Every blackjack player has been interested in the topic of card counting at some point in their gambling career. Hey, if you’re reading this right now, it means that you’re at that point in your blackjack experience.
The good news is, you’ve come to the right place to learn what you’re looking for. In this guide, we’ll discuss one of the easiest and most prevalent blackjack card counting systems, the hi-lo system.
From step-by-step help on how to use the hi-lo system to useful tips on how to avoid getting caught, we’ll cover everything you should know. So, let’s kick off this guide with some basics on the hi-lo system.
What Is the Hi-Lo Card Counting System?
The Hi-Lo blackjack counting system, also spelled as high-low, hi-low, and several other different ways, is one of the most popular card counting systems in the game.
One of the central reasons for this system’s popularity is its simplicity, making it an approachable strategy even for beginners.
What’s more, most players that talk about blackjack card counting in general, often talk about the hi-lo system, without even knowing its name.
This is because this system has arguably been best represented in gambling movies and shows.
The hi-lo betting system was invented by Harvey Dubner when he reinvented Edward O. Thorp’s system. He made it more accessible and easy to understand than what Thorp shared in his now-iconic gambling book Beat the Dealer.
Dubner is nowadays a somewhat forgotten personality in the world of blackjack and card counting, even though his contribution is undeniable.
Originally developed in 1963, the hi-lo card counting system still remains one of the most balanced systems in blackjack.
How Does the Hi-Low System Work?
As we’ve mentioned above, the hi-lo system is a very simple one that you can learn without much effort, even if you’re a beginner.
It’s arguably the best blackjack card counting system to start with if you want to progress down this route and practice your card counting skills.
Overall, the hi-lo system is a very balanced counting method. It follows a precise and constant pattern that is easy to follow. Here’s how to use the hi-lo system in a few straightforward steps:
1. Assign the Values to the Cards
The first thing to do is assign value to each card in the deck. For this, hi-lo uses three groups, assigning either positive, negative, or zero values to them. Here’s how the values are assigned in the hi-lo system:
Negative Value (-1) – 10, J, Q, K, A
Zero Value – 7, 8, 9
Positive Value (+1) – 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
You might’ve noticed that the Ace is assigned a negative value, even though it can have both a low value (1) and a high value (11). This is because the hi-lo system always counts the Ace as a high-value card.
2. Start Tracking the Running Count
When a blackjack game starts with a new set of decks, the running count begins at zero. Remembering the point valuations from the first step, you need to start tracking the running count as the new cards are dealt.
For example, let’s say that you’re playing a six-deck blackjack game. You are dealt a 9, J hand, each valued at -1. The dealer’s face-up card is a 6, which has a positive value of +1. So, the running count at this point is -1.
You decide to stand, and the dealer draws a K (-1) and a 5 (+1) to make 21. At the end of the round, the running count is -1.
Additionally, you should be mindful of the number of decks. To expand on the example above, the first round saw five cards.
In a six-deck blackjack game, this means that there are five full decks and 47 additional cards. As the game progresses, you keep updating these numbers and narrowing down the decks.
3. Transmute into the True Count
The first step is not very complex to remember with a bit of practice, but this one is a bit more challenging and even more important to the entire system.
To effectively count cards using the hi-lo system, you need to get the true count by dividing the running count by the estimate of the remaining cards.
Let’s say that you’ve played for several rounds, and you’ve established that there are three decks remaining.
Your running count is +8. Simply divide 8 by 3 to get the true count. In this case, it’s 2.66. Once you have this number, you can move to the last step.
4. Adjust Your Bets
If you’ve made it this far with the system, the hard part is over. All that’s left is to adjust your bet size based on the true count.
To make this even easier, there’s a specific blueprint for scaling your bets depending on your true count.
The general rule of thumb is to stick with your starting bet amount while the true count is between -3 and +3. Other than that, here’s how to scale your bets:
True Count More Than +5 – Bet 4x your starting bet’s value.
True Count Less Than – 5 – Bet ¼ of your starting bet’s value.
True Count Between +3 and +4 – Bet 2x your starting bet’s value.
True Count Between -3 and -4 – Bet ½ your starting bet’s value.
True Count Between +4 and +5 – Bet 3x your starting bet’s value.
True Count Between -4 and -5 – Bet ⅓ of your starting bet’s value.
Pros and Cons of High-Low Card Counting
Like every other gambling system or strategy, the hi-lo has its advantages and disadvantages. To help you decide whether the balance of the two makes hi-lo a good option for you, we want to highlight both sides of the coin.
Advantages of Hi-Lo Card Counting
The hi-lo card counting system offers several big advantages and is the go-to option for gamblers for a number of reasons. Here are a few of the biggest benefits you can obtain by using the hi-lo system:
You Can Get a Solid Edge
The principal reason why blackjack players use the hi-lo system is that it can offer a very good edge over the casino. By making the right decisions and minimizing your mistakes, you can get an edge of up to 1.5% over the casino.
The nature of this blackjack card counting strategy might not make this fact apparent immediately. But, as your count goes up, there will be more Aces and ten-point cards in the dealing shoe.
In other words, with each upcoming hand, your advantage will get slightly higher.
It’s Applicable Even to Multi-Deck Games
Until the 60s, most casinos featured single-deck blackjack games and didn’t use a card shoe. This provided a very opportune environment for blackjack card counters.
However, once card shoes and multi-deck games were introduced, most card counting strategies became obsolete.
Fortunately, hi-lo prevailed as one of the most effective strategies that still work even in a multi-deck game featuring a shoe.
