One of the first things you find when you start looking for ways to gamble with an edge is counting cards. Dozens of books, and a few movies, have been released detailing how blackjack players make millions counting cards. It sounds like a great way to gamble while making big bucks.
As a matter of fact, card counting sounds a great deal like a get rich quick scheme.
Like most get rich quick schemes, there’s some truth to the claims about counting cards, but there are also a lot of false claims, and smoke and mirrors being used as well.
Don’t get me wrong; counting cards in blackjack can give you a mathematical edge. If you learn how to do it well, change your bet sizes enough when the count is in your favor, and can find places to play, you can make money counting cards. But it’s still a waste of time for most gamblers.
Top card counters can swing the edge into their favor by as much as 1%. If you can use the wonging technique, you can push this higher, but most casinos have put rules in place to eliminate wonging.
Wonging is counting a blackjack game without playing, and then joining the game when the count is in your favor. Casinos use the no mid shoe entry to eliminate wonging. The same rule eliminates the advantage of team play as well.
Most card counters don’t belong to the top level of the profession. This is the same as any other profession; only a few are able to reach the top. But most card counters are able to swing the edge in their favor by somewhere around .5% with enough practice and dedication.
In order to get a complete understanding of what these percentages mean and how they relate to your ability to make money, you need to understand how card counting works.
Blackjack is played with several different rules variations, and each variation changes the house edge. Some rules push the edge higher for the casino, while others lower the casino’s edge. The first thing card counters look for is a game with good rules. With the right combination of rules, you can start with a house edge of less than .5%.
The next thing card counters look for is games that have deep penetration. No matter how many decks the casino uses, card counters want games where the casino deals through more of the shoe. The deeper the casino deals, the better chance you have of finding a profitable count.
Now the counter uses perfect strategy to keep the house as low as possible. You can get a strategy card to use at the table, but if you want to count cards for a living you have to have strategy memorized so you never make a mistake.
At this point, the process of actually counting cards comes into play. You use whatever counting system you decide is best, and follow the rules of the system. The most common systems start with a count of zero and then add or subtract one as cards are played. Low cards add to the count and high cards lower the count. You take this running count and create a true count, usually by dividing it by the number of remaining decks in the shoe. When the true count reaches a high enough number you bet more. This can create an edge over the house.
Because of the way card counting works, you make bets of different sizes. The edge I mentioned above is based on your average bet size and is a long term estimate. In order to turn the edge in your favor you need to have a wide bet spread. Your top bet needs to be eight to 32 times your minimum bet, which can be difficult to do in live play. The higher the bet range, the higher your potential edge.
Here are some numbers based on a .5% edge in your favor. Remember that the bet size is an average of your bets, and all of these numbers are long term estimates. In the short run anything can happen. Another thing to remember is the number of hands you can play per hour varies.
If your average bet is $25, you play 60 hands per hour, and have an edge of .5% your hourly win rate is $7.50. While this is better than losing, it’s still under minimum wage in most places.
The way to determine the hourly win rate is to convert the percentage to a decimal; in this case .5% becomes .005, and then multiply it by the average bet size and multiply it by the hands per hour.
If your average bet size is $50 per hand with everything else being the same, your hourly win rate is $15.00. If you can get your average bet size up to $100 you reach an hourly expected win rate of $30.
This is finally somewhere in the ballpark of making decent money, but it’s still far below top wages. Assume you can make $30 an hour playing blackjack and you can figure out how to play 40 hours a week. This isn’t a safe assumption, as I’ll explain shortly, but for the sake of argument let’s look at the number.
If you play 50 weeks a year, 40 hours per week, at $30 an hour, your yearly income is $60,000. This isn’t terrible, but it won’t make you rich.
And even reaching this level is filled with problems and obstacles. Here are some of the big ones:
Card counting requires players to move from table to table and from casino to casino to keep from being detected. Casinos throw out card counters when they figure out what they’re doing. This cuts down on the time spent actually playing.
