If you have ever wondered if you can count cards in poker, you have come to the right place. I have been playing Texas Hold’em and other poker games for over 10 years and can give you a solid answer.
You can count cards in poker, however, not in the same way you can in Blackjack. In poker, you do not count cards to gain an edge over the house but rather to make profitable decisions against other players. In fact, card counting in a poker game is not illegal but is encouraged and necessary to win money over the long term.
Since it is possible to count cards in Texas Hold’em, let’s discuss how this is accomplished and ways you can use this technique to beat your opponents.
How to Count Cards in Poker
When you have a hand in poker and are looking at the flop, it’s time to make a decision on whether to continue on in the hand based on what the other players are doing. If there is a bet, you must decide whether to call, raise, or fold.
Each of these decisions is based on the likelihood you can win the hand. This is where counting cards comes in. You need to figure out your “equity” and the likely equity of your opponents.
Understanding Equity
Equity is basically your chance of winning the hand if all of the money was all-in right now on the current street (pre-flop, flop, or turn.) Note that equity is not calculated on the river since there are no more cards to come, and there is no chance to improve your hand.
The chance of winning is a hand expressed as a percentage.
For example, take A♥ K♥ versus 5♠ 5♣ . If those hands were all-in versus each other before the flop, which hand do you think has the highest equity?
If you said 55, you would be right. Since a pair does not need to improve, it is only logical that it would have the highest chance of winning or the highest equity. However, it’s very close. Here are the exact equities, calculated by my handy dandy equity calculator called Pokerstove.
This is why pairs versus overcards are sometimes called a “coin flip.” That just means that the odds of winning for each hand are pretty close to 50%, even though the pair has a pretty significant edge at times.
As you can see, it’s always better to have the pair when all in.
Now, I am not going to show you how to count cards or figure out equities pre-flop. It really isn’t necessary since you have no measuring stick on which to compare your hand to except for guesses about your opponent’s pre-flop hole cards.
Instead, you will need to just have a rudimentary understanding of the common equities pre-flop hands have against each other.
Learn these few common equities below, and you will have all you need to know about pre-flop odds:
- An underpair versus overcards is about 45% vs 55%, about 1 to 1 odds.
- One overcard versus a pair, ie. JJ versus TT is about 70% vs 30%, with the pair having the edge, about 5 to 2 odds
- A pair over a smaller pair, ie. QQ versus 66 is about 80% vs 20%, about 4 to 1 odds
- Being suited adds about 3% to a hands equity
Interesting fact: JTs suited has higher equity than most underpairs.
Figuring out Equities Usually Applies to Post-Flop
The vast majority of the time you spend counting cards in Texas Hold’em, or most any poker game is on the Flop or Turn. In poker, there are two different types of post-flop hands: made hands and draws.
Draws need to improve while a made hand does not.
Take the board J♠5♠4♦
- Examples of made hands on this board are AJ, JT, 65, K4, 55, 54, and AA
- Examples of draws on this board include T♠9♠ (flush draw), 76 (straight draw), 32 (straight draw), AQ (two overcards)
Let me put it another way. If your hand is not a pair or better, then you have a drawing hand.
- If your equity is not reasonably high enough versus your opponent’s likely hand or range of hands, then your best option is usually to check or fold.
- If your equity is high enough, say 25% or greater, then you usually want to continue in the hand (depending on the amount you have to invest)
A range of hands just means the entirety of all the possible hands that an opponent can have based on the situation. An example 25% starting hand range looks like this:
So How Do You Count Cards and Figure out the Equity?
Now that we have the preliminary stuff over let’s talk about how the cards are actually counted and converted to an equity percentage.
It all comes down to how many outs the drawing hand has
An out is a potential future card that can improve a hand’s strength. The term out usually applies to drawing hands that are likely not ahead of their opponent’s hand at the moment.
Let’s start off by just establishing how many outs a few common
- 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
While it does help to just learn these common equities, there is an easy trick to figure out your approximate equity anytime.
Count Your Outs and Know Your Equity
I know it’s taken some time, but we finally get to the part where you are actually counting something.
When you hold a drawing hand, all you have to do is count your likely outs and you can quickly determine your approximate equity.
Since we already went over how many outs each typical draw has, you just need to apply the rule of 4 and 2 to determine the likely equity:
The Rule of 4 and 2
- If you are on the flop, multiply your number of outs by 4 to get the approximate equity of a draw
- If you are on the turn, multiply the number of outs by 2 to get the approximate equity of a draw
While the number is almost never going to be exactly right due to the lack of complete information, you can still make good decisions based on what you do know. Let’s test the rule of 4 and 2 to see if it really works.
