What is card counting?

Though this in not something directly related to playing pokies online it is a common question considered by many online gamblers. In turn I thought I would write up a brief outline of what it is. The theory and principles involved in card counting can in many ways be applied in an attempt to improve your winning odds on pokie machines.

You have probably heard of card counting before and you have probably heard all sorts of things about it. Some people use the phrase to refer to any gambling trick to gain any advantage at all – you should know that this is not true, and that it can only be employed as a trick when playing actual card games. It might seem that this means it will not help you with online pokies. This is not true however. It will give you at least one very valuable skill. Card counting will give you practise at assessing odds and probabilities, which may help you to bet more wisely.

This is not to be sneezed at either – accurate assessment of odds and probabilities is the main thing that will allow you to know when to bet and when to pass – that will make it more likely for you to win money rather than lose it. However, card counting itself does not refer to online pokies. You may have also heard that it is cheating, or that it requires some incredible genius mathematical brain power bordering on magic to do it. Well, here we dispel the myths and outline the reality or what card counting is, and how to do it.

In certain card games, gamblers with experience may employ card counting to aid them in their decisions regarding betting. Card counting is most commonly used when playing Blackjack. Blackjack is a card game usually played in casinos where the player and the dealer both attempt to achieve a total card count of as close to 21 as possible without going over 21. When players count cards, they keep track, to varying degrees, or the cards that have already been dealt, giving them an idea of which cards are still remaining in the deck waiting to be dealt thus giving them a more accurate idea of the likely outcome of the game, and the way that they should bet.

The basic idea and principle behind card counting is that high cards, most particularly aces, tens and picture cards, are better for the player, while low cards, most particularly fours, fives and sixes, are better for the dealer. This is because a high concentration of aces and tens give the player a higher chance of getting blackjack (21), while tens improve the value of doubling. Blackjack pays at 3:2 unless the dealer also has blackjack. Additionally, a high number of cards with a value of ten (tens and picture cards) make the insurance bet more profitable as well because this bet is essentially a bet that the dealer’s card is a ten (which is resulting in blackjack for the dealer). Low cards are good for the dealer because the dealer must hit “stiff hands” unlike the player who can choose to hit or stand according to his or her preferred strategy. A “stiff hand” is a hand with less than 17 points but which is likely to bust if the player chooses to hit.

Hands with point counts of 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 are generally considered stiff hands,. Because the most common value of a card in blackjack is ten, there is a high chance that a player with any of those counts will bust if he or she hits.

Card counting among laypeople is often considered a very sophisticated skills requiring impressive mental abilities – being able to remember every card which has been played must be pretty difficult, right? Well, yes, it would be extremely difficult and in fact impossible for all but a very few talented people, if indeed card counting did require remembering every single card which has been dealt and calculating which cards remain in the deck. However, it is not so difficult a task as this. Instead of memorising and tracking the cards which have been dealt, each card is assigned a numerical value or point score that estimates the value of that card to the player. Then, rather than tracking each specific card, the player just tracks the sum of the values of the cards. This is called “keeping a running count”.

The popular myth that card counters keep track of every card that has been played was first established in the film Rain Man, in which the main character, who is an autistic savant, counts and tracks six decks of cards with ease.

There are a number of different systems that players use to count cards. The most basic of these systems of card counting assigns a positive, negative or zero value to every card available. Then a card of that value is dealt the count is adjusted by that card’s numerical value. Low cards increase the count as they have a positive value because they when a low card is dealt the percentage of a high card being dealt from the remaining deck increases. High cards are negative value cards and as such decrease the count for the opposite reason. One system is called the Hi-Lo system Using the Hi-Lo system, when a ten, Jack, Queen, King or an Ace is dealt, the player subtracts one. He or she adds one for any card with a value of two to six, and cards with values seven to nine have zero value and do not affect the count. Systems such as this are considered “single level” or “level one” counts.

