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Single-Deck Play

Every serious counter should have a good knowledge of how to play single-deck Blackjack, even if you spend 90% of your time at multi-deck games, because when you are able to get to a single deck game, it can be very profitable. The primary lure of the game will become more evident as we get into betting strategies, but take my word for it now: any “big” money you’ll make at Blackjack will probably come from a single-deck game.

Most of you — especially those who are close to Atlantic City — should spend your time practicing instead of playing, all with the idea of taking 5 or 6 trips a year to areas such as Reno or Laughlin. You’ll be much better off playing 60 or 70 hours a year at the single-deck games there than you would be playing several hundred hours at the dismal games A.C. is currently offering. Most of my students from the St. Louis area can fly to Reno on a 3 or 4 day trip for under $300, which includes round-trip airfare and hotel, and since they usually make that much in Blackjack profits per day, they often come home with a $1000 or more in net winnings. You “Eastcoasters” can find similar action in Tunica, MS.

Counting at the Table

To win at single-deck games, you first need to learn another method of counting at a table where the cards are dealt face down. As you will recall from previous lessons, there is a very structured approach required for counting in order to make sure you’re doing it accurately. I’ll never forget the first time I played single-deck; it was in Vegas and I was used to the, then four-deck game in Atlantic City. On about the second or third hand, the dealer had a “Blackjack” and everybody threw their cards in, face up. Talk about scrambling; my speed training was tested to its limit, but I got the count before the next hand was dealt. That’s a situation for which you’ll have to be ready and only practice will get you there.

Cards get turned face up for various reasons at a single-deck game, so let’s go through a hand and see when you will count them. Begin by counting your two cards, then dealer’s up card. Count any hit cards for the players since those will be delivered face up. If a player doubles , s/he will turn his or her first two cards face up, so you’ll count them. However, the “double” card will usually be dealt face down, so you won’t count it yet. If a player splits a pair, those will be turned face up so count them and then count the “hit” cards as they come out. In a single-deck game, a player signifys a “stand” by placing the cards underneath the bet so you don’t see them, consequently you can’t count them — yet. Should a player bust, s/he will toss in his or her first two cards, so count them as you see them. Play ends at the dealer’s hand, so count the dealer’s hole card as it’s turned up and any hit cards for that hand. Now comes the tricky part. The dealer will begin at the “third base” side and turn over any “hole” cards (as well as double-down cards) from underneath the bet and set them above any other cards in the hand. They will end up as the two cards closest to the dealer; count them as they’re exposed.

This may still be a bit confusing, but once you fit the idea in your mind, you’ll quickly get into the scheme of things when you watch a real game in action. You should just stand behind and observe until you’re sure you’ve got the technique, but it won’t take long. The ideal way to practice is to have someone deal for you, but make sure they use the procedures shown above.

Next time we’ll go into specific strategies for the single-deck game. Until then here are some thoughts on improving your skills at counting.

Developing Your Speed and Endurance

I often use the analogy of a prize fighter when I discuss practicing your counting; a fighter trains for both speed and endurance. They use a “speed bag” for the short, fast jab and a big, heavy bag for the hard punches. A single-deck countdown is your “speed bag”; try to get through it as quickly as possible while maintaining your accuracy. To build your endurance, begin by counting down two decks shuffled together (don’t forget to remove 3 cards to check your accuracy). Once you’re doing two decks under 40 seconds, go to 6 decks. Shuffle all six together, then break them down to 5 or 6 separate piles on a table top and count them all down as quickly as possible. Your goal here is to do it under 2 minutes; under 1:30 is ideal. The reason why we do so many decks, whether we’re training for a single-deck or multi-deck game, is to not only get used to retaining the count for a long period of time, but also to get used to wide swings in the count. The running count for a single deck will seldom go above or below 10, but you’ll often get such counts in a six-deck countdown and you need to get used to that. Practicing like this with a lot of distractions around is good. Do it with the kids bugging you, with the TV on, or with Fido barking and you’ll develop your ability to keep track while you’re in a casino.

A Few More Tricks

Learn to count backward from an odd number by 2’s. We can all count “2, 4, 6,” etc., but few of us can count “11, 9, 7, 5, 3” very quickly. This is a good exercise to do while you’re driving. Start at 25 and take it to M5, over and over again; it will “imprint” in your mind and serve you well at a full table when the count is high and all those 20’s and Blackjacks come out. When you get bored, do it backward from an even number just to keep yourself in shape.

When your counting is interrupted for any reason, recite the count to yourself over and over again. Let’s say you’re practicing at home and little Margaux or your son, Corky (isn’t every card counter also a wine fanatic?), has a “life or death” question. If the count at that point is M6, just keep repeating “M6, M6, M6” in your mind as you listen to them. You’ll know you’re making real progress when you can then TALK to them and remember the count! Practice is what allows that to happen.

