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Modern Blackjack

What has changed and where is it going?

Modern Blackjack

Back in the 1970s, the casino game of blackjack was simple and for the most part unchanged from the games dealt when the Las Vegas Strip was known as the “Old L.A. Highway”—single deck, dealer stands on all 17s, and player received a 3-to-2 bonus on two-card blackjacks. The cards were hand-shuffled using a riffle, riffle, strip, riffle shuffle recipe with the dealer offering the cut by placing the deck in front of a player and allowing them to hand cut the deck.

Simple, quick, to some boring, and to the casinos, vulnerable. Basic mathematical house advantage was low, but the lack of educated strategy players allowed the game to operate at a very decent overall house advantage. This is the blackjack game that the author grew up with and eventually learned how to deal.

The ’80s brought the first major changes with casinos opting to increase the number of decks and in some cases employing a dealing shoe, which had formerly only been found on baccarat tables. First used to deter card counters, adding more decks to the game also happened to increase the mathematical house advantage (unknown by the casinos at the time).

Downtown and off-Strip casinos started to emulate Reno casinos and implemented the rule for the dealer to hit any “soft” hand of 17. This option increased the average total of the dealer’s hands, which increased the game’s mathematical advantage (by 0.2 percent). This trend continued into the ’90s with more casinos opting for shoe-dealt blackjack games and even Las Vegas Strip properties that chose to hit soft 17. The ’90s also witnessed the expansion of casino gaming outside of Nevada and Atlantic City with the opening of historical riverboat/townsite gambling as well as the start of full casino tribal gaming.

What about the new millennium? What changes have the game of blackjack witnessed in the last 20 or so years? And will the gaming industry experience more changes to the noble game of blackjack moving into the 2020s and beyond?

Blackjack Payoffs Have Changed

For decades blackjack players knew that a winning two-card 21, also known as a “blackjack” or “snapper,” paid a premium of one and a half. Not so today! A lot of players are surprised when their $20 blackjack pays $24 instead of the anticipated $30. Originally implemented in the late ’90s to sidestep the blackjack adaptation known as Super Fun 21, the rule of paying 6-to-5 on blackjacks has become extremely popular with casinos operating in destination-resort locations with single- and double-deck games.

The underpayment provides the casino with an added mathematical edge of 1.4 percent (rounded) without drawing too much animosity from the lower-limit blackjack players. The payoff rule change also discouraged the practice of counting cards, at least on those tables. The house advantage increase is quite hefty, and forces any would-be counter to increase their bet spread requirements (about five times greater) to compensate for the payoff change. Even at a lofty bet spread, profitable card counting is marginal.

Primarily, the 6/5 rule is used on single- and double-deck games; however, casinos have installed the rule on their six- and eight-deck games with some success. The downside of this this strategy is that the corresponding increase in mathematical advantage has reduced the customer’s perceived entertainment value—otherwise known as “bang for their buck.” The gambling customer does not expect to win all the time, but they do feel their entertainment time on the table needs to correspond with the cost—in this case, the session-experienced loss.

Dealers Do Not Know How to Shuffle Anymore

Most casinos today use shuffling machines such as TCSJohnHuxley A-Plus shuffler on all card games.

Recently, a casino executive related an interesting story that happened when the multiple-deck (MD) shuffling machine broke down on one of her blackjack games. After being instructed to proceed to shuffle the cards by hand, the dealer informed the floor supervisor that he didn’t know how. Further examination discovered that he didn’t even know how to conduct the basic of manual shuffling. The dealer explained that he had learned how to do the “dovetail riffle shuffle” in dealing school but had not had to employ it since then.

Other than for a few higher-limit blackjack games where a “big player” attraction is the manual card shuffle, almost every card game, not just blackjack, utilizes an electronic shuffling machine. In some jurisdictions, the use of a shuffling machine is a regulatory requirement. It is understandable how dealers could go years without hand-shuffling cards, especially on multi-deck blackjack games.

