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Wizard of Odds Introductory Card Counting

Card Counting
Let me say loud and clear that card counting is hard and is not as rewarding as television and the
movies make it outto be. If it were an easy way to make money, then everyone would be doing it.
If you do not know the basic strategy, trying to count cards is highly ill-advised. Experienced card
counters still play by the basic strategy the great majority of the time.There can be no short cut around
learning the basic strategy, those who attempt card counting without a firm foundation in the basic
strategy are making a big mistake.
To be a successful counter you have to be able to countdown a deck fast and memorize large tables of
numbers as well as make it look like you're just a casual player.Furthermore, with today's rules, a
realistic advantage the counter will have is only 0.5% to 1.5%. You will not win money slowly and
gradually but your bankroll will go up and down like a roller coaster in the short run. Only in the long
run, over hundreds of hours of playing, can you count on winning.
The underlying principle behind card counting is that a deck rich in tens and aces is good for the
player, a deck rich in small cards is good for the dealer. When the counter knows the odds are in his
favor, he will bet more, and adjust his playing strategy to stand, double, and split in some plays where
basic strategy says to stand. All the options the player has at his disposal favor the player even more
when the deck is ten and ace rich. Here is a list and a brief reason why.
Standing: The player may stand on stiff totals of 12 to 16, and the dealer may not. In ten-rich shoes,
hitting stiff hands becomes more dangerous, favoring the more conservative player strategy.
Insurance: On average, when the dealer has an ace up, the remaining cards in blackjack will be
30.87% tens (based on a six-deck game), making insurance a bad bet. However, if the probability gets
above 33.33%, it becomes a good bet. Counters know when the remaining cards are ten-rich, and
make powerful insurance bets at those times.
Doubling: Usually, when the player doubles he wants a ten. In ten-rich shoes, the player makes better
double downs, getting closer to 21.
Blackjack: Both player and dealer will see more blackjacks, but the player gets paid 3 to 2, and the
dealer does not.
Surrender: The alternative to surrendering is much worse in ten-rich shoes. If the alternative is hitting,
the player is more likely to bust. If the player would otherwise stand, due to the high count, the dealer
is still more likely to get a 10. While the counter will surrender more in high counts, the savings will be
greater.
Splits: The player is usually splitting high cards and/or off of a weak dealer card. Either way, a ten-rich
shoe helps the player get higher totals, and increases the probability of the dealer busting.
I'm working on an in-depth study of how these effects break down. The contribution to each factor
depends on the rules, deck penetration, and bet spread. However, based on average conditions in a
six-deck shoe, my initial results break down the benefits of counting as follows.

