Canadian Blackjack Card Counting: Law, Theory and Practice

In early December of 2010, a certain Canadian card counter nicknamed “Banned” was playing blackjack at the Fallsview Casino Resort in Ontario. He had been playing there intermittently for two and a half years without incident, but on this particular occasion, he was asked to leave the table and not return—“You are banned for life,” he was told.

When Banned protested and asked for a reason, he was informed that they didn’t have to give him a reason. The player then demanded that he be given a written notice, but they said they didn’t have to. “Because it’s ‘private property,’” the pit boss explained, they didn’t have to answer his questions or respond to any of his requests.

Banned complained to the shift manager, whom he described as “very well-mannered.” Had Banned broken the law? Was blackjack card counting now illegal in Canada? Or had he crossed some invisible line? The shift manager still wouldn’t provide any information. Out of sheer frustration Banned turned to an online forum for blackjack players in search of some insight.

A Matter of Law

Forum members were sympathetic to Banned’s situation, but they couldn’t offer a clear explanation of why he had been singled out. “Card counting’s not illegal,” said one executive member, “but I think they can back you off.” The group’s moderator concurred with that opinion: “They can kick you out for whatever reason they invent.”

A member in Windsor referred to the Ontario Gaming Control Act, saying, “You can only be banned if you fall under the exclusion of individuals list…. if you have been banned elsewhere, you’re an employee or supplier, convicted cheat, or involved with organized crime you can be banned. If they ban you for any other reason …your rights are being violated.”

Each province and territory in Canada has its own Gaming Control Act, of course. A member in Quebec looked up the local casino games regulations and found “there is absolutely nothing in it that says that it’s illegal to count cards at blackjack.” As it turns out, that’s true all across Canada—not a single statute mentions card counting as illegal. But perhaps that’s not the issue.

A Benchmark Case

Back in 1994, members of future Blackjack Hall of Famer Tommy Hyland’s card counting team were arrested at the Casino Windsor. The press reported, “Three people won more than $100,000 over three days before they were stopped and accused of cheating at blackjack… One gambled while the other two sat at the table and used a bead system to illegally count cards….”

The prosecutor contended that “team play” constituted fraud. However, after more than a year in litigation, a judge ruled that their winnings were the result of “intelligent strategy,” not cheating. Ever since then, use of skill and “powers of observation” at Canada’s blackjack tables has been considered “legal.” But that hasn’t stopped casinos from using their prerogative as “private properties” to ban undesirable players, such as card counters.

Much like courts in Nevada and California, the Canadian judicial system has established that “the ‘right to exclude others’ is a ‘fundamental element of private property ownership.’ The same fundamental rights of private property ownership also extend to gaming establishments.” So the legality of card counting is actually a moot point with respect to who can be excluded from play.

As the Windsor forum member told Banned, “The letter and spirit of the law is not unambiguous; it is clearly on the side of the players. Protecting your rights, however, costs time and money … so generally keeping a low profile is the smart play.”

The Player’s Advantage: Easy Card Counting in Blackjack (How-To)

What separates blackjack from so many other casino games is the fact that players can make decisions that impact their odds of winning. Good decisions beget better results. We use basic blackjack strategy to ensure we get the highest possible natural rate of return. That alone won’t turn the house edge into a player advantage. However, when you employ a perfect decision-making strategy on the right game, with the right rules, and count cards along the way, you may discover an opportunity to turn the tides in your favor.

Note that I said “the right game, with the right rules”. There’s a lot that goes into good game selection. The rules have to be player friendly enough to offer a relatively high RTP to begin with; 99.5% at the least. On top of this, the deck has to reach a minimum of 50% depth before it’s reshuffled. No computer-generated (RNG) blackjack game will do. Online or on land, it must be a live dealer game, dealt from a real shoe of cards. If the deck is reshuffled after each hand, card counting is pointless.

When all of these factors align in perfect harmony, only then can you achieve the all-too-rare player’s advantage blackjack game. Since variants and rules change all of the time, we can’t tell you with full-proof accuracy where to find such a game. They may appear one day, and be gone the next. What we can teach you is how to pull off an easy and accurate card count if and when you’re lucky enough to find one.

Blackjack Card Counting – The Basics

The idea behind card counting is to give you insight into what types of cards remain in the deck. You don’t have to know each and every card that was played. You just have to know if there are more high cards or low cards remaining in the deck. To do this, we utilize what’s known as the High-Low System of card counting.