You also lose a great deal of time counting down shoes that never turn to a positive count. You can leave the table as soon as you determine the shoe isn’t going to improve, but you still need to take the time to find another table and start counting again.
Perhaps the biggest problem is getting your average bet size high enough to make money. Blackjack players who average $25 bets don’t get a great deal of scrutiny from the casino. But as you start betting more and more the casino pit and security starts watching closer. The casino knows that good card counters betting large amounts can cost them a great deal of money.
When you start betting black chips, $100 chips are black in most casinos, it’s likely that the pit and security is going to watch some of your play. They know what to look for to identify card counter, and one of the things that jumps out is when players have a wide bet spread. Many casinos also have people on hand that can count cards from the security room.
In order to get an average bet size of $100 you have to bet smaller amounts when the count isn’t in your favor and amounts higher than $100 when you have a good count. The majority of the time you play blackjack the count isn’t high enough to make bigger bets. As a rough estimate, you’re going to play 75% of your hands at your minimum bet. This only leaves 25% of your hands at higher bet levels to raise your average bet.
Here are some specific numbers:
If you use a 1 – 8 bet spread and start with $25, your top bet is $200. If you make 75% of your bets at $25 and 25% of them at $200, your average bet is only $68.75. And the truth is that you can’t jump from $25 straight to $200. You have to gradually build your bet amounts, so your average bet in real play with this spread is closer to $50.
If you use a 1 – 16 bet spread, you bet between $25 and $400 per hand. With 75% of your bets at $25, and 5% of your bets at $50, $100, $200, $300, and $400 each, your average bet is still only $71.25. And if you spread from $25 to $400 you really need to be careful, because eventually you’re going to get heat.
These numbers hopefully show you why making money counting cards is a waste of time. You can make a little money, but making enough to live on is challenging. But if you aren’t convinced yet, keep reading for more bad news.
If you’re ready to give up on card counting, you can skip to the section about better options.
Casino Procedure Changes
Casinos have been trying to prevent card counters for several years. They make changes all of the time to discourage counting and are adding people and security features that help them identify counters faster.
Casinos offer blackjack games with poor rules, so the house edge is larger and counters have to work harder and make bigger bets to swing the edge in their favor. Some casinos are switching to constant shuffling machines, which makes counting impossible.
Once players learned that they could form a team and have a few players make minimum bets and count and then signal a player when the count was good, the teams started making good money. The player who joined the game after the count was good could just start making big bets, so he or she didn’t look like a counter.
Casinos figured this out eventually, so they introduced no mid shoe entry rules. This eliminated team play.
Team play can still work where the casino allows mid shoe entry, but there are other challenges to overcome. When you form a blackjack counting team it can be hard to find enough players you can trust and to ride out the big swings.
Even the best blackjack teams face big downswings, and it can be hard to keep a team together and on track during these times. You also deal with large amounts of money because you have to finance travel, keep the minimum bet players playing, and have enough so the big player can sit down and make maximum bets when the count is good.
The casinos also learned to look for team play, so you can’t travel together and have to arrive at the casino at different times by different entrances. And you still have to jump from casino to casino so no one casino has all of you playing together for long on tape.
The casinos also learned that in six and eight deck shoe games, if they shuffled up at 50% penetration it eliminated most of the advantage card players had. Single and double deck games either disappeared, or had such terrible rules that counters couldn’t make money with them.
Every time card counters come up with a new way to beat the casinos, the casinos come up with new ways to keep the counters at bay. Some card counters still make decent money, but most advantage players either don’t count cards anymore, or it’s just a small part of their advantage play system.
Playing Under the Radar
I’ve mentioned this a few times already, but the most important thing card counters need to be able to do other than the mechanics of counting is to stay under the radar. As soon as the casinos identify you as a card counting threat they either ban you from playing or make the games you play impossible to beat.
Blackjack players have used all kinds of camouflage over the years, from disguises to team play to constant table jumping and altering their play.
