I’m in Las Vegas on vacation. As readers of this blog know, I’m an avid player of video poker. I also enjoy blackjack and, not so much any more, betting on horse racing. In my last few trips here, I’ve come to the sorry conclusion that in many cases, there are better gambling opportunities for me at home than here.
There are video poker machines here that are better than anything in the northeast – in fact, some here pay over 100% on average with perfect play. Many of these can be found just off the Strip at the Palms, which is filled with blue hairs enjoying them during the weekdays and with hipsters and thugs on the nights and weekends. It’s a nice, interesting place, only I think it would do better to match the music with the crowd, rather than play piercingly loud thug music all the time. But I digress – I’m really talking about the Strip hotels and 9/6 Jacks or Better, which is the “standard” video poker game in the US. It returns about 99.5% with perfect play, and it’s readily available at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut at the $1 level. The only place I’ve found it on the Strip at this level is at the new Cosmopolitan (a nice place, but also infected with bad, loud music). I’ve heard New York New York also may have it at the $1 and $2 level, and it comes and goes without notice at other places. It is available off the Strip, at Hooters, the Hilton and some but not all of the locals places, but that may not help you if you don’t have a car or if taking time to travel off Strip just for gambling is not a priority.
Far worse yet is the blackjack situation. Not all blackjack games are the same, and some are remarkably bad. There are four main ways a casino can increase its edge on blackjack games: reduce the payout on blackjack, require the dealer to hit, rather than stand, on soft 17 (a hand containing cards totaling 6 and an ace that can be counted as 1 or 11), increase the number of decks in play, and restrict when a player can double the initial bet.
The first and worst innovation employed in Las Vegas was reducing the payout for blackjack in many games from 3:2 to 6:5. If you are at a $10 game playing the table minimum at 6:5, this means you will be paid $12 (instead of the $15 you would get at a 3:2 game) each time you get a blackjack. If you get five blackjacks an hour (a conservative estimate), this one rule costs you an additional $15 an hour. The 6:5 payout is found mostly in single deck games and in other games where it is dealt by scantily clad dealers or in areas near pole dancers and the like. Fortunately, the public is catching on to the 6:5 ripoff and, though still available and “enjoyed” by suckers, most casinos realize they also have to offer something a little better (an exception is O’Shea’s, a low roller joint that pays 6:5 on all its blackjack games). If you ever go to Las Vegas and intend to play blackjack, the most important thing to remember is that you’d be far better off playing a $10 or $15 “shoe” game (a six or even eight deck game where the cards are dealt out of a plastic “shoe”) than a $5 6:5 single deck game. Incidentally, the local gaming regulations require prominent display of blackjack payouts (usually found on the sign displaying the minimum and maximum bets allowed or on the felt surface on the table), so if you find yourself shorted on a blackjack, ask to see where the payout is displayed. If it isn’t, tell the supervisor you expect to be paid the regular 3:2 or you will complain to the gaming authorities.
Increasing the number of decks employed in the game increases the house advantage (why it does so is complicated and not worth explaining here), all other things being equal. That’s why you won’t see any single deck games on the Strip (except those paying 6:5, which more than makes up for the difference between single deck and 8 deck, the most I’ve seen used). What’s distressing is the number of 8 deck shoe games on the Strip, where the standard used to be six. The difference in house advantage isn’t that great, but it’s another way they take a small bite out of the unsuspecting player. The number of decks used in a shoe game usually isn’t displayed. If you’re not sure, ask, and don’t hesitate to express displeasure if the answer is eight.
Next in the quartet of blackjack ripoffs is requiring the dealer to hit soft 17, which increases the house edge on a typical shoe game by about .2%. That may not seem like a lot, but when the house edge without this rule is only about .4%, it’s a 50% increase in the cost of playing the game. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to avoid hit soft 17 games in Las Vegas unless you play for $25 and up per hand. The MGM Strip properties probably still have the most stand soft 17 games, but they are becoming a rare breed.
I have seen almost no 6:5 or hit soft 17 games where I play in the northeast, though I’ve heard that hit soft 17 is becoming the norm in Atlantic City (and perhaps is another contributor to that city’s decling gambling revenue, especially since Pennsylvania mandates that all blackjack games stand on soft 17). I understand that it’s a subtle rule change that probably eludes most casual players, and that’s why casinos do it. However, a player who gets burned by this rule will not like it. A few years back, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas changed its mid-level ($25 and $50 six deck shoe games) from stand to hit soft 17. I recall a customer who had taken out a $3,000 marker to play (meaning she had a line of credit at the casino) getting beaten by a dealer’s three-ace-three-three when she had 18 or 19. That brought the change to her attention, and she was not shy about expressing her displeasure, unfortunately to no effect. I hope she voted with her feet and found a stand 17 game elsewhere, as I did.
The last Las Vegas ripoff – another rarely found in the northeast – is restrictions on doubing one’s bet. In blackjack, there are two situations in which a player may increase his bet after seeing his initial two cards, and these opportunities, if employed correctly, can decrease the house edge on the game. If dealt a pair (two cards of the same value), a player may add a second bet and split the pair into two hands. If dealt two cards (whether a pair or not) that look like they have the dealer beat, the player may “double down” – add a second unit to the bet, and receive only one additonal card on that hand. Traditonially, a player is allowed to double her bet after receiving the second card on a split hand, which is known as a double after split. Many Strip casinos do not allow double after split, which of course is to their advantage. However, when this restriction is displayed (and, at most Strip casinos, to their credit, it is, though it is not required to be), it sends a message to the customer that he is being ripped off. Even a player who does not understand the effect of the rule must assume a sign that says “no double down after split” is prohibiting him from doing something he otherwise would want to do. Why tell a customer “no” if you are running a customer service business? The most exciting blackjack hands are those in which a player has multiple bets down because of split hands and doubles. When a player wins such a hand, tips for the dealer often result, and excitement rules. The bean counters in Las Vegas just don’t understand that. Even worse is when the restriction applies but no warning is given. This happened to me a few years ago at Main St. Station, an otherwise nice casino downtown (not affiliated with the local chain of Station casinos), where my attempt to double on a split hand was rebuffed by the dealer, despite the absence of a sign noting the prohibition. Why an establishment would do this is beyond me.
Too many people think all gambling depends only on luck, and that it doesn’t matter where they play or what they do. That’s why, I suppose, slot machines are so popular, though their payouts are secret and there’s nothing the player can do to increase his chance of winning. However, if you like games of skill, where decisions do matter, such as video poker and blackjack, finding a game with reasonable rules and full payouts is as important as learning how to play the game. If you play the best games well (and there are plenty of strategy guides available), you will stay in action longer –maybe even long enough to overcome the house edge and score a victory.