If you are a seasoned gambler, you will be aware that poker, unlike games of chance like online slots, or sports betting, is a game of skill, strategy and tactics. As a result, poker players are keen students of tactical skills that will give them an edge over their fellow players.
Card counting is one of those skills that can definitely give you an edge over your opponents.
Find out more about counting cards in poker, how prevalent it is as a tactic in casinos and whether or not it is legal to do so.
What is card counting in poker?
Most of us consider card counting an illegal yet titillating pursuit employed by autistic savants in Hollywood movies like “Rainman” or a team of mathematicians from MIT immortalized in books like “Bringing Down the House” and the movie “21”.
In these accounts, we cheer these protagonists as they take on the “big bad casinos” who supposedly stack the odds against innocent players at the blackjack tables. It is well documented that while not technically illegal, card counting in blackjack is prohibited in most casinos.
But what does it mean to count cards in poker?
In simple terms, card counting is keeping track of which cards are being dealt throughout a round to deduce which cards your opponents are holding, which cards are likely to still be in the deck and the probability of those cards being drawn at the flop and the turn.
Having an idea of what cards are being held and which cards are likely to be drawn can inform your decisions early on in the round on whether to call, raise or fold.
How to count cards in poker
In both table and online poker, card counting can become quite overwhelming. As a beginner, getting into the deep math of determining the probability of winning requires understanding technical terms like “equity,” “made hands,” “draws” and “outs.” Here are a few definitions to help you understand the workings that follow.
- Equity: Your chance of winning expressed as a percentage.
- Made hand: A good hand that does not need to be improved.
- Draws: Hands that need to be improved.
- Outs: Future cards that need to be drawn to improve your hand.
There are numerous online resources explaining how equity is calculated. For the purposes of this piece, we will refer to the various equities simply as higher or lower and not demonstrate the math.
Outs for a win
If you depend on a draw hand, you need to count the number of likely outs to determine your equity and inform your decisions at the flop and turn. Here is a guide to the likely number of outs for various types of draw hands.
- A pair and an overcard usually has about 5 outs versus a top pair hand.
- Overcards will usually have about 6 outs versus top pair.
- An open-ended straight draw usually has about 8 outs versus a made hand.
- A naked flush draw usually has about 9 outs versus a made hand.
- A pair and a flush draw will usually have about 12 outs versus top pair.
Once you’ve memorized the likely outs per hand, you can apply a basic rule of thumb to determine your equity. It is called the rule of 4 & 2.
The rule of 4 & 2
This is a simple rule you can use to determine your hand’s equity and inform your move at both the flop and the turn.
At the flop, you multiply the number of likely outs by 4 to get a fairly accurate estimate of your equity. If you have a pair and an overcard, your likely number of outs is 5. Multiply 5 by 4 and you have an equity of 20%.
5 X 4 = 20%
At the turn, do the same, only this time you multiply by 2 to get your approximate equity. Using the same example, the equation looks like this:
5 X 2 = 10%
Using this rule, you have a fairly good idea of your odds if you were at the river and all-in.
Figuring out your opponents
Now that you have a fair sense of your equity, depending on drawing hands, you can try to work out the likelihood of beating your opponents. By knowing which cards you are holding along with the community cards dealt at the flop and turn (there is no opportunity to improve your hand at the river,) you should be able to deduce what possible hands your opponents could be holding.
For instance, made hands generally attract much higher equity than drawing hands (you can use an online equity calculator to get a sense of these). So if you have a pair of 6s and the board (community cards) is running 5, 4, and 3, you can deduce that it is highly unlikely that any of your opponents would have a straight, given that you have two of the 6s they would need.
This means your equity is likely to be higher than any of your opponents and you have a much better probability of winning the round at both the flop and the turn. If this happens, you should probably go all-in earlier rather than later, given your high equity.
Is card counting legal?
Now that you understand how to count cards, the answer to “can you count cards in poker legally?” is clearly a resounding yes. Unlike blackjack, counting cards in poker does not undermine the game and the house’s advantage.
The answer is also yes to the question, “does counting cards still work?” Counting cards contributes significantly to the tactical battle between opponents and is actually encouraged by most casinos to increase the credibility of their poker rooms with professionals.
Count your way to success with BetMGM
Using the information here will set you on your way toward a fruitful career in poker. Give it a try from the comfort of your own home and register with BetMGM to test your tactical mettle.