...and Chew Gum at the Same Time
By Kyle Sever
(Tips on Card Counting Technique)
(From Blackjack Forum, Vol. XXI #2, Summer 2001)
© 2001 Blackjack Forum
[Note from Arnold Snyder: This truly is a terrific collection of tips on how to learn to count cards. One of the things I like best about Kyle's tips is that they not only make you a good card counter, but they will also help to prepare you for advanced techniques for beating blackjack, like hole-carding.]
One of the most important fundamentals in blackjack is the utilization of proper card counting technique. Trouble is, I have never seen an explanation on how to do so.
Itís not uncommon for an author to say that once you can count down a deck in less than twenty-five seconds, youíre about ready for the casino, but lack of proper card counting technique can hinder your development as a card counter and/or get you into bad habits. It will not only slow down your counting, but will limit your ability to use more advanced methods of advantage play and cover.
Technique for Visualizing the Count
One of the most common card counting errors is maintaining the count by repeating it in the head. Assuming the player is using the hi-lo, when he or she sees a five, immediately +1 should go into the head. However, many players will literally talk to themselves and say ďplus oneĒ or perhaps ďoneĒ in their heads. In negative counts, this type of player needs to say something in addition to the number to indicate it's negative, such as ďminus oneĒ or ďm-one.Ē
If someone doesnít like negatives I would bet money itís due to poor technique.
Instead of maintaining the count by repeating the number in your head, itís advisable to visualize it and keep it visually in front of you as if it was stuck there with glue. When visualizing the number, don't picture it on the table or anything external; then you would be focusing your eyes on only one spot. Instead, visualize it in your head. As new cards come across the table, the visualized number should be changing in your mind. When you are waiting between rounds, instead of repeating the count, the number should be held in place as if you had eyes in the back of your head.
When applying this technique, the number in your head shouldnít change after each individual card that you proceed to see. You should generally take in multiple cards at once and after counting the group, the number should change. This method is faster and easier since many cards cancel out. The exception is when there is a potential bust card, since if the player busts the dealer will place the cards from the busted hand immediately into the discard tray.
Card Counting Tecnique and Talking
One of the best things about counting visually is that it will greatly facilitate the skill of counting and talking simultaneously. If you are saying the count in your head and someone tries to start up a conversation, you will have problems maintaining both the inner voice and outer voice. It is best to use just one voice and use another form of memory, visualization.
I can recall only one personal resource on how to count and talk the same time but was disappointed by the explanation. One noted blackjack author and web host had a short article that explained how someone could maintain the count using physical means, such as counting with your hands, fingers or chips so the counter could keep the count while talking.
I have two problems with this method of counting cards. First, it presupposes that you would be counting using auditory methods. Instead of focusing on how to count with good technique, the author was showing how to minimize the effects of counting with poor technique. Second, it can look conspicuous.
Card Counting Practice Technique
Once you begin to get the basic visualization technique down, it will take time to increase your speed. When counting cards, focus only on relevant information. Once your eyes pick up enough information to obtain the value of the card(s), donít focus on it any more. If your eyes see a gob of paint, itís a ten. You really shouldnít care if it is a king, queen, jack or a ten. If you use the Hi-Lo, and you see a few spots on the card, then poof, it is +1. You donít care if it is a three or four, heart, spade, etc. Just be careful not to count the ace as +1.
If you see a moderate amount of paint (7, 8, 9), the count would be 0. Your eyes should be like a camera, taking shots and quickly processing the information. Your camera doesnít need to take multiple pictures of the same item.
One reason multi-level systems are more difficult is that it takes longer to discern the properly assigned number to a card. When using a higher level system such as Brh-1, which assigns a +3 value to the five, your camera must zoom in, and it forces you to look more specifically at the number of spots on the card or the number in the index. A one level system, on the other hand, requires you only to look and see if there is a low to medium density of pips on the card.
In order to facilitate recognition of cards, I recommend that you practice without the index and focus on the pips. If you use a regular deck of cards, white out the indexes of the whole deck, or at a minimum, do it to all non-face cards. Another way to efface the indexes is with a hole-punch, or simply tear them. If you have a computer you can use Smart Cards or Casino Verite and practice with them. Learning to count this way is especially helpful when back-counting. When far away from the table itís not easy to identify the index but itís usually feasible to see the rest of the card.
When initially learning to count and talk the same time, donít jump into a full-blown conversation. Sit at home and say a one-syllable word and hold it out loud. Just say something like ďWoooooooonnggg.Ē While holding the word, try counting. Try to keep the sound of it as consistent as possible. Although doing this will make you sound like an opera singer, itís a good exercise to learn to talk while counting. (Sorry Arnold, even though you're a bishop, I don't recommend blackjack players worship you while practicing due to your name!)
If you are having trouble doing this task then I recommend you soften your voice. I donít recommend you practice by talking in intervals because this may lead you to do most of your counting when not talking and/or when your voice is attenuated. Eventually, variation in speech should increase and you should be able to talk continuously.
Being able to count and talk the same time is important but itís just as important to count and listen at the same time. Try listening to the radio or listen to the television while counting and try to comprehend what is being said. Once you reach this level of proficiency, you will feel confident if someone in the casino wants to strike up a conversation. Once again, if you rely on auditory counting you may find yourself struggling to distinguish between what two voices are telling you.
Practice with different IRCís (initial running counts). If you donít like negatives then try starting the count at Ė10. Exaggerate the practice. Itís analogous to a baseball player loosening up by swinging two bats. If you can learn to handle difficult situations then when it comes to game time, it should be easier.