It’s Fairly Simple to Learn
Let’s repeat the point that we’ve mentioned a few times above, and this is that the hi-lo system is not that challenging to learn.
Despite the system’s portrayal in various popular media, the basics of hi-lo are simple to remember. Keep a running count, know how to convert, and adjust your bets accordingly.
Disadvantages of Hi-Lo Card Counting
The advantages provide more than enough arguments for using the hi-lo system, but it’s also important to look at some drawbacks of hi-lo card counting. In this regard, here are the two biggest cons of the hi-lo system:
The Dealers Are Likely More Focused On It
Needless to say, as the hi-lo system is the most commonly used one in casinos worldwide, it’s also the one to which the blackjack dealers will pay the most attention to.
While this doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll get caught, there’s an increased chance of this happening if you’re not careful and display some recognizable card counting patterns.
It Can Get Confusing
Hi-lo is pretty low on the scale of the most complex card counting methods. However, it does require a lot of practice. You need to learn how to keep a true count on the cards.
Some blackjack players never manage to master this. If you find yourself in the same predicament, it’s better to move to a card counting system that doesn’t require a true count.
Can You Get Caught When Hi-Lo Counting?
Of course, if you’re not careful when using a card counting hi-lo strategy, you’ll likely be putting yourself at risk of getting caught.
This is why you should also practice enough to pull off this system without raising any red flags in the eyes of the casino staff.
Blackjack is a game that notoriously attracts the biggest number of cheaters and card counters compared to other casino games.
Because of this, the dealers and the casino staff watching through the surveillance system will be closely observing your actions at the blackjack table.
The most obvious thing is to be careful about giving out any physical tells and try to blend in with other players at the blackjack table.
Secondly, you should make some apparent mistakes from time to time. If you get in a zone and start betting with a suspicious pattern, the casino staff might not let you play for much longer.
Lastly, you should watch your bet sizes. You will need to occasionally raise your bets when the count is positive. This will help you appear as an average gambler playing without a particular strategy, let alone a card-counting one.
Alternatives to the Hi-Lo Counting System in Blackjack
Hi-lo is the prevailing card counting method for most blackjack players. That said, it’s far from being the only one you can try out at the blackjack table.
There are many card counting methods available out there varying in complexity and accuracy, making them suitable for many types of blackjack players.
So, if you’re interested in exploring a few alternatives to the hi-lo system, we’ve also prepared something for you. Here are three blackjack card counting systems you can use instead of hi-lo:
The Ace/Five System
While the hi-lo card counting system is relatively easy and simple, it can’t match the simplicity of the Ace/Five system. As the name implies, the only two cards that count in this system are the Aces and number 5 cards.
All number 5 cards have a value of +1, and all Aces have a value of -1. The rest of the cards are valued at 0.
As this method is very simple and only revolves around two types of cards, it’s not as precise as the hi-lo system. Nevertheless, it can help you get an advantage of up to 1%.
The K-O System
The knockout system, commonly known simply as the K-O card counting system, is very similar to the hi-lo strategy. Like hi-lo, the K-O system is great for beginners, as it works on the same principle.
The only major difference between the two is that the number seven (7) card falls into the +1 category in K-O, while hi-lo puts it in the zero value group.
Thorp’s Ten Count
Thorp’s Ten Count card counting system is the pioneering gambling system. As mentioned above, this is the system that made it all possible for other card counting systems. It directly influenced Harvey Dubner to develop his hi-lo strategy.
Thorp’s Ten Count was initially created for single-deck blackjack games, meaning that it often isn’t as effective as other modern card counting systems.
Still, if you’re an advanced blackjack player and have the confidence and skills to use a more complicated system, it’s worth trying out.
Is the Hi-Low Card Counting System Right For You?
Blackjack is naturally not a very complex game, especially if you use all of the tools at your disposal, namely the blackjack chart. In the same vein, it’s not necessary to use an overly complicated card counting system.
A simple system like hi-lo can go a long way if you know how to utilize it properly.
This only leaves the question, is hi-lo a good system for you? The answer to this is purely subjective. If you’re a beginner who wants an accurate and straightforward system, hi-lo is arguably the best option out there.
On the other hand, if you don’t find this system exciting enough, the alternatives we’ve provided you with on this page might be better suited for you.
In the end, regardless of whether you go with the hi-lo system or any other card counting strategy, be careful, bet responsibly, and remember the risk that comes with counting cards in a casino.
Hi-Lo Card Counting FAQs
Is hi-lo the most accurate blackjack card counting system?
Hi-lo is certainly at the very top of the most accurate blackjack card counting systems. Most professional blackjack players and card counters recommend using the hi-lo system. It’s suitable for both beginners and advanced gamblers.
How much can I win with the hi-lo card counting system?
With responsible betting habits, the hi-lo system can be profitable in the long run. More precisely, if you obtain an edge of 1% to 1.5% over the casino, you can win that much over the total amount of money you risk.
This can typically range between $5 and $20 an hour but can be a lot more depending on your bankroll.
Is it legal to count cards in blackjack?
Card counting is completely legal in the US and most other parts of the world. That said, if you get caught by the casino staff while counting cards, you will most likely be banned from the venue.
Sometimes, you might get banned from all casinos within the same franchise, or even city, as often happens in Vegas.
Does the hi-lo system work in online live blackjack?
Yes, it is possible to use the hi-lo system to count cards when playing online live dealer blackjack.
That said, this is generally more difficult to do than in land-based casinos, for a number of reasons. Specifically, online live dealer blackjack games shuffle cards quite frequently, making card counting a pointless exercise.