Poker Card Counting
Millions of people play poker across the globe, but even the very best players only win an average of 54% of their games.
With the margins so small in poker, people are always looking for ways to gain an edge on their opponents – which is why some gamblers have looked to card counting to give them a poker advantage.
But is poker card counting a real thing? Does it work? Can anyone do it? Is it cheating? Is it illegal? Can you use it in a land or online casino?
We’ve looked at poker card counting in great detail, explaining if it’s possible and offering you guidance on how you can improve your game and move towards becoming a winning player.
Card counting in blackjack isn’t only for Rain Man
Card counting is a term that many gamblers know and some film fans are aware of – if you’ve watched Rain Man then you’ll have seen Dustin Hoffman’s character using the tactic to great effect. So, what is card counting? It’s very straightforward, you count cards to gain an advantage.
When you use card counting in blackjack, the aim of the game is to memorise the cards that you have seen. Because in Blackjack, you get to see all the cards – both yours and the dealers – in every hand. In addition, the deck the dealer is using is never shuffled, except at the very beginning of the game.
This gives you a basis, as the game progresses, to be able to guess with far greater accuracy the point at which the deck is rich in high cards, or when it's full of useless rubbish. Knowing this improves your chances of winning at blackjack. Why? Because you can begin to tell when it's a good time to bet high and when it's safe to hit again.
Does card counting give you an advantage when gambling?
Card counting is a handy skill and can give you an advantage of around 1% when playing blackjack. Now, this might not sound a lot, but it makes a big difference to your long term success rate. This is because the house has as little as a 0.1% edge in some blackjack games. This means that if you gain an advantage of 1% then it flips the edge, so that you are 0.9% better than the house – play the game with this 0.9% in your favour for long enough and you can grind out some serious cash.
Because card counting gives gamblers an edge over the house, casinos will kick you out and ban you if they spot you doing it – consider yourself lucky that’s all that will happen, as in a previous time you could expect the casinos security to give you a severe roughing up too.
Is card counting possible in poker?
Card counting gives you an advantage of up to 1% in blackjack, which is enough to give you an edge over the house and make you a winning gambler in the long run. It’s only natural, then, that you’d want to get the same advantage when playing poker, the question is whether it’s possible?
The short answer is “no.” The medium answer is “nope.” “The long answer is “are you kidding me?” – you get the picture.
You see, there’s a crucial difference between poker and blackjack, as we’ll explain now.
In blackjack, the deck is not re-shuffled after each hand. Cards are shuffled once, at the beginning of the game, and that's it. But in Poker, there's a shuffle after each round, and all the cards go back into the deck. So anything you've memorised is instantly rendered null, void, and totally useless.
What, then, is the purpose of learning poker card counting? And what exactly are you counting? The simple answer is that there’s no purpose to learning card counting and you’re counting ephemeral gains.
Card counting is possible in poker, if you change its definition
Despite everything we said about it being impossible in the section above, card counting in poker is possible. How? By changing your definition of what card counting means, so that it doesn’t use the same tactics as those used in blackjack.
In this new and correct definition of card counting in poker, you use a counting methodology in your card game – rather than trying to count the cards in the poker game you’re playing.
And remember, the basic idea of blackjack card counting is that you use your memory to tell you if the odds are in your favour – this is the same in the new definition of card counting that’s suitable for poker.
Below, we give you some ways of incorporating card counting into poker by changing its definition.
Card counting poker trick 1: Counting the benefits of a tainted deck
What’s a tainted deck? It’s a deck of cards that are marked, damaged, or altered in such a way that you can tell what a specific card is just by seeing the back of it – basically, you know what you opponents cards are. So, this card counting poker trick is very simple – find a deck with marked cards and remember what’s what.
Counting cards in a tainted deck sounds like a great idea, but is it possible? The answer is yes, in some cases – and sometimes it’s not because you memorised the cards in play.
Mike Postle is a famous example of a poker player accused of getting an advantage by using the principles of a tainted deck.
