"If the pattern says ch 26, does the loop you start with in the beginning count as one or zero?"
Do you mean your slip knot you have on the hook to start chaining? No, it does not count. One
will be the first loop you make after that. I cheat. I make extra chains in case I miscounted (counting sts is much easier than counting chains) and then undo the extras. Better yet at least for me, whenever possible I would use Single Crochet Chain aka Foundation Single Crochet
"Not knowing things like this is why I knit, " I find it's easier to follow a knitting pattern than a crochet pattern. With some crochet patterns I've worked I have problems with getting the last sts at the end of a row right and want to turn before the row is finished. I don't know why. Sometimes learning to fudge a bit, as with the number of chains, helps. Having extra chains is much better than being a few or even one short when you need a really long chain (say 100+) to start.