Card counting is one of the most well known advantage-play techniques in gambling. It’s so famous in fact, that several Hollywood movies (most notably is 21) have been based on this method.
Why is this so? It’s for the simple fact that expert card counters can attain anywhere from a 0.5% to 1.5% edge over the house, which in turn, often results in good profits over a span of time. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that a lot of people believe that this is the only way to gain an advantage over the house.
This could not be any father from the truth.
The fact is you really don’t have to count cards to beat blackjack. Rather, you can use any of the other advantage-play techniques that we will discuss here to win.
These are hole carding, shuffle tracking, ace sequencing, and edge sorting. Any of these can help you beat the game. Later on, we will also discuss if any of these advantage-play methods are better suited to use than card counting.
North American Blackjack dealers at casinos deal themselves one face-up and one face-down card. The face-down card is often called the hole card because it’s not discernible to players. The dealer is the only one at the table who sees the hole card, because they assess for a natural blackjack before players act.
Given that you don’t see the hole card, you’re basing your blackjack decisions on partial data. Fundamental strategy helps you bridge the gap between the house and yourself. But you’re still at a minor disadvantage when utilizing perfect basic strategy.
This is where hole carding enters the play. Hole carding is an advantage-play technique that involves seeing the dealer’s hole card. If you see their hole card, you can acquire an advantage that goes up to 13%!
Any dealer who constantly offers players a chance to see this is what is called a “flasher.” These dealers, through one error or another, lets players gain a huge edge by flashing their hole card.
The best way to see these dealer flaws is by sitting to the right seat and keeping a close eye to every hand.
In reality, a lot of players don’t pay attention to when the dealer peeks for blackjack or deals the hole card themselves. But by doing so, this gives you a massive benefit at a flasher’s table.
Witnessing the dealer’s face-down card when they check for a blackjack is referred to as “first-basing” or “third-basing.” Witnessing the hole card when it’s placed under the up-card is termed “front loading.” A lot of hole-carders sit at first base, which is the first seat to the dealer’s left. This gives you the best chance at seeing a right-handed dealer’s hole card.
The other oft-used hole-carding seat is third base, which is to the dealer’s direct right. This is where you want to be if you want to see a left-handed dealer’s face-down card.
It also helps if you can attain a vantage point that is closer to the table felt. The more level your eyes are with the table, the more improved your chance would be of witnessing the hole card. In this regard, shorter players actually have an advantage because they’re naturally closer to the table felt. Taller players often have to lean back to bolster their vantage point.
Of course, the crucial point here is to do this in a subtle manner. Being noticeable about leaning back or slouching draws unwanted attention to your hole-carding efforts that would most assuredly be not appreciated by either the dealer or the casino.
Another thing that you need to be wary of is milking your advantage. At times, you should ignore the data you just acquired when using fundamental strategy because it would look too suspicious.
Here’s a fine example:
- 1. Your first two cards total a hard 8
- 2. The dealer’s up-card is a 10
- 3. You see that the dealer’s hole card is 2
- 4. The prime play is to double down against the dealer’s 12
- 5. But no regular player is going to make this call because they’re not supposed to have this data
The last thing that you want to do is take advantage of plays like this, especially when your dealer is a regular flasher.
If information reaches the casino that a dealer is consistently flashing cards and helping the players win, one of two things will usually happen.
1. The dealer will get better training
2. The dealer will be given the slip
In either case, the work you put into looking for a flasher goes out the window. And this is hardly worth taking advantage of a few dubious plays that you should let go.
Players need to think of the long game and realize the type of profits they can have by continuing to play at the dealer’s table. Eschew decisions that are too far outside the bounds of normal strategy.
Besides, it’s notoriously difficult to find a consistent flasher. Casinos train dealers on how to deal without giving players the slimmest of chances to see their hole card. Nevertheless, some dealers either just don’t pick up enough skills in training or become complacent over time.
The best place to begin when looking for flashers is casino-heavy cities such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Reno. This allows you to move from one casino to another within a single shift. Odds are that you’re not going to find a flasher at the start. But once you do find one, do take note the shift that they are in and make it a priority to play at their table.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Las Vegas casinos started executing shoe games. The concept was to hamper card counters by forcing them to count through a number of decks in each shoe.
Casinos thought that they solved their card counting problem with shoe blackjack tables. But card counters simply altered their strategy, and therein lay the genesis of other methods like shuffle tracking.
Shuffle tracking means to track particular cards, or a sequence of cards, through different shuffles. Shuffle trackers keep track of where 10s and face cards (a.k.a. high cards) are throughout the coming rounds.
Similar to card counting, the objective is to bet more when the shoe is copious in high cards. When utilized the right way, shuffle tracking has proven to be a much more effective technique in advantage-play than card counting.
But this method is also not the easiest one to use, because you must know a sophisticated strategy on top of card counting. The fundamental idea behind shuffle tracking is that shuffles are not at all random, and you can keep track of specific cards after a shuffle.
