The Hi-Lo is one of the most commonly used card counting systems devised for the game of blackjack. Most professional blackjack players and gambling experts use the Hi-Lo as an example when explaining how card counting actually works and there is a very good reason for this.
Players who count cards with the Hi-Lo system achieve a perfect balance between efficiency, accuracy, and ease of use. This renders it a great choice for aspiring counters especially those who prefer to play shoe games with multiple decks of cards.
The Hi-Lo system was devised by a man called Harvey Dubner as early as 1963. The system quickly attracted the attention of computer programmer Julian Braun who refined it. The refined version made its way to the pages of the second edition of Edward Thorp’s bestseller Beat the Dealer. The book was reprinted in 1966 which makes the Hi-Lo one of the oldest card counting systems in the blackjack universe.
The Mechanics of the Hi-Lo System
We would like to say a few words about how card counting works before we proceed to explain the mechanics of the Hi-Lo system. Card counters keep track of the ratio of low to high cards that remain to be dealt. This knowledge enables competent players to vary their bet size in proportion to their advantage.
When the deck is rich in high cards, the chances of receiving a blackjack with extra payouts are higher. As the deck is depleted from high cards, the edge of the player significantly drops and the odds shift in favor of the house. Different card denominations have a different impact on the odds. To account for this fact, the Hi-Lo system assigns the following count values to the cards:
- Aces, 10s, Queens, Kings, and Jacks are counted as -1 because they favor the player
- Small cards 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are counted as +1 because they favor the house
- The 7s, 8s, and 9s are considered neutral cards and have a value of 0
It follows that twenty cards have a value of +1 and twenty cards have a value of -1, which renders the Hi-Lo a balanced card counting system. Thus, if you take a standard full deck and count it down accurately, the result will always be zero. The same goes for all balanced counting systems. Adding and subtracting the value of each card as it appears on the layout gives you your running count but more on this a little later.
Hi-Lo System Additional TipsWhen maintaining a running count, players add and subtract only one card value, which makes the Hi-Lo a single-level card counting system. There are far more complex multi-level counting systems where the cards are assigned two, three or even four different count values.
There are even systems like Wong Halves where certain cards have a count value of -0.5 and +0.5 which significantly increases the mental gymnastics one needs to perform. The purpose of these multiple-level systems is to further increase the efficiency with which the player gauges their advantage against the house. In turn, this helps you determine strategy deviations and bet sizing more accurately. However, many players still prefer the Hi-Lo because it is simpler and more practical, leaving less room for errors.
But let’s get back on topic. As we explained, the player needs to constantly maintain an accurate running count taking into consideration each card that is removed from the shoe. But this alone is insufficient in determining the favorability of the cards that remain to be dealt. You need a true count for this purpose.
Running Count to True Count Conversion
Like all other balanced systems, the Hi-Lo requires players to convert their running count (RC) into what is known as the true count (TC). This conversion would not be necessary if one plays against a single deck of cards as the running count gives you an accurate enough idea of how favorable the remaining cards are.
Unfortunately, the poor conditions at the single-deck tables render these games unbeatable which is why most competent players prefer shoe games played with multiple decks, typically six or eight. The higher number of cards when multiple decks are in play dilutes the effect of removal of the cards, though.
For example, suppose you are dealt an Ace out of a single deck with 52 cards. The removal of the card has a more pronounced impact on the odds because you will have only three more Aces that can potentially give you blackjacks. But if you are playing an eight-deck game with a total of 416 cards and pull out one Ace, you are left with 31 more Aces to make blackjacks with. Respectively, the impact of the first Ace’s removal on the odds is not as significant.
Running Count to True Count Conversion Additional TipsThis dilution must be taken into account, which is the reason why you need a true count in the first place. To perform the conversion, the player needs to divide the current running count by the number of decks left in the shoe. In order to perform the conversion, you should be able to accurately estimate how many decks have been dealt out. This is something that requires a good deal of persistence and needs to be practiced painstakingly before you make any attempts to count cards with the Hi-Lo system in the actual casino environment.
Aspiring card counters sometimes struggle with speed, particularly when it comes to keeping up with the running count. Many people adjust their running count one card at a time but there is a smarter approach that saves you time. It is called “meaningful pairs”.
As you have undoubtedly noticed, high and low cards cancel themselves out. For instance, suppose you play two hands at a time and are dealt K-4 for your first hand and A-2 for the second one whereas the dealer has a 4. Instead of adding -1,+1,-1,+1,+1 in your head, you can use this cancellation technique.
Looking on the first hand, you have a neutral count of 0 because the K-4 cancel themselves out. The same goes for your second hand. Using this cancellation approach, you only have to adjust your running count once to arrive at +1. This technique significantly reduces your workload and helps you improve your speed.
Adjusting the Size of Your Bets with the Hi-Lo System
Some people who read this article will undoubtedly ask themselves the question “When a blackjack shoe gets rich in high cards, doesn’t the dealer also have good chances of pulling out Aces and face cards?”. And they are right, some of the high cards will undoubtedly end up on the other side of the table.
But unlike the dealer, the card counter can split pairs, double down, and buy insurance. Additionally, the card counter has the option to decide whether to hit or stand on hard totals 12 through 16 whereas the dealer makes no playing decisions whatsoever and their play is always governed by the fixed rules of the house.
Despite this, the player will still lose more hands than they win even when card counting. The main advantage of the card counter results from sizing their bets depending on the advantage the remaining cards yield. To achieve this, one must first decide on a bet spread and range their bets in accordance with the count.
Some players prefer to use more conservative bet spreads for the purpose of reducing heat on behalf of the casino personnel. The members of the pit crew are well aware this game is beatable through counting and there is a good chance you might attract their attention if you opt for a more aggressive bet spread. If your level of play makes them uncomfortable, they will take counter-measures like reshuffling after every round or flat betting you. In the worst-case scenario, they might even prohibit you from playing blackjack or back you off altogether.
Adjusting the Size of Your Bets with the Hi-Lo System Additional TipsThe bottom line is you need to adjust the size of your bets in accordance with the true count if you want to beat this game. When you join the table, you start betting a single unit. Then you need to multiply it by the current true count to adjust the size of your bet. You never exceed your maximum bets regardless of how high the true count has gotten.
Suppose you decide to use $10 as your base betting unit. When the true count is negative, neutral (0) or +1, you will be flat betting in increments of $10. When the true count reaches +2, you raise to $20, after it increases to +3, you raise to $30 and so on.
The Hi-Lo counting system is very accurate when it comes to showing you when to increase your bet and to what extent. This claim is further substantiated by the fact the Hi-Lo has a very high betting correlation (BC) of 0.97.
Yet, card counters can also extract advantage through deviating from basic strategy depending on the true count. The Hi-Lo is outperformed by some of the other counting systems where playing efficiency is concerned, but the margin is not all that substantial. It yields a playing efficiency of 0.51.
Despite its lower playing efficiency, the Hi-Lo is among the simplest and the most commonly used counting systems out there. It is a great way to start if you are an aspiring card counter. Its simplicity itself works to your advantage because it reduces the likelihood of the player making any errors.
All you do is add and subtract +1 and -1 as cards are dealt on the felt and then convert your running count to a true count, which tells you how to size your bets. Pouring more money into action when you stand better chances of obtaining blackjacks and being paid 3 to 2 is how you get an edge over the casino in this game.