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Ace in the Hole

Doing the numbers on a blackjack controversy

Ace in the Hole

Spend enough time overseas, and you soon realize one-third of the world drives on the wrong side of the road. Strangely enough, however, if you come across any Australians or Malaysians or Trinidadians and Tobagans in your travels, they will tell you it’s actually much higher.

Like two-thirds.

See? It’s all about perspective.

Reasonable minds would reasonably assume that after 5,000 years of human civilization—notwithstanding a few centuries worth of inhumane incivility along the way—we wouldn’t harbor such a polar approach to something that shouldn’t be so polarizing. Left, right, whatever. Pick a lane and drive it. Is this really that hard?

Apparently so. And it’s not just about cars, as similarly vexing inconsistences abound around the globe: from the configuration of prongs in electrical sockets to the spacing between railroad tracks, to what goes into a McDonald’s Happy Meal (in Paris, it’s a Croque McDo), to the appreciation of David Hasselhof as an actor, to which direction water spirals down the toilet when you flush it.

To hole cards in blackjack.

If you’ve only played the game in Asia, Australia or Europe, you’ve never seen dealers start with both an upcard and a down card. And if you’ve only played in the United States, Canada or the Caribbean, you’ve never seen them not start that way.

What the… ? Didn’t we settle all this in the Treaty of Versailles?

As with most points of diametric contradiction, you can blame it on a little tradition and a lot of stubbornness. Sometime, somewhere, someone decided to either add the hole card or remove it, while sometime else, somewhere else, someone else decided not to.

Hence the schism.

Blackjack’s origins trace back to 17th century Europe—a current no-hole-zone—so it’s likely the game originated that way, with the dealer taking his second card only after all players have acted on their hand. And by the way, there is a potential bottom-line benefit to this approach: If players lose split and double-down bets when it turns out the dealer has blackjack, it’s a bona fide bonanza for the house.

“You get a much higher house edge, even with the player’s adjustments to basic strategy,” says Elliot Frome, a table game designer and mathematician at Scientific Games. “There’s the potential to lose a bet you wouldn’t have made in a hole-card game. That’s a big deal.”

But if casinos don’t take those bets, Frome says, going without a hole card is a giant waste of time.

Like, literally.

“Now you’re talking about a situation where a few times per hour, the house is spending time on a hand that is essentially over,” Frome says. “The casino is just costing itself money.”

How much money? Let’s run some numbers and find out:

  • 20: Average number of hours per day a full-time blackjack table is open.
  • 60: Average number of rounds per hour.
  • 3: Average number of players per round.
  • $15: Average wager.
  • 2.25 percent: Average house advantage (assumes imperfect strategy as well as side-bet play).

Simple ciphering shows this blackjack game will win about $1,200 per day. Interpolate further, and it breaks down to the house winning $61 per hour.

Considering the dealer—same as any player—gets blackjack once every 21 rounds, and each round lasts about a minute, and each round is worth $1, casinos that don’t use a hole card are costing themselves $3 per hour.

Every hour. Every day. Every week. Every month. Every quarter. Every year. Every table.

Then why do it? Or in this case, why not do it? Why not take a hole card? Tradition and stubbornness may be powerful forces in business, but how can they withstand the howling winds of the profit motive?

“Game protection,” says George Joseph, an author and longtime consultant to the casino industry. If players catch the dealer’s hole card, they can exact a huge mathematical advantage over the casino. Remember the movie Casino? That’s what the long-haired dude was up to, taking advantage of a weak dealer who lifted his hole card too high when checking for blackjack.

“Years ago, it was an easy way to get an edge, especially in the newer markets,” Joseph says. “Sometimes the dealer would be sloppy and sometimes he might be colluding with a player.” Either way, he says, the use of a hole card could put a hole in a casino’s bottom line.

But this problem—like most others—was best solved by advancing, not retreating. Hole-card readers, small devices implanted in the table, debuted in 1990, obviating the need for the dealer to peek. Las Vegas-based Tech Art, which uses a mirrored device, created this space and is still its leader, while casino owner Don Laughlin has a similar gizmo that lights up green when the dealer has blackjack and red when he doesn’t.

Talk about an “Easy Button.”

In table games, things stay the same forever, right up until the moment they don’t. For decades, all blackjack tables on the Las Vegas Strip used to stand on any 17 (hard or soft). Baccarat used to always charge commission on winning banker bets. Pai gow poker used to rely on dealers to memorize myriad house-way rules. Caribbean Stud Poker used to be the top specialty game in the world. Ditto Three Card Poker.

Here’s betting that casinos from Monaco to Macau, from Auckland to Adelaide, from Singapore to Saipan (or Singapore to Widnes, as the Elvis Costello song goes, and which does have a casino, by the way) will in the next few years start adding hole cards to their blackjack tables. Table games matured and evolved in part by eradicating all the obvious operational inefficiencies; it’s just a matter of time before this one bites the dust.

Then we can start negotiating the peace accord between single-zero and double-zero roulette.

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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