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Is counting worth the hassle?

3 September 1999

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark,
I've been kicking around the idea of becoming a blackjack card counter for years. I have decent math skills and am willing to spend time learning the game. I would like to hear some of your thoughts, theories, practical application of, advice and a brief explanation on how counting actually works. Hopefully you'll give me some inspiration to learn counting, maybe even make it a career. Eric G.


Eric, you want my thoughts, advice, etc. on counting? OK, lend me your ear, but you might not like what you are about to hear.

The Player: All card counters I have met think they are the sharpest knife in the drawer. Forget dialog with them to the contrary, they all believe they can beat the house at will, any time, any place. In reality, I've found more mediocre counters than good ones, and egos larger than the casino operators'. I figure the subliminal self of counters is based on abnormally high testosterone levels.

Them Guys: Working the pits for years, taking numerous seminars on counting, plus being a proficient counter myself-me make it a career move? NOT-I can smell a counter a mile away. Even your average pitboss will take simple measures to combat these casino pests. Pit bosses will hassle counters by putting more decks on the game, burying more cards on the shuffle, stopping mid-entry shoe betting, having the dealer shuffle half way through the deck, and when all else fails, back you off the game.

The Money Makers: So is anyone truly making money on card counting? Sure. A very small, select group of counters who have created a cottage industry of seminars, tapes, books and newsletters on counting. For most experts, writing about playing is more lucrative than playing itself.

Hitting the Casino: Card counters, theoretically, have an inherent advantage of between .5 and 1.5 percent against the casino. Counting theory is quite simple. Big cards (10s, aces) favor the player, small cards (2-6) favor the dealer.

All card counting systems keep track of the relationship of small cards to big cards remaining in the deck. When the cards remaining favor the player, you bet more money. When they favor the dealer, you bet less.

The simplest count to learn is a one level count, a.k.a the Hi-Lo counting system. It assigns the following count values to each card.

2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (small cards).......................+1
7, 8, 9 (neutral cards)............................. 0
10, J, Q, K, Ace (big cards)......................-1

To use the Hi-Lo method, you need to add and subtract the above counting values for every card exposed on the blackjack table. By mentally keeping an updated running count from one hand to the next, you vary your bets according to the positive/negative value of the upcoming hand.

But it all comes back to our jumpy pit boss who wants to run you out the door. He's just not going to be happy with blackjack players who know how to beat the house. He would much prefer players who think they know how to win but are experts at losing-players on the bottom rung of the casino food chain.

Geez, Eric, I'm just warming up, but because of limited space I'm forced to come full circle. If you're still going to make card counting a career move, may I make a final suggestion? Don't quit your day job.

Dear Mark,
If in all blackjack scenarios you should hit a soft 17 (A-6), why would you never hit a hard 17? Jim T.

Unfortunately, Jim, a 17 in blackjack is a damned hand, a dud over the long haul. The alternative strategy of hitting a hard 17 would only multiply your losses. Nevertheless, with a soft 17 you at least have the possibility of taking another card, which could improve your hand. This is why basic strategy charts dictate either hitting or doubling down, never standing on a soft 17.

Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.