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Counting cards can give you the upper hand at the blackjack table, but you have to put the work in.

Contrary to what many of us believe, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to count cards. The blackjack tricks’s name says it all: you count cards. Using a hi-low system, you assign a positive number (+1) to any card between 2 and 6, a neutral number (0) to any card between 7 and 9, and a negative number (-1) to develop a running count. This count helps you to predict which cards will be dealt in subsequent hands. A higher count tells you that more low-value cards have been dealt, so you can expect more face cards to be dealt in upcoming hands, and vice versa.

The basic principle is simple enough, just count and use the count to adjust your behavior. But like anything else, mastering the art of card counting takes a lot of practice. You must be able to count numbers quickly without making mistakes and without losing concentration. Experts say that should train for about 160 hours before you are ready to count in a casino. This piece will recommend seven drills you can use to hone your counting skills.

I: Make lifestyle choices to improve mental focus

The player must not only count the cards dealt to them personally, but every card dealt. As most games are six deck blackjack, that adds up to a lot of cards. A successful counter must keep track of the cards being dealt to every player at the table. This means keeping his head on a swivel, watching everything without losing focus. When counting, there is no such thing as downtime.

This may sound a bit lame, but making basic lifestyle choices to improve your mental focus will improve your counting ability. This means sleeping adequately, drinking water, exercising and avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine. Learn to live card counting, not just do it.

II: Play blackjack online regularly

This will not help you improve your mastery of a card counting system directly, but it is crucial to developing your blackjack skills. Online blackjack sites shuffle a single deck after each hand, so it’s not possible to practice counting. However, before you can be a good counter you have to be an expert in traditional blackjack play. You must be able to process information instantly and know exactly what to do in any situation. Playing online is a great way to hone these skills before taking them to the casino.

III: Visualize the Count

Attempting to count by repeating each card in your head is a slow and clumsy strategy. Instead, learn to automatically convert each card into its corresponding -1, 0 or +1. A good technique for improving this skill is to have a friend hold up cards for you. Focus visually while mentally repeating the corresponding number (not the actual number on the card). This will help you to associate automatically without getting bogged down with the cards literal value. Also, learn how to visually recognize face cards without considering the actual value of the card (all of them are -1!). As you will see, relying on verbal techniques to keep count will waste time and become problematic when you play in a casino.

IV: Learn to convert the true count

Because most tables hold six deck blackjack games, you must learn how to count across multiple decks. The total multi-deck count is called the true count. There is a technique for converting the running count into the true count: simply divide the running count by the number of decks still in the shoe. To illustrate this point, consider that a running count of +10 means a lot more with two decks remaining (true count of +5) to be dealt than with five decks (true count of +2). The more cards that have dealt, the more meaningful the running count is. So converting the running count into a true count will tell you exactly how effectively you can predict upcoming hands.

V: Learn to hold a conversation while counting

Once you gain the ability to visualize quickly, further practice this skill by speaking while maintaining a count. You are bound to make some mistakes early on, but being able to count purely visually instead of verbally is absolutely crucial. When you play in a casino other players will likely engage you in conversation, and you need to be able to talk to them without distracting yourself from the count.

Have a friend talk to you while you maintain a count, and gradually progress to more complex conversations. If you can discuss politics or literature while counting, you are doing pretty well. When you are alone try listening to music and comprehending lyrics while counting. If you want to get really good, practice in the most distracting conditions possible.

VI: Drill yourself on speed before entering a casino

Repeat counting down an entire deck of blackjack cards without stopping. Do it over and over…and over. Counting experts say that you should be able to count an entire deck error-free in roughly 20 seconds before you are ready to count in a casino. After you have learned how to count using only visual recognition skills, practice the skill through endless repetition. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

VII: Learn to be subtle

Learning how not to get caught is just as important as counting itself. You must be able to count while behaving like every other player at the table. Use peripheral vision when noting the cards dealt to other players. And don’t get caught checking the discard pile. It’s a dead giveaway. If you also act noticeably on-edge or actively avoid interaction with other players, the dealer may become suspicious. Practice so much that counting becomes second nature, to the point where you can count without even realizing that you are counting.