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Best of Henry Tamburin

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Be careful when you play blackjack

4 November 2011

It used to be that all blackjack games were pretty much standard. Sure, the number of decks of cards sometimes differed, but you pretty much could count on all the rest of the rules to be the same. Ditto for the way the cards were shuffled -- either manually by the dealer or with an automatic shuffling device. But nowadays, you've got to pay more attention to the rules, and even the way the cards are shuffled. The reason is that casinos have been making subtle changes to the games, which makes them much less player-friendly.

First, let's take a look at the rule for the dealer standing and hitting. For many years, dealers were required to stand on all 17s, and hit on 16 or less. Nowadays, many casinos have changed this so that the dealer must hit their soft 17. (A soft 17 is any hand that contains an Ace counted as 11. For example, if the dealer has an Ace-6, she must hit. Ditto for an Ace-3-3 hand.)

On the surface this doesn't seem like much of a big deal, but in fact, it is. Even though the dealer busts more often when she has to hit soft 17, the rest of the time she often will get a hand that is greater than 17 and will beat you. Overall, this rule change increases the casino edge over players by 0.2 percent. It also requires a change in playing strategy compared to a game where the dealer stands on soft 17. The changes in playing strategy for an h17 game (meaning dealer must hit soft 17) for a typical 6-deck game are:

  • Double down an 11 against a dealer Ace.
  • Double down on soft 19 against a dealer 6 upcard.
  • Double down on soft 17 against a dealer 2 upcard.

Here's another tip. Many casinos have tables with the s17 rule (dealers stand on soft 17), and others with h17 (hit soft 17) and they aren't going to tell you which is better. Before you sit down and play, check the rules on the table, or ask the dealer. Given a choice, you are much better off playing blackjack where the dealer stands on soft 17 (s17 game), so it's best to scout the tables before you sit down and play.

In the good ole days of blackjack, single-deck games that pay 3-2 for an untied blackjack were the norm. Then the game disappeared in many casinos in favor of games dealt with two-, six- and eight-decks of cards. The reason is that the house edge increases as more decks are used, and multiple-deck games makes card counting a little more difficult (but not impossible). Now we are seeing the next evolution of single-deck games, and it ain't pretty. These are single-deck games where the house pays only 6-5 for a blackjack.

The 6-5 payoff rule increases the house edge by almost 1.4 percent (no, that's not a typo). Therefore, the overall casino advantage for a typical 6-5 single-deck game where the dealer hits soft 17 and players can double down after a pair split is about 1.45 percent. The latter is nearly nine times greater (gulp) than a traditional 3-2 single-deck game, and about three times greater (ouch) than a decent six-deck game.

Instead of talking percentages, let's talk dollars and cents so you can really see how much a 6-5 game costs you. Suppose you play two hours of blackjack at $10 a pop and you are dealt an average of 80 hands per hour. A blackjack occurs about once in every 21 hands, so on average you should expect to get four blackjacks per hour, or a total of eight in two hours. Each of those blackjacks should earn you $15 (with a 3-2 payout on a $10 wager), but instead you get paid only $12 in the 6-5 game. You are shortchanged $3 on every blackjack, so in the course of two hours of play, you have been shortchanged $24.

The bottom line is this: stay away from all 6-5 single deck games. If you see a single-deck game on the floor, check with the dealer if a blackjack pays 3-2 or 6-5. If it's the latter, walk away from the table, knowing you've saved a chunk of change by not playing.

Now let's take a look at how the cards are shuffled on blackjack tables. Surely, this can't have an affect on the house edge over players, can it? Sorry to say, it does.

In the past, the cards were either shuffled manually by the dealer, or they were placed in an automatic shuffling machine. In the latter case, each table had two sets of six-deck cards. While one set of the just-used six-decks of cards was being shuffled off-line, the dealer would continue dealing the cards from the other set of six decks. With this automatic shuffler, about 70 percent or so of the cards would be put into play before the all the cards would be reshuffled (these devices are also known as batch shufflers).

In the case of the manual shuffle and the automatic batch shuffler, there is no effect on the players' chances of winning or losing. But nowadays, a new type of shuffler has made its way on to blackjack tables everywhere, and it definitely is not player friendly. This new devise is called the continuous shuffling machine (CSM).

So what's the deal with the CSM? The purpose of the CSM is to randomly shