Lesson 6: Card Counting Single Deck

The GameMaster’s Blackjack School

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Lesson 6: Card Counting – Single-Deck Play

Every serious counter should have a good knowledge of how to play single-deck Blackjack, even if you spend 90% of your time at multi-deck games, because when you are able to get to a single deck game, it can be very profitable. The primary lure of the game will become more evident as we get into betting strategies, but take my word for it now: any “big” money you’ll make at Blackjack will probably come from a single-deck game.


Single deck card-counting is as much an “art” as it is a technical challenge.   Your greatest challenge will be convincing the casino pit bosses and the dealer him/herself that you are not counting cards.  Acting is a very desired skill!

Most of you — especially those who are close to Atlantic City — should spend your time practicing instead of playing, all with the idea of taking 5 or 6 trips a year to areas such as Reno or Laughlin. You’ll be much better off playing 60 or 70 hours a year at the single-deck games there than you would be playing several hundred hours at the dismal games A.C. is currently offering. Most of my students from the St. Louis area can fly to Reno on a 3 or 4 day trip for under $300, which includes round-trip airfare and hotel, and since they usually make that much in Blackjack profits per day, they often come home with a $1000 or more in net winnings. You “Eastcoasters” can find similar action in Tunica, MS.

Counting at the Table

To win at single-deck games, you first need to learn another method of counting at a table where the cards are dealt face down. As you will recall from Lesson 5, there is a very structured approach required for counting in order to make sure you’re doing it accurately. I’ll never forget the first time I played single-deck; it was in Vegas and I was used to the, then, four-deck game in Atlantic City. On about the second or third hand, the dealer had a “Blackjack” and everybody threw their cards in, face up. Talk about scrambling; my speed training was tested to its limit, but I got the count before the next hand was dealt. That’s a situation for which you’ll have to be ready and only practice will get you there.

Cards get turned face up for various reasons at a single-deck game, so let’s go through a hand and see when you will count them. Begin by counting your two cards, then dealer’s up card. Count any hit cards for the players since those will be delivered face up. If a player doubles , s/he will turn his or her first two cards face up, so you’ll count them. However, the “double” card will usually be dealt face down, so you won’t count it yet. If a player splits a pair, those will be turned face up so count them and then count the “hit” cards as they come out. In a single-deck game, a player signifies a “stand” by placing the cards underneath the bet so you don’t see them, consequently you can’t count them — yet. Should a player bust, s/he will toss in his or her first two cards, so count them as you see them. Play ends at the dealer’s hand, so count the dealer’s hole card as it’s turned up and any hit cards for that hand. Now comes the tricky part. The dealer will begin at the “third base” side and turn over any “hole” cards (as well as double-down cards) from underneath the bet and set them above any other cards in the hand. They will end up as the two cards closest to the dealer; count them as they’re exposed. A typical hand will look like this:

As you can see, this player had a hand totaling 7 and took a hit. The dealer has pulled the cards over the top and will now pay it as a winner. Count those two cards as they’re exposed, but DO NOT count the King again, since you would have counted it when the player “scratched” for a hit.

This may still be a bit confusing, but once you fit the idea in your mind, you’ll quickly get into the scheme of things when you watch a real game in action. You should just stand behind and observe until you’re sure you’ve got the technique, but it won’t take long. The ideal way to practice is to have someone deal for you, but make sure they use the procedures shown above.

Developing Your Speed and Endurance

I often use the analogy of a prize fighter when I discuss practicing your counting; a fighter trains for both speed and endurance. They use a “speed bag” for the short, fast jab and a big, heavy bag for the hard punches. A single-deck countdown is your “speed bag”; try to get through it as quickly as possible while maintaining your accuracy. To build your endurance, begin by counting down two decks shuffled together (don’t forget to remove 3 cards to check your accuracy). Once you’re doing two decks under 40 seconds, go to 6 decks. Shuffle all six together, then break them down to 5 or 6 separate piles on a table top and count them all down as quickly as possible. Your goal here is to do it under 2 minutes; under 1:30 is ideal. The reason why we do so many decks, whether we’re training for a single-deck or multi-deck game, is to not only get used to retaining the count for a long period of time, but also to get used to wide swings in the count. The running count for a single deck will seldom go above or below 10, but you’ll often get such counts in a six-deck countdown and you need to get used to that. Practicing like this with a lot of distractions around is good. Do it with the kids bugging you, with the TV on, or with Fido barking and you’ll develop your ability to keep track while you’re in a casino.

A Few More Tricks

Learn to count backward from an odd number by 2’s. We can all count “2, 4, 6,” etc., but few of us can count “11, 9, 7, 5, 3” very quickly. This is a good exercise to do while you’re driving. Start at 25 and take it to M5, over and over again; it will “imprint” in your mind and serve you well at a full table when the count is high and all those 20’s and Blackjacks come out. When you get bored, do it backward from an even number just to keep yourself in shape.

When your counting is interrupted for any reason, recite the count to yourself over and over again. Let’s say you’re practicing at home and little Margaux or your son, Corky (isn’t every card counter also a wine fanatic?), has a “life or death” question. If the count at that point is M6, just keep repeating “M6, M6, M6” in your mind as you listen to them. You’ll know you’re making real progress when you can then TALK to them and remember the count! Practice is what allows that to happen.


Continue working on your speed with a single-deck countdown, but also work in some two-deck exercises as well. When you can do two decks accurately in under 40 seconds, go to a six-deck countdown.

Important: All I’ve shown you here also applies to most double-deck games, but you must remember that the basic strategy does change a bit when you’re playing a game dealt from less than four decks. See Lesson 1 for how to learn the single-deck basic strategy.

As always, if you have any questions, e-mail me at [email protected] and Ill get back to you ASAP.

Next we’ll begin discussing the only reason for playing Blackjack: Money.

Until then, school’s out.

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