Shuffle Tracking in Blackjack

Just about every single blackjack player out there has heard of card counting. Even casino patrons who only play a few rounds of blackjack for a break from their preferred casino game have heard of card counting. But what many blackjack players have not heard of is shuffle tracking.

Shuffle tracking is another ‘counting’ skill that the elite of card counter work into their counting strategies. This particular skill involves tracking the clump of cards that come after the shuffle card to see where or in what zone the newly shuffled deck the clump of cards is in.

Let me break it down a bit more. Prior to dealing at the blackjack table, the dealer will have a player cut the deck. Where that cut is made a shuffle card is inserted. When the shuffle card appears, the dealer reshuffles the deck and the process begins again.

What this has to do with card counters is that sometimes the count goes positive and the counter is ready to increase his wagers. And then the shuffle card appears and that means that all those high cards are behind the shuffle card. This is where the shuffle tracking comes in. Shuffle trackers will watch the shuffling very, very carefully to see where that clump of rich cards goes. Then the shuffle tracker will cut the deck so that the clump of high cards from before the shuffle are on top. This allows them to wager high right off the bat; they still get their money from counting cards, and the high wagers from the get-go confuse the casino personnel since card counters never wager high at the beginning of a new shoe.

But shuffle tracking is not a simple skill to learn. Shuffle trackers must learn the shuffle patterns of the particular casino they want to try their skill at. They then have to replicate the shuffle at home to learn how to keep pace with the shuffle in order to track the clump they want to cut to the top. It takes a lot of practice and skill. Without careful practice and careful tracking a player could lose the clump of high cards unknowingly; not being careful and not practicing and preparing ahead of time can result in the loss of a lot of a player’s bankroll.

This is one blackjack skill that requires a lot of practice, more than card counting. And while casinos have naturally taken precautions—complicated shuffle patterns and continuous shuffle machines—players will still try their hand at shuffle tracking. Just make sure that if you want to work shuffle tracking into your blackjack strategy to practice a lot. And I do mean a lot.

Card Counting No-No in ‘The Hangover’

Wow, talk about irony. Last Friday I wrote a piece on using a pretty woman as a distraction when counting cards, and then I watch ‘The Hangover’ for the first time the next day. There you go, my blackjack playing friends, proof that distraction with a pretty woman works at the blackjack table.

Okay, so it was written that way, but it is still perfectly viable. It at least shows you how such a thing would work.

But while watching ‘The Hangover’ I noticed something else about that scene at the blackjack table: Zach Galifianakis as Alan Garner is making a big card counting no-no: He is exhibiting outward—and let’s be honest, easily recognizable—signs that he is counting cards. Viewers can watch his lips move as he does all of his counting math in his head. And that is a big problem.

While card counting is no actually legal, casinos are private businesses that do have a say in who they will or will not serve. They can ask you to leave. Which is exactly what they will do if they catch a player counting cards. This is why all advice about blackjack and card counting says to practice, practice, practice until you can count through multiple decks with distractions around you.

Counting like Alan Garner in ‘The Hangover’ is not going to help you to win $80,000 plus. It is a good thing they planted Stu and Jade to be a distraction because otherwise it was likely that Alan would have gotten busted by the casino staff and tossed out.

The lesson here is to not do things that happen in ‘The Hangover.’ You do not want to pull your own tooth out and you certainly do not want to get booted from a casino because you a no-no for not practicing enough with your card counting. Practice!

A Story of Card Counting Distraction

Card counting, while not illegal, can get your thrown out of a casino. But it is quite useful when it comes to blackjack strategy. But to pull it off well you have to practice it, and even then you have to be careful when counting cards at the blackjack table so that the dealer or pit personnel are not tipped off as to what you are doing.

Typically this means keeping the spread of your wagering small, and perhaps now and then throwing in a variance in your wagering, such as betting less when you should bet more or vice versa. The point is that you would be using it as a distraction. But I heard of another distraction that was used to cover up card counting.

I heard the story of man who was playing blackjack in Vegas and counting cards. So was the other guy who was at the table with him. Naturally since they were both counting and they were the only ones at the table, they were keeping their spreads small. But then a pretty woman stumbled up to the table who appeared to know the other guy. What then ensued was the other player giving her some of his chips and inviting her to play with them. But she was a terrible and sloppy player; even if she had not been drinking it was doubtful that she would have done well.

The other player helper the woman with her blackjack playing as best he could. Then the dealer, taking pity, started to give her tips and try to help. Finally pit personnel wound up trying to give her pointers to help her. While all of this was going on the other guy and the guy who told this story had increased the spread of their wagering. As a result the other man wound up cashing out for $30,000.

This is a case of distraction at the blackjack table. The dealer and pit personnel were too focused on helping the tipsy woman with her poor blackjack playing that they did not notice the two men increasing their spreads and making more off of their card counting.

While many blackjack players will resort to some sort of distraction to keep casino staff from picking up that they are counting cards, I had not heard of such an elaborate distraction. And while some distractions work at the blackjack table, they are not meant to replace skill and practice in card counting.