The concept was first theorized by Harvey Dubner in 1963. He realized that high cards, specifically 10 – Ace, were more advantageous to players, while low cards, 2 – 6, were better for the dealer. Mid-range card of 7 – 9 didn’t seem to have much impact either way. As an engineer and mathematician, his calculations determined that, when the high cards are depleted from the deck, the house edge is approximately 4%. Conversely, when the deck is depleted of low cards, and abundant in high cards, the player has a near 4% advantage.

Applying this knowledge, Dubner began keeping track of high and low cards, placing larger or smaller wagers depending on who the count favored. He found that the low count (more low cards remaining) existed in about two-thirds of all hands, at which time he would decrease his bet size. For the one-third of hands in which the player had an advantage (more high cards than low), he would increase his bet size. Dubner’s system of counting soon became famous, not just because it worked, but because it was so simple.

Harvey’s method is such a good one, it’s the first count all would-be professional blackjack players learn, and remains the number one counting system in use today. Some players do advance to more distinguished systems, integrating everything from side-counts to Ace-sequencing, but the High-Low Count is something anyone can learn, regardless of their affinity for mathematics.

How to Count Cards in Blackjack

Counting cards is as easy as placing each card rank into one of three groups. 2 thru 6 go into the +1 group. 7 thru 9 go into the 0 group. 10 thru Ace go into the -1 group. Like this…

  • 2-6 = +1
  • 7-9 = 0
  • 10-A = -1

So, with a fresh deck of cards, the count begins at 0. Every time you see a card, you’re either going to add 1, subtract 1, or do nothing. Let’s try an example. We’ll say there are 5 players at a blackjack table, and the cards dealt to start the hand, from a fresh shoe, are as follows:

A – J – 4 – 9 – 2 – 7 – K – 3 – Q – K – 10

We have 11 cards here; two for each of the 5 players, plus the dealer’s up-card. If you ran the count correctly, you should be at -3. If you didn’t get -3, try it again…

Starting at 0…

  • A = -1 (Total -1)
  • J = -1 (Total -2)
  • 4 = +1 (Total -1)
  • 9 = 0 (Total -1)
  • 2 = +1 (Total 0)
  • 7 = 0 (Total 0)
  • K = -1 (Total -1)
  • 3 = +1 (Total 0)
  • Q = -1 (Total -1)
  • K = -1 (Total -2)
  • 10 = -1 (Total -3)

How to React to High and Low Card Counts

In the simplest of terms – because again, this blackjack card counting system is very simple – the size of your bet should correlate with the size of the count.

  • Low Count calls for a Lower Bet
  • High Count calls for a Higher Bet

In our above example, the count was pretty low. Any count of 4 or more, whether it be positive or negative, is considered a strong count. This one is at -3, which would imply that there are more low cards in the deck than high ones. A low count calls for a lower bet, so at this point, it would be a good idea to decrease your standard bet size to half. If the count reaches -4, definitely decrease to half the bet size. You may even wish to sit out a hand or two until the count rises.

At a count of -2 thru +2, maintain your average bet size. Once the count reaches +3 or +4, double your bets.

Depth should always be taken into account, as well. The closer you are to 50% depth (half of the entire shoe has been seen and counted), the more accuracy you can expect from the results. And therein lies the only fault with this system.

Early on in the count, the results will suffer from higher variance (i.e. they’ll be less accurate). At 50% depth, accuracy increases, and continues to increase until the deck is depleted. Unfortunately, the closer you get to 50% depth, the more likely a casino is to reshuffle and start with a fresh shoe. If the game you’re playing never let’s the deck get further than 40-45% depth, card counting will be far less effective, which brings me back to the point I made in the very beginning…

You have to find the right game, with the right rules, in which enough player-friendly factors align to give you any hope of achieving a player’s advantage. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to effectively increase your win rate with blackjack card counting. It’s getting harder and harder to find these games, but don’t give up. A fruitful search will be well worth the effort.


  • Donna Dorsa

    Donna Dorsa is a veteran practitioner of the linguistic arts. As an independent writing and editing professional, she's spent more than 15 years researching and playing an active role in the world's ever-evolving iGaming industry. The daughter of a novelist and electrical engineer, her passions include creative literature, mathematics, game theory, and sitting around the table with her family for a good old-fashioned card or board game. In her spare time she runs a 3D printer business from home. Here is her Patreon. You can read her bio on Muckrack and find her socials on our meet the team page.

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