Many blackjack players have a general idea what counting cards is, but they don’t understand the actual mechanics of it. Others may think counting cards is too hard for them to learn and implement a card-counting strategy.

Card-counting is a big deal in popular culture thanks to dozens of books, magazine articles, and movies made about teams of card counters and their exploits. In this article, I take some of the mystery out of card-counting and show you how you can learn this valuable strategy with just a little practice.

Why Counting Cards Works

Every card that is removed from a deck of playing cards either makes it more likely the dealer will win or more likely the player will win the next hand.

When you find a blackjack game with favorable rules you can keep track of the cards that have been played (removed from the deck) and increase your bets when the count favors you.

When the count is in your favor

This works in part because blackjacks pay more than even money and when the deck is rich in 10 count cards
and aces you are more likely to get a blackjack

When the count is not in your favor

This works in part because blackjacks pay more than even money and when the deck is rich in 10 count cards and aces you are more likely to get a blackjack


Big names are NOT a guarantee, but they are a pretty good indication that those sites are doing it right.

Card Counting Systems

Dozens of card counting systems are available. It’s downright easy to get lost in an almost endless series of questions and a calculation trying to determine which one is the best. You have to balance the ease of use of any system with the strength of the system.

This chart lists the seven most-popular systems used by card counters:

The numbers with a (+) or (–) symbol underneath the card values row indicate what that card does to the count.

For example, under the Hi Lo count, you’ll add 1 for every 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 you see and subtract 1 for every ace and 10 count card you see. Another example – the Red7 count is almost the same as the Hi Lo except you add 1 for every red 7 you see.

Differences Between Balanced and Unbalanced Systems

The main difference is that a balanced count will finish with the same count you started with and an unbalanced count will not end with the same count you started with.

So by that logic, we can conclude that from the above chart:

Hi Lo Count = Balanced System

If you start with a count of 0 using a Hi Lo count your count will be 0 when you finish counting a deck, assuming you don’t make any mistakes.

Red 7 Count = Unbalanced System

If you start counting at 0 and use the Red 7 count you will end up with a count of +2 after counting a single deck of cards. If you were to count two decks your count would be +4, etc.

Another big difference between balanced and unbalanced counts is that you have to make a conversion to
get a true count with balanced systems. That means unbalanced systems are theoretically easier to use.

When you are using a balanced count you have to divide the count by the remaining decks to get a true
count. So if your running count is +8 and there are 4 decks remaining your true count would be +2.

Can Anyone Learn How to Count Cards?

The good news is that just about anyone can learn how to count cards if they are willing to work at it. Unlike the common belief that you have to remember every card in the deck, you actually only have to be able to remember a number as you add or subtract one or two as you see the cards.

For example, if the count is 5 and you see a card that is a +1 you make the count 6. The next card is a -1 so you make the new count 5. See how easy that is? Most systems only use +1 and -1 but there are some that use +2 and -2 or higher. I strongly suggest only using a +1 and -1 count while you are learning. Most players never use a higher counting system because they don’t have to in order to make money.

A few higher count systems exist, literally squeezing a few extra tenths of a percent advantage if played 100% perfectly, but the advanced complications of the system often forces players to make an occasional mistake that costs more than the small extra edge.

Learn How to Count Cards

Now that you have learned why you should learn how to count cards, here is a step-by-step method to easily learn how to do it yourself.

Step 1:Buy eight decks of cards with the same backs
You can usually find cards at the dollar store or online at closeout places or auction sites. I like using the ones that the casinos used and then sold. They usually have a hole drilled through them but they tend to be high quality cards that will put up with a great deal of play and practice.
Step 2:Choose a system to use
It doesn’t really matter what system you use as long as you know the basic set up and you’re willing to learn the correct variations of basic strategy to use with it once you learn how to count cards.
Step 3:Start with a single deck and flip the cards over one at a time and keep a running count according to the system you selected
It doesn’t really matter what system you use as long as you know the basic set up and you’re willing to learn the correct variations of basic strategy to use with it once you learn how to count cards.
Step 4: Once you are really comfortable with a running count, begin flipping cards over in sets of two or three or four
Continue this until you master your count quickly. Then add a second deck and continue practicing. Keep adding decks of cards until you can quickly count an 8 deck shoe dealt out in sets of two to four cards correctly every time.
Step 5: Once you have mastered step 4, if you are using a balanced counting system, start converting the running count to a true count every so often
If you can find a timer that will cycle to go off every 30 or 60 seconds you can use it to signal when you need to make a conversion.
Step 6:Test your skills in a real casino
Head to a local casino and find the lowest level blackjack table they offer and start playing. You will find it difficult at first, but as you keep working you will get to the point where you can count while doing other things. The best counters can talk to other people and act like they are just another blackjack player while maintaining 100% count accuracy.


(And yes, that’s really all there is to learning how to count cards!)

Just follow the steps listed above and practice. You can even practice counting cards while playing for free at an online casino. Just realize that the online casino software actually shuffles the deck after every hand so you can’t get an edge, but you can still practice your skills.

Why Speed is Important

Read much about card-counting online and you’ll come across post after post about the importance of being a quick card-counter.

You should be able to count down a deck of cards in a matter of seconds before you hit the casino – I read that statement over and over again.

Truth is; the only reason it is important to be able to count down a deck as fast as possible is so you have the confidence to do it as you are learning.

Once you learn how to count and start doing it on a regular basis you will find that being able to count a deck down in seconds is not important at all. The actual game does not play that fast.

Sure, the game can feel like it is progressing at breakneck speed when you first start counting, but with just a little experience it slows down a great deal.

So don’t panic if you can’t count a deck down as quickly as some people claim. Just make sure you get the count right every single time and work on improving your speed.

Heat, Cover and Camouflage

Three words you often find when learning about counting cards in blackjack are:

  • Heat
  • Cover
  • Camouflage

Heat is when the casino personnel are watching you play trying to determine if you are counting cards or not. While it is not illegal to count cards in most places, the casinos do have the right to not let you play. So if they figure out you are counting cards, they more than likely will ask you to stop playing.

Cover and Camouflage

Cover and camouflage are both actions you can take to try to make sure the casinos don’t figure out you are a card counter.

There are things you can do to disguise your play in the playing of your hands and in your actions at or around the table. Casinos know that certain plays in certain situations are made by card counters so when you make these plays you may draw suspicion to yourself.

Of course if you don’t make the most profitable plays you end up giving away some of the advantage you are working for. You need to learn the plays that don’t cost you much in expected return and make them the same way players who don’t count cards do.

  • One of the biggest ways a card counter can signal to the casino that they are counting is when they never take insurance and when the count is high they start taking it. When the count goes back down they stop taking it again. While most dealers and pit personnel can’t count cards, the surveillance teams often have a person who can count or have a computer that takes care of it.
  • Some players act like they have had too much to drink and / or act like they aren’t paying attention at the table. The less you seem like you are counting cards the better.
  • Don’t stare at every card as it is being dealt and make sure you aren’t moving your lips as you add or subtract from the count.

Entire books can be written about heat, cover and camouflage, but the important thing is to know what they are and take action to avoid being tossed from a profitable game.

What is Back Counting?

Back counting, also called Wonging (named after the author Stanford Wong), is when you stand behind other players and count cards and only start playing when the count is in your favor.

While this sounds like a great idea because you don’t play hands where you don’t have an advantage, the casinos are well aware of this tactic and keep a close eye out for it. It is best accomplished with two or more players where the person back counting doesn’t actually enter the games. The counter signals a partner and the partner enters the game.