It was a single deck game where the dealer stood on soft 17 and a player could double down afterpair splitting. The dealer shuffled the cards and dealt almost 75% of them before reshuffling.Henry Tamburin is the editor and publisher of the Blackjack Insider Newsletter and author of the best-selling Blackjack: Take the Money & Run. He is also the lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course, a feature writer for Casino Player magazine (and 6 other publications); an owner of a casino gambling publishing company (www.rsucasinobooks.com) and the host of www.smartgaming.com. For a free three month subscription to the Henry's Blackjack Insider Newsletter with full membership privileges go to www.bjinsider.com/free. Henry's website is www.smartgaming.com This was a blackjack player’s dream game and I jumped in to play. Three hours later and $500 ahead, I cashed out.
I played that game at the old Horseshoe casino circa 1968 in Las Vegas. Yes, those were the golden years of blackjack. I can remember staying at the plush Golden Nugget in the 1970’s and 1980’s and walking across the street to Binion’s Horseshoe to play those juicy single deck games. Dealers pitched the cards to players back then, playing rules were very player-friendly, blackjacks paid 3 to 2, and casino comps were easy to come by. But slowly the game of blackjack began to change and it wasn’t a pretty site.
First came the introduction of multiple-deck games dealt from a dealing shoe. This method of dealing was supposedly going to stop card counters dead in their tracks (but it didn’t). Casino bosses were also making more money with shoe dealt games because less time was spent shuffling the cards. Multiple deck games became the norm in Vegas and shortly thereafter when Atlantic City legalized casino gambling. The house edge went up, of course, compared to single deck games.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The 6- and 8- deck games had decent rules. Dealers would stand on all 17’s, players could double down on any first two cards and even after pair splitting, you could also resplit aces and some casinos even offered surrender. Once players learned the basic playing strategy for these new multiple deck games (it was different than single deck games), the house edge could still be whittled down to around half a percent, not as good as the ole single deck games but still playable. Atlantic City casinos even offered early surrender on their 6-deck games. This means that even if the dealer showed an ace upcard, a player could still surrender his hand before the dealer peeked to see if he had blackjack. With early surrender, smart basic strategy players had a tiny edge over the casino in a 6-deck game without card counting. But alas, early surrender soon bit the dust. And card counters …they also found a way to get the edge in these multiple deck games … they simply increased their bet spread and jumped I to games mid-shoe when the count was favorable.
In the 1980’s the game of blackjack sort of stabilized. Casino bosses were comfortable with their multiple deck games and they even found a way to speed the game up even more – by implementing the automatic shuffling machine. While the dealer was dealing from one set of six decks of cards, another six decks were being shuffled offline. When the cut card came out of the shoe, the dealer simply put the just-shuffled six decks of cards into play and the just-used six decks were placed in the shuffler to be shuffled offline. No downtime for manual shuffling equates to more revenue for the casinos.
In the 1990’s, and continuing into the 21st century, casinos started to eliminate the dealer stand on soft 17 rule and replaced it with “dealer must hit soft 17.” The net result was the house edge went up another two tenths of percent. This was another blow for blackjack players.
Remember those $2 and $3 minimum blackjack games? In most gaming jurisdictions they went the way of the horse and buggy. Slowly the minimum betting limits were increasing. In fact nowadays you’d be hard press on a busy weekend on the Strip or in Atlantic City to find a $10 (or less) minimum betting limit game (ditto for most casinos elsewhere).
While the table limits were going up and most dealers hitting soft 17, along came those Continuous Shuffling Machines (better known as CMS). These nifty devices were developed to completely thwart card counters since the cards from each round are placed back into the CSM to be randomly shuffled with the remaining 4 or 5 decks of cards (hence the ratio of high cards and low cards stays constant). The CSM didn’t change the odds against the player (actually it made the odds ever so slightly better) but what it did do was speed up the game even more since there was no downtime for manual shuffling, or for switching one set of six decks for another freshly shuffled six decks. And that’s what casino bosses love – fast games where a lot of hands are dealt per hour when they have the edge on every hand dealt. By using a CSM, a casino can get about 20% more hands dealt per hour, which means players stand to lose about 20% more per hour. Faster games meant more revenue for the casinos and greater losses for players.
After the CSM’s hit the tables, the 6 to 5 single-deck games came to town. This game was a brainstorm of a casino floor person in Las Vegas. “We can make a ton more money on the game by just simply changing the odds on the payoff for a player’s untied blackjack.” No more 3 to 2 payoffs; it’s now 6 to 5. But would players accept the change? Unfortunately they have, because most players don’t realize how bad a 6 to 5 payoff really is (it increases the house edge to around 1.4%).
So with all these negative changes, has anything positive happened to the game of blackjack? Yes, especially with blackjack tournaments. We had our first million dollar blackjack tournaments and now blackjack has gone prime time with the airing of the Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS. Players can win a seat in future televised UBT tournaments by playing and winning tournaments offered on the Internet. If this sounds similar to how poker became so popular it’s no accident – the UBT is using the poker model to increase the popularity of blackjack and the players who play blackjack. It’s possible for the little guy from Timbucktwo to find himself playing against a table of blackjack pros on national TV with millions of viewers watching and a shot at a million bucks. Score one for the little guy.
But what about the average blackjack player who just wants a fair blackjack game when he visits a casino? I’ve seen a ray of hope for them. Several casinos in Vegas and elsewhere have removed their CSM’s due to complaints from players. One casino in Vegas and another in Mississippi have dumped their 6 to 5 single-deck games and replace them with the good old fashion single deck game that pays 3 to 2. And I’ve seen a trickle of hope for the low stakes player as some casinos are advertising “at least one $5 table open at all times.” And there are still some good games in casinos ... you just have to look for them and not settle for garbage games.
The bottom line is this. If we want fair blackjack games to once again be the norm, then we have to stop playing those bad games. It’s that simple.
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