“Is it possible to make a living playing blackjack?” I get asked this question at least once a week and for those who are planning to do this, you had better read what I have to say about it.
There is no question that a player can have the edge over the casino playing blackjack. Hundreds of computer studies have verified what Edward Thorp determined back in the 1960’s that black jack is beatable (if you haven’t read his classic book “Beat The Dealer”, please do so).
So what do you have to do to beat the game? First you must memorize the basic playing strategy which is a set of rules that tell you how to play every hand dealt to you. You have to be able to remember the correct play every time with no mistakes (mistakes will cost you money). Any number of blackjack books contains the basic strategy including my “Blackjack: Take The Money & Run”.
Once you’ve mastered the basic strategy (figure 2 hours to do it) you need to learn a card counting system. You have several choices here. One option is to learn a balanced counting system like the popular High Low count. With this counting system you will learn to track specific cards as they are played and keep a running count from one hand to the next. Based on your count, you will adjust your bet size and sometimes your playing strategy. For the popular shoe dealt games, you must also learn how to adjust the running count based on the number of decks of cards that have been played (i.e. convert the running count to a true count). Alternately, if you find converting to a true count to difficult then you should learn an unbalanced counting system such as the K-O System (“Knock Out Blackjack” by Vencura and Fuchs).
Learning how to count accurately and with speed takes on average about 10 to 15 hours of dedicated practice. You will also need to purchase a blackjack software program that will test your accuracy in keeping the count (Blackjack Trainer and Blackjack 6 7 8 software programs are two that I recommend).
Once you’ve learned how to count, you’ve got to understand bankroll requirements and risk. In a nutshell, card counters can lose for days, weeks, even months even though long term they will show a profit. So, over the short term a card counters bankroll will fluctuate. To protect from going broke during these short-term swings, a counter must keep a decent spread between the maximum bet he will make and his bankroll. A general rule of thumb is you need a bankroll equal to at least 100-125 times your max. bet. So if a counter wants to make a $50 max bet when he has the edge, he needs at least a $5,000-$6,000 bankroll. Anything less and his risk of going broke will increase.
The other key point card counters have to master is betting spread and picking beatable games. Counters must bet more when they have the edge and less when they don’t. Betting from 1 to 3 or 4 units may be OK for single deck games but for 6 deck games it isn’t enough (here you need at least a 1 to 8 to 10 spread). Also, counters must learn which games give them the most profit potential and which games is a waste of their time. Penetration or then number of cards dealt before the reshuffle is a key variable that can make or break or game for a counter. Therefore knowing which games offer the best penetration and the best rules is important.
Once a counter masters how to count, how to bet, how to establish a bankroll, and how to deviate from basic strategy, he now has to learn how to disguise his skills to minimize the chance of being barred. There are several classic texts that cover this in detail and the one I would recommend as must reading is Ian Andersen’s “Burning The Tables in Las Vegas”. Finally card counters have to learn how to cope with the emotions of the game. Like how are you going to handle thousand dollar losses knowing full well you have the edge? Trust me you will have some terrible losing streaks in the short term even though you have the edge. Just read Stewart Perry’s book “Las Vegas Blackjack Diary” or “Blackjack Autumn” by Barry Meadow to get a feel for the emotions involved in playing blackjack for high stakes.
Finally, to make a living nowadays at black jack requires traveling. You can’t stay and play at the same casino for long periods like in the good old days otherwise you run the risk of getting barred. Therefore most pros move about playing in different locations for short periods of time. You also have to contend with the high tech devices that casinos are now using to spot card counters (including the sophisticated facial recognition software).
Don’t get me wrong, there are card counters who make a decent living playing black jack. But they are in the minority. Most counters play semi-professionally to supplement their income from either their regular jobs or their retirement income. So before you take the plunge do your homework and read all you can about the challenges that lie ahead of you. It can be rewarding but trust me it requires a lot of work and dedication to be successful.