By counting cards, the savvy player can actually gain an advantage over the house in blackjack. Some go on to become lifetime professionals, while others exploit the window of opportunity for a short time in order to strike big; the real-life story behind the recent movie 21 is an excellent example of this phenomenon. It should be noted, however, that these situations are rare and that card counting is a difficult way to make a living. For one, the methodology is quite challenging to master.
Furthermore, casinos have the right to ban players from their premises, and such a fate befalls most card counters who win significant amounts of money. Finally, even a good counter will have large bankroll swings and will only show a profit after many grueling hours of counting and playing. One can hope to gain an advantage of only about 1% over the casino using card counting. Hence, patrons will generally get more enjoyment out of blackjack by using basic strategy and hoping for a little luck as opposed to attempting to implement card-counting strategies into their game.
Despite what the name implies, card counting is basically keeping score at the blackjack table. Typical counting strategies involve assigning point values to the cards and using the current score to determine the composition of the remaining deck. For instance, in the simple Hi-Lo system, 2-6 are assigned a value of 1 while 10s, face cards, and aces are assigned a value of -1. The player wants to know when the remaining cards are high in aces, tens, and face cards, which are beneficial to the player, or when there are a lot of low cards, which are better for the dealer. A high proportion of tens and aces means that the player will receive more blackjacks and that the dealer will bust more. There are more complicated counting systems to account for game variations, but these are much more difficult to both memorize and use in practice.
For the most part, card counters use regular basic strategy while playing, only varying when the deck becomes particularly skewed in one direction. Once the deck is favorable, the player must then increase his/her bet size in order to maximize potential profit, but when the deck is favoring the dealer, the player must scale his/her bets back. It is also possible to not bet at all during these times; this strategy is known as ‘wonging’ after its creator, Stanford Wong. However, doing so can mark a player as a card counter, resulting in banishment from that casino.
Card counting may seem easy, glamorous, and exciting, but for the average player it will be none of these, and even for an experienced counter, it is a tough way to make a living. While mathematically and theoretically interesting, card counting is best left to Hollywood and the small population of dedicated professional gamblers out there.