Lesson 3: Counting Cards

The GameMaster’s Blackjack School

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Lesson 3: Counting Cards – The Basics

With this lesson, I’m going to unwrap the veil of mystery which seems to surround the concept of card counting. Here you will discover that you don’t have to be a genius to keep track of all the cards in a six-deck shoe; you just have to know a few card-counter secrets.

The first “secret” is that we don’t memorize the cards in a deck. Instead, each card is assigned a point-value and all we are really doing is adding those point values together and then converting that information into a usable form. Just what those point values are depends upon which counting system a player decides to use. In this school, I’ll be teaching the “High / Low” or “Plus / Minus” system but if you choose to learn another one, everything I’m going to teach still applies.

The other big “secret” about card counting is how we do it at the Blackjack table. I think most people who have flirted with counting can get a good grasp of it at home but once they hit all the distractions of a casino their ability to keep track of the cards, play their hand properly and get a bet into the circle on time breaks down. Remember when I told you that it was a MUST for you to know basic strategy as well as you know your own name? Now you’ll begin to see why that’s necessary; you don’t need more things to think about when you’re “on the green”.

Pick a System

There are a lot of different card counting systems available and — like most things in life — each has its advantages and its disadvantages. I’ll try to sort through the most popular and help you choose one which is right for you. Probably the most important factor in choosing a system is the type of game you’ll be playing most of the time. For example, if you play mostly in the Reno/Tahoe area, you should learn a system which performs well against single deck games. If you play in my old stomping grounds, Atlantic City, you’ll want to learn a system which is powerful in multi-deck games.

Another important factor in selecting a system is the amount of time you spend playing Blackjack. This is going to surprise you, but a player who intends to spend a lot of time at the tables should learn a very simple system. I say that because, while this really is pretty easy, it does require some concentration and the simpler the system, the easier it is to concentrate for long periods of time. On the other hand, if you’re only going to play for 3 or 4 hours a week, a more difficult system may work well for you since a difficult system is usually more powerful and it will optimize the time you spend at the tables. Now, some of you “Type A’s” out there are thinking that you’ll spend a lot of time at the tables and use a very powerful (and complicated) system to get the most $$$ out of your play. The problem here is that under those circumstances, mistakes begin to creep in and that can cause you to lose your edge. The KISS principle applies: “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. If you really want to get the most out of the game, do what I did, learn two counting systems. I use one for multi-deck games and another one for single-decks. It’s not that hard and as we go through the lessons on learning how to count, you’ll see how the exercises I’ll teach you can implement such a strategy.

Card counting systems are rated by two primary factors: Betting Efficiency (BE) and Playing Efficiency (PE). The anomaly of counting systems is that if you increase the BE you are, for the most part, decreasing the PE at the same time. This happens because of the unusual role an Ace plays in the game. For betting purposes, the Ace is a very powerful card; it’s the primary component of a “natural” which pays 3 to 2. But for playing a hand, the Ace is of somewhat limited value. How many times have you doubled an 11 and got an Ace? Now you have a total of 12…exciting, huh? Hit a 14, get an Ace and you’ve got 15; nothing to shout about, is it? Sure, it’s great to double a 10 and get an Ace, but that’s one of the very few times when the Ace helps in the play of a hand.

How a counting system treats the Ace determines a lot about the BE and PE of that system. If you need a high Betting Efficiency — like in a multi-deck game — then pick a system which counts the Ace as a “big” card; if your game of choice is single-deck, then choose a system which treats the Ace as a “neutral” card (and keep track of the Aces in a “side count”, a trick I’ll show you later.)

Multi-deck games are beaten primarily by a large betting spread. Simply put, you bet small when the house has the edge and much bigger when you have the edge. A counting system with a high BE factor tells you when to bet big. In a single-deck game, where the house knows a big spread will win the $$$, a high PE lets you bet less and still win. Don’t forget; casinos know that their games are vulnerable and they are on the lookout for people who can beat them. A big betting spread is one tipoff they use to detect counters and, depending upon where you play, being detected as a counter may cause your expulsion (“barring”) from the casino. Let me stress that what I’m teaching you is entirely legal but not everyone in the casino business feels as I do. There are no laws against card-counting and you can be the best counter in the world, but if the casinos won’t let you play your skill is wasted.


The High/Low count, also called the Plus/Minus or the Hi/Lo count, is one of the most popular card counting systems available today. 

If you decide the Hi/Lo count is for you, you can learn it from several sources but I recommend the material as presented in  Stanford Wong’s book Professional Blackjack. The Hi/Lo count is exhaustively presented and, in my opinion, Wong’s book is the best resource for this excellent card counting system.

To help you decide on a count to use, visit the series of articles called “Counting Systems” on the Blackjack Page of GameMaster OnLine and look at the systems which are reviewed there. As mentioned earlier, I will be talking specifically about the “High / Low” count, but you can learn any count by the methods I’ll use. If you’re going to be at single-deck games, the Hi-Opt 1 count is probably the best to begin with; go with the High / Low if multi-decks are what you’ll be playing. Since I will be teaching “true count”, either of those systems will work well, regardless of where you play. Most “unbalanced” counts don’t require you to learn true count, but it’s not a big deal, so stick with one of the “balanced” counts. For those who really want to get into it, go with Arnold Snyder’s “Zen Count“, but you should buy his book, “Blackbelt in Blackjack” to supplement what I’m teaching.


Check the BJRnet polls to find out system popularity and what other card counters are using.

In the next lesson I’ll show you how to learn a counting system with the following “point” values:

2, 3, 4, 5, 6 = +1
7, 8, 9 = 0
10, J, Q, K, A = -1

This system has a Betting Efficiency of .97% and a Playing Efficiency of .51%. The best system in the world would rate about .98% BE and .70% PE, so what you’ll be learning is easy to use for long periods of time, is good at estimating your edge for betting purposes and is just “OK” at playing the hand properly. (But don’t worry; it gets the $$$.) By the way, there’s a third rating for counting systems and that’s Insurance Efficiency. While basic strategy says to never take insurance, once the proportion of tens in the remaining deck(s) reaches a certain point, it becomes profitable to make the insurance bet. The High / Low counting system has an Insurance Efficiency of .76, which means that about 3/4 of the time you do take insurance (as determined by the “true count”), it will be the correct decision. But…we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, so copy your homework assignments and get outta here.


Continue working with your flashcards at least a half-hour per day.

Do at least one “Basic Strategy Reconstruction” each day and continue to work on your speed.

Do at least one “Basic Strategy Decision Exercise” each day and concentrate on getting it done in under 2 minutes.

Work with the three “Card Exercises” and concentrate on adding up your hand as you play proper basic strategy.

School’s out for now. See you here next time.

As always, if you have any questions, e-mail me at aceten1@mindspring.com and Ill get back to you ASAP.

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