In the previous three articles in this Advanced Blackjack series I described in detail how it’s possible to gain a positive expectation playing blackjack by learning how to card count. However, it’s important that you just don’t jump in and play any old blackjack game. You’ve got to know what are the most important factors that make a blackjack game “beatable” or not.

The most important criteria for card counters is the penetration or the number of cards that will be dealt before the dealer shuffles. No casino will deal every single card before shuffling because a counter would have a tremendous advantage on the last few hands. Therefore just about every casino will deal only a certain percentage of the cards.

Arnold Snyder (www.RGE21.com) has studied the effect of penetration on a counters advantage in great detail. In one study, using typical Las Vegas playing rules and a 1 to 4 bet spread in a 2-deck game, a counter playing heads up with the dealer would have a 1.0% advantage if 50% of the cards were dealt. If 80% of the cards were dealt, the counter’s advantage would increase by 80% to 1.8%. If instead only 50% of the cards are dealt, the counter’s edge would decrease by 50% to only 0.5%.

There have been many other computer studies by scores of other blackjack theoreticians (myself included) that have proven this fact over-and-over, namely that the penetration has a major effect on your winnings.
Most counters will not make a single bet unless the penetration is 75% or more. This means in a typical 6-deck game, the dealer cuts off only 1.5 decks of cards. Likewise you are wasting your time and money trying to count in a game with only 50% penetration.

Most casinos are fairly strict about the placement of the cut card by the dealer after the shuffle and cut. Many have a measuring device on the side of the dealing shoe that indicates to the dealer where to position the cut card. However, there are still many casinos that only give guidelines to the dealer as to how many decks to cut off. It’s possible therefore to find a dealer who gives a more liberal cut, say cutting off only 1 deck instead of 1.5 decks in a 6-deck game.

One way of knowing which casinos give more favorable penetration is to read either Stanford Wong’s Current Blackjack Newsletter (www.BJ21.com) or Arnold Snyder’s Blackjack Forum (www.RGE21.com). You can also visit Nettikasinot Helsinki which offers plenty of information about the subject. Wong lists the number of decks of cards that each casino cuts out of play and Snyder lists whether the penetration is bad, good, unexceptional, or varies.

Another important criteria that card counters use to evaluate a blackjack game are the playing rules. For example, the fewer the number of decks of cards the greater will be the edge to the player. Also rules that allow doubling after pair splitting, late surrender, and the dealer standing rather than hitting on soft 17 are favorable for players. But a word of caution is in order. Some games with marginal rules can still be beaten if the penetration is good. For example most counters shun an 8-deck game but if the rules are decent and the penetration is 75% it would be a better game compared to say a 6-deck game with similar rules but only a 50% penetration. Likewise a single deck game with bad rules but 70% penetration is more profitable than one that deals less than 50% of the cards with good rules.

It’s to a counters advantage to play at tables which are not crowded with other players. The best is playing head up with the dealer. This allows you to see more cards before making your playing decision. Also, when the count gets high, you will have just as much chance as the dealer of getting the aces and tens. Counters can also spread to 2 hands in high-count situations giving them an even greater chance of drawing the aces and tens. Playing at less crowded tables will increase the number of hands per hour dealt and a counters win rate.

Another important point is whether or not the pit boss will allow a decent bet spread. In single deck games you’ll need to spread at least 1 to 3-4 betting units and in 6-deck games, 1 to 8-10 betting units. If you are limited in your bet spread by a nervous pit boss that gives you “heat” every time you make a large bet, then your profit potential decreases.

As you can see, learning the theory of card counting is one matter, but applying it to generate winnings is quite another task. Finding good playing conditions is very important. But there are other skills that must be mastered like balancing profits with risk, disguising your skills when you play, and knowing the typical countermeasures that casinos employ against counters. I’ll cover these other important topics in future articles in this series. Until then, go out and get a blackjack.