Counting Cards in Blackjack
One of my favorite casino games is blackjack. I like it because it has a low house edge, and with basic strategy you’re nearly breakeven. That appeals to me because, in the long run, that means I get hours of entertainment (and drinks) for free.
However, if you’re anything like me, breaking even isn’t good enough. You want to beat the casino, profit and brag about it to all your friends.
And that’s possible with blackjack. You just have to learn how to count cards first.
What is Card Counting?
A simple explanation is that you’re keeping track (or count) of each card that is dealt.
The reason why you track each card is so that you know whether the deck is rich with aces and face cards, or rich in low value cards (like 4s and 5s). The former is better for us (the player), and the latter is better for the dealer (and casino).
This information is important when betting. You’ll want to bet high with an ace/face-card rich deck, and bet low (or the minimum) with a low card rick deck. The idea is to minimize your losses when you’re most likely to lose, and maximize your winnings when you’re more likely to win.
The Top Card Counting Methods
Here are the most popular blackjack card counting methods. There are options for both the beginner and advanced player.
Hi / Lo System – This system was first introduced by Edward Thorp in his book, Beat the Dealer. It is the simplest system, using +1, 0 and -1 for each card. This is a balanced system, too, which means that when you go through an entire deck, you should end up at 0.
Hi Opt 1 System – This was developed by Charles Einstein in 1968. This is similar to the Hi / Lo System except that 2s and aces are assigned a 0. This makes the system more accurate, but at the cost of being more difficult because you need to keep an ace side count.
Hi Opt 2 System – This adaption of the Hi Opt 1 System was created by Lance Humble in the 70s. It’s more accurate than it’s predecessor, but it’s even more difficult because you need to keep a side count for 8s and 9s, too. That’s on top of needing to keep a true count (for multiple decks).
KO System – This system was developed by Ken Fuchs and Olaf Vancura in 1998. The KO is considered an unbalanced system, because +1s are assigned to 7s, making the overall count end at +4 when you go through an entire deck (instead of 0).
Uston Advanced Count – This system was developed by Ken Uston. It’s considered one of the most accurate card counting systems, but also one of the most difficult to learn and use. The UAC assigns a -1, 0, +1, +2, or +3 to each card. You also need to keep a side count for aces.
Zen Count – The Zen Count was created by Arnold Snyder. This balanced system assigns -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2 to each card. You will also need to figure the true count (before betting). You can learn more about the Zen Count on the Blackjack Forum, or in the book, Blackbelt in Blackjack.
Omega II Count – This was first published in Blackjack for Blood, written by Bryce Carlson. Players will want to figure out the true count, but keeping a side count isn’t necessary (but it is more accurate). This system assigns the values -1, 0, +1 and +2 to each card.
10-Count – The 10-Count was created by Edward Thorp. No one uses it anymore, but that doesn’t make it ineffective. Thorp tested it in Vegas and won more than $11,000 in a weekend. It paved the way for the systems used today, too.
Wong Halves Count – This was created by Stanford Wong, and was first introduced in his book, Professional Blackjack. It is a difficult, yet accurate system to learn and use. This system assigns -1, 0, +0.5, +1 and +1.5 to each card. You also need to figure the true count.
Red 7 Count – This system was developed by Arnold Snyder. Players will need to keep an Initial Running Count (IRC), which starts with -2 for every deck in the game. For example, one deck would be -2, 4 decks would be -8, etc. Then you start counting from there. You can learn more about this system in Blackbelt in Blackjack.
Which card counting method should you use? For the first timer I would recommend starting with the Hi/Lo System. It’s effective, accurate and the easiest system on this list to learn. From there it depends on how serious a player you are, and how much time you have to devote to studying a new (and more complex) system.
Isn’t Card Counting Illegal?
No, card counting isn’t illegal.
In fact, there are states that have laws in place to protect advantage players. New Jersey is one example. In 1979 Ken Uston was barred from Resorts International for (skillfully) beating the casino. He filed a lawsuit and won a few years later. 
Is It Cheating?
Card counting isn’t cheating, either. You’re not altering the game in any way, such as marking cards, swapping out decks or working with the dealer or staff. Card counting is a skill.
However, it’s a skill that casinos don’t admire. The house edge on blackjack is low enough as is, let alone when someone uses basic strategy. A card counter can turn the tables completely around to where they have a 1+ percent edge over the house. This can result in losses of hundreds of thousands, even millions, for the casino if they let advantage players play.
So while it’s not cheating, and not something you can get into trouble for, the casinos do reserve the right to now allow it (in most USA states / casinos), and will ask that you stop playing blackjack, or that you leave the casino altogether – sometimes for good.