Shuffle machines accomplish two basic purposes: The machines eliminate the non-productive time of shuffling, and provide the casino with a more randomized mixing of cards, especially in multi-deck games, eliminating manual shuffling weaknesses that create advantage play opportunities such as “shuffle tracking.” In addition, the use of a continual shuffling machine (CSM) can speed up the game even more. The CSM eliminates not only the shuffle time, but also the deck transfer time experienced with MD shufflers. The CSM also eliminates all threats of card counting if the card loading procedures are adhered to. If too many cards are held out until inserted into the CSM, the game could experience “card latency” which may well result in a unique card counting situation.

Dealer 22 Does Not Mean The Dealer “Busts”

Just because the dealer hits out to a total of 22 does not mean the players’ wagers remaining will automatically receive payment. Not on the “no bust 22” blackjack games.

This form of blackjack is becoming very popular as a traditional blackjack alternative game. The rule change comes into effect when the dealer hits their hand with the exact total of 22. Normally a “busting” hand, the rule variation dictates that the dealer must push all remaining bets on the table (except a player’s two-card blackjack, which is paid). This simple rule change has a huge effect on the mathematical advantage of the game (a whopping 6.9 percent increase) and allows for the addition of very attractive “player-friendly” rules.

These appealing rule changes include doubling down and splitting hands at no additional cost, switching cards between two wagered hands (legally), surrendering certain undesirable two-card hands at no cost, and allowing the players limited dealer hole-card information before the players act on their hand.

The downside to this blackjack format is the dealers must strictly follow the rule of pushing hands when hitting a multiple-card 22. If the dealer was to forget and inadvertently pay remaining wagers on a hand of 22 as they would in a standard blackjack game, the mathematical edge flies out the window, and it will take approximately three quarters of the next hour of table play to break even from this costly mistake.

Cards In Blackjack Pitch Games Are No Longer Pitched

If one walks into most Las Vegas Strip casinos and looks for a handheld blackjack game, they may be in for a surprise. Several casinos still offer handheld blackjack, but the procedures do not include pitching the cards. Instead, the dealer delivers the cards to the players by placing them face-up in front of the customers’ bets, like dealing cards from a shoe.

The reason? To keep the cards out of the player’s hands so the casino does not have to be worried about customers marking or switching cards. It’s management’s intent to offer a desirable handheld single- or double-deck game but without the game protection concerns or the deck replacement frequencies that come with cards players can pick up and hold.

The real question is whether the customers are attracted by the “handheld” games, or are more attracted to blackjack games where they can pick up and handle the cards. Another debate is whether the face-up delivery process speeds up the game and provides more hand decisions. Face-up dealt games allow the dealer to anticipate hand playing decision, but does this process compensate for the extra time of the card placement procedure? To “place” or to “pitch”—the jury is still out.

The Dealer’s Shift at the Table has Changed

Side bets make blackjack more interesting for the customer and more profitable for the casino

A standard blackjack table dealing shift used to last 40 minutes with a 20-minute break—that was in the ’70s and early ’80s. In the late ’80s, casino management found that working a blackjack dealer 60-minute table shifts did not reduce dealer accuracy or game pace. It was noted that the increased table time help to reduce the casino’s payroll, and at the same time provided an added incentive, tip rates for the dealer by cutting the number of dealers sharing in the tip pool.

In recent years, the corporate demand for reducing employee expenses has led to another increase in table shift time. In many gaming operations throughout North America, dealers are required to deal for 80 minutes, and it appears that this is becoming more of the gaming industry norm. Although this latest table shift time increase has reduced cost, the savings are much less than when the casino jumped from 40-minute to 60-minute table shifts.

The downside: Increased wear and tear on older employees. Dealers who are in their 20s and 30s are fine, but once the employee gets near to the upside of 40 years, their ability to produce on a similar level is questionable. Solutions for this problem are the use of floor mats positioned at the dealing area of the table, and the use of more sit-down/ADA-type tables. Both solutions will reduce physical aches and pain and fatigue, and should help maintain desired levels of game production.

