Getting any kind of movement in house edge is critical to success in online blackjack. As a direct head to head between you and the house, it’s the best you can do to minimise the in-built advantage of your opponent, and give yourself a fighting chance long-term. The primary way of reducing the house edge in blackjack as standard is to play according to basic strategy, the mathematical computations of how to proceed with different hands. It’s therefore essential that you memorise the blackjack strategy charts inside out and back to front, to put yourself in a strong position against the house. But blackjack strategy alone won’t be enough to seal the deal, and it still takes skill and hard work to improve your game, even once you’ve got the basic strategy down.
Card counting is one the next techniques you can turn your attention to. Most blackjack players approach the game with a general understanding of what card counting is, but for the uninitiated, it can seem like an impossible task. With so many different cards flying around, you need a pretty good memory to recall the sequence of cards dealt, not to mention a skilled working knowledge of arithmetic and probabilities.
In reality, there are ways of executing card counting strategies without genius-level gifts, which can improve your game and deliver an even greater improvement on house edge in your blackjack game.
Card Counting Theory
Card counting works because the game of blackjack uses a fixed number of cards, usually unshuffled between hands. At its simplest, consider a one-deck game containing 52 cards. As each card is dealt, the cards remaining in the deck become fewer. Over time, these can skew in particular directions, depending on the random order of the deck, leaving more cards of a certain value still to be drawn.
If the game is a one on one between you and the house, the more high cards you draw in early hands, the fewer there will be available to draw in later rounds. Similarly, if you draw more lower value cards in the early rounds, your chances of drawing higher value, potentially blackjack worthy cards in the following hands rapidly increases.
If you play blind, with no method of tracking cards, you can only assume a matched probability with each hand – that you are as likely to hit 21 on your first hand as your last. But in the above scenario, it’s easy to see how these odds can swing wildly from neutral, depending on how the cards fall. Card counting aims to address this imbalance. If you can count cards by some workable mechanism, you can start to capitalise on the information that comes out during the game, helping you bias your decision making in the right direction.
In practice, this technique is often complicated by additional players, and by additional decks. Blackjack is usually played in casinos with multiple decks of cards, stacked in a ‘shoe’. So instead of there being 4 Aces up for grabs, there might be 16, or 32. This makes it more challenging to keep count of the cards, but it’s still possible. Players who develop their skills in this area and practice card counting can put the technique to use in live blackjack play, as an influencer that goes hand in hand with a solid basic strategy to virtually eliminate house edge, thereby delivering the best possible chance of landing more regular wins.
Assigning Point Values
A Professor of Mathematics from California was the first to devise the point value technique for card counting. After modelling his strategy in a live casino environment, his work was published commercially to international success, introducing card counting as a feasible, practical strategy for the first time. It worked by assigned cards a different point value depending on their value.
The basic theory runs that more higher cards in the deck are to your advantage. More lower cards in the deck, or the shoe, are to your disadvantage. When the deck is stacked in your advantage, it pays to be more aggressive in your betting, so you can capitalise on the favourable conditions. The inverse is true when the cards are not in your favour.
You can calculate whether the deck is positive or negative based on assigning a points value to different cards. All cards dealt that are numbered 2-6 are deemed to be a positive – that’s plus 1 point. All cards from 10 onwards are deemed to be negative – that’s minus 1 point. Cards 7-9 are neutral, so that’s zero points. To use this strategy successfully, you need to keep a running points total in your mind, adjusted with every card that is dealt to determine whether the balance is positive or negative. This is known as a ‘running count’, and can be used to give you that all crucial information about whether the deck is for or against you at any point in the game.
For Example, if the following cards were dealt: 3, Jack, King, 6, 7, King, Queen, 3, 2, 5, 4, Jack, 3, 6 the count would be +3.
This strategy works well, but casinos are smart. To hedge against players implementing this type of card counting, casinos introduced multiple decks into their blackjack games. This means that a running count of this type is diluted by the number of decks in the pack – a score of +10 with 1 deck is entirely different to a score of +10 across 6 decks, for example. ‘True count’ attempts to resolve this discrepancy. When multiple decks are in play, you need to take the running count and divide it by the number of decks in play to get your total – essentially adding one additional step to the calculation.
So before adding the total points value of the cards on the table to your running count, you need to divide it by the number of decks remaining in the shoe. Be mindful that the decks will exhaust as cards are dealt, so your dividing number will decrease over time. But the broad principle remains the same, in terms of keeping the tally and using this to inform your betting decisions.
When To Bet Big
When the card total is positive and your basic strategy tells you to play through your hand, you know you’re in a very strong position. This is where you can remove the shackles and start playing more aggressively with each hand, because you know the deck will favour you over time. Likewise if the points total is neutral or negative, you can be a little more cautious in the bets you make.
Card counting of this kind isn’t a sure-fire guarantee you will win every hand. Nothing can guarantee that. But by giving you a better insight into the odds and probability running through the game, it allows you to play the odds long-term, which will put you in a stronger position from capitalising from your blackjack play.
Edward O. Thorp’s Story
Edward Oakley Thorp is the man credited with introducing the concept of card counting to the world. An academic, professor, investor and laterally highly successful author, his gift for mathematics would allow him to expound the theory in his international best seller, Beat the Dealer, still the definitive text on card counting for those who are intrigued to find out more, and maybe to practice their skills a little.
Edward Thorp was formerly a senior professor at several Ivy League universities in the US, and carried a prestige and academic credence that is too often drowned out in gambling circles. Using his close understanding of mathematics and probability, Thorp was able to condense his work on blackjack into a volume that could be more easily digested by casual players, and would go on to spark a raft of card counting attempts at casinos worldwide.
To this day, Thorp’s methods are still deployed by blackjack players at casinos and private games, each trying to get an edge on the house based on a better knowledge of the probability of the dealer’s hand. As a result, there have been some impressive wins from players implementing card counting when playing blackjack.
Card Counting Today
Card counting is not illegal, and most people would consider the practice an example of impressive mental agility and skill, rather than cheating in the ordinary sense of the word. The casinos take a different approach, and as you’ll know if you ever get too successful in a casino, they’re not long showing you the door.
Casinos have a right to refuse bets from anyone at any time, as a private business with their own decision making ability. If a casino notices someone card counting, and thereby gaining an advantage over their dealer, they can and do cut them off. This is to preserve profits, and some casinos are ruthless in their enforcement of these rules.
For this reason, card counting isn’t exactly something you should try on a Vegas blackjack table tomorrow. At least, if you do attempt to put this into practice, be prepared to be given short shrift on your prompt exit from the casino. Nevertheless, players can and do successful still deploy Thorp’s methods.