Because the goal of a card counting system is to assign numerical values to the cards that correlates to the card’s “Effect of Removal” from the deck, greater correlation can be achieved by having a more complex system of numerical values. The Hi-Lo system and others similar are “level one” counts because the count never increases or decreases by more than a single value that has been predetermined. Other systems offer more sophisticated counts and are knows as “multi level counts”. Counts such as these, some of which are known as Wong Halves, or Zen Count, draw finer distinctions between card values to gain greater correlation with the effect of removal and to offer the opportunity to play and bet with greater accuracy. Rather than valuing the cards either positive one, negative one or zero, multi level counts might place values such as negative two or positive five. To get even more complex, very advanced players and card counters might keep what is known as a “side count”, which is a separate count of specific cards, such as Aces. Side counts are employed when the best count for betting accuracy is different from the best count for playing accuracy.

These more advanced systems, while offering far greater accuracy and correlation between numerical values and the effect of removal, do have a disadvantage. The attention and mental focus required to keep track of the more complex counts, particularly if a side count is also being used, can sometimes decrease the ability of a player to play quickly and accurately. Often times it can be more profitable to employ a simple count and play quickly than to use a complex count which slows down your playing.

Another common myth, and this one was also popularised by the film Rain Man, is that card counting is illegal. Many casinos perpetuate this myth as it serves their interests by deterring players from counting cards. In reality, in virtually all jurisdictions, there is no law against card counting, provided that an “external device” is not used (such devices include things like mirrors – they used to be used more often than they are now. Casino counter-measures have rendered their use virtually obsolete now. More common modern devices include technological aids such as iPhone applications). It is perfectly legal to keep track of the cards which have been dealt and those which remain in the pack in any way you like if you are just using your mind and wits.
However, just because it is legal, that does not mean the casinos like it! Because card counting increases the “edge” that a player has however, most casinos employ counter-measures to prevent card counting. These measures include the following:

  • Decreasing what is known as “penetration”, that is the percentage of the cards dealt before a shuffle. This reduces the ability of a counter to take advantage of a high count which may have developed.
  • Harassment of suspected card counters by casino staff. This harassment can be as simple as engaging a suspected card counter in a conversation to break their concentration. Casinos used to employ more aggressive methods, even extending to physical violence, but laws and regulations mean they are no longer able to do this.
  • Changing rules for splitting, doubling down, or playing multiple hands. This also includes changing a table’s stakes.
  • Identification of card counters, using books of photos and computer facial recognition software, which are then used to “blacklist” known card counters.
  • Computerized scanners in blackjack tables that can identify counting systems when in use.
  • Personnel executed systems that keep a count and track players’ bets, looking for increases or decreases matching rises and falls in the count.
  • Flat betting a player or making it so they cannot change the amount they bet during a shoe.
  • Computer systems used in surveillance rooms that surveillance staff use to target suspect players to they determine present their threat to the house.
  • Shuffling when a player increases their wager.

Of course, taking such measures means that casinos have to be able to identify, with reasonable accuracy, who is counting cards and who is not. Casinos have a number of ways to do this, through monitoring and assessing playing and betting behaviour. Most of the card counters that the casinos are seriously concerned about are those who are “group counting”. This is when one player sits at a table and just plays the minimum bet while keeping the count. When the count is high, he or she signal covertly to another person who then joins the table and plays for high stakes until the count drops again. These players present more of a threat to the casinos than single counters, and so are more a target for casino counter measures. It is the behaviour of these players that casinos look out for.

Such behaviours include:

  • Dramatic variation in betting style and amount, especially with larger bets being placed only at the end of a shoe (the case from which playing cards are dealt one at a time)
  • Large buy ins
  • Large bet sizes
  • Playing only a small number of hands during a shoe
  • Refusal to play rated
  • Table hopping
  • Playing multiple hands

Casinos who identify people they believe to be counting cards on the basis of one or more of these behaviours are likely to meet with one of the counter measures mentioned above. It should be noted however, that these are not fool-proof signs of card counting. Many times, players who are not card counting and excluded on these bases. In fact, it is often poorer players who are accused of card counting, as irrational betting styles stand out as suspicious in games such as blackjack, the standard playing style for which is so well established.

So there you have it – card counting explained. It is most effectively used when playing blackjack, but the mental skills you develop when you master a practise such as this can be carried over into other areas of gaming – whether in real or online form. An ability to quickly and accurately assess the odds of winning a hand, or a spin, or a play of any kind, is the difference between successful and unsuccessful players. This is why we have included it in out online pokies questions section – because this skill is a highly valuable one to gain. We suggest you start practicing straight away and get those mental juices flowing – and hopefully some cash as well! Happy counting!

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