How to Count Cards in Blackjack Like the MIT Blackjack Team

Card Counting Guide Mark Aponte
Card Counting Guide Mark Aponte
  • The MIT Blackjack Team included more than 70 students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, and more.
  • Between 1979 and 1994, they won millions at blackjack tables
  • The success and blackjack card counting techniques of the MIT Blackjack Team inspired many books and movies

In this article, you are going to learn how to count cards in blackjack following the precious pieces of gambling advice from one of the leaders of the legendary MIT Blackjack Team, which also included John Chang, and which the famous blackjack movie 21 with Kevin Spacey was based on.

Back in September 2012, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student and blackjack star Mike Aponte joined the Def Con XX conference in Las Vegas to share priceless tips on how to beat the casinos and win money.

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Who is Mike Aponte?

A part of the legendary MIT Blackjack Team and leader of the "Reptiles Team", Mike Aponte is considered to be one of the greatest blackjack pros alive.

Not only did Aponte win millions playing at the table by mastering the art of counting cards in blackjack, he also took home the first-ever World Series of Blackjack Championship in 2004.

At that time, Aponte managed to beat the 25 best blackjack players in the world in a memorable gambling competition held at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, United States.

Of course, he's mainly known for being a member of the MIT Blackjack Team.

Want to know more about Aponte’s incredible gambling story? Pick a copy of Bringing Down the House - one of the best gambling books ever written - or watch the movie 21 on Netflix.

MIT Blackjack Team: Card Counting Video Lesson

In this video, you find an easy-to-follow guide to card counting in blackjack explained by no other than Mike Aponte.

The very same card counting tips he shares in the video are what made him one of the most feared blackjack players in the world.

"We used card counting to hack Las Vegas and beat the casinos for millions," Aponte says in the 4-minute clip.

"A lot of people think you need to be a math wiz or Rainman to count cards, but it’s quite the opposite."

No wonder the story of Aponte and the MIT Blackjack Team was made into a popular blackjack movie.

What Is Card Counting in Blackjack?

If you're going to count cards at casinos, you'll need to treat it like a business. After all, you won't be playing with other people as part of a blackjack team.

Card-counting is a blackjack system that - if implemented properly - can give the player a significant advantage over the casino.

The way card counting works stems from the nature of blackjack. That's why this technique cannot be applied to any other gambling game.

Whenever you play a game of Roulette, or you spin the reels of a slot machine, you know that the outcome of each game is not related to the previous or the future outcomes.

Casino games controlled by Random Number Generators (RNGs) are completely unpredictable because every spin, game, hand you play is completely random.

Blackjack, however, is another story.

Since the cards in blackjack are not re-shuffled after every hand, a well-trained player can optimize their play by keeping a mental note of the cards that have been already in the game and are no longer in play.

The cards that have already been played affect your future games. Learn how to keep track of them and you'll be able to beat the dealer just like the MIT Blackjack Team did for more than a decade.

Is Card Counting in Blackjack Hard?

Many people starting out are under the impression that card counting in blackjack requires a computer-like memory.

And if you think that the MIT Blackjack Team kept track of every single card dealt by the dealer, well…you are wrong because that's not how blackjack card counting works.

To count cards in Blackjack, you don't have to know every card that appeared on the table. You just need to know the proportion of high cards (10s and aces) and low cards (2-6) that are still in the game.

If this calculation tells you that the deck is rich in high cards, you have great odds to beat the dealer by following the basic blackjack strategy.

A deck rich in low-value cards, however, is one where the dealer has an advantage over the other people at the table. In this case, you need to adopt a much more conservative approach to the game and size your bets accordingly.

How Does It Work

There are many different ways - and strategies- to count cards in Blackjack. These methods exist on a continuum from ridiculously simple, to extremely MIT-grade difficult.

Despite the complexity of the system they use, a player who knows how to count cards in blackjack bases their decision on a common underlying strategy. Essentially, as the overall goal is to win money, you need to treat it like a business. And you need practice.

