When I first learned to count cards (Lord, it's been 20 years...and I'm only 29 years old! I began as a pup.), we used a pretty cool technique to move around the casino and place bets only when we had the advantage. What we'd do is go up to a table which had one or two seats open, would stand behind and just watch the dealer put out the cards for the next hand. If, when the hand was over, the count was positive, we'd place a $100 or $200 bet on the next hand and would continue to play as long as the count was positive. If the count went negative, we'd get up and move on.
We could do this because we were in Atlantic City where the rules were so favorable that the basic strategy player had a small edge over the house and so long as the count was positive, we'd be playing at an advantage. Even though we might have arrived at the table when 4 decks of the six-deck shoe had been played, it was still to our advantage because of the favorable rules. We simply calculated the true count by figuring those cards which were in the discard tray as though they were still behind the shuffle card in the shoe. For those of you who are counters, it's easy to see that we might be, in effect, playing a six-deck game with 33% penetration. (If you're not a counter, see the archived lessons on this page and you can learn how to do it.) But penetration didn't matter because of the favorable rules; as long as the count was positive, we had an edge. Sadly, those rules are gone now and penetration does matter. But a lot of people don't understand why, so let me explain.
As you may or may not know, card-counting works because of imbalances which occur as cards are used up. In the count I teach, there are an equal number of 'small' and 'large' cards. If a larger number of small cards come out, it means that there is a higher proportion of large cards (10s, faces and Aces) in the deck(s) remaining to be played. But, if the dealer only uses, say, half the cards of the deck(s), the shuffle card may come out just as the count gets to an advantageous point. The edge finally swings in the player's favor and Boom!, the cut card comes out. Shallow penetration lessens the opportunity for high counts and high counts are when the counter has the biggest advantage.
A high count, as stated before, means that there are more 10s, faces and Aces left to play and that's to the player's advantage. S/he is more likely to get a Blackjack, or to get a 10 or Ace when doubling or the dealer is more likely to break when hitting a 'stiff' hand. It also means that the player has more of a tactical advantage; by varying the basic strategy with a high count, a counter will double more, split more pairs and stand more often. The best example of this is the ubiquitous 16. Basic strategy says to hit 16 vs. a dealer's up card of 10. But, if the running count is 1 or more, the proper play is to stand. It's because the remaining cards are 'rich' in 10s and faces, so you'll lose less by standing at that point. This 'tactical' advantage can be considerable, especially in single-deck games. In fact, it's possible to get an edge at a single-deck game by just flat-betting (no bet variation) and varying the play of the hands according to the count IF the dealer deals far enough into the deck. It's a small edge (about .22% with 75% penetration), but an edge nonetheless. If the dealer offers 75% penetration at a single-deck game where the rules are h17, no das and double only on 10 and 11, a counter using a 1-2 bet spread can get a .75% edge over the casino. But, under the same conditions, if the dealer only deals 50% of the cards, the counter's edge drops to .02% with a 1-2 bet spread.
Got the concept here? The more cards you see before the shuffle, the bigger edge you can get, if all other conditions remain the same. That's why it pays to 'shop' at your local, friendly casino...shop for better penetration. Dealers don't like to shuffle. It's a waste of time, it's boring and, while it may provide them with a bit of a break, they don't make any $$$ while shuffling; no bets, no tips - no tips, no $$$. So, more experienced dealers will have a tendency to sliiiiide the shuffle card back and deal more cards. And while I'm the last one to project any kind of racial or otherwise politically-incorrect images, older white guys, in my considerable experience, give better penetration than most dealers. I don't know why or care why, they just do and that's who I check out first at the casinos. Now, if the old guy is a 'rookie', he won't likely give good penetration, since most rookies follow the rules to the letter. So do most dealers of Asian ancestry, but I have seen exceptions. The point is, you need to shop because it can make extra $$$ for you if you're successful in finding deeper penetration.
Let's look at how this can affect a six-deck game where the dealer stands on A-6, das is allowed and you may double on any first two cards. That's a typical game found all over and the house has an edge of about .44%. If you use a 1-8 bet spread, your edge with 66% penetration is .36% and that game isn't worth playing. With 75% penetration, your edge is .71% and the game is still not worth playing. If the dealer uses 5 of the 6 decks, you now have a long term edge of 1.22% and that's a beatable game. Remember, all we changed here was the penetration, the rules and bet spread remained the same. Once you find a game like that, experiment with two-hand play to get a bigger spread and if you're able to expand to a 1-12 betting ratio, this game with 5 of 6 dealt will yield a long term return of 1.79% and you can , as my Quaker friends may say, "kicketh some butt."
See you here next time.