Concept: Card Counting for the Rest of US

I have an admission to make: I, Phill Provance, am a die-hard poker fan. SO when the GP crew asked me to check out Hollywood’s most recent portrayal of my favorite pastime, “21,” I was f#$&in’ stoked. There I sat, munching my popcorn, slurping my soda, watching five heroic MIT students take Vegas for all she’s worth. And, I must say, it was probably the best $50 I ever made.

But let’s not get confused here. The real reason I went to see “21” wasn’t to review it on its aesthetic merits. No, the real reason was to determine how realistic its card-counting info was and, for another thing, use it as a jump-off to teach you, my beloved public, a thing or two about counting itself.

Now, to answer the first question: yes, the card counting shown in the movie is accurate. The problem, however, lies in the fact that, main character Ben (Jim Sturgess) explains it a little too fast—presumably to keep up the narrative pace—and unless you wait for the DVD, you might not catch it all or might get the impression that you really do have to be a rocket scientist (or at least a robotics nerd) to make sense of it.

This is true to some extent, insomuch as most successful card counters are able to do the “simple math” of determining probability in their heads, really, REALLY fast. There is hope for those of us not smart enough to go Ivy League, though, because math like anything else can be practiced once it’s understood. And wouldn’t you believe it, card counting’s not nearly as hard to understand, as it seems.

Before we get into it, though, you have to understand that card counting is a science, not a magic wand. It gives the counting player a marginal edge over the casino, but it is never entirely exact. When you watch, “21,” and hear about similar real-life scenarios, it might seem like these wiz kids win every time. Hollywood, of course, tends to dramatize things to make them more exciting. And the real fact of the matter is that counting is merely an educated guess; learning to do so will never make you win all of the time, just most of the time.

The way it works is that a card counter considers the number of cards in a deck (52) or “shoe” (i.e., a chute with multiple decks in it, ranging from 4 decks—108 cards—to 8 decks—216 cards). At the same time, he considers how many high-value cards remain in the deck based on what he can see on the table and what has already been played. Because Blackjack allows you to see the most number of cards of any casino-run game, it’s the best game to count in. And because the game’s betting options can expand the edge a counter has in the long run (See: Section III, “Simple Math”), it is doubly ideal.

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:


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.


Blackjack Tips

Only after all players sitting at a table have had a chance to pay a buy-in (and therefore signal that they’re in for the next deal) the cards are dealt, with the dealer dealing each betting player one card beginning at his left and “sweeping” across to the right, then dealing himself a card and returning to the left to repeat the process a second time.

Depending on which type of deal is being offered, shoe or “pitch,” the nature of the deal itself varies: If the deck is in a shoe, the cards are dealt face-up and a player may not touch them, while if it is a “pitch” game—meaning that the dealer holds two decks in his hand and deals from them as opposed to from a shoe—the cards are dealt face-down and players may hold them as if they were playing poker. After the deal, the action begins at the dealers left. Each player who was dealt in has a chance to appraise his cards and make one of several decisions (see how many you can pick out that Ben and his crew used in “21”):

  • Hit: (Signaled in pitch-style by scraping the cards against the table, and in shoe-style by tapping the table with your finger)* The dealer deals you another card; this can be done until you “bust” (i.e., go over 21 points) or until you have five cards without going over at which time you win in some formats.
  • Stand: (Signaled in pitch-style by sliding your cards face-up beneath your bet, and in shoe-style by waving your hand horizontally over your cards) Nothing happens. You now go into a showdown with the dealer.
  • Double Down: (Signaled in both variations by placing a second bet beside your original chips and sticking up one finger—no, not that one) You increase your wager to up to twice the original amount, and the dealer deals you one more card. A typical play for those who either feel lucky—or know what’s coming next. (Note: any double down that is less than your original bet is called “double down for less”—just thought ya’d like to know).
  • Split: (Signaled in both variations by placing an additional bet beside your original chips and sticking up two fingers) You double your wager and have each card in your original hand become the first card in two separate hands. More often than not, you can only do this if your opening hand is a pair (i.e., two cards of the same rank/number). You can continue to split as long as you continue to be dealt pairs, though in pitch games, there’s usually a limit of four splits because of the number of matching cards in a deck.
  • Surrender: (Signaled by making a karate chop over your bet or just saying “surrender”) You poon out, give up and the house takes half of your chips for their trouble.
  • Buy Insurance: (Special: before the action) In American-style blackjack, if the dealer has an ace showing after the second deal he will offer the players insurance before the action begins. A player can buy insurance by placing up to half his original bet on a special spot in front of his seat, marked “insurance.” Usually insurance is a 2:1 bet, so if the dealer does end up with blackjack, the player who doesn’t push will lose his original bet but win back its equivalent because of the insurance. (See Section IV, “Bits and Pieces” for more on this).
  • Even Money: (Special: before the action) Kind of like insurance for the dealer, “even money” means you just got dealt a natural and the house is willing to pay you 1:1 to muck it. Sometimes this is a good idea, and sometimes it isn’t (See: Section IV, “Bits and Pieces” for a more detailed explanation).

*By the by, you MUST signal no matter what action you take because casinos record these hand motions in order to determine what actually happened in contested play. They, therefore, require that all players use them. Sorry, bub, you ain’t got no choice in the matter.

In most versions and permutations, the dealer deals the first “house card” (the cards he deals himself) face-down, and after the action has passed through all betting players and returns to him, he reveals it. Often, you’ll find that the dealer will also hit before the game goes into a showdown. This is because house rules generally dictate that if the dealer’s hand is 17 or less, he must hit. If he busts, all the players who haven’t done likewise win. If not, his revealed hand is compared in a showdown to each of the players’ hands. The highest hand wins, unless a player and the dealer both have blackjack in which case there’s a draw (See: “push” above).

Really, that’s all there is to know about how blackjack works. There are, however, a few finer points to keep in mind when you approach your first table. If you’re playing in Europe, for instance, the dealer will not deal himself a hole card until all the players have played their hands. Other times, a dealer’s hard natural will automatically trump a player’s, which can be devastating to say the least. The only way to be sure of what you’re getting yourself into when you sit down at a Blackjack table—as well as payout rates for straight bets, doubling down and splitting—is to ask. John Law says a casino has to tell you what its rules are if you ask, and doing so will help you make sure you’re sitting down at the kind of table you can actually win at.