Card Counting Basics for Beginners

Before we dig into card counting and its mysteries, let’s get one thing out of the way. Counting cards is legal but not something you want to get caught doing. It is not strictly speaking cheating, but a highly frowned upon strategy. That being said, if you can master it, you might be able to even out the odds between yourself and the house when playing blackjack.

There are several strategies for counting cards, and we’ll cover the common ones in this article.

The Basics – Learn the Rules

Card Counting Basics

The first rule of blackjack is to learn the rules of blackjack. This can seem tricky as this game is one of the most popular casino games today and has evolved into many variations. However, the game's goal to reach a card value of 21 has remained the same for at least two centuries.

We know this because one of the earliest mentions of blackjack is in one of Miguel de Cervantes's novels, Rinconete y Cortadillo. Albeit with the Spanish name “veintiuna” or, translated, twenty-one.

Basic rules

Your goal as a player is to get a total value on your cards of 21, or as close to it as possible but not over. The same goes for the dealer, and you are betting playing against in this game.

Aces count as 1 or 11, face cards have a value of 10, and all other cards retain their index value. Achieving 21 with only two cards, e.g., a ten or a king and an ace, is known as blackjack.

There is no need to worry about card suits. It does not matter if you have a spades ace and a diamond 10. Other rules to keep in mind are splitting and “doubling down”.

Card Counting Basics

Splitting: If you get two cards with the same value, you can split them, receive new cards for each of the previous cards, and thus play two hands.

Card-Counting-BasicsDoubling Down: If two cards have a total value of 11 (or 10), you can double the bet, turn up your cards and take one more facedown.

However, many casinos have house rules and the main goal of getting 21 or close to that value still stands. Always acquaint yourself with the rules of any particular variant you are interested in.

The Hi-Lo Strategy

One thing you must understand about counting cards is that the overall edge you get is no more than 1%. Hence, you’ll need to practice until you can call yourself a master.

The most commonly used strategy for counting cards is known as the hi-lo. It assigns cards a specific value; high cards get (-1) low cards get (+1). You add them up to keep track of the running count, and there you have it. Why make it more complicated than necessary.

Card Counting Basics

But Why Does It Work?

High-value cards, the tens, improve your chances of getting blackjack while simultaneously increasing the dealer's chance of going “bust”. The low-value cards favour the dealer and are bad for the player.

Other Strategies You Should Know About

As mentioned before, the hi-lo way of counting cards is the easiest and most effective one for beginners. However, it does not hurt to familiarise yourself with some of the other strategies out there.

While the vast majority of us may find the hi-lo strategy the easiest to use, a few might find it difficult. Luckily there are alternatives, as you can see below.

The Knockout (KO)

Very similar to hi-lo, but 7s get a value of +1.

Omega II

A bit different from hi-lo. Cards 4, 5 and 6 get a value of +2, and 10 get a value of -2, while the aces get 0.

Wong Halves

Very different from hi-lo. Cards 2 and 7 get a value of +0.5, card 5 gets a value of +1 and card 9 gets a value of -0.5.

High Opt II

An advanced strategy that has much more varied values to the cards. This one is quite difficult to master.

When opting for any of these strategies, you also need to understand a few other factors, such as betting correlation (BC) and playing efficiency (PE). It is all about statistics.

BC plays a major role when using Halves as a strategy; it helps you to anticipate betting scenarios. Likewise, PE plays an important role if you choose Omega II or High Opt II, as it helps you make decisions and spot variance when shifting strategies.

Card Counting Basics

How to Succeed when Counting Cards

Card Counting Basics

Our first advice is to stick to the hi-lo strategy.

Secondly, you need to practice. The card values and counting them off should be like breathing or riding a bike.

No thinking. If you miscount when practising, start over.

With the risk of exposing ourselves as Star Wars fans, to paraphrase Yoda, “count right or do not, there is no try”.

Counting Cards Live is More than Counting Cards

Once you have mastered the counting part, you might think that you are ready to be on your way and win heaps on blackjack. Slow down. You are only halfway there. As we’ve already mentioned, counting cards is not illegal, but you will not win any awards getting caught doing it. Hence, the other half of mastering this particular art is body language and manners.

It is imperative that you do not appear to be counting.

You should be able to keep counting while having conversations, seeming indecisive, eating or glancing at your phone.

Final Advice

While beating the house and winning big in blackjack might be a long-term dream, it is important to remember to play in moderation. All casino games are means of entertainment. Trying to get rich by winning as much as possible usually ends up in a bust. One other thing, remember to have fun and count carefully.

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