hand, there are only 48 (or fewer) cards left (assuming a single-deck game).
This changes the probabilities left in the deck after every hand.
And that’s why card counting can be used in blackjack but not other casino games.
The deck of cards used in blackjack has a memory of previous events in the form of changed probabilities. That memory gets wiped when the deck gets shuffled again.
No other casino game offers you this specific kind of opportunity.
Basic Strategy Comes First
But the composition of the deck doesn’t even matter unless you’ve mastered basic strategy first.
Basic strategy is the mathematically optimal way of playing every hand in a blackjack game. This means that in any given situation, a basic strategy player is taking the action with the highest expected value. Sometimes, this means choosing from several options, all of which have a negative expectation.
But a basic strategy player chooses the action with the lowest negative expectation.
When you see websites or books quoting a specific house edge for a variation of blackjack, that number assumes you’re using perfect basic strategy. If you’re not using basic strategy, you’re going to face a house edge that’s 2% (or more) higher than that number.
No amount of counting cards and no method will overcome that kind of edge.
So before you even start to worry about which card counting method you should use, you should master basic strategy.
Cards Dealt and Cards Left
The reason that card counting works in blackjack is because the cards dealt and the cards left are changing the probability of the game while you’re playing. One way to count cards would be to memorize which cards have been dealt so you’d know exactly which cards are left in the deck.
Most people talk about this idea as something only a superhuman could accomplish, but it’s possible to memorize a deck of cards. In fact, it’s probably easier than you might think.
But most card counters use a simpler structure which doesn’t require much memorizing to get an edge.
High Cards Versus Low Cards Are Key to Any Card Counting Strategy
The trick to most card counting methods is categorizing the cards into two types.
- High cards
- Low cards
The reason card counting works — or at least the biggest part of it — is the increased probability of being dealt a blackjack when the deck has lots of high cards left in it versus low cards.
The 10s and aces are considered high cards for this purpose. Those are the only two cards in the deck that can generate such a two-card hand. A blackjack pays off at 3 to 2 in most blackjack games at most casinos.
You’ll find some casinos offering 6 to 5 payouts, but those games are best avoided. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that 6 to 5 is better than 3 to 2 because 6 is bigger than 3.
A 6 to 5 payout on a $100 bet is only $120. With a 3 to 2 payout, that same bet pays off at $150, which is way better.
In most card counting strategies, the 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are considered low cards.
The ratio of high cards to low cards is what almost all card counters use to change their bet sizes and playing strategies to get an edge over the casino.
Tens and Aces
I can’t overstate how important the aces and tens are to this line of thinking. It might seem obvious why having a deck with a higher proportion of those cards would favor the player, but I always like to use a simple example in the opposite direction to illustrate this point.
Imagine a deck of cards where all four aces got dealt in the first hand (for this example, we’re assuming a single-deck game).
What’s the probability of being dealt a blackjack from the deck that’s left?
Without any aces, the probability has dropped to 0%.
It’s impossible to get a blackjack without an ace and a 10 in your hand.
Every ace that gets dealt reduces your probability of getting dealt a blackjack. In fact, aces are more important than 10s, which is why some games use a side count of aces to inform their strategy.
10s are important, too, but arguably less important, as there are so many of them in the deck. There are four actual 10s in the deck, but there are also four jacks, four queens, and four kings in the deck.
You’ll find some card counting strategies that also count a 9 as a high card, but in such systems, the 10s and aces are usually weighted more heavily.
Number of Decks Affects Which System Works Best
The general rule you need to learn first is that card counting methods almost always work best versus a single-deck game. That’s a game that’s dealt by hand from a 52-card deck.
Casinos know this, though, so they’ll often have games dealt from two decks, four decks, or eight decks.
The more decks you have in play, the less the effect is of each card’s removal from the deck. That should make sense, too, but let’s look at an example.
Remember how we talked about how if you saw four aces dealt out of a single deck, the probability of getting an ace after that drops to 0%?
Suppose you have eight decks, and you see four aces come out in the first hand.
You still have 28 aces left in the deck, which isn’t as many as you started with, but it’s still a higher probability than 0%. You’re looking at 28 cards out of 412 which constitute an ace.
That’s a probability of about 6.8%, which is far better than a probability of 0%.
Different card counting methods work better with a large number of decks, while other methods work better with fewer decks.