Thoughts on Card Counting

I have been thinking some about card counting of late? Does it impact the house edge, a blackjack player’s odds or both? And that question brought up the difference of strategies such as basic strategy in blackjack opposed to card counting. Are they the same or different?

I am inclined to think that there is a reason casinos are not fond of card counting. And I think it is because it increases both a player’s blackjack odds and still impacts the house edge.

Basic strategy impacts the house edge in that it gives players the best statistical play to make. That does not mean that a player is more likely to win the hand. It is just the play that makes the most of the cards that have been dealt or minimizes the damage when dealt bad cards. But there is still a roughly 44% chance of winning. The impact that basic strategy has on the house edge is due to money and profit. The best statistical play does not guarantee a win, but increases the odds of profitability; that is how it hits lowers the house edge.

But on the other hand, card counting hits the house edge because players have increased their chances of winning as well as their profitability. They know when the deck is rich in high cards and they take advantage of that by increasing their wagers. In that way the increase their profitability while increasing their chances of winning. And that is why casinos have such a problem with card counting and the fact that a skilled card counter can tilt the blackjack odds in favor of himself.

More Card Counting Advantages for Blackjack Players

Yesterday I talked about one of the ways that blackjack players come out on top in card counting when the deck is rich in high cards. While it is true that both the player’s chances and the dealer’s chances of being dealt a natural blackjack are increased when the deck is rich in high cards, the advantage belongs with the player because of the payout differences, which were discussed yesterday. But there is another advantage blackjack players have when the cards are rich in high cards.

That advantage is doubling down.

For starters, high cards or no high cards, this is a play that the dealer does not have in his arsenal no matter how much he might want them. Or how much the house may want them. The structure of blackjack gives those plays to the player.

Let’s look at the double down scenario. Let’s say you have been dealt a 9, 10 or 11. Through card counting you have discovered that the deck is rich in high cards. So the likelihood of you being dealt a high card on top of your 9, 10 or 11 to make a really strong hand is with you. So knowing that the odds are good for you to receive a high card it makes sense to double down. Heck, it makes sense to double down even if the cards are not rich in high cards, but it is especially profitable when the cards are rich in highs. There is a greater likelihood that you will turn a profit.

And on top of that the dealer in blackjack cannot double down. So that play is all yours.

Because the likelihood is greater the odds from card counting are increased for the player—just another reason why a deck rich in high cards favors the play more than the dealer.

How Card Counting Odds Work for the Blackjack Player

If you look at explanations of card counting and which cards favor whom, you might begin to wonder something: if high cards, such as 10s, Jacks, Queens, Kings and Aces, favor the blackjack player then they also favor the dealer right?

Well, in truth, yes, they do favor the dealer too. Yes, it is just as likely that the dealer will be dealt a blackjack as you. But there are a few things built into the game of blackjack that, when combined with card counting, bring better odds for players when the remaining cards are rich in high cards. Today we are going to look at how payouts impact odds when the deck is rich in high cards.

Let’s say that you have been counting cards and the remaining deck is now rich in high cards. For right now we are going to say that the dealer is dealt a blackjack and you have not been dealt that pleasure. The dealer collects everyone’s wagers. For him this is an even money collection.

Now let’s say that you are the one who is dealt the blackjack and the dealer is on the losing end. As the recipient of a natural blackjack you get the special payout. And by special payout I mean the 3-2 payout instead of a 2-1 payout.

To compare the two, when the dealer is dealt a blackjack he only makes one chip for one. But the player wins three chips for every two that he wagered. It comes out to the player blackjack giving the player an extra chip that the dealer does not get.

What this means is that the odds from payout lie with the player. Blackjack Odds are based on opportunity to make money, to make a profit. And since the player would make more off of a blackjack than a dealer would, the odds from card counting and a remaining deck rich in high cards puts the odds with the blackjack player.

Is Card Counting Legal or Not?

While card counting can be a highly useful skill for blackjack players, there is some concern over whether it is legal to use in a casino or not. This question will sometimes cause blackjack players who would normally teach themselves the skill to not learn it and therefore not take advantage of it.

In all reality there is no law that says that blackjack players cannot use card counting when playing. So in the law’s eyes it is okay to use card counting when at the blackjack table.

But if it is legal why are players so covert about using it? And why are there all those warnings about not letting dealers, pit bosses and other casino staff members catch you counting cards?

Casinos frown on blackjack players. Okay, forget frown, they flat out dislike them—and that is putting it nicely. And it is true that they will not hesitate to kick a blackjack player out without his winnings if they catch him counting cards. Sometimes casinos will even ban a player for counting cards.

The reason that casinos can remove players from their premises is because they are privately owned companies. In other words, you are playing on private property. And similar to how you can have someone removed from your home if you so choose to, so too can casinos have players removed from their property.

