Hi-Lo Method for Card Counting

Edward O. Thorp first outlined the Hi-Lo card counting method in his breakthrough 1962 book, Beat the Dealer. Card counting systems may have existed before Thorp's Hi-Lo method came onto the scene, but they were rudimentary and rarely publicized. Beat the Dealer brought card counting to the public's attention – so much so, in fact, that the book made it on the New York Times bestseller list. The Hi-Lo system was the first and most basic counting system that provided the greatest success at playing Blackjack up to that point.

Thorp used computers to analyze the game, determining that some cards were beneficial for the dealer while others were more advantageous for the player. Keeping this mind, he devised a system to calculate the values of cards already played and work out which cards were left in the deck. Players could adjust their bets based on the outcome of these calculations, giving them an edge over the casino.

Newer, more complex counting systems have been developed since Ed Thorp revolutionized the concept, but his Hi-Lo system remains the foundation, and a great starting point for anyone who wishes to learn how to count cards.

Now that you know a little bit about the history of the system it's time to see how Hi-Lo works!

The Basics of the Hi-Lo Card Counting Method

In the Hi-Lo system, like all card counting systems, each card is assigned a specific value. The values for Hi-Lo are as follows:

Hi-Lo Card Point Values
2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10        J        Q        K        A
+1     +1       +1       +1       +1       0         0         0         -1        -1       -1       -1        -1

The low cards (2 through 6) receive a +1 because they benefit the dealer. High cards (10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace) are better for the player, so they are valued at -1. Because there are an equal number of low and high cards with values, this method is known as a balanced system. Balanced systems are forms of counting that, when the entire deck is counted, total 0.

As with any system, the most important part is familiarizing yourself with the card values. The easiest way to do this is to quiz yourself with a deck of cards: flip cards over one at a time, saying either “plus one,” “minus one,” or nothing at all, depending on each card's value. This will help drill the values into your memory until they become second nature.

The Hi-Lo system makes use of a Running Count and a True Count.

Hi-Lo Running Count

The Running Count is the count total that is calculated as cards are played. Here's an example:

  • The count starts at 0.
  • 1st card is a King – The count is -1
  • 2nd card is an Ace – The count is -2
  • 3rd card is a 7 – The count stays -2
  • 4th card is a 5 – The count is -1
  • 5th card is a 2 – The count is back to 0.

Once the values are firmly planted in your memory, you can practice counting the same way, with a deck of cards and plenty of practice!

Hi-Lo True Count

The True Count is the part of the system that indicates whether you've got an edge or not. Originally, this was calculated by dividing the running count by the number of cards left to be played. Unfortunately, now that casinos are using multiple decks in blackjack games, this doesn't really work anymore. Let's say you're playing a game and nine low cards have been dealt. In a single deck game, this provides a nice advantage. The advantage diminishes if, say, six decks are being used because there are still 5 and a half decks left to be dealt, which include many more low cards.

For instance, you've been playing a six-deck game and estimate, by glancing at the discard pile, that three decks have been dealt so far. That means three decks are left in the shoe. With a running count of 12, you would divide it by 3 and get a true count of 4. With a positive true count, now would be time to increase your bets!

Always remember: In Hi-Lo, positive true counts should get bigger bets, while negative true counts mean you should only bet the table minimum.

For betting, it's best to consider wagers in units. One unit is equal to the table minimum, so at a $5 table one unit is $5. As the true count increases, you want to bet more units. If it is 0 or negative, stick with betting just one unit. You'll also want to adjust your units depending on the number of decks in play.

When playing a two-deck game, you'll be betting between 1 and 6 units. This means that at a true count of +5 you'll bet six units. If the count falls to +4, bet 5 units, and so on until the count is 0 or below. If you're playing a six- or eight-deck game, you'll bet between 1 and 12 units. Here's a table to make it a little clearer:

True Count                                                  2 Decks                                           6-8 Decks
 0 or under                                                      1 unit                                               1 unit
 +1                                                                  2 units                                              2 units
 +2                                                                  3 units                                              4 units
 +3                                                                  4 units                                              8 units
 +4                                                                  5 units                                             10 units
 +5                                                                  6 units                                             12 units

Betting in this fashion increases your advantage when the true count is high so you can win more money! Just remember that you're betting based on true count and not the running count, especially when playing in multiple-deck games.

Books About Hi-Lo Card Counting

Perhaps the best book for learning the Hi-Lo system is Beat the Dealer by Edward O. Thorp. It was the first Hi-Lo book ever published, making it the place to start when starting to learn how to count cards. Organized in simple charts, this book makes mastering the rules of blackjack possible for even average players.

A few other books offer insights to both blackjack and the Hi-Lo card counting method, such as 109 Critical Blackjack Statistics and Strategies by Curt Dillon or The Ultimate Edge by Mark Billings. Both cover several blackjack strategies as well as the Hi-Lo method.