The fewer decks, though, the better.
Betting Correlation and Playing Efficiency as Aspects of a Counting Method
About 80% of a card counter’s edge against the casino when counting cards comes from just raising the size of her bets when the deck has a higher than usual proportion of high cards to low cards.
Card counters who also deviate from basic strategy based on the count benefit from that, too, but that’s only 20% of their edge.
When the pros and experts compare card counting methods, they look at two measurements of how effective those systems are.
- Betting correlation
- Playing efficiency
Betting correlation is just a measure of how well a specific card counting method estimates how you should size your bets. The higher a method scores on this scale, the better. If you’re the type of card counter who only counts on raising your bet sizes, this is the only factor to consider when comparing systems.
Playing efficiency, on the other hand, measures how well a card counting method informs your deviations from basic strategy. This matters more to expert card counters than it does to the beginner. But if you’re at a point where you’re trying to decide between systems, it’s something to consider.
The third factor, of course, is the ease of use. If a card counting method is too hard to use, a slight uptick in betting correlation or playing efficiency isn’t worth the extra hassle.
What About Shuffle Tracking?
Many card counters don’t even bother with shuffle tracking, but the pros who add this to their repertoire are confident that it adds a lot to their edge over the casino.
The idea behind shuffle tracking is based on the fact that even though a shuffle is random, certain groups of cards tend to stay together through the shuffle. If you’ve been counting cards and found a certain “clump” of cards which have more aces and tens than the rest of the deck, if you can follow it through the shuffle and know when those cards are coming up, you can raise your bets accordingly.
This technique is most appropriate in games with multiple decks. It doesn’t matter much which system you’re using; shuffle tracking seems to be card counting method agnostic.
So Which System Is Best and What Should You Use?
If you’re just getting started, I recommend using the ace-five count. It’s the simplest counting method, and it only tracks two cards.
- Aces count as -1
- 5s count as +1
For the ace-five count to work, you must use a big betting spread. Basically, anytime the count is positive, you double the size of your previous bet as the count goes up. Instead of having a betting spread of 1 to 6 units, you’re more likely to have a betting spread of 1 to 16 or 1 to 32 units.
In terms of playing efficiency, you’re looking at not much of a gain using the ace-five count. In terms of betting correlation, it’s accurate enough to get you a small edge. You’re likely to draw the attention of the casino, though, because they hate card counters.
But the ace-five count is perfect for getting your feet wet.
The method to move to after that is the hi-lo count. In this count, you use the following rubric for counting cards.
- Aces and tens count as -1
- 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 count as +1
As you can see, you’re tracking a lot more cards. This system has as good a betting correlation as you’re likely to find, but the playing efficiency isn’t so great.
Still, most players can use the hi-lo count for years and make plenty of money. I know card counters who don’t use any other system at all.
Past that, you’ll find plenty of proponents for various card counting systems. The authors who write books about such systems list the reasons why their systems are better than their competitors’ in their books. I don’t have an opinion about these other systems, but you might want to look into some of the following.
- The K-O System
- This is a system best used for multiple-deck games and counters who don’t want to convert the running count into a true count
- The Red Seven Method
- This is another card counting method that eliminates the need to convert a running count into a true count. It’s so named because you count the red 7s but not the black ones
- The Omega II System
- You can read more about this one in the book Blackjack for Blood by Bryce Carlson. It requires a side count of aces, and you count 10s and 9s as part of your main count. It’s a 2-level system, too, which means that the 9s are worth -1, while the 10s are worth -2. Half the low cards are worth +1, while the other half are worth +2
The best card counting method in blackjack is the one that you’ll use most consistently with the least amount of trouble. You can also measure various systems by how accurately they inform the sizing of your bets and the deviations from basic strategy that you’re going to make. What’s more important to you makes the biggest difference.
You should also consider how well your system works within the context of the game conditions you’re most likely to be involved in. Some systems work better in single-deck games, while others work better in games with multiple decks.
I think you can safely stick with the hi-lo count and never run into a problem, profit-wise.
But if you want something more, go buy a couple of books and weight the authors’ arguments in favor of their methods. Then practice, give the new method a try in the casino, and see how well you do, both results-wise and emotionally.
If the demands of a given card counting method are too great, you’ll know it, and you can move on to something less rigorous.