PLAYER OPTION

WHY CARD COUNTING WORKS


Portion of Benefit

STAND
INSURANCE
DOUBLE
BLACKJACK
SURRENDER
SPLIT

40%
34%
9%
7%
6%
4%

The probability for insurance was taken from Don Schlesinger's "Illustrious 18" list, as found in
Blackjack Attack . The rest of the breakdown is mine.
To gauge the richness of the deck in good cards, the player will keep track of the cards the are already
played. Strategies vary, but all assign a point value to each card. For example, the hi-lo count assigns
a value of +1 to 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, and -1 to tens and aces. Everything else is 0, or neutral. At the
beginning of a deck or shoe, the count is 0. Then the counter constantly adds and subtracts from the
count, according to the cards played. This running total is called the "running count." A positive count
means that a disproportional number of small cards have already been played, which means that the
deck is rich in large cards. To determine the "true count," divide the running count by the number of
decks left to be played, or in some strategies, the number of half decks. This will tell you the relative
richness of the deck in good cards.
The true count is used in two ways, to determine how much to bet and how to play your hand. Unless it
is obvious, every situation has a line in which you should play one way if the count is above the line
and another if below. For example, a 12 against a 6 may dictate that you stand if the true count is -1
or greater and hit if the true count is less than -1. The counter will also bet more when the true count
is high, meaning the deck is rich in good cards.
A problem arises when it comes to treating aces. The player should bet more when the deck is rich in
aces since they add to the probability of getting a blackjack. However, when it comes to playing your
hand, the number of aces left is not nearly as important as the number of tens, so it is desirable, but
not necessary, to distinguish between tens and aces. Some card counting strategies keep a side
count of aces. In the Hi-Opt I and Revere Plus/Minus aces are counted separately and only considered
when making the wager. This is a more accurate and powerful way to play than assigning a negative
value to aces and not keeping a side count, as some strategies do. Yet, many people feel that for the
beginner it is too confusing to keep two counts. A player is more likely to make mistakes keeping two
counts and that costs money. The efficiency of a strategy that does not keep a side count of aces is
only modestly less, but you likely will gain more from fewer mistakes made. Different experts fall in
various places in the spectrum in terms of what to recommend for the beginner. The Zen Count takes
the middle ground and gives aces a value of -1 and tens -2. Personally, I have tried both and would
recommend against a count that requires a side count of aces to a person ready to take up card
counting. The Uston Advanced Plus/Minus is a good strategy that does not involve an ace side count
and can be found in the book Million Dollar Blackjack . How well you know a counting strategy is
much more important than which strategy you know.
Legally speaking, the player may play blackjack any way he wants without cheating or using a
computer, and the casinos may do anything from making conditions unfavorable to barring, in an effort
to stop anyone who they deem has an advantage over the game. Much of the challenge of card
counting is avoiding suspicion that you are anything but a normal non-counting player. The most
obvious indication that somebody is counting is that they make a substantial increase in bet size after
a lot of small cards leave the table. Although the greater the factor by which you can increase your bet
the greater your odds of winning, more than doubling your last bet is a fast way to arouse "heat"from
the dealer and pit boss. Usually when casinos employees realize you are counting, they will either
shuffle the cards whenever you increase your bet, essentially removing any advantage, or ask you to
leave.
This is only scraping the surface of the subject of card counting. I suggest the following pages of mine.

Hi-Lo Count.

The Ace-Five Count, possibly the easiest way to count cards.

Book review section, for suggestions on good blackjack books.

The Ace/Five Count


Introduction
Basic strategy blackjack players sometimes ask me for a simple way to overcome the small house
edge in blackjack, with little worry over being recognized as a card counter. This is often done with the
motive of milking the casinos for comps and offers. What follows is, in my opinion, the easiest card
counting strategy to achieve the above goal and still put the odds in the player's favor.
How It Works
1. Establish what your minimum and maximum bets will be. Usually the maximum will be 8, 16,
or 32 times the minimum bet, or any power of 2, but you can use whatever bet spread you
wish.
2. At the beginning of each shoe, start with your minimum bet, and a count of zero.
3. For each five observed, add one to the count.
4. For each ace observed, subtract one from the count.
5. If the count is greater than or equal to two, then double your last bet, up to your maximum
bet.
6. If the count is less than or equal to one, then make the minimum bet.
7. Use basic strategy for all playing decisions.
This strategy was designed to be most effective on a six- or eight-deck game. I recommend playing only
on games with liberal Strip rules, which are as follows:

4-8 decks

Blackjack pays 3 to 2

Dealer stands on soft 17

Double after split allowed

Late surrender allowed

Re-splitting aces allowed

75%+ penetration

Such games are easy to find in Las Vegas, although sometimes a higher minimum bet is required. In
the low-roller pits, the dealer will usually hit on a soft 17, which is bad, costing the player 0.22%.
Simulation Results
The following results were provided by Norm Wattenberger using his Casino Vrit software. The
rules above were used, with six decks, and 75% penetration. In my opinion, Casino Vrit is the most
robust and accurate blackjack simulation software on the market. It can be used to test just about any
card counting strategy under any set of rules and conditions.
ACE/FIVE COUNT STATISTICS
Player Advantage
Average Initial Bet
SCORE
1-8
0.30%
2.7
3.1
1-16
0.45%
4.2
5.3
1-32
0.57%
7.1
6.5
SCORE is an acronym, coined by Don Schlesinger, for Standardized Comparison Of Risk and
Expectation. It is defined as the advantage squared divided by the variance. The SCORE may also be
interpreted as the expected hourly win per hand for a player with a $10,000 bankroll, who sizes his
bets according to the Kelly Criterion, to achieve a 13.5% risk of ruin. As a basis of comparison, a Hi-Lo
counter, with a 1 to 8 spread, under the same rules, has a SCORE of 8.40, compared to the 3.1 of the
Ace/Five count.
SPREAD

Source: 'Blackjack Attack,' third edition

by Don Schlesinger.

