Many gamblers are fascinated by advantage play, which involves developing a skill that provides an edge over the house. Card counting is without a doubt the most-popular form of advantage gambling.
Pop culture has made card counting seem like a guaranteed path to blackjack riches. Movies like 21, Rain Man, and The Hangover further this notion by showing players who quickly winning fortunes. But is card counting really this easy? Can you get rich doing it?
No and no. Counting cards is tougher than ever these days and will likely put you through distress before you quit. Keep reading as I discuss 11 reasons why you should avoid card counting and instead choose other forms of advantage play or even skill-based games.
1 – Card Counting Is Easy to Learn – But Hard to Execute in Casinos
One of the biggest misconceptions regarding card counting is that you must be a genius to do it. The reality, though, is that just about any player can learn how to adequately count cards. You can learn easy systems like the Knockout and Hi-Lo, which I’ll cover towards the end of this post. These strategies can both be digested in a matter of minutes.
Annoying players, music, the dealer chatting, cocktail waitresses, and a scrutinizing pit boss can all divert your attention from the game. Assuming you lose track of the count at any point, then any potential advantage with the shoe is lost. If this happens, you must either stay and face losing long-term prospects or exit the game until the next shoe.
2 – Casinos Know More about Card Counting Than Ever
Many gamblers read tales of famous counters like Ed Thorp, Al Francesco, and the MIT Blackjack Team, then immediately want to put their skills to the test. Unfortunately, these legends played at a time when casinos were less adept at catching card counters.
Today, gambling establishments are better than ever at making advantage players.Casino staff are trained to spot typical counting habits. The biggest giveaway is when a player spreads their bets from the table minimum to anywhere from 6x-20x this amount. Less experienced gamblers will even go up to the table maximum, which is the quickest way to be spotted and kicked out of the casino.
Here some of the many things that you can do tomake casinos suspicious:
- Jump on a table towards the end of a shoe, then leave when the new shoe begins (a.k.a. wonging).
- Playing without a player’s club card and turning down free alcoholic drinks.
- Take insurance after spreading to a larger bet, combined with not taking insurance on bets.
- Doubling down in strange situations, such as 9 vs. 7.
Using the above plays improves a skilled counter’s win rate. But they’re also easy giveaways to an already suspicious staff.
3 – Most Blackjack Tables Are Bad for Counters
Gone are the days when you could walk into casinos and find single-deck games with 3:2 natural blackjack payouts. These have been replaced with many games that feature six or eight decks combined with 6:5 payouts.
A cut card placed 2-4 decks before shoe ends is designed to reduce deck penetration.” An advantage gambler can’t be confident in their count without around 70% deck penetration or better. No mid-shoe entry prevents “wonging,” which is named after author Stanford Wong. This technique involves counting off to the side of a game, then jumping in when the count is favorable.
You can still find casinos with good blackjack tables. But the vast majority of games will feature rules that are designed to hamper card counters.
4 – You Can’t Stay in the Same Game for Long When You Do Find a Good Table
Ever since the American recession of 2008, casinos act quicker when they suspect that a player is counting cards. Gambling venues don’t want to run the risk of having profits siphoned off by advantage gamblers, which is why they react so quickly.
It’s hard to leave a game that you’ve worked so hard to find. Unfortunately, it’s also necessary so that you don’t get banned from too many casinos.
5 – You May Have to Move to Las Vegas
You’ll face an uphill battle when considering that good blackjack games are few and far in between. Matters only get worse when factoring in how casinos become suspicious when you wildly spread bets at the same table for multiple shoes.
You can especially find plenty of casinos in downtown and North Las Vegas that offer good counting conditions. Vegas’ wealth of casino options and is why any aspiring professional needs to live here. Of course, not everybody wants to upgrade and move to Sin City. If you’re not willing to do this, then you can either count cards for fun or give up on it.
6 – You Won’t Earn Many Comps
The 2008 recession also caused casinos to be less generous with their comps. This is an about-face from previous decades, when land-based casinos were known for showering players with rewards. Chances are that you won’t join a player’s club as a counter anyways. Forgoing this option reduces the chances that you’ll be caught on subsequent visits, because casinos won’t have your personal info on file.
