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Beware of rule variations: little things can mean a lot

3 September 2012

New table games and fresh features or variations on old standbys appear on casino floors occasionally. If you’re tempted by a novel game or modification to something otherwise familiar, it’s OK to go for it. Preferably making small enough bets that you can gain intuition about the ebb and flow of your fortune without getting sandbagged. And, hopefully, after checking what the gurus who pontificate on such things say about the optimum way to play.

Understand, though, that innovations are ultimately intended to enrich the establishment. Perhaps by attracting new patrons. Maybe by retaining solid citizens bored with or tired of losing at the traditional offerings or who relish the classic games but might play longer, more frequently, or at a higher level were there options that seem to enhance prospects of gambling success. Either way, they’re likely to involve means of generating more profit than the joint was earning with the same level of action on whatever’s being replaced. This, typically, through higher house edge or advantage, greater sums required to be put at risk during the course of a round, or more decisions and accordingly a larger cumulative gross wager for bets of a given size per player per unit time.

Single-deck “6-to-5" blackjack exemplifies a change that increases the house advantage. Some folks thought (a few still do) that this variation of blackjack is a gift. They’ve heard that the house has a lower edge over bettors at single- than multi-deck tables. And their belief that the game is like manna from heaven is clinched by several other seemingly favorable features.
The fly in the ointment is the payoff for a winning blackjack. In standard games, the return for this hand is 3-to-2 (1.5-to-1). The probability of getting a blackjack is the same for players and dealers, roughly 5 percent. But, on a win, dealers only take the amount bet while players get half again as much. The extra half trims what would otherwise be the casino’s edge by 0.5 x 5 = 2.5 percent. A 6-to-5 payoff is equivalent to 1.2-to-1 so it only shaves 0.2 x 5 = 1.0 percent from what would else be the house advantage. These payoffs, combined with the other goodies in the new version, put the edge against players who follow Basic Strategy for the two cases at about 1.4 percent worse in one-deck 6-to-5 than six- or eight-deck 1.5-to-1 games.

E-Z baccarat illustrates a variation that increases decision rate. In standard baccarat, Player pays 1-to-1 and has 1.24 percent less chance to win than lose. The edge is therefore 1.24 percent. Banker, conversely, is 1.24 percent more apt to win than lose. Banker would have 1.24 percent edge over the casino were the payoff also even money. Instead, the house gets 1.06 percent edge by paying $0.95 on the dollar. Making fractional payoffs would be awkward so Banker receives 1-to-1 up front when it wins a coup, but dealers use tokens to track what each person is paid for this wager and settle up periodically by collecting a 5 percent commission on the total. The reconciliation is time-consuming; it accordingly reduces the decision rate at the table, lowering the casino’s take by decreasing the gross amount that could be wagered during any given interval.

In EZ baccarat, conditions for bets on Player don’t change, so edge stays at 1.24 percent with an even-money payoff. Banker, however, pushes rather than wins with three-card totals of seven versus Player totals of zero through six. With this rule, Banker wins 1.02 percent less often than it loses, so a 1-to-1 payoff gives the house 1.02 percent edge.

EZ baccarat has no effect on edge against Player while Banker gets a small reduction, from 1.06 to 1.02 percent. However, eliminating the need to settle commissions on Banker speeds up the action. Say that, with eight decks, a table having six bettors and an automatic shuffler gets 180 rounds per hour when commissions are settled on the average of once every 15 minutes. By not stopping for commissions, rounds per hour might rise to 200. Even considering the decrease in edge on Banker, if bettors maintain their average wagers, that comes to over 10 percent increase in the money on which the edge applies and, on the average, drops into the casino coffers. Bettors wanting more action might appreciate this change; those preferring a slower pace might not.

Side or bonus bets have yet stronger consequences. They not only get more money in action but normally have usurious edge – 20, 30, or higher percent isn’t unusual. Despite this, they’re popular among bettors eager to risk chump change on longshots at big bucks. Foolish? Not necessarily. Betting $10 on a primary proposition at 2 percent pays the casino an average of $0.20 per round, the same as $1 side action at 20 percent. But losing 10 main bets in a row can be disastrous, while 10 straight losses on the side bet might be easily absorbed. And hits on side bets can change lifestyles. But I’d best stop here or I’ll soon be expounding on edge versus volatility... or, am I doing that already? Here’s how the poet, Sumner A Ingmark, thought of it:
Know the impact of small changes,
To avoid the worst of dangers.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.