Postle became the biggest topic in poker during 2019, after his exceptional winning streak during the Stones Live Cash Game series was called into question by poker professionals. Joe Ingram created a five-hour video where he looked at Postle’s hands and Doug Polk carried out his own assessment. What did these poker stars discover? Let us explain.
While poker is a game that is built upon players being able to successfully read their opponents, Postle seemed to be operating at an inhuman level – whatever spot he found himself in, he’d find a way of making it work to his advantage. Now, Postle could simply be a poker god, but there were some important issues to consider here:
Postle had a connection to the people running Stones Live Cash Game – he deleted his LinkedIn account after accusations of cheating were raised. Why? Because it states that there is a connection between him and Stones Live Cash Game.
“The graphics are wrong” – skip to 20:07 on the video below to see what we mean
Postle often obscures his face and looks at his phone during hands. Why is this important? Because this may have allowed him to have information to be passed to him.
Postle won thousands of dollars. Whether he did so because he was counting cards, receiving information about his opponents’ hands from reps of Stones Live Cash Game, or because he’s a poker god is unknown at the time of writing this guide. However, received wisdom is that Postle gained his winnings by cheating.
Is this a strategy you can adopt? Well, you’d either need enter into collusion with a casino/poker organisation, or find a casino with a tainted deck and learn the cards. Both are unlikely. And what would be the consequences?
The first example is tricky, but the second is simple – Phil Ivey was caught using edge-sorting (a version of card counting) in a game of punto banco and he was successfully sued by the casino for £7.7m.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Card counting is possible, but get caught and it could cost you serious money.
Card counting poker trick 2: Counting the outs you (& your opponent) have
An out in poker describes any card that will make your hand better or worse. Counting the outs you have is one of the foundations of being a good poker player – it’s about telling you what the chances are of your hand improving. Counting the outs your opponents have is the same principle, but instead concerns the chances of their hand becoming better.
By mastering the art of counting the outs in a poker game, you can more accurately predict how strong you are at a given moment and in the future.
Because we’re talking about odds, it may sound as though there is a lot of complicated maths involved in counting the outs in poker. While maths is crucial, the basic level required isn’t always as intimidating as you might fear – as we’ll explain using the example below, which we’ve borrowed from the brilliant 888Poker.
888Poker uses an example where there are two players in a hand – it’s for a game of Texas Hold’em poker. The flop is six of diamonds, ten of diamonds, and two of hearts. The hero (the player whose cards we’re aware of) has the ace and five of diamonds, while the villain (the player whose cards we’re not aware of) has an unknown hand.
Based on the example above, 888Poker initially determined that the hero has 12 good outs – this is due to there being nine diamonds available to make a flush and three aces to make a pair of aces. This is the basic level of maths required in counting outs.
The example is then thickened out to give the full range of outs in the hand – this is where your understanding of maths would need to be more developed. But in short, this now gives the hero 50 outs, as shown in the table below:
Open-ended straight draw
Gutshot straight draw
Open-ended straight draw & flush draw
By getting to grips with the basics of out counting, you’ll have a poker card counting technique that will improve your chances of making the right decisions and winning some money.
Card counting poker trick 3: Counting out the pot equity
Pot equity is the percentage you have of winning a pot when you are playing a game of poker. Counting out the pot equity is a natural development of the skills you learn during out counting. Why? Because you use the number of outs you have at specific points in the game to work out the percentage chance you have of winning a game.
By mastering the art of counting out the pot equity, you can establish whether it makes sense for you to continue with your hand – if you have over 50% equity then you have a great chance of making your hand and it may make sense for you to continue.
There are two stages where pot equity calculations come into play:
The reason for this is that at these two stages of the game there is still the potential for more cards to be dealt, thus changing the dynamic of the game and the strength of the players’ hands.
Using the example of a hand where you have nine outs, establishing your pot equity at these two stages works like this:
Counting pot equity on the flop: you x your number of outs by four – 9x4 = 36%
Counting pot equity on the river: you x your number of outs by four – 9x2 = 18%
Now, this isn’t an exact percentage. Instead, it’s a rough guide that gives you an indication of whether you should continue with your hand. To get a more accurate reading you can use a pot equity calculator.
But what about poker card counting software?
