Card Counting: Blackjack 101

Blackjack has few similarities to any other card game insomuch as you are not trying to build a hand (as in poker), but simply trying to get a total number of points greater than the dealer’s but less than 21—hence, the game’s street name and the title of the movie. Each of the cards has an individual point value, and these are added together to determine what your entire score is. The following point values are standard for all blackjack variations:

K—10
Q—10
J—10
10—10
9—9
8—8
7—7
6—6
5—5
4—4
3—3
2—2

You might notice that the “A” (or ace) is excluded from the list above, and this is for a very good reason. An ace, you see, is worth either one point or 11 points in blackjack, depending on which makes the better point total. If, for instance, your hand is A, 2, 10, 3 and 4, the ace will automatically be worth one point because otherwise you would have a total of 30 points and would lose. If, on the other hand, you have a K, A after the opening deal, you’ll want that Ace to be worth 11 points and hence have a total of 21—a winning hand known as a “blackjack” or a “natural.”

The other thing to note is that there are no suit rankings in blackjack. If, for example, you have blackjack and the dealer has blackjack, the outcome after both you and the dealer reveal your “hole” cards (or cards dealt face-down) is called a “push,” considered a tie and your bet will be returned to you sans winnings.

As for the standard progress in a game of blackjack, the dealer first shuffles and prepares the decks. This is called the “start of the shoe” and is the point at which most casinos will allow a player to enter a game. There are two main reasons for this rule: one, that a particular card-counting system, known as “Wonging,” depends upon a player entering a table mid-shoe when the odds are in his favor (more on this later); and two, that players neither counting nor using basic strategy—you know, the real idiots who believe that if they rub a pregnant llama’s behind they’ll get better cards—will superstitiously leave the table or get majorly pissed if the “flow” of the deal is interrupted. (Note: Regardless of how idiotic a superstitious player’s reservations about a mid-shoe buy-in, if a casino allows them, it is polite to ask if you may join, if nothing else but to avoid a punch in the nose).

Once the deck(s) have been shuffled, all players participating in the next game must pay a buy-in. This is an initial bet that you must make before the dealer will deal you any cards. To some extent, the amount you bet is up to you, but it must fall within the limits posted at the table. Limits themselves fall into two types, the “upper-“ and “lower-limit,” kind of like a floor and a ceiling to the amount you can bet—e.g., at a table with a lower-limit of $25 and an upper-limit of $50, a player may not bet more than $50 or less than $25 at any given time.