Earlier Strategies
After publishing this section, somebody accused me of stealing the idea from Edward Thorp. Indeed, in
1969 Thorp did discuss a similar strategy in his book 'Beat the Dealer ,' in the fourth chapter titled
"A Winning Strategy." The difference is that Thorp's strategy tracks fives remaining against total cards
remaining. Later, in 1971, Lawrence Revere published a similar strategy as Thorp's in 'Playing
Blackjack as a Business ,' chapter 7 titled "The Revere Five Count Strategy."

High-Low Card Counting Strategy Introduction


The Hi-Lo Count is the most widely written about, and in my judgment, the most commonly used card
counting strategy. The High-Low was first introduced in 1963 by Harvey Dubner1. It has since been
discussed by just about all the major blackjack writers. In my opinion, the best introductory treatment
is in Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong, and the most detailed coverage is in Blackjack Attack
by Don Schlesinger. Following is a brief explanation of how to use the Hi-Lo.

Step 1: Assign a point value to each rank, as follows.


HIGH-LOW POINT VALUES
RANK

Value
2
+1
3
+1
4
+1
5
+1
6
+1
7
0
8
0
9
0
10
-1
J
-1
Q
-1
K
-1
A
-1
Step 2: Start with a "Running Count" of zero at the start of the deck/shoe. As cards are revealed,
keep adding or subtracting from the Running Count, according to the point system in step 1. For
example, if the first ten cards to come out of the shoe were 3, 5, K, 7, Q, A, 8, 5, 4, 2, then the
running count would be 1 +1 -1 +0 -1 -1 +0 +1 +1 +1 = +2.
Step 3: Divide the running count by the number of decks remaining, to get what is known as the "True
Count." This is the part that beginning counters hate. You don?t need to be exact. A rough estimate
will do, in my opinion. Let's look at example. The running count is +7 and there are about 4 decks left.
The true count would be 7/4 = 1.75. Round that up to 2, to keep it simple. The more you play the
more you will be comfortable eyeballing this adjustment, without doing any real division in your head.
Usually the right play is obvious. In borderline cases only will you need to do this True Count
conversion.
Step 4: The greater the true count, the more you should bet. This is where card counting becomes
more art than science. Some blackjack books give rigid rules on how this should be done. However,
the casino managers have read these books too, and the patterns recommended in earlier books now
set off red flags. How you do this should depend on your own style, and how much heat you are
getting. It helps avoid heat to keep the ratio of maximum bet to minimum bet to a limit, known as
the ?Bet Spread.? Only increasing bets after a win, only decreasing after a loss, and staying the same
after a push, makes play look more natural, but at a cost to profitability.
Step 5: For some hands, you will play according to the True Count and a table of "Index Numbers,"
rather than basic strategy. The greater the count, the more inclined you will be to stand, double, split,
take insurance, and surrender. For example, the Index Number for a player 15 against a dealer 10 is
+4. This means the player should stand if the True Count is +4 or higher, otherwise hit.
The following tables are known as the "Illustrious 18" and "Fab 4" respectively.2 They appear in
Blackjack Attack by Don Schlesinger, and are republished here with permission. These are the most
important index numbers to remember. Knowing only these will give the counter 80% to 85% of the
value of knowing every index number, based on a six-deck game. The difference is more in single and
double-deck games. The lists are given in order of value. If you can?t memorize all of them, start at the
top, and work your way down.
ILLUSTRIOUS 18
Play

ORDER
1

Insurance

Index
+3

2
16 Vs. 10
+0
3
15 Vs. 10
+4
4
10,10 Vs. 5
+5
5
10,10 Vs. 6
+4
6
10 Vs. 10
+4
7
12 Vs. 3
+2
8
12 Vs. 2
+3
9
11 Vs. A
+1
10
9 Vs. 2
+1
11
10 Vs. A
+4
12
9 Vs. 7
+3
13
16 Vs. 9
+5
14
13 Vs. 2
-1
15
12 Vs. 4
0
16
12 Vs. 5
-2
17
12 Vs. 6
-1
18
13 Vs. 3
-2
The player should stand/double/split if the True Count equals or exceeds the Index Number, otherwise
hit. The player should take insurance if the True Count is +3 or greater.
FAB 4 SURRENDERS
Play
14 Vs. 10
15 Vs. 10
15 Vs. 9
15 Vs. A
player should surrender if the True Count equals or exceeds the Index
ORDER

1
2
3
4
The

Index
+3
+0
+2
+1
Number.

