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Gaming Guru

Jeff Simpson

Here's a Sure Bet: Those New Table Games Favor the House

29 December 2003

LAS VEGAS -- It's no coincidence that a couple of the biggest recent changes in Las Vegas table-game pits make some of those games even tougher to beat, industry experts said.

The tightening up of table-game rules and payouts makes it clear that the Strip is no longer the best place to place a bet, at least from a bettor's perspective, they agree.

"Las Vegas can no longer be said to have the best gaming rules for table games," Casino odds expert Michael Shackleford said. "There are a lot of places that offer better rules than Las Vegas, including almost every major American gaming jurisdiction."

The biggest Las Vegas table game trend is the accelerating replacement of traditional blackjack games that pay 3-to-2 for a natural 21 with games that pay either 6-to-5 or even money, casino consultant and "Comp City" author Max Rubin said.

Other recent trends that significantly add to casinos' house edge include a major payout change on many of the state's 3-card poker games and rules changes that boost the hold percentage on low-limit blackjack games on the Strip, Rubin said.

The changes make some sense from an operator's perspective, he said.

"Lower-stakes players really don't know the difference," Rubin said.

Blackjack games paying less than the traditional 3-to-2 for a natural are becoming more and more popular, he said; many casinos that introduced one or two of the games are adding a couple more.

The games have signs touting "Super Fun 21" or "Single Deck Blackjack," and Rubin said the games aren't all bad for players.

"There is a value in these games," he said. "It's a great way to learn, and the 6-to-5 games play a bit slower than traditional 21 games, making for a better social game."

Of course, seasoned blackjack players wouldn't get caught playing these games, and that's another plus for the casinos, he said.

"For the operators, the advantage is two-fold: They get a bigger expected hold (from the smaller blackjack payouts) and they don't have to watch these games very closely," Rubin said. "The house edge is so strong that the (card counters and other advantage gamblers) won't play."

Rubin said the danger for operators is that they'll be blinded by the low-payout game's high hold percentage and fail to catch a corresponding drop in the game's wagering action, leading to a declining win.

Shackleford said the new blackjack games are part of an overall trend of stingier rules in Las Vegas table-game pits.

"My advice is simple: Never play any blackjack game that doesn't pay 3-to-2 for blackjack," Shackleford said.

A blackjack rule change Shackleford cited that has gradually been taking hold on the Strip is mainly confined to low-limit tables, he said.

"A lot of the Strip properties have switched their low-limit games, having the dealer hit a soft 17 (ace and a six) rather than stand," he said.

At the MGM Grand, for example, the property's $5 blackjack tables now require the dealer to hit a soft 17, a change that adds a 0.2 percent advantage to the house's existing edge.

"Players at those limits often (wrongly) think it's better for the dealer to hit a soft 17," Rubin said. "Why offer something the player doesn't value?"

Blackjack remains the No.1 table game on Silver State casino floors. Over the most recent 12-month period measured by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the state's 3,372 blackjack tables won $1.12 billion, up 0.09 percent.

Among the other popular table games offered in Nevada casinos, 3-card poker reported the biggest jump in win, the amount lost by gamblers.

The 111 Nevada casinos that offer 3-card poker won $116 million from bettors over the most recent 12 months, up 54.2 percent.

Rubin said the game is getting more popular, but the jump can also be explained by a rule change made by most state casinos.

The game paid 4-to-1 for flushes at most casinos, but almost all Nevada properties now offer 3-to-1 payouts.

The payout reduction has a big effect on 3-card poker's expected house advantage, as it balloons from 2.32 percent on the basic "pairplus" bet to 7.28 percent, Rubin said. He cited numbers obtained from Shackleford's consumer-oriented Web site,, which offers advice and strategy for a wide range of casino games.

Shackleford said he was just in Biloxi, Miss., and every 3-card poker game he saw had a 4-to-1 payout for flushes, compared with the Strip, where most places now offer 3-to-1.

Rubin said 3-card poker players typically play the game the way slot players gamble, sitting down and playing until they lose their stake or make a big score.

One of the biggest trends in casino gaming is the emergence of poker as a profit center, Rubin said. The Barona Valley Ranch Casino, a San Diego tribal property he consults for, recently doubled the size of its poker room.

Rubin said the entire casino industry is amazed at the recent growth in poker, crediting the World Poker Tour and Internet poker sites for fueling the boom.

The trend applies to Las Vegas and everywhere else, he said.

"Poker is the monstrous trend right now," he said,. "We had hoped to break even (on poker) but we're making a lot of money. Poker's caught the public's imagination. They can see on TV that it's not all math whizzes winning."

Nevada's 56 casinos and clubs that offer poker won $65 million on the game during the most recent 12-month period that ended Oct. 31, a 12.2 percent increase.