Outs | 4 & 2 Flop Equity | Actual % | 4&2 Turn Equity | Actual % |
5 | 20% | 20.3% | 10% | 10.6% |
6 | 24% | 24.1% | 12% | 12.8% |
8 | 32% | 31.5% | 16% | 17% |
9 | 36% | 35% | 18% | 19.1% |
12 | 48% | 45% | 24% | 25.5% |
As you can see, the rule works really well for figuring out how likely it is that you would win by the river were you all in right now.
Now, you can apply this information to figure out an opponent’s approximate equity as well. This will help us make much better decisions at the poker table.
Counting Cards to figure out your opponent’s hand
Let’s say you have the made hand and are facing aggression from an opponent. Since you know how to count cards and figure out the approximate equity of a draw, you just need to look at the board and see if you can figure out the likely hand of your opponent.
Let’s say you hold AK and have to consider 3 different boards: A♣8♠7♥, K♣7♣2♦, A♦9♣2♠
1. A♣8♠7♥
On this board, there is no obvious flush draw, so your opponent could have:
- A worse Ace (very good for you)
- Two-pairs and sets (bad for you)
- Or an open-ended straight draw (good for you).
There is nothing you can do about the first two possibilities, and they likely offset each other most of the time. What you really need to know is your equity versus the draws.
Since we know an open-ended straight draw has 8 outs, your opponent likely has 32% equity on the flop. This gives you 68% equity which is a very good situation.
Based on the possibility of your opponent also having worse Aces, it looks like a really profitable spot. To test our educated guess we achieved by counting cards, let’s look at the Pokerstove calculation to see how we did.
BOOM. It looks like counting cards helped us make a good decision. We should have 63% equity in this spot when the money goes in. That’s a very profitable, or +EV, move.
2. K♣7♣2♦
Once again, we have AK on another board. This situation is very similar, except our opponent can only have flush draws, and two-pair hands are much less likely.
However, there are a lot of hands our opponent could have that could contain a King. Think KQ, KJ,KT.
Since we know a flush draw has 9 outs and 36% equity versus us, we probably have 64% equity if we get all-in versus that draw right now. Combined with the fact that there are lots of worse hands that can get all-in versus us right now, it looks like an even bigger slam dunk to commit our chips.
Once again, we are right and can do a little high-equity dance.
3. A♦9♣2♠
With AK, we have top pair. However, there are no obvious straight or flush draws. So, if our opponent wants to get all-in right now versus us, what could he have? Let’s look at the possibilties:
- There are worse Aces like AQ, AJ, and AT. However, since we have an Ace in our hand, those holdings are slightly less likely.
- And we can’t be sure our opponent would want to get all-in with AT or worse. Would we get all-in with AT or even AJ here that often?
- So that leaves sets and two-pair hands.
So, our opponents range looks like AK, AQ, AJ, AT, A9, A6, 99, and 22. If our opponent has AQ, AJ, or AT he will have 3 outs or 12% equity (as per the rule of 4 and 2). Very good for us.
However, if our opponent has any of the other hands in his range, we will be the one with very few outs to count on. We are even drawing practically dead against 99 and 22.
With that information, we should probably be very cautious here. All-in right now seems like a big trap. Let’s take a look at the Pokerstove.
We were correct to be cautious here. It looks like our best-case scenario is to be in a virtual coin flip. While getting all-in might be slightly profitable, it looks like we are better served playing it cautiously and just trying to get to showdown cheaply.
Is Counting Cards in Poker Legal?
Counting cards in poker
Final Thoughts
So now you have a taste of how counting cards in poker works and how it can be used to help us make better poker decisions.
Related Questions
What is a gutshot in poker? A gutshot is a straight draw that has 4 outs to improve. An example would be 87 on an AT6 board. You would need to hit a 9 to make your straight.
What are the odds of hitting a flush with 2 suited cards? If you have two suited cards, you have 9 outs to hit your flush. This means you have about a 35% chance, or 1.86-1 odds, of hitting the flush by the river. If you have a 2-card flush draw on the turn, you have a 19%
What are implied odds in poker? Implied odds in poker means the likelihood that your opponent will be willing to call a bet or raise if you were to complete a drawing hand. If it is likely you will be called, then your implied odds are good. Conversely, if it is obvious that you made a draw based on the run-out of the board, your opponent will be less likely to call, and your implied odds are not very good. Straight draws tend to have better implied odds than flush draws.
Jim James is well-known as the world’s leading expert on playing short or mid-stacked poker. He has over 15 years of experience playing poker professionally, has written extensively on the topic, and is the author of the best-selling poker strategy book Automatic Poker.
Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, he has won 7 figures at the poker tables. His innovative simple poker charts make the game easier for everyone willing to learn. Today, he helps other players demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em and has helped countless people become winning poker players through his Online Poker Academy.