A player can focus on keeping track of the ratio of high-value cards to lower value cards in whatever deck is being used.

The High-Low Card Counting Method

Many blackjack pros believe the best way to learn how to count cards in blackjack is to start from the so-called 'high-low' count.

To use this method, you need to dedicate your full attention to the cards that appear on the table - starting from the VERY FIRST card that is dealt.

After every additional card, this count or score will change. The system works in this way:

The Value of the Cards

ValueCardsReferred to as
07,8,9Neutral Cards
-110, A, J, QHigh Cards
+12,3,4,5,6Low Cards

Keeping these values in mind,

  • The score always starts at zero
  • Any card that has a value between 6 and 2 would ADD one digit to the score

    [+]Any face cards, aces, or 10s would result in one being SUBTRACTED from the score

  • Any other card that is drawn should be scored with 0 - in other words, there is no change in these situations

Follow these rules and you'll be able to build a very accurate picture of how many low-value cards are left in the deck at any given time, and hopefully, win some money in the process.

The higher this count is, the more high-value face cards are left in the deck. The lower the overall score is, the more low-value cards are still in play.

High-Low Blackjack Card Counting in Action

Let's imagine that you run into a sequence of 3,Q,K,9,A,2,5,J,9,Q. In high-low terms, this reads:

(+1)+(-1)+(-1)+0+(-1)+(+1)+(+1)+(-1)+0+(-1)= +2

When the running count is negative, it indicates that there's a high number of low-value cards still in play.

The 'True Count' in Blackjack

If you think the high-low approach to counting cards when playing blackjack at a casino is not easy, wait until you learn about the True Count.

A True Count is when a player divides their ongoing count by the overall number of decks left to be played out.

This is usually an estimate and relies on keeping a close eye on the status of the shoe to figure out how many decks are probably left in the game.

Through the True Count, you can get a better estimate of the cards still in play and of what blackjack strategy is the best one to win at any given moment.

If the result of your True Count calculation is a high number, this indicates that there are still many high cards in the deck.

Once the number drops below zero, you know that low-value cards are the majority in the deck.

Why High Cards Are Good for You

By keeping a close eye on the count, and by knowing how many high cards are left in the deck, you can make educated guesses and make better-informed decisions when you play blackjack at casinos.

Let's say you're playing at a casino in Atlantic City. Now think about these situations:

  • Scenario 1: You need to decide whether to double down or not. Knowing that there's a high number of high-value cards (10, J, Q, K, A) is helpful because it tells you that you have good chances to win the hand.
  • Scenario 2: The dealer has an Ace. You better be careful here. If you know that there are many high-value cards still in the deck, you know that the dealer has very good chances to win.

Card Counting at the Casino

Before you decide to head to the casino to count cards in blackjack and win a lot of money - there's something you should know.

As a prospective blackjack card counter, you should always remember that the casinos know people will try to count cards when trying to win money.

Let's be clear about this: counting cards in blackjack will not send you to jail. It will just get you kicked out (and most likely banned for good) from the casino.

To protect themselves from card counters, the casinos' bosses can ask the dealers to reshuffle the shoe with great frequency or can study your every move through their CCTV system.

That's because most card counters make the mistake of showing that they are counting cards while they play blackjack.

Tells like moving your lips as you count the cards at the Blackjack table or making supersized bets only on high counts are dead giveaways at casinos.

If you decide to count cards in blackjack, you need to play smart to win money at the casinos. Remember, you're basically running a business.

Practice counting cards at home until you can do all your calculations without giving anything away.

Also, try to occasionally raise your bets when the count is low and lower them when the count is high. This might make you lose a little more than you want to, but it will also make you look 'safe' in the eyes of the dealer.

Promotional image courtesy of Katemangostar

This article was first published in 2018.

BioPolitical scientist, and gambling expert, I have spent the most part of the last ten years writing about the casino and poker industry. As a professional journalist, I work with FOX News, La Repubblica, the Economist, Politico, and PokerNews. As a gambler, I won money pretty much anywhere in Europe. As a gambling editor, I'll help you do the same.
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