Golden Touch Craps
BLACKJACK THEN AND NOW
By Henry Tamburin
There have been more changes to the game of blackjack over the past five years than there had been the previous fifty years. Many of the recent changes have been implemented by casino management to increase their table revenue, or to eliminate the threat of card counters. Lets examine these changes and their affect on the average player.
Single Deck Games
In the good old days, if you wanted to play a blackjack game with great odds youd fly to Vegas and play their single deck games. Back in those days, the dealer pitched the cards to the player and when a player got a blackjack (and the dealer didnt), the player got paid at 3-2 odds. The house edge on the game for the player that knew his basic strategy was only a few tenths of a percent (and depending upon the rules, in some single deck games the basic strategy player was playing dead even, or even had a slight advantage over the house).
Nowadays, good single deck games, especially in Las Vegas, are going the way of the horse and buggy. Even though youll still find plenty of single deck games in Vegas (and elsewhere), the vast majority of them only pay 6-5 for an untied blackjack. Thats a horrible game with a house edge 7-9 times higher than the gold ole 3-2 single deck games. The result of this change is the fleecing of the unknowing player who sits down at a single deck game thinking the odds are good when in fact they are horrible. Stay away (no, better run away) from any 6-5 single deck game.
Dealer Standing on Soft 17
Historically, casinos began replacing their good single deck games with games dealt with six decks of cards from a dealing shoe. This increased the house edge by a few more tenths of a percent and because only 70-80% of the cards were dealt out of the shoe and then reshuffled, the edge that skillfully card counters had, compared to a single deck game, was diminished (but not eliminated). In the good old days, the house had their dealers stand on soft 17 (i.e. any hand containing an Ace counted as 11) in their 6-deck games (they stood on any other 17 and, of course, hit on 16 or less). In fact casinos all up and down the Strip in Las Vegas, and also in Atlantic City, had mostly 6-deck games with dealer standing on soft 17.
Nowadays, most casinos in Las Vegas that deal a 6-deck blackjack game have their dealers hitting soft 17. A few casinos in Atlantic City are currently experimenting with h17 games and others are planning to try it. In other gaming venues, youll find a mix of s17 and h17 games but the trend is going to h17. The result of this minor rule change increases the house edge about 0.2% against the average player. It doesnt seem like much of an increase, but every little bit hurts the player in the long run.
Shuffling the Cards
In the old days, dealers manually shuffled the cards. This gave them a break from the constant motion of dealing cards to players, and it also gave them a chance to chit chat with players while they shuffled the cards.
Nowadays, youll find mostly automatic shufflers mixing the cards. Most casinos use two different stacks of six decks of cards per table with an automatic shuffler. While the dealer deals the cards from one six deck stack of cards (from a dealing shoe), the other six decks of cards are being shuffled offline by the automatic shuffler. This eliminates the down time of manually shuffling the cards, and from the casinos perspective, the less the downtime, the more hands they can deal per hour, and the more profits they earn. But the next generation of automatic shufflers is a horse of a different color because they dramatically changed the game. Known as Continuous Shuffling Machines (or CSMs), they were designed to make the game of blackjack unbeatable by card counting. The CSM holds 4-5 decks of cards. The dealer will deal a round of cards from the CSM and then after the round is completed (sometimes two rounds), the discards are placed back into the CSM where they are randomly mixed with the 4-5 decks. In other words, when you play in a blackjack game that uses a CSM, the odds against players remain fixed on every hand dealt and the house always has the edge (the game is no longer beatable). Another benefit from the casinos standpoint (and a detriment to all players) is that dealers using a CSM do nothing but continuously deal the cards hand after hand after hand. There is no pause in the action. Therefore, the casino can deal out about 20% more hands per hour and this negatively affects the average player because they stand to theoretically lose more money per hour (remember the house has the edge on every round). Given a choice, you should stay clear of playing any blackjack game that uses a CSM (the most common CSM is the King Shuffler, look for that name on the shuffling machine, or just watch to see if the discards are returned back to the automatic shuffler after round or so, and if so, youll know its a CSM).