Players have gone to court to fight over being removed from a casino for counting cards when playing blackjack. And while those players are not subject to fines or the like, they really do not have ground to stand on. It comes down to the casinos being on private property, and casinos can choose to serve or not serve anyone as they see fit.

This is why blackjack players will be cautious when using their card counting skills. They know there are no legal repercussions to counting at the blackjack table, but they do know that the casino could kick them out and refuse to give them their winnings. Always go card counting with caution. Unless you like being thrown out of casinos and then by all means, be obvious with your blackjack card counting.

A Basic Card Counting System

Now that we have talked about what card counting is and what it is not, what it does and what it does not do, it is time to look at the starting point of actually counting cards. Today we are going to look at the most basic of card counting systems, the Hi Lo system.

The Hi Lo system is the counting system that most blackjack players start out with. It is easy to remember and the math is easy enough that those who are not inclined to the subject can still use the system.

In the Hi Lo system cards fall into one of three categories: High, Low or Neutral. Each category is assigned a counting value: -1, +1 or 0. Now we look at the how the cards are broken down:

High cards: Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10 with a counting value of -1
Neutral Cards: 9, 8, 7 with a counting value of 0
Low Cards: 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 with a counting value of +1

Okay, so now that we have the counting values down, now the work comes in.

When you are card counting you are tracking the cards that have been played. This means adding up the values of the cards as they are dealt. Of everyone at the table. So say you are dealt a 10/10, your neighbor is dealt a 10/7 and the dealer has been dealt a 6 your count would look like this:

-1 + -1 + -1 + 0 + 1 = -2

The -2 outcome means that more high cards have been played, which means there are more low cards left to be played. Low cards favor the dealer, so when your count moves beyond a -3 or -4 it is time to begin reducing your wager as the odds are more in favor of the dealer.

Now if your count goes up to +3 or +4 it means that a good number low cards have been played and have passed out of the game leaving a larger number of high cards—which favor the player—still in the deck. So when your count moves that high into the positive it would be time to increase your wager. Not too drastically of course, you do not want to tip off to the casino staff that you are counting cards; while not illegal, card counting is frowned upon by casinos because how dare you find a skillful way of gaining an advantage.

But that is the most basic of card counting systems. It is a good system to start with if you are looking to get your feet wet with card counting.

Understanding Card Counting

Card counting can be a very useful skill when playing blackjack. But it is a skill that requires time, practice and patience to learn to the point of effectiveness. A good many novice players do not have the correct perception of what card counting is and what it does.

So we will start there, with what card counting is. Card counting is a skill in which the player mentally tracks the flow of cards. This is not an exact count; the purpose of card counting is to give players an idea of when there are more high cards left in the unplayed deck. This is discovered when the count a player is keeping has reached the point that more low cards have been played than high cards.

Once a player has the knowledge that more low cards have been played, leaving a greater number, and therefore likelihood, of high card being dealt, the player can begin raising their bets. Bets are raised at this point because there is a greater chance of being dealt a strong hand if not an outright natural blackjack. When the remaining deck is rich in high cards, there is a greater chance of the player winning, which is why bets are increased at this point.

To sum it up, counting cards in blackjack can give players a long-term advantage over the house by knowing when they are more likely to win, and raising their wagers accordingly.

Now. What card counting is not.

Card counting is not a short cut that will allow players to beat the house. Yes, it will allow players to tilt the odds in their favor, but it is not an instantaneous happening. It is not a flashy skill to be thrown around the casino.

To be successful with card counting in blackjack, time and patience must be applied while learning the counting system of your choice. Players who utilize card counting when playing blackjack also have to understand that they are not going to win every single hand, but that they will win more over the long run.

Card Counting Tips: CSMs and RNGs

Well you have already had a basic explanation of how to begin card counting, but there are a few more things that you need to know before you reach your card counting glory.

There are also some blackjack games that you will want to avoid with card counting. Online blackjack and blackjack tables with Continuous Shuffle Machines. The reasons you want to avoid those blackjack games are very similar.

I will start with CSMs. CSMs are devices in which the cards from one round are fed into the device and the entire deck reshuffled before the next hand is dealt. Hence the continuous part.

This causes none of the cards that have been played to be discarded, and without discards there is nothing to count. Card counting is a way of keeping a loose running tab on the cards that have been played and removed from play under the remaining deck hits its reshuffle point. But since CSMs keep cards from being removed from play there is no point in trying to count them.

As for online blackjack, it is powered by a Random Number Generator. An RNG functions similarly to a CSM, but not exactly.

When an online blackjack game is created, its RNG is programmed with every possible outcome, such as all possible starting hands and dealer up card combinations. When a player clicks Deal, the RNG pulls from all possible starting hands and dealer up card combinations. This has an effect like a CSM because no cards are ever ‘discarded,’ it is possible for any of them to show up in the next rounds.

Because cards are not effectively discarded in a blackjack game with CSMs or RNGs card counting becomes useless in those games. It is best to stick with a standard game of blackjack in a brick and mortar casino—one without a CSM.