Proper betting techniques are crucial at single-deck Blackjack, primarily because it’s the primary way which casino supervisory personnel will detect you as a counter. Of course, it’s also important from a money management point of view, but in my experience we really just shove out as much money as we think we can get away with (in ‘positive’ count situations) as long as that amount doesn’t exceed our maximum bet guidelines. For practical purpose, a 1 to 4 betting spread will get the $$$ and will, at most casinos, keep the welcome mat out, if you don’t play too long at each session.

Let’s review a few ‘camouflage’ techniques which were covered in my lesson on ‘Casino Playing Tactics’ as modified for the single-deck game.

First and foremost, if you play with $25 chips at a single-deck game, you’re going to draw attention, regardless of whether you win OR lose. Move up to $100 and you’re likely to have a pit critter camped at your elbow the whole time you’re playing. But, just because you’re being observed, it doesn’t mean they’re about to throw you out, especially if you look like a ‘lucky’ gambler and not like a card-counter. The trick here is to bet like gamblers bet; rather haphazardly and without a lot of thought. If you win a hand and the count went up, ‘parlay’ the winnings; that is, add them to your original bet. If you ‘push’ a hand, let the bet stand, even if the count went down, or it’s the last hand of that deck.

-Casino personnel know they usually have the edge on the first hand after a shuffle, so they believe card-counters will bet only the minimum on that hand. So, make sure you don’t always start a new deck with a minimum bet out there. Start with 2 or 3 units bet every once in a while, especially when a supervisor is watching. But don’t get into a pattern of doing it ONLY when a supervisor is watching, since you could be under observation from the ‘eye-in-the-sky’. Don’t overdo it, but start at least a third of all decks with a larger bet.

-Show them the ‘rainbow’. Dealers hate this, but judicious tipping will cover you there. The rainbow is the mixing of different denominations of chips when it’s to your advantage to do so. For example, at a $10 minimum game, you’re always putting two chips out as a bet. If the count goes up, a $30 bet can still be two chips a $25 and a $5. Keeping your supply of chips in disarray, as opposed to neat stacks, helps with this maneuver. This technique is my primary way of getting a big spread in single-deck games. Remember, counters think about their bet, but play the hand without hesitation, but gamblers don’t hesitate about betting, yet they think about how to play the hand. A careless attitude about money makes you look much more like a gambler.

-I like to play two hands at single-deck games when I’m at the table with one other player. Whether the count is positive or not, I play two hands, because it gives me several advantages. The first is that I look like a desperate gambler, trying to make back my losses. Secondly, it allows me to see more cards each round, though you must remember that special rules usually apply here. What I mean is that when you are playing two hands at a single-deck game, you must finish the play of the first hand before you can even look at the cards for your second hand. The one (very important) exception is when the dealer is showing an Ace. When that happens, you may look at both hands to see if you want to insure either or both. In case you’ve forgotten, insurance is the most important basic strategy variation you can make, so having the opportunity to see more cards will help you to make a good decision.

-Another very important aspect to winning at single-deck is how often the casino personnel see you. If you live near several casinos which offer the game, spread your play around as much as possible and limit your sessions to 45 minutes or so. If, on the other hand, you’re in town for just a week or so, play for a day (up to 3-4 hours per shift) at one casino, then go to a different one the next day and don’t go back to the first one if possible. It’s okay for the casino personnel to get a look at your game, if you won’t be back for quite some time.

Most single-deck games are beatable with a 1-4 betting spread. For example, at a $25 table, a spread of $25 to $100 will permit you to play at a long term advantage. If you can stretch that to 1-5, you’ll do quite well and a 1-6 spread will kill all but the worst games. Like the multi-deck games, penetration is the key to winning at single-deck. If the casino deals one round and shuffles, it’s almost impossible to win. (I say ‘almost’, because there is a way to beat that game, but it’s an article for another time.) The general rule is the fewer players, the better. Head-to-head games are very beatable, especially if the dealer shuffles whenever you raise your bet. How can that be, you ask? Well, it’s one of the best tricks in the book. Start each deck with 2 units bet and when the count goes DOWN, raise your bet. The dealer will shuffle and Voila!, the bad deck is gone. Of course, if the count goes up, you keep the 2-unit bet out there. Pretty, isn’t it?

Recommended Betting Schedule
(Single-deck, double 10, 11 only, no double after split)

Casino edge .5%
True Count Bet Size (units)
0 or lower 1
1 2
2 3
3 4
4 or higher 4 (or 5, if possible)


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