Blackjack strategy counting cards

Why counting cards in blackjack can tip the odds

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Blackjack is a game where the only winning strategy is to play smart, play long, and play deliberately.

When Ben Affleck was thrown out of a casino in May for allegedly counting cards, it made for good tabloid news. Somehow, though, Affleck doesn’t fit the stereotype of the card counter. Going back to Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” or sensationalized tales of the MIT blackjack team, card counting stories tend to be nerd-revenge narratives, where the uber-sharp outcast uses his underappreciated skills to beat the house and prove his worth.

Affleck is not a nerd. He’s a charismatic celebrity with the acting skill to make his face into a mask. He belongs at the poker table.

What makes blackjack more suited for nerd-revenge is that there’s no bluffing, no intimidation, no necessary artistry. It’s a game where the only winning strategy is to play smart, play long, and play deliberately. If you follow a proven approach, calibrate your bets carefully, and learn how to effectively count cards, you can tip the odds ever so slightly in your favor, and then slowly rack up the winnings.

How is it done?

Basically, the goal is to keep track of which cards have been dealt and which remain in the deck.

If the dealer throws a lot of low cards, then you know there must be a larger-than-normal number of face cards still to come. The more face cards that remain, the better the odds for the player. Among other things, that’s because face cards increase your odds of getting blackjack, raise the likelihood that the dealer will bust, and make it more profitable to double down.

Now, keeping track of every card that comes out is more than most counters can manage, particularly when they’re playing with multiple decks. Instead, they can do what’s called “high-low counting, ” where you assign certain point-value to the cards and then track the points.

Low-cards below seven are one point, mid-range cards are zero points, high cards above nine are negative one. As the cards come out, you add up the point values, and keep a running total, which is blandly referred to as “the count.”

For instance, if the first cards are: 7, A, 10, 5, 9, 6, K, 3, K, Q the count would be minus 2, which tells you that more high cards came out than you would ordinarily expect.

Of course, after just one hand, the odds won’t have changed that much. But as you go deeper into the deck, you gain a surer sense for what remains and you can better predict what’s likely to come next.

Is this the only approach?

No, there are lots of ways that sharp blackjack players try to gain an edge. You can improve on the “high-low” method by keeping a separate count of aces, since aces play a special role in blackjack, having two possible values (one or 11). Some players also try “shuffle tracking, ” where they follow particular cards through the shuffling process and estimate where they are in the new deck.

How much can this really change the odds?

Even if you’re not counting, blackjack has some of the best odds in any casino. Depending on the rules of the table (which do vary slightly), the house advantage can be as low as 0.5 percent, meaning that on average you lose 50 cents for every $100 you play.

Add card counting to the mix and you can shift the odds in the other direction, so that you’re likely to win 50 cents for every $100 you play. That may not seem like much of an advantage, but given enough time, it lets skilled counters rack up substantial winnings.

Isn’t it illegal to count cards?

Actually, no. Counting cards is perfectly legal, provided you’re not using a computer or other tracking device. When teams of counters work together, they sometime organize as a legal company, with the players as taxable employees.

Do casinos try to stop it?

Oh, yes, they do. Counting may be legal, but that doesn’t mean card counters are welcomed with open arms. Casinos use a number of strategies to control counting.

Change the rules. The main reason card counting works in blackjack is because the house advantage is so low. By changing the rules, casinos can increase the house advantage and ensure that even good card counters still come out behind. Alterations include lowering the payout for blackjack, cutting off the option to “surrender” your hand, and limiting the ability to split or double-down.

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