Card Counting Basics: The Hi-Lo Balancing Act in 21
Among the many card counting
strategies developed for playing blackjack, the so-called Hi-Lo Count or
High/Low System is one of the oldest and probably the most commonly used. It is
easy to learn and, if properly applied, can give the player a significant
advantage in wagering against the House Edge, which changes from deal to deal depending
on the composition of the deck as cards are eliminated from play.
Theory behind the Hi-Lo Practice
The Hi-Lo Count was first
pioneered in 1963 by Harvey Dubner, who noted that the deck’s high cards (Ace
through Ten) tend to favor the player, while low cards (Deuce through Six) are
of greater benefit to the dealer. Specifically, the House Edge is 4% or more when
the deck’s supply of high cards is depleted. Conversely, the player has an advantage
of 4% or better when the availability of high cards is great.
Dubner began tracking the removal
of high and low cards from the deck during play. By knowing which situation applied
before wagering, he could increase his bets when the deck was relatively “rich”
in high cards, which is true of about one third of all hands, and minimize his
wagers for a third of the deals when it was “poor.” The rest of the deals fall somewhere
in between. He also found there was no need to keep track of the middle cards
(Seven through Nine), which are relatively inconsequential as regards their
effect on the House Edge.
The problem, of course, is that
few players of average IQ would be able to recall what individual cards have
been played, especially when blackjack involves multiple decks and surrounding
distractions. But fortunately, Dubner came up with a simple tracking method, so
no photographic memory is required.
Learning to Count Cards
To begin, every card in the deck is
assigned a value. The low cards 2~6 are worth +1 point apiece as they are
removed from the deck. The middle cards 7~9 are counted as zero and can be
ignored. The high cards A~10 count as -1 point each as they are played. Counting
in this manner, it’s unnecessary to remember exactly what cards have been taken
from the deck. The player simply concentrates on a single number, the “Count,”
starting with zero when the deck is fresh and adding or subtracting points as
each card is dealt.
For example, consider a dealing
sequence of J/6/7/10/K/3/3/Q/A/8. The so-called “running count” (Count) starts
at zero and the Jack is valued as -1 point, so the Count becomes -1. The Six is
worth +1 point, so the Count reverts to zero. The Seven has no value and is
ignored, then the Ten brings the Count to -1, the King makes it -2, the first
Three returns it to -1, the second Three makes the Count zero, the Queen
returns it to -1, the Ace makes it -2 and the Eight has no effect, which yields
a final Count of -2 and the deck currently favors the dealer. It’s that easy.
And it is also easy to practice the Hi-Lo Count by simply shuffling a deck of cards and going through them one by one, keeping track of the Count as the cards are dealt. When the last of the 52 cards is played, the Count should always be back to zero.
Then, once the player becomes adept in tracking cards in this way, a simple betting strategy can be added. Card counting basics teach that is it best to wager the minimum when the Count is +1 or less, and double the bet when the Count is +2 or more.
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