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Is Counting Cards Really Worth it?

Does counting cards in blackjack make you a millionaire? Well, that depends. But current reality is that casinos have done everything in order to prevent that.

I hear very often that everyone would win more if they would know how to count cards. These same people tend to claim that every profitable blackjack player counts cards. Yes, it's at least half the truth.

To beat the house, you need to get maximum out of your edge. And counting cards increases this edge. Hence everyone should do it, right?

There is everlasting debate around this topic which I personally consider nowadays as a myth. Therefore I'll cover up this topic in this article on what kind of advantages card counting really provides.

Running Count and True Count

This is just a brief explanation of HI-LO counting. But I won't go too much in the details with these terms you're probably familiar with.

Basically running count is the value between played low and high cards which can be either in favor or against the player's edge. True count stands for the value where running count is divided with the number of remaining decks.

Simple enough. Let's say we have running count of +12 and two remaining decks in shoe. Therefore the true count is +6 and this means that the table is in favor for the players.

But what if the cards in the shoe are not played until the end? What if they're shuffled when there's still e.g. five decks left? Then your running count could be something like +2. That doesn't sound so favorable anymore.

What is the Actual Edge?

For skilled card counters the edge is somewhere between 0.5% to 1.2%. Roughly we can talk of ~1% edge. In opposite - depending on the rules - house edge can be anything between 0.16% to ~3%.

The edge from card counting is around one percent.

I personally wish that no player would go into a blackjack table where house edge is more than 1%. This minor negative expected value, combined with card counting would - under certain circumstances - offer us positive expected value. But I want to emphasise: only under certain specific circumstances.

When Card Counting is not Useful?

Now you may ask what are the circumstances where card counting is not useful. I will list few options below and let you to decide whether to trust on card counting or not. Personally, I do encourage for counting cards. But it's always good to know whether all the effort pays back or not.

Significant Negative Expected Value

This is quite obvious but I still want to bring out how even the slightest changes in rules may affect on whether counting cards helps you at all.

Let's say you're not allowed to surrender and not allowed to double after split. Or blackjack pays 6:5 instead of 3:2. These rule modifications will drop your edge more than one percent, thus making card counting useless since RTP is below 99% anyways.

The worst rule I've seen was in blackjack in Finnish restaurants - offered by a monopoly company owned by the government. The rule was that house wins on push. And push occurs around 8% of time. Hence the RTP was around 91.5%. This horrible negative edge, combined with drunken bar players, resulted everyone to lose their money quite instantly.

Continuous Shuffle Machines (CSM)

My local casino uses six-deck shoes and continuous shuffle machines. They were taken in use after the rules were changed to be more favorable for players (99.84% RTP). It's only a tiny edge for the house which would be +EV for players when combined with card counting.

I claim that CSM's are impossible to beat in matter of card counting. Sometimes running count can increase enough to take a decent shot with higher bet, but only if your bankroll allows that. But I don't recall any specific situation where true count has been greatly in favor. And even with the high running count, it hasn't last more that one or two rounds before the cards are thrown back in the CSM.

There is also a concept called Windowed count. But I haven't personally used it in practice. It's explained as ”When the running windowed count is +5 or more, the next hand from the CSM is +EV. The windowed count is ≥ 5 about 8.2% of the time”.

Everybody can find several articles about how CSM's can be beaten. I don't know whether they actually have proof or is it just a marketing trick for their content and services. Personally I don't see considerable chance to make decent profit on CSM tables - unless you happen to find a lazy dealer.

Playing Online

This should be clear: when you’re playing online blackjack the deck is shuffled after every round. It would be a fallacy to think that some events lead to another and online blackjack would have some edge for the player in certain superstitious cases. Online blackjack can be entertaining and fast paced way of winning (or losing), but it’s definitely not worth for constant profit.

If you happen to play Live Online Blackjack, just remember to check the rules. Usually they have restrictions that lowers your RTP. It’d be easy to keep count on each and every card e.g. through some software but casino sites are aware of this. The edge achieved by playing online and having data crunching of the deck won’t beat the negative edge applied by the rules.

Conclusions

Nowadays, counting cards won’t make you a millionaire. However, it’s obvious that you improve your edge against house. But the house is clever. And despite the fact that card counting offers a better edge, it unfortunately won’t make it profitable but in some rather unusual cases. So my advice is, don’t rely on card counting but keep your basic gameplay both strategically and psychologically as sharp as possible.

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