You may have already looked for poker card counting software – it seems like a sensible tactic if you’re playing poker at an online casino or cardroom and want to gain an advantage over your opponent(s). During your search, you’ll no doubt have come across some sites that claim to offer poker card counting software that’s guaranteed to work. The question is, are they legit? The answer is no, not one of these sites is legit.
There are many unscrupulous people in the online gambling world selling snake oil, preying on people’s desire to make money from betting and using this to take their cash.
And there’s a simple reason you can be sure that no site that claims to offer poker card counting software is legit: it’s that the way in which poker works means that even to suggest that a poker card counting system could work shows a fundamental lack of knowledge about the game – you simply cannot count cards in poker in the way that these sites claim.
But it also shows that there are people willing to pay actual money for anything they think will give them an edge. Trust me – any site that tells you it'll sell you a poker card counting system is lying. No such system exists, nor could one ever exist – the only ways you can get any type of an edge is through practice, education, and using poker software that analyses your opponents’ hands.
But there is poker software that does give you an advantage
We’ve told you already that poker card counting doesn’t work in the same way as in blackjack. We’ve also explained that because of this there is no software that can count your cards for you in poker.
However, the lack of legitimate poker card counting tools doesn’t mean that all software in poker is built on lies – there is some excellent software out there that can help improve your chances of being a winning player, with PokerTracker being one of the finest examples of this.
PokerTracker was launched in 2014. It’s a tool that takes the hand data used during your poker sessions on a range of poker sites – such as PokerStars. It then uses this data to show you not only how you have performed during your games, but also the habits of your opponents.
You can use PokerTracker to aid your game in many ways, but we’re going to focus on the two which offer the clearest paths to bringing real improvements to how you play poker.
The first way you can use PokerTracker to improve your games is that you can look back at how you have played and see where there is room for improvements. Now, there’s a huge range of ways you can do this so we’ll give you an example.
Say you want to see how well you’ve performed with a certain starting hand – such as pocket jacks. PokerTracker gives you the full history of how you’ve played them – you can look back at every hand and see if you won/lost because you played well/poorly. You can then use this to alter your behaviour.
The second way you can incorporate PokerTracker into improving how you play poker is that you can use it to get reads on your opponents. The way this works is that it records how they have played in games against you, giving them scores in a range of categories.
Two examples of the categories PokerTracker gives you are VP and PR:
VP: this shows you how often a player voluntarily puts money into the pot, prior to the flop.
Fold vs Flop CB: this shows you how often a player will fold their hand if someone makes a continuation bet.
These are only two of the many stats you get from using PokerTracker, but even just using them could help your game. How? Because if a player has a high rating for both it means that they will often make a pre-flop bet, but that you can usually bet them off it once the flop has come out – if they don’t fold, then you can feel confident that they have a good hand and act accordingly.
Is it cheating to count cards when you are gambling?
Card counting is a practice that gamblers have been using for many years – Jess Marcum is believed to be the modern founder of card counting, with commentators positing that he developed his strategies some time after 1949.
But while card counting is a long-established tactic of gamblers, it’s one that occupies a grey area within the industry – it’s not illegal but is certainly frowned upon. This means that there is some discussion as to whether it’s cheating or if it’s an example of using your abilities to beat the system.
The question of whether it’s cheating to count cards may boil down to who you speak to. If you ask a casino, then it’s likely to be seen as cheating. If you ask a gambler, they may say that’s simply one of the betting strategies available to you.
One thing is for sure, if you get caught counting cards in a casino then you will be kicked out and could be banned – not only from that casino, but also from any number of other casinos.
Poker card counting isn’t quite as black and white as commentators might have you believe – yes, there is no version of card counting for poker that replicates tactics used in blackjack. However, if you alter the definition of card counting to include counting tactics within the game of poker then there are approaches that are legitimate.
Our advice on poker card counting is to follow some simple dos and don’ts:
Buy poker card counting software
Use tainted card decks
Enter into collusion with casinos
Count the outs
Count the pot equity percentage
Use the right poker software
If you follow this advice and combine it will regular practice and studying then you’ll have a better chance of being a winning poker player.