A full table of all index numbers can be found in Chapter 3, and Appendix A, of Professional Blackjack
by Stanford Wong.
The next table shows some statistics using the High-Low. The blackjack rules this table is based are
liberal Vegas shoe, as follows:
Six decks
Dealer stands on soft 17
Surrender allowed
Double after split allowed
Player may resplit to four hands, including aces
To avoid setting off red flags, the simulation increased the bet after a win only, decreased after a loss
only, and always stayed the same after a push, except resetting to a minimum bet after a shuffle. The
simulation rounded the remaining decks to the nearest half deck, otherwise playing perfectly.

SPREAD
1
1
1
1
1
1
1

TO
TO
TO
TO
TO
TO
TO

5
10
15
5
10
15
5

Penetration
4
4
4
4.5
4.5
4.5
5

HIGH-LOW STATISTICS
Index
Player
Numbers
Adv.
I18+F4
0.157%
I18+F4
0.368%
I18+F4
0.578%
I18+F4
0.300%
I18+F4
0.587%
I18+F4
0.834%
I18+F4
0.469%

Std.
Dev.
1.50
2.04
2.67
1.60
2.27
3.06
1.70

Avg.Bet
1.35
1.57
1.73
1.41
1.68
1.90
1.47

1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1

TO
TO
TO
TO
TO
TO
TO
TO

10
15
5
10
15
5
10
15
Explantion

5
5
4.5
4.5
4.5
5
5
5
of columns

I18+F4
I18+F4
All
All
All
All
All
All

0.837%
1.147%
0.313%
0.608%
0.862%
0.494%
0.857%
1.182%

2.52
3.49
1.61
2.29
3.10
1.71
2.55
3.54

1.80
2.10
1.41
1.68
1.91
1.47
1.81
2.11

Spread: This is the ratio of the player?s minimum bet to maximum bet. The bigger the range, the
greater the player?s advantage, and bankroll volatility. A wide bet spread also sets off a red flag. In a
six-deck game, I think a 1 to 15 spread is about the most aggressive the player should get. The
simulation played one betting spot only.
Penetration: How many decks played before reaching the cut card. In a six-deck shoe, 4.5 is the norm.
Index Numbers: I already explained index numbers above. Simulations were run using both the
Illustrious 18 and Fab 4 (I18+F4) above, and with the full table. The difference is not much, which
shows that knowing the top 22 gets you most of the benefit of knowing all of them.
Player Advantage: This is the ratio of net player win to total initial bets. For example, in the last row,
the player could expect to win 1.182% of his total initial bets.
Standard Deviation: This is a term for the volatility per initial bet.
Average Bet: The average final bet per hand, compared to the lowest bet For example, in the last row,
if the player?s minimum bet were $100, his average bet would be $211. This includes additional
money bet due to doubles and splits.
This table was created using CVCX Blackjack Analyzer by Casino V?rit?. This software produces
hundreds of different statistics for just about any set of rules, betting strategies, and playing
strategies. For the player who wants to run these tests, this software is the best there is, in my
opinion.
Footnotes
1. Professional Blackjack
2. Blackjack Attack

by Stanford Wong, page 31, 1994 ed.

by Don Schlesinger, page 62, 2004 ed.

Acknowledgments
Don Schlesinger: For his permission to reprint the Illustrious 18 and Fab 4 tables from his book,
Blackjack Attack .
Norman Wattenberger: For his complimentary use of CVCX Blackjack Analyzer by Casino Vrit.
Further Reading

Card Counting Introduction.

Wizard Ace-Five Count: Very easy and simple card counting strategy.

"21" Movie Review: Truth and fiction about the movie about the MIT card counting team.

Blackjack book reviews.

Main blackjack page.