Characteristics of a Successful Card Counter
One of the greatest challenges for me is navigating the fine line between painting card counting as “easy money” and making it sound like only Rain Man can do it.
Media has portrayed card counting as something that only rocket scientists and MIT wiz kids can learn.
That’s just not true. We had former electricians, writers, housewives, and high school dropouts who each won hundreds of thousands of dollars for our blackjack team.
Mastering card counting takes a fraction of the time it would take to become a professional programmer, doctor, or most any other profession. But on the flip side, almost everyone we train underestimates how much practice it takes to be a successful card counter. I remember one guy who was training for our team who vowed, “I’m going to train and test out in two weeks.” He was working towards his Master’s Degree in Marine Biology, had a strong background in math, and was a diligent student. Not only did it take him more than two weeks to test out for our team, it took more than two months. yeah, it’s easier than becoming a professional programmer, but it’s not easy. If you think it’s going to be easy, you’re not going to make it. A lot of people ask me, “what does it really take to be a successful card counter?” I want to give my honest opinion. But rather than talk about the technical skills that we’ve already discussed here, let me talk about the type of person that does well as a card counter.
1. Obsession with Details.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be Adrian Monk, but at least when it comes to blackjack, a mentality of “good enough” isn’t good enough. The margin for error is slight. If you miss a single dealer payout error, that can wipe out several hours of perfect play. A basic strategy mistake here and a counting error there, and all of a sudden you are playing a losing game. If you don’t have an obsession with the decisions you make, you might not have what it takes to be a pro. Do you tend to get easily distracted by things? If the pit boss asks, “Sir, what’s your name?” will you drop the count, or will you shut him out until you’ve made sure you have the count memorized? If a slot machine goes off behind you because someone just hit a jackpot will you turn around to check it out? Or will you ignore it until your round is over to make sure you don’t miss a card? If you get a $1,000 blackjack will you celebrate, high-fiving the old lady next to you, or will you make sure you subtract 2 from your running count for the Ace, Face-card before reacting to your blackjack?
“There’s nothing wrong with having emotions. But you better not let them dictate your decisions.”
Poker is an interesting game in that there isn’t one exact style that is successful. There are great poker players who play aggressively and great poker players who play conservatively; some who play tight (few hands) or others loose (lots of hands). Since poker is based on outplaying the competition, you just need to find a way to extract more value out of them than they extract out of you. Blackjack works differently. The beauty of card counting is that it is mathematically precise, since you are playing against a dealer who must always make the same decision. This means that in blackjack, there is always exactly one correct way to play. Basic strategy will tell you exactly what decision to make. There is always exactly one running count, which will give you an exact true count. Your true count will tell you exactly what to bet, and exactly when to deviate from basic strategy. If you are not highly disciplined in how you play, you will not be a successful card counter. Will you implement your bet spread precisely, even if you’ve lost 10 hands in a row? Will you be tempted to bet a little bit less if you’re up a ton of money, just because you don’t want to lose it all back? Will you hit a 15 against a 9 even though you know you’re likely to bust? Do you keep detailed records of your wins and losses? Do you have a system for keeping track of your money and chips? I often tell people that they must play like a computer: Cold, calculated, self-controlled. There’s nothing wrong with having emotions. But you better not let them dictate your decisions.
3. Handles Conflict Well.
We’ve had players train, test out perfectly, full of excitement to start killing the casinos. Then, after getting back-roomed by a casino, they lost their nerves and quit the team. I remember being afraid to ask the pit boss for a comped meal. This had to be overcome. You can’t be easily intimidated, because you will be contending with dealers who don’t like you, players telling you that you screwed up the whole table, backoffs, and dealer mistakes that you’ll need to go to bat to protect. Furthermore, you WILL routinely have huge wins and losses. If that’s too stressful, that’s fine. But you’re better off putting your time into another pursuit. One member actually quit to become an air traffic controller because of the stress of playing high stakes blackjack. I’m not joking; he thought it would be less stressful to be an air traffic controller! But if you don’t easily get rattled, enjoy being David against Goliath, and aren’t cut out for a “risk-free” lifestyle, then you may have what it takes.
“One member quit to become an air traffic controller…he thought it would be less stressful.”
4. Won’t Get Ground Down by Casino Environment.
This may seem similar to the previous point about conflict, but let me explain. There have been several people I know who don’t mind conflict and can play perfect blackjack, but after a year or so of playing, they just don’t want to spend another minute in a casino. Maybe it’s the fact that they are a raging introvert, and being stuck as a lone soldier in a sea of gamblers wears on them. Maybe it’s the geriatrics with oxygen masks spending their social security checks on slot machines. Whether it’s the cigarette smoke and ceiling mirrors or the figurative smoke and mirrors, casinos aren’t for everyone. Although I strongly dislike casinos, being in the environment doesn’t really bother me. I put my head down, like a good little soldier, and just get to work. But if your environment has a strong impact on how you feel, consider how much time you would want to spend in the windowless, clock-free bowels of a casino.
5. A Bankroll.
There are only two tools a card counter needs: a brain and a bankroll. I see a lot of people say “To have a realistic chance of making money at blackjack, you need $10,000.” I disagree. Ben started with $800. I started with $2,000, but I don’t think I ever used more than the first $500 or so. I’m sure we got lucky at the beginning, but we also were willing to start very small and patiently grow our capitol. Regardless, you can’t expect to start with $50. If you’re underfunded, you will have to take on high risk, low EV, or both. Don’t take out loans to start your career. Save up some money you can afford to invest at the tables. The more money you have to start with, the better chance you will have of not tapping out. And like any investor, to truly generate high EV you need to be properly funded.
“There are only 2 tools a card counter needs: a brain and a bankroll.”
Here's the silver lining...
I know there are pessimists out there saying that you can’t make money from card counting or advantage play anymore. They’ve been there since the beginning. But if you talk to the pros, they tell a different story. Over the last few years I’ve gotten the privilege of meeting many of the greats like Tommy Hyland, Richard Munchkin, and James Grosjean. They are still crushing the casinos, some of them for 6 or 7 figures a year. After decades of beating casinos, they are still successful at it.
There are more casinos than anytime in US history and, for the astute advantage player, there are plenty of ways to beat them. Whether it’s the right fit for you is up to you to decide.
Meet Colin Jones
Colin is the founder of Blackjack Apprenticeship. Colin has been counting cards for over 15 years, and ran a multi-million dollar blackjack team. You may have seen his team featured in the documentary Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians, and has been covered by New York Times, CNN, and The Colbert Report. For more training from Colin, check out the Blackjack Apprenticeship YouTube Channel.