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Counting Cards at Online Blackjack

Counting cards at Online Blackjack - Getting an Edge on the House

Whenever you play a game at an online casino you should find out the house edge of that game. You want a low house edge, as it means the casino will take less of your money on every bet, statistically. All casino games will have a house edge, however small; the casino wants to be sure they will make money on the game. There is one casino game, however, where you can get an edge over the house if you’re skilled enough.

The Special Case

That game is Blackjack, which already has a low house edge of about 0.6% if you play using basic strategy. Check out our post about the basic Blackjack strategy! But Blackjack is special, because, if you learn how to count cards, you can lower the house edge even more. So much so that you can get an edge on the house, a player edge. Now, your edge is not going to be spectacular. With the Blackjack rules most online casinos use it will rarely be more than 1%, but still, you can get an edge over the house!

There are some skills you will have to acquire before you can start raking in the cash, however. The first part, card counting, is relatively easy, but you must be able to keep your focus on it for long periods of time without losing concentration. You will also have to be able to bear the psychic strain of long losing streaks without tilting. This is on top of playing basic strategy flawlessly while knowing all the deviations to it.

Card Counting and Online Blackjack

So, how do you count cards? Before we go over that, we must first talk about why we count cards. The reason card counting works is that a card shoe that has more high value cards than low value cards is advantageous to the player. This is largely because it’s easier for the dealer to bust when there are more high value cards in the shoe. The player can stand at any hand value, but the dealer must hit until they’re at 17 or more, so when there are more high value cards in the shoe their chance to bust increases.

To take advantage of this fact, card counters keep track of what cards are dealt by the dealer, thereby getting information about the remaining cards. They do this by assigning values to each card dealt and keeping track of the sum of the value of the dealt cards. The most popular card counting system Hi-Lo, for example, assigns the value +1 to 2:s, 3:s, 4:s, 5:s and 6:s and -1 to 10:s, J:s, Q:s, K:s and Aces. 7:s, 8:s and 9:s have a value of 0. This means that whenever the running sum you keep track of, the so-called running count, is positive, there are more high value cards left in the shoe than low value cards.

This is just the first step though, now you need to convert this information into actual play decisions. Let’s say the running count is at +7, this means there are seven fewer low value cards remaining in the shoe than high value cards. How much of an impact does this have? Well, it depends on how far into the shoe you are, the fewer the cards left to deal, the bigger the impact of those missing low value cards. Having seven missing low value cards when there are seven decks left to deal has less of an impact than when, say, four decks are left.

This is why the concept of true count is added into the mix. You simply divide your running count by the number of decks that are left to deal in the shoe, this gives you your true count. This adds another skill requirement into the mix, estimating the number of decks left in the shoe by eye, and the ability to do quick division on the fly.

Adjusting Your Play - Deviations from Basic Strategy

You now have your true count, which is valid no matter where in the shoe you are. How does the true count impact your decisions? This is where the concept of deviations comes in. Deviations are just that, deviations from basic strategy. It tells you when not to take the decision that you would normally, when following basic strategy, but instead to deviate from that decision and make a different choice.

Let’s look at an example: basic strategy tells you to stand when you have a 12 versus a dealer’s 6, this is because your chance to bust or not improve your hand is higher than the dealer’s chance to bust (something of a simplification). However, let’s say that you know that the true count is at -3, which means that you know that there are several high value cards missing per deck. The chance is lower to draw that 10 and bust, and the dealer has a smaller chance to bust as well. Should you hit instead of standing, and take the chance to improve your lousy 12? Have the odds changed enough that this is a good decision? The answer is yes, because there is a deviation to basic strategy on this hand. When the true count is -1 or lower (with the hi-lo system), you should hit instead of standing with a 12 vs. a 6. There are many of these deviations and you will have to learn most of them if you want to maximize your edge.
Table with Blackjack combinations
In this table you can see all potential combinations in Blackjack and how to play them

The Biggest Deviation - Wonging

While it is important to learn most deviations, some of them are less important than others, namely the deviations on negative true counts. This is because, as it turns out, you shouldn’t play at all when a shoe is at a negative true count. This is probably the biggest deviation of them all. There are some complications when Wonging, which is what blackjack players call not playing at negative counts. The game interface might force you to leave the table if you are inactive, and the count could go positive again in a few hands making you want to play again, something you can’t keep track of or do because you’ve been forced out of the game. This leads us to the next skill you need to learn to be a successful card counter, varying your bets.

Instead of leaving the table when the count goes negative, you could just lower your bet to whatever the lowest bet on the table is, so you can keep counting without losing too much money, maybe even skip a few bets if the interface lets you (but keep counting). If you were at a real casino this would throw up massive warning signs to the dealer and pit bosses that you are a card counter, and they would gently tell you to take your business elsewhere. Online, however, the scrutiny is not as tight, and you will probably get away with it. We don’t recommend doing this on a table where the minimum bet is high compared to your normal bet level. If that is the case it is probably better to find yourself a new shoe on a new table.

On the other hand, when the true count goes up you should increase your bet level, because the higher the true count, the bigger the advantage for the player. I won’t go into detail about how much you should raise your bets because whole books can be written about it. I will however warn you that with the standard blackjack rules of online casinos (8 decks per shoe, 4 decks are dealt before reshuffling) it can be mentally stressful to raise your bet too much when the shoe is hot. You can easily hit a losing streak, because there’s a lot of variance left in the shoe at all times, and there are no guarantees things will go the player’s way just because the true count is high.

Words of Caution

I should warn you that even if you learn all these card counting skills, and I must stress that you have to acquire and use them perfectly to actually get an edge, it is still going to be a lot of hard work. Even with perfect play you will hit losing streaks, sometimes a hundred shoes long where you keep losing money. It takes mental strength to keep playing, knowing that statistics will end up in your favor if you just play long enough. But even if you can’t manage to play blackjack to the level needed to gain the edge over the house, applying the skills listed above should at least improve your winning rate a bit.

Good luck at the tables!

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