You can play certain hands different ways to make it more difficult for casinos to identify you as a counter, but every time you make a play that isn’t the best play you cost yourself a small amount of profit.
It’s almost impossible to be a successfully card counter long term unless you play in one of the few places that offer a wide range of casinos. Outside of Las Vegas, few places in the world offer enough casinos close together where you can jump from casino to casino to avoid detection.
When you play blackjack for fun, you can start and stop when you want. If it’s not fun you can play something else or go home. But when you’re counting cards you have to play as often as possible when you find good counting situations. You never play blackjack for fun once you start counting. Blackjack is now your job.
Some players have no problem grinding out a living at the blackjack tables, but many counters burn out because it’s not fun. They grow to hate blackjack just as much as they hated any job they ever had. Many poker players are able to make money playing poker, but when they realize they need to grind out a few dollars an hour for 80 hours a week they stop playing. This is the same thing that happens to many card counters.
Take a minute to go back over the numbers in the first section again and compare them to your bankroll. How many hours a week do you have to play to make a good living, and is it even possible when you have to switch tables and casinos frequently?
Gamblers who want to find a way to play with an edge only have so many options. Card counting is one that can work, but as you can see it’s hard to win enough to make good money. But you have a few other options. None of your advantage play options are easy, but the ones listed below do offer the chance to make money if you put in enough work.
The best options are ones where you aren’t playing against the house and a built in house edge. But there are a few options where the house has an overall edge that can still be beat.
The best option for many players is poker. Many former blackjack players have transitioned to the poker players because they can learn how to play with an advantage and the casinos don’t care. No matter how much you win at the poker table, the casino won’t make you stop playing unless you’re causing trouble.
Honestly, it’s easier and faster to learn how to count cards than it is to become a winning poker player. But once you learn how to beat poker you can win more money, play more hours because you don’t have to switch casinos and tables, and never have to worry about heat.
You can specialize in cash game play or tournament play, and you can play several different games and variations. If you get tired of playing cash games you can enter a tournament, or you can switch from Texas holdem to Omaha. Poker can be a grind, just like blackjack, but it does offer more variety.
Betting on sports is another option for gamblers looking for an edge. Sportsbooks and bookies charge vig on bets, so you have to overcome this edge, but smart sports bettors can do it. You can also look for opportunities where sportsbooks offer different lines and you can bet on both sides of a game, even if you aren’t good at handicapping contests.
Other options include daily fantasy sports, betting on esports, playing backgammon and rummy for money, and advanced techniques like shuffle tracking and hole carding.
Shuffle tracking and hole carding are challenging, because you can’t use them all of the time. Shuffle trackers have to play games that are hand shuffled, and hole carders need to find dealers they can exploit. These are two techniques you can use in conjunction with card counting though, so they’re both things to explore if you’re convinced you want to be a counter.
Many of these options have challenged, just like card counting. Sports’ betting requires a large bankroll to make good money, because even the best gamblers only win a little more than half their bets. This means you have to make large bets to make enough off your small edge to make a living.
Poker players need to have 20 to 30 times their buy in amount in reserve to make sure they can ride the ups and downs without running out of money. And if you want to make a good living you need to either play tons of hours every week or play at high buy in levels.
Players who play poker tournaments can win a big prize for a smaller buy in, but even in a big tournament if you don’t finish in the top five or 10 places, you aren’t making much money.
Playing with an edge isn’t easy, but many players are able to do it. If you’re dedicated to being an advantage player and are willing to put in the time, you can join their ranks. Only you can decide which route is the best for you, but in the long run I think poker or sports betting offers better options.
It’s almost impossible to make good money counting cards. I’m not saying a few gamblers can’t do it, but the numbers show that counting for a living is hard. The casinos keep coming up with new ways to make counting less profitable and keep banning counters from the tables.
If you want to gamble with an edge, consider poker and sports betting. They both offer their own challenges, but they also offer the chance to make more money with less heat.