Card counting has long been one of the most popular ways to make profits through gambling. This advantage-play technique has been proven to work by countless blackjack players over the years.
Legends like Ed Thorp, Al Francesco, James Grosjean, and Jeff Ma have made fortunes through counting cards.
Of course, these famed counters all played during a golden age of blackjack, where casinos comped generously and were less concerned with advantage players.
Unfortunately, things have changed these days with casinos more aware of card counting than ever. That said, many aspiring pros wonder if they even have a chance to make profits.
The good news is that you can experience success with card counting. You merely need to know some modern tips for not getting caught.
I’m going to cover 9 tips on how to avoid casino detection while counting cards. But first, I’ll discuss why it’s so tough to count these days and a simple system that beginners can use.
Why Is Card Counting Tougher These Days?
When Ed Thorp began counting cards in the late 1950s, there was no resistance by casino staff. Most gambling establishments back then didn’t even know that blackjack could be beaten.
But Thorp released his famed 1962 book, Beat the Dealer, and blew the cover on card counting. Ever since then, it’s been a constant game of cat and mouse between casinos and pros.
Gambling venues have steadily introduced new countermeasures over the years to catch counters. These include shoe games, heavy surveillance in the blackjack pit, better training for staff members, and reduced deck penetration (explained later).
They’ve also introduced rules and equipment that make it impossible or nearly impossible to win profits.
Any table with a continuous shuffling machine can’t be beaten through card counting. Tables with 6:5 natural blackjack payouts (instead of 3:2) are extremely difficult to beat.
A common reaction to these measures involves looking for the best available blackjack games. For example, some players search for a single- or double-deck game with favorable rules.
But the problem with doing so is that casinos watch these games more closely than any other. The reason why is because these favorable tables already have a low house edge.
Anybody who can also successfully count cards in good single- and double-deck games stands to win even bigger profits.
Ideally, you’ll find a blackjack game with decent rules and a casino staff that doesn’t watch counters like a hawk. Of course, the difficulty is in finding these tables, which isn’t easy to do these days.
How Do You Count Cards?
Many different card counting systems exist. These strategies are separated by how difficult they are to learn and their count accuracy.
The Hi-Lo system offers the best of both worlds because it’s accurate and easy to learn.
The fundamentals of the Hi-Lo strategy involve tracking low, neutral, and high cards. You also assign positive, neutral, or negative point values to these card groupings, which you can see below.
- Low cards (2-6) = +1
- Neutral cards (7-9) = 0
- High cards (A-10) = -1
A high positive count means that there are more high cards and fewer low cards in the shoe. More aces and 10-value cards improves the chances that you’ll get natural blackjacks and have favorable double-down opportunities.
As you may know, a natural blackjack pays out either 3:2 or 6:5 on your original bet. Therefore, you gain an advantage over the casino when there’s a better chance of getting a blackjack.
If you’re playing a shoe game, you also have to account for how many decks are remaining. And this requires converting your “running count” into a “true count.”
You must estimate the number of decks left and divide your running count to get a true count. Here’s an example.
- Your running count is +8
- You estimate that there are four decks left in the shoe
- 8 / 4 = +2 true count
Given that you now have a positive true count, you want to increase your bet. But the only question that remains is how much you should increase your wager.
The goal is to bet the table minimum when the count is +1 or lower. This helps you avoid taking higher long-term losses while you wait for a more favorable situation.
Once the true count hits +2 or higher, you want to increase your bet by a predetermined amount. This involves choosing a unit size and increasing your bets by one unit as the positive true count rises.
Here’s an example.
- Choose a unit size (e.g., $25)
- Determine your true count (e.g., +4)
- Subtract 1 from the true count (4 – 1 = 3)
- Multiply this number by your unit size (25 x 3 = 75)
- You need to bet 3 units ($75)
The difference between the minimum table bet and how much you risk during a favorable count is referred to as your “bet spread.”
If the minimum bet is $5 in the example above, then your bet spread would be 1-15 upon reaching a +4 true count. This is because the $75 bet is 15 times higher than the $5 minimum.
9 Tips for Beating Today’s Blackjack Tables
Blackjack card counting hasn’t changed much in terms of fundamentals. You still need command of a good counting system and the ability to concentrate among casino distractions.
But you must also take more precautions today than ever before to avoid being caught. Here are some important tips to stay out of the pit boss’ watchful eye so you can continue making profits.
1 – Never Stay in One Spot Too Long
Prior to the 2008 Great American Recession, casinos were more lenient with how they treated suspected card counters and advantage players in general.
Today, however, they’re much leerier of losing money and don’t take as long to throw out potential counters. Therefore, it’s wise to never stay in the same casino for too long.
A good rule of thumb is to only play up to 100 hands in the same gambling establishment before moving on. This gives you the chance to count at least one shoe and bet high during a favorable count.
Ideally, you’ll stay at a table where counting conditions are favorable for much longer. But the last thing you want to do is draw heat and eventually get banned from a good casino.
2 – Make Las Vegas Your Card Counting Playground
If you subscribe to the first point, you’re going to need a lot of card counting options within close proximity. And Las Vegas is the perfect place for a serious card counter.
Sin City features well over 100 casinos in different areas like the Strip, Downtown, North Vegas, and Henderson.
Most card counters prefer Downtown casinos because they’re more laxin trying to catch advantage players. It’s also possible to count at certain Strip casinos, although they’re quicker to judge and kick somebody out.
Of course, you can try counting cards at pretty much any casino destination. But nowhere offers as many options as Sin City.
It’s worth noting at this point that you can forget about counting cards at online casinos. Each card dealt online is the result of a random number generator, which makes counting cards completely futile.
3 – Realize That Big Bets Attract Attention
The recession also impacted the size of bets that casinos are willing to take on from the average blackjack player.
