Does Counting Cards in Blackjack Still Work?

Cards Counting

If there is one topic I get asked about the most when it comes to anything gambling or casino-related, it is this one. Does card counting still work? Now, this question comes from a wide array of people with an ever wider spread of knowledge on the topic. Some of the people that ask know what card counting is and are looking for a serious answer on whether or not it still flies in today’s casino environment.

Others that ask (and the majority), usually have no idea what card counting is. Maybe they heard about it from a friend or saw it in the movie 21 about the MIT blackjack team. Regardless, their question is a little deeper than just does it work. They’re looking for an explanation about what it is, can they make money from it, and then finally if it does or does not work.

Today, I’d like to tackle all of these questions. I want to try and provide an answer to this popular question that satisfies every level of knowledge that’s asking. I’ll start by giving you a brief breakdown of what card counting is, discuss its effectiveness, talk about how the casino combat it, and then finally answer whether or not it still works today.

What is card counting?

Card counting…For the uninformed, they seem to think it is the solution to beating every single card game on the planet. As a professional poker player, I’ve been asked more than a dozen times over the years if card counting is the way that I beat the game of poker. If you’re wondering, card counting has nothing to do with poker. Card counting deals with blackjack and blackjack only.

Card counting is a system in which the player is able to give themselves a slight edge over the casino. You see, all casino games are designed to favor the house. This means that no matter what you do in the game the casino is supposed to win in the long run over thousands and thousands of hands. You can still win in the short run, but the casino is supposed to win in the long run.

For the most part, this works like a charm thanks to math. Unless you are cheating, you’re not going to beat the casino at their own games. Except there was an exception, the casino didn’t know about. Card counting.

The game of blackjack is fairly simple. You get some cards, and the dealer gets some cards. You can choose to stay (take no more cards), or you can choose to take more cards one at a time. The dealer is also going to have these same options once you are done. The point of the game is to be the closest to 21 without going over 21. Numbered cards are worth their respective number, face cards are worth 10, and aces are worth either 1 or 11, whichever you choose for it to be.

If you beat the dealer (by being closer to 21 without going over), you get paid even money. This means that if you bet $100, you will get $100 in profit for this bet. If you get 21 on your first two cards, this is known as blackjack! As long as the dealer does not also have blackjack, you will get paid out at better than even money. Most casinos will pay you out at 3 to 2 or 6 to 5 on blackjacks. This means that if you bet the same $100 and get blackjack, you’ll get either $150 or $120 in profit instead of $100. That’s either $50 or $20 more depending on where you are playing.

So, obviously, you are going to want to try and hit blackjack as often as possible because you make more money. Well, the basics of card counting are aimed at just that. What they aim to do is bet more money when their chances of hitting blackjack are higher. How do they know when their chances of hitting blackjack are higher?

Well, they are going to be higher when there are more aces and face cards left in the deck. Remember, blackjack is when your first two cards add up to 21. The only way to get that is with an ace and either a 10 or any of the face cards. So, what card counters do is keep track of how many aces and face cards are left in the deck. When there are a lot left and fewer cards (a higher concentration of them), they bet bigger in hopes of getting a blackjack. When there are fewer aces, 10s, and face cards left and more total cards (a lower concentration of the “money” cards), they bet less and wait for a better opportunity.

By manipulating their bets to match the likelihood of hitting blackjack, the counter can flip the odds from being in the casino’s favor to being in their favor. The flip isn’t by much, but when you bet over thousands and thousands of hands, you can turn a really hefty profit against the casino (the same way they make a profit off of us).

Is there more to card counting? At times, yes. There are other “counts” that people have developed to try and make their odds even better, but this is really the main gist of it.

Is it effective?

Can a dog eat an entire tray of brownies? You bet it can! But, only if you let it keep eating them. Once you catch the dog eating your brownies, you’re probably going to stop him or her. The only way they’re going to get any more of the brownies is by sneakily eating them without you noticing.

This is the perfect analogy about card counting and has nothing to do with the fact that I just had to fight my dog off of a tray of brownies while writing this. Seriously, though, it is a great analogy. You see, card counting works as long as you are left alone and allowed to card count. The second you get caught doing it, you’re going to get put outside (just like my dog), and you won’t be allowed back near the brownies or the blackjack table.

Card counting is extremely successful. The MIT blackjack team that is so famous for taking card counting to the next level made millions. A lot of other gamblers throughout the years have made a boatload of cash counting cards against the casino. It works; there is no question of that. The problem, though, is that the casino is not in business to make you rich. They’re in the business of making themselves rich and as you can imagine they were not super happy to find out that one of their prized moneymakers was actually beatable by a bunch of math nerds.

How do casinos choose to deal with it?

As you probably expect, the casino did not just sit back and let counters take them to the cleaners. They took the tray of brownies away. Casinos all across the world started kicking counters out of the casino and blacklisting them from playing at any other properties. While card counting is not illegal, it is frowned upon, and the casino reserves the right to refuse service to anyone they see fit. If you’re someone that is beating them for a lot of money, they’re going to see fit that you be removed from the property.

However, the casinos were forced to go further. Why? Well, the card counters got smart. You see, the casinos would start looking for players that were winning and varying their bets greatly. If you had someone betting $5 a hand that all of a sudden started betting $500 a hand, you would know that something was up.

What the counters did was started working in teams. They would have one player at the table counting and playing low stakes who would signal to a big bettor when the count was hot, and the table was primed to make a profit. When that happened, the big bettor would come over and start making big bets to try and clean up on the high count. This wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary because the low limit player was still playing low limits and the big bettor had been betting big the whole time they were there.

It took the casinos a while to catch on to this, but they certainly did. The response was big. Casinos now utilize video surveillance and experts to spot individual card counters and card counting teams. They also created and installed systems that will card count themselves and track the bets the player is making. If the player starts betting along with the count or a big bettor comes over multiple times on a hot count, the casino will be on to them. They’ll shut their fun down in a heartbeat.

The Wrap-up | Does card counting still work?

So, this now brings us to the million-dollar question (literally). Does card counting still work today? This is going to be a two-part answer. Does the actual act of card counting still work? Yes. If you’re able to count cards without getting thrown out of the casino, it still works. The math has not changed. Card counting is still capable of beating the casino and flipping the math in favor of the player.

But, when it comes to actually pulling it off, it is probably close to impossible. That is, it seems impossible with the information that I have. There may be people out there just like the MIT blackjack team who have come up with new ways of taking advantage of the hot count. The casinos are smart, and they don’t go down without a fight when you’re trying to take their money from them.

So, mathematically speaking card counting still works. Actual execution-wise, it all depends on whether or not people have found a new way to slip it past the casino. Based on the technology and security in place, it certainly would be hard, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.