Now you might be thinking, “Can’t dealers just shuffle more to make decks more random and stop shuffle trackers?” But a lot of casinos don’t like it when their dealers waste too much time with shuffles, because this slackens the game and basically reduces profits.
Blackjack dealers often use a “zero shuffle,” where cards are essentially separated into piles, with the shuffling only being conducted between the piles. This means that the ace of hearts, for example, would have a high probability of only being in one or two sections of the shuffled shoe.
Now this is where card counting skill or expertise comes in handy because you want to monitor the count in various discard sections. Let me begin this explanation by letting you take a look at the point values that are assigned in the Hi-Lo counting method.
2 through 6 = +1
7 through 9 = 0
10 through ace = -1
You can make use of other card counting systems with shuffle tracking. But the Hi-Lo is a standard counting strategy that’s fairly easy to use.
High cards favor the player by augmenting their chances of getting a natural blackjack payout. This advantage comes from the fact that players get either a 3:2 or 6:5 bonus with a natural.
Meanwhile, low cards lessen the dealer’s chance of busting out while they try to reach a hard 17. Anything that raises the dealer’s odds of winning does not bode well for players.
The principle is to make higher bets when the shoe is plush in aces and 10-value cards (i.e., positive count) and bet the table minimum when the shoe has more low cards (i.e., negative count).
The overall positive or negative count is called a “running count.” But Hi-Lo system users convert this into a “true count,” which accounts for the number of unplayed decks in the shoe.
- 1. Your running count is +8
- 2. There are 4 decks left
- 3. 8/4 = +2 true count
Card counting and shuffle tracking can go hand in hand when players have a good grasp of what card values are remaining in the shoe based on their count. If they can take this one more step further by visually tracking high cards and coming upon them clustered together, they can gain an even better advantage.
One massive benefit of shuffle tracking is that it’s fairly difficult to spot compared to card counting. Yes, you’re still raising bets during ideal situations. But your raised bets come in a shorter span once 10-value cards and aces come out in clumps. Another advantage is that you can acquire up to a 50% advantage with seamless shuffle tracking.
No gambler will have this edge all of the time. But an expert shuffle tracker may attain between a 10% and 30% long-term edge, depending upon the dealer and shuffling style they’re utilizing.
The drawback is that shuffle tracking is really, really tough to pull off. You not only need to keep a good count, but also keep track of the deck with your eyes and have a great grasp of how high cards will disperse after shuffles.
Be prepared to put in a lot of work mastering this particular method in order to become an expert shuffle tracker. Even then, you need to be proficient enough to pull this off with a high degree of certainty. In other words, some players fool themselves into thinking that they’re acquiring an edge, when they’re really not doing anything special.
Another disadvantage is that not every casino trains their blackjack dealers in a shuffle that can be taken advantage of. Some casinos make use of a 2-pass shuffle, where they go through two rounds of riffling and restacking. Two-pass shuffles make it more difficult to track cards during a shuffle. Preferably, you want a one-pass shuffle to reduce the randomness of the shoe.
One more point worth discussing is that you can’t shuffle track with a continuous shuffling machine (CSM). That being said, you should look for hand-shuffled shoes with one-pass shuffles.
Ace sequencing is a different kind of card tracking, where you try to remember what cards are on top of the ace in the discard pile. You next make bigger bets when you see these cards come out in the hope of landing an ace.
Akin to shuffle tracking, ace sequencing is a difficult technique to pull off. The finest ace trackers can keep track of up to a dozen card sequences in each shoe, thereby greatly augmenting their chances of landing aces.
If you know that you’re potentially going to be dealt an ace, you can gain up to a 50% advantage on the house. When you’re dealt an ace, you have a 31% chance of getting a 10-value card and completing a natural blackjack.
But becoming a great ace tracker is hard because there’s not a lot of materials on the matter – unlike with card counting. In addition, it takes a while to learn how to accurately execute this concept.
Ace sequencing starts with watching discard segments so that you can guess what clumps might emerge intact after a shuffle. You also want to keep a close eye on where aces go into the discard tray, so that you have a fairly accurate idea on when an ace would be dealt in a segment.
And then finally, you want to remember 2-3 cards that are placed on top of the ace in the discard try. Called “key cards,” these are what you watch for after the deck is shuffled. You then raise your bet when you see the key cards and can foresee an ace being landed. But bear in mind that ace sequencing is just like shuffle-tracking in that it doesn’t work when your table has a CSM.
Do Any of These Techniques Beat Blackjack?
All of the blackjack advantage-play techniques that have been discussed can give you a better edge than card counting. You can gain up to a 50% advantage if you use either shuffle tracking or ace sequencing. Hole carding can also give you a fine edge worth up to 13%.
You should give these advanced strategies a shot. This is especially true in the case of hole carding, shuffle tracking, and ace sequencing, which work with abundant success in the right games. But again, be aware that you’ll need to put in a lot of work with these techniques to accurately use them.