Casinos used to allow much larger max wagers. Higher limits enabled skilled card counters to make a fortune if they had the bankroll to capitalize.
These days, though, you’re lucky to find a table that accepts up to a $1,000 max bet. And when you do start betting up to this limit, you’ll attract unwanted attention from pit bosses and shift managers.
I’m not saying that you have to keep your bets ultra-low during a good count. But don’t get carried away with your bet spread, or else the casino staff will scrutinize your play more.
4 – Don’t Expect Many Comps
Yet another thing that changed after the 2008 recession is how many comps casinos are willing to give gamblers.
Casinos used to shower players with rewards, especially if they offered a lot of action. But gambling establishments are much stingier with comps today.
Therefore, you can’t really rely on rewards to supplement your card counting profits. Instead, you mostly have to rely on what you make at the table.
If you’re really good at counting, you may way to ignore joining a player’s club altogether. This keeps the casino from having your identity on file and reduces that chances that you’ll be made as a counter.
5 – Change Your Appearance — But Don’t Get Carried Away
The general public has this perception that card counters use a variety of goofy disguises and personalities to fool casinos. The movie 21, where the main character (Ben Campbell) acts like a Texas oil tycoon at one point, certainly didn’t diminish this perception.
In reality, you don’t have to walk into a casino dressed like a construction worker one day, then come back in an Elvis costume on the next. Instead, you merely need to make subtle changes to your appearance.
If you wear both contact lenses and glasses, you can alternate between them when visiting the same casino. Likewise, you can be clean-shaven one day and have a beard on your next visit.
You can also alter your clothing style from wearing a t-shirt and jeans on one visit to wearing a blazer and slacks. The key is to ensure that you’re not easily identified without going overboard.
Assuming you’re playing in Las Vegas, you’ll have dozens of options to choose from on any given night. And if you play during different shifts, it’s even less likely that you’re going to be noticed as a serial winner.
6 – Look for Games with More Decks and Good Deck Penetration
Amateur card counters often try to find the most favorable games. This means looking for a single- or double-deck table combined with 3:2 blackjack payouts.
These games are great from the perspective that they have a low house edge to begin and allow card counters to make even more money. But the problem is that casinos also watch these games closer because they stand to lose even more to advantage players.
A better alternative is to simply look for a six-deck game with good deck penetration. The latter refers to the percentage of cards that are dealt before the dealer reshuffles the shoe.
You want more deck penetration so that you can confidently determine an accurate count before betting big. Look for games that allow at least 70% of the shoe to be dealt before reshuffling.
7 – Forget Side Counting
Blackjack used to feature a side bet called over/under 13. This was a popular wager among card counters because they could make a lot of money off it by side counting.
Over/under 13 is long gone, but there are still favorable side-bet opportunities available. One of them is Lucky Ladies, where you win a jackpot by getting two queens of hearts with a suited dealer blackjack.
It’s tempting to side-count wagers like these. But the problem is that you need to fill out a W-9 form if you win.
Obviously, the average blackjack player won’t have a problem with this, especially if they win a big side bet. But a professional card counter who’s keeping a low profile doesn’t enjoy meeting with casino officials and filling out W-9s.
8 – Be Consistent with Awkward Strategy Plays
You can make plenty of money just by counting cards and using basic strategy. But advanced counters sometimes use strategy deviations to gain an extra edge over casinos.
Highly skilled players use these deviations because the composition of shoe changes along with the count.
One example of a strategy deviation involves standing with a 16 against the dealer’s 10 upcard.
Basic blackjack strategy advises hitting in this situation every time. Only an inexperienced blackjack player would stand, because they’re at such a disadvantage.
It’s fine to stand with a 16 against a 10 if you do it consistently. But if you hit sometimes and stand others, then the dealer and pit boss may become suspicious.
Another play that draws attention is splitting 10s, which is one of the biggest no-nos in blackjack. Casinos know that only bad players and card counters split in this situation.
Deviating from basic strategy can be fine in certain situations, namely when you’re dealing with a lax casino. But don’t get carried away with making strange plays at every gambling venue.
9 – Be Careful with Raising Bets Towards the End of Shoes
As mentioned before, you must raise your bet to take advantage of favorable counts. And the optimal time to do so is towards the end of a shoe when you’re fully confident in a positive true count.
But casinos can see an obvious pattern when you make minimum bets throughout the first part of a shoe, only to use a 1-15 spread towards the end.
Much of this problem can be solved by leaving every casino after playing 50-100 hands. But if you plan on counting at the same casino longer than this, vary your bet sizes a little at the beginning of a shoe as well.
Card counting may not be as easy to beat as it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But these games can still be beaten with the right techniques.
Learning how to count cards is the easy part. You can learn the Hi-Lo system within minutes and practice afterward.
A good way to practice is by using online card counting trainers. You need to keep track of the onscreen card values to work on maintaining a good count.
The difficult part of being an advantage blackjack player is keeping your cover. Doing so involves far more than just changing your appearance each time out.
You also need to keep your sessions short, visit many casinos at different shifts (Vegas is perfect for this), keep your bet sizes reasonable, and be careful when deviating from basic strategy.
Many players like forming card counting teams. The standard team model uses spotters to find favorite counts, then signals to a “big player” to come in and bet big.
This eliminates the awkwardness of spreading your bets during favorable and unfavorable counts. Instead, the big player merely looks like a high roller who just sat down to the table.
The problem with teams, though, is that it’s difficult to find several dedicated players. Few groups have the bankroll or dedication of the MIT Blackjack Team.
If you can’t find a team, then it’s perfectly fine to try being a solo counter. This is especially the case in Vegas, where you can quickly hit casinos and leave.