But if you’re banking on rewards as part of your earnings, then don’t expect much. Gambling establishments are stingier than ever with comps. Again, living in Las Vegas will help you in this regard. But most other casino destinations throughout the US don’t deliver many freebies.
7 – You Could Get Banned from Your Favorite Casino
Do you have a favorite place to gamble? If so, then you’ll want to steer clear of it when counting cards. Any casino that catches you will take your picture and write down your ID info. They’ll likely ban you permanently and threaten legal action if you’re caught trespassing on any of their properties.
Poker pro Joseph Stiers is an extreme example, because he was caught counting at Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino. The venue’s parent company, Caesars Interactive Entertainment, also told Stiers not to step foot on their properties.
Stiers claims that his $10,000 Main Event buy-in wasn’t repaid, and he’s now suing to get his buy-in money back plus punitive damages. Joseph Stiers’ story shows the extremes on how gambling venues treat known advantage players who trespass.
8 – You Need a Large Bankroll
You don’t need a big bankroll to count cards. But your risk of ruin dramatically decreases when you have an adequate bankroll. Risk of ruin refers to your chances of losing everything. And your odds of losing everything only decrease when you have more money to cover your max bets. Earlier I mentioned how card counters spread their bets between the table minimum and a higher amount. The larger you spread your bets without being caught, the more profits you stand to make.
Once you figure out your bet spread, the next step is to decide how large of a bankroll you’ll need. A good target involves having 100 max bets.
Here’s an example:
- You plan on using a 1-10 spread.
- The casino’s table minimum bet is $10.
- Your max bet in this scenario will be $100.
- 100 x 100 = $10,000.
Some players may already have this much or more saved. But the average blackjack player doesn’t have $10,000 in disposable income sitting around. Also keep in mind that your bankroll needs may go even higher when you’re dealing with a larger minimum bet and/or spread.
You can always try counting cards with a few thousand dollars. But again, remember that your risk of ruin increases with such a small amount.
9 – Your Bankroll Will Be Subject to Wild Swings
Some gamblers have the mistaken belief that card counters hold a huge edge over casinos. The truth, though, is that the average counter only has around a 1% advantage. This small edge means that you’ll experience a number of wild swings. Some blackjack pros have even found themselves losing for hundreds of hours before finally turning a profit again.
The same luck element that helps a normal blackjack player crush the house with basic strategy can also cause a winning player to go through horrific downswings. Being a card counter requires both skill and mental strength. Many players will want to give up after losing money for 100 straight hours.
The problem only becomes compounded when considering that you’ll likely make max bets worth hundreds of dollars. If you’re somebody who appreciates a stable income, then card counting probably isn’t for you.
10 – Card Counting Isn’t As Lucrative As It Seems
Another common misconception about card counting is that the pros rake in huge profits. While this still may be true for a select few, it’s not reality for the large majority of counters.
The first thing to consider here is that when you do find a favorable table, you’ll only be able to take advantage of it for a short time before having to leave. You’ll also be forced to make a lot of negative-expectation minimum bets until you have a favorable count later in a shoe.
The upper range of this may not sound so bad. But when you factor in travel costs, time spent researching casinos, tips (optional), and taxes, you won’t be making much more than a regular job. Your only options include accepting an average gambling salary, becoming one of the top card counters, or looking for something more lucrative to put your time into.
11 – Blackjack Teams Aren’t Always the Answer
One of the best ways to reduce the odds of casinos making you as a card counter involves forming a team. If you’ve seen the film 21, you’re probably familiar with blackjack team concept. The movie portrayed the MIT Blackjack Team using the “Big Player” strategy, which was created by Al Francesco in the 1970s.
This technique sees several “spotters” spread out to different tables and keep count. When their table reaches a favorable count, they use a secret signal to call in the Big Player (BP). The BP will then start betting the table maximum and taking advantage of the favorable count. This strategy offers a distinct advantage over solo counting in that the BP doesn’t have to spread bets. Instead, they know the count is positive thanks to the spotter and can immediately place large wagers.