I highly advise the use of a computer program to facilitate practice. With a computer, your practice sessions will be more efficient since all it takes is a click of the button to pick the cards up. Two of best practice programs currently out on the market are Casino Verite by Norman Wattenburger and Smart Cards by Richard Reid. Casino Verite has long been accepted as THE program to imitate real world casino play. Its superb graphics, attention to detail and number of options can make you feel like you are playing at any number of games around the world. However, the very nature of what makes the program great is also its downfall.
I donít feel Casino Verite is the best choice for newer players or for those really trying to improve their skills. The process of learning to count cards must be broken down into different drills. Although Casino Verite does have some drills, they are limited in scope. The software was designed, first and foremost, to imitate casino play and not for counting training or practice.
To improve your counting skills, I recommend Smart Cards by Extreme Blackjack. To the best of my knowledge, there isnít any software like it. It seeks to improve the most fundamental skill in all of blackjack: counting.
It has a number of ways to let the user practice and drill along with multiple ways of distributing the cards. The variety of count settings is important since it will train you to recognize cards quickly without setting you within a rigid method of counting. A rigid method of counting is when you start at the same direction and count in the same order each time. The drills in Smart Cards will train your eyes to move in different directions.
Once you start to master counting, I would then consider the purchase of Casino Verite. I think of it as card counting maintenance software. It gives you a chance to use your index numbers, betting spread, and card counting skills all at one time and, by occasionally practicing on it, you can maintain your counting skills once you have gotten your system down. Now if Extreme Blackjack would only put a playing module in Smart CardsÖ
Newcomers often wonder how fast they should be able to count before they are ready for the casino. There is no easy answer to this. In fact, I used to spend too much time counting down decks and not enough time playing hands. I could count down a deck by hand in 15 seconds, yet had problems when I tried to play hands against the computer.
My advice would be to first count down decks until you can do so without the voice in your head and do it in 20 seconds by hand or 15 seconds by computer program. Once you can do this, try doing the same while talking. Once you get this far, donít worry about making the card counting Olympics. Go play some hands and stick with that, occasionally going back to count down decks. Consider doing this even more if you are gonna do some back-counting. Once you count down a deck quickly and play your hands while talking and listening to someone else, then youíre about ready to tackle the casinos.
If you do decide that you want to get your speed as fast as possible, remember that no matter how much you work at it, there is a limit to what you can do. One blackjack author has said that itís possible for some magicians to riffle through a deck and memorize the entire deck sequence in a matter of a couple seconds. I would certainly think that a magician could do it since such a feat would make a decent magic trick! In fact, the current world record for memorizing the order of cards in an entire deck is thirty-four seconds, a record set by Andi Bell in 2000.
Overall, your counting will be very slow at first since you are re-training your brain. But eventually, your counting speed will exceed what you were able to do before. In fact, after many years' experience, some counters donít even try to count at all and they find that they know the count. You may find yourself counting cards inadvertently if you are just watching a game of blackjack for the fun of it.
Tips on Card Counting Systems
Another advantage of counting visually is that it will be easier to handle more complex systems. If you have wondered how some people manage multiple counts at once, they donít usually repeat the count in their heads. Itís much easier to handle multiple pieces of information by visual means.
If you donít intend to learn a multi-parameter system, but would like to upgrade to a higher level system such as UBZ II or Brh-1, then you will find that visualization will help you master the increased complexity. Although good technique will improve your ability to handle more intricate systems, Iím not necessarily advising you to change counts. The greatest benefit will be speed of play and cover, including the ability to count and talk the same time.
Card Counting Technique in the Casino
I donít recommend getting into a routine when counting cards in a casino. Any type of fixation can be bad for cover and counting order is no exception. Many card counters count in the same fashion round after round.
For example, a common way people count a face up game is to start at the right and follow the deal counting each new card they see. However, you may not want to start at the right all the time in this type of situation. Depending on how you are acting with the other players, and your seating position, itís sometimes best to count by starting at the left.
For example, if your attention was focused for a second on something that was going on West of the table (for example, a boss points out something special in the casino), it would be easiest and look most natural to count the cards at 3rd base first. Counting in different ways will give you flexibility at the table that will minimize the amount of energy you use. You must be able to adapt your counting to what you are doing outside of counting the cards.
The best example of how flexibility earns $$ is when back-counting more than one table. When doing this, you canít spend too much time counting one table, especially when both tables are in sync, that is, when the actions of the two dealers correlate. Your eyes must go back and forth.
Card Counting Technique: Conclusion
There are several advantages in using visualization and good technique at the blackjack tables. The greatest plus will be cover and speed of play. You will focus on the count using less energy and your brain wonít be buzzing as much after a long day at the casinos. Your speed of play will increase and you will be able to count and talk the same time. Perhaps you will even consider changing to a more powerful card counting system. In the end, this all means more $$ in your pockets.
I wish you all good luck in your card counting training. Before long you may be counting cards like Peter Griffin, using Hi-Opt I with all five side-counts! ♠
[To test your card counting skills under pretty realistic simulated casino conditions, or keep your skills sharp between playing trips, we recommend Casino Verite Blackjack Software.
For more information on developing practical card counting skills and getting away with winning in the modern game, see Arnold Snyder's Blackbelt in Blackjack
and Rick Blaine's Blackjack Blueprint: How to Play Like a Pro... Part-Time.]
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