Playing Blackjack Doesn’t Mean You Are Just “Playing Blackjack” (Side Bets)

Being a blackjack game purist, the author was against side bets in blackjack. That was until he did the mathematics behind revenue increase based on reasonable player utilization of the side bets. Not only do side bets increase blackjack’s theoretical win, but side bets increase both average table mathematical advantage and the overall hold percentage. Side bets also provide the customer with a gambling alternative which is perceived as a table game added value. An occasional side bet win helps keep the player interested in the game and on the table for an additional time.

One perceived shortcoming by the casino executive is that the side bets slow down the game. However, the game would only slow down when the bets are wagered. When wagered, the higher mathematical advantage of the side bet more than makes up for any slight game pace reduction. Based on the advantages of offering side bets, casino management at many locations are looking into installing more than one side bet on their lower-end blackjack games.

Note: A good strategy is to use one side bet that is decided immediately after initial card delivery and a second side bet decided after the dealer determines the outcome of their hand. Also consider using a side bet with a high hit frequency, but low payoff combined with a low hit frequency but a high multiple pay. Adding a $1 progressive bonus bet has also seen good success.

The Future

Stadiums can offer electronic versions of many games, reducing costs for both the casino and the players.

Several casinos across North America have rolled out different versions of “stadium games” utilizing a human dealer (versus an animated likeness). This format allows a single dealer to deal a table game from an elevated platform while the customers place wagers on video terminals located in the immediate area.

A number of customers, sometimes up to 50 players, can wager on one or several table game types such as baccarat, craps, roulette and blackjack. To make a wager in stadium blackjack, the customer sits at a terminal, inserts his or her currency or cash card into the terminal, chooses a game type such as blackjack and proceeds to gamble based on the cards drawn by the dealer on the stadium stage.

Even though this format allows the casino to offer a number of different side bets with the main blackjack game, the entire experience of social interaction, the factor that makes live table games attractive in the first place, becomes a very impersonal experience. This format does offer any “beginning” table games customer an entryway into developing enough game confidence to participate in the socially interactive live game, but the author does not see this as a doable long-term table game market. It should also be noted that in most stadium formats, the players have the option to wager the same type of table games in a video, quasi-slot machine format.

Note: There are several points of confusion with stadium games. First, are the live table games of the stadium format attached to the table games or the slot department? Second, the operational game hold percentage is extremely low. Why? Because it is a comparison between total wager “handle” and win, not “drop” and win used in standard table games. The hold percentage is on the same par as the games’ operational mathematical advantage, which hovers around 3 percent to 4 percent (with side bets, 6/5 payoffs, combined with a higher-percentage game like roulette). Even slot managers, used to slot machine floor pars of near 10 percent, are bothered by this low hold percentage number.

Fully Electronic Eliminates “Traditional” Costs, But Is It Really The Same Game?

For over 20 years, the author has been forecasting that table games will eventually drift to being fully digital games. A fully electronic game would eliminate the cost, and in some cases, security concerns experienced in traditional card and chip table games. Playing cards, casino value chips, shuffling machines, hole-card peeking devices, and dealing shoes will no longer be needed. The savings on eliminating playing cards alone is worth the consideration for developing a strategy for conversion to a total digital format. Player rates will no longer be guesswork, and traditional game security can be greatly reduced.

With that said, it is the author’s belief that a live dealer must stay at the table in order to keep the game “live” and to make the games attractive. However, the qualifications to deal the games will no longer be whether they can “get around the layout” but how well they interact with the customers at the table. Instead of hiring experienced live game dealers, casino HR departments will be looking for people fresh out of college with a degree in communications.

Will going to fully digital table games be the path to the future? Only time will tell.

As former Nevada Gaming Control agent, casino operator, professional card counter and casino consultant, Bill Zender has been involved in various areas of gaming and hospitality since 1976. He has instructed courses on game protection, card counting, advantage play and gaming operations at various colleges and institutions throughout the country. As a member of JMJ, Inc., Zender was an owner and operator of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino. He has additional operational experience in card room casinos in California and is considered an expert in Asian gaming. For more information, visit billzender.com.