Teams are often formed with one serious player and a few of their gambling buddies. The serious player may break off from the team and start counting solo when other members lose interest. Maybe you’ll get lucky and form an excellent blackjack team. But the more likely scenario that you’ll simply have a few thrills with your buddies before going solo or looking for new members.
In Case You’re Still Interested in Counting Cards – Here’s How
The blackjack world is full of different card counting systems. These strategies differ based on their complexity and the advantage they give players. You can spend a lot of time going through systems and learning each one. But a couple of decent counting strategies that are great for beginners include the Knockout (KO) and Hi-Lo systems.
Starting with the KO, the goal is to track low, neutral, and high cards. You also assign each group of cards the following point values:
- Low cards (2-7) = +1
- Neutral cards (8-9) = 0
- High cards (A-10) = -1
The KO is an “unbalanced system,” meaning that it features more low cards than high cards. Therefore, you don’t have to account for the multiple decks when tracking the count. Instead, you simply keep a “running count” of the entire shoe and raise bets towards the end if you have a very favorable count.
Here’s an example:
- You bet the table minimum of $10 when the count is +1 or worse.
- You bet $25 when the count is +2.
- You bet $50 when the count is +3.
- You bet $75 when the count is +4.
- You bet $100 or more when the count is +5 or higher.
The Hi-Lo system is very similar to the KO. The main difference is that it’s slightly more complicated, yet also more accurate.
One difference with the Hi-Lo is that 7 is counted as a neutral card, rather than low like with the KO. Here are the Hi-Lo’s three card groupings along with assigned point values:
- Low cards (2-6) = +1
- Neutral cards (7-9) = 0
- High cards (A-10) = -1
This strategy is known as a “balanced system,” meaning it has an equal number of high and low cards. Therefore, you must account for the number of remaining decks in the shoe. Doing so involves converting your running count into a “true count.” You need to divide the estimated number of remaining decks by the running count to arrive at this number.
Here’s an example:
- Your running count is +12.
- You estimate that the shoe has four remaining decks.
- 12 / 4 = +3 true count.
The Hi-Lo also has a more-accurate method for spreading your bets as the count becomes more favorable. This involves determining a unit size and using the true count to decide when you’ll increase your bet.
Here’s an example:
- The table’s minimum bet is $10.
- Your choose a unit size of $50.
- The true count is +3.
- Subtract 1 from the true count: 3 – 1 = 2
- Multiply this number by your unit size: 50 x 2 = $100.
- Your bet should be $100 (2 units), which is a 1-10 spread in this case.
The Hi-Lo strategy involves more math than the KO. But it’s still not difficult to learn this system, especially when considering how the Hi-Lo offers a bigger advantage.
Card counting will always interest gamblers who want to gain an edge over the house. This is perfectly fine when considering that counting cards is one of the few ways to legitimately beat casinos.If you’re still interested in becoming a counter after reading the 11 reasons above, then I fully encourage you to try it. But don’t jump into card counting without fully understanding the downsides. Learning systems isn’t overly difficult. Perfectly executing them, though, is a much tougher matter when considering all of the casino distractions. You also have to worry about how good casinos are at detecting counters, and the large bankroll you’ll need to make it happen. Few gamblers will still be interested when considering that one needs around 100 max bets to minimize their risk of ruin.
Another problem is that you’ll won’t gain much of an edge over the house. The average counter has anywhere between a 0.5% and 1.5% advantage over casinos. The most-discouraging aspect is that the average card counter doesn’t even make very big profits. The average player will only earn around $10 to $30 an hour if they do everything right. Card counting hardly seems worth the effort when considering that there are more-lucrative advantage gambling techniques. James Grosjean has used both hole carding and shuffle tracking to earn mid-six figures annually.
You can also gain an edge against fellow gamblers through daily fantasy sports, poker, or sports betting. Doing so requires a great deal of skill, but at least you don’t have to worry about casinos kicking you out. In summary, card counting is a fun advantage play technique to try. But I wouldn’t bank on earning a living through it.