In the old days when you sat down and played blackjack, you just, well played blackjack. There were no other bets available other than the main game.
Nowadays, many blackjack tables have side bets. For example, you could make a side bet that your first two cards total 20 (Lucky Ladies), or your first two cards are sevens (Super Sevens), or your first two cards plus the dealers first card are a flush, straight, straight flush, or three of a kind (21+3), or the player's first two cards are of the same rank (Pair Square) or any number of other side bets. These side bets are clearly marked on the layout and they usually cost the player a buck to make and usually have fairly high payoff odds (more than the usually 1-1 payoff on a winning blackjack hand). Unfortunately, these side bets also have a high house edge meaning the purpose of the extra bets is to increase the casinos table revenue. Except for a few side bets that can give the skilled player the edge using specific card counting systems, the vast majority of side bets should be avoided by average players. When you sit down at a blackjack table, just play the game and avoid making any side bets.
Different Versions of Blackjack
In the old days, when you sat down at a blackjack table you were fairly certain you were playing blackjack the way it was meant to be played.
Nowadays, youll find versions of the traditional game of blackjack on the casino floor. Super Fun 21, Spanish 21, Blackjack Switch, Double Exposure, are just a few new versions of the traditional game of blackjack that have appeared in casinos. I dont have the space to review all these games, but suffice it to say none of them offer a house edge lower than what the basic strategy player can get today by learning a relatively simple list of playing rules for the traditional game. For average players, your best bet is to stick with the traditional game using the basic playing strategy.
Of course in the old days, blackjack was played using a deck of plastic playing cards, period. There were no other options for playing the game.
Nowadays, especially in casinos on Indian reservations, youll find blackjack being played using digital cards that appear on a screen. There are no plastic cards. Many in the casino industry see this as the wave of the future: Blackjack played with no dealer and no plastic cards. Im not so sure that blackjack players are going to embrace this new way of playing the game, so for now well have to wait and see. But dont be surprised if you dont see a digital blackjack game coming to your favorite casino soon.
Scoring a Comp
In the old days, getting a comp was a piece of cake. Many of the old time casino owners wanted their players to be happy and one way to keep them happy, and playing, was to be loose with comps. I can remember playing $5 blackjack in Binions Horseshoe Casino in Downtown Las Vegas and scoring many a buffet comp after only a half hour of play. Floor supervisors had the power of the pen and had the flexibility of issuing comps to whomever they want without strict play requirements.
Times change. Nowadays corporations run casinos (not sole owners) and every expense has to be justified. So, rules for issuing comps to table players have changed. You generally have to play longer and for higher amounts to score a comp, and comping policies from one casino to another could be much different. Discretionary comps are also going the way of the horse and buggy. In fact, several table game manufacturers have developed blackjack tables where every bet made by a player is monitored and recorded so the casino knows exactly how much the player risked (and even their playing skill level). Therefore, the art of fooling the pit into thinking you bet more and longer than you actually did to score a bigger comp may also be going the way of the horse and buggy if this new technology is implemented in casinos.
Beating the Game
In the old days, you could beat the game using traditional card counting systems, like High Low, that required weeks and sometimes months to learn and master.
Nowadays, its possible for average players to play with an edge using much simpler card counting techniques. Speed Count, Ace/10 Front Count, K-O, Kiss, and other less complicated and easier to learn-and-use counting systems now make it much easier for average players to play blackjack with the slight edge over the house (rather than vice versa).
Even though the game of blackjack has changed and will continue to change, there will always be some good games, only smart players will have to scout for them. Tournament blackjack also has become much more popular then it ever was, and learning how to play well is a lot much easier thanks to the vast amount of information on blackjack available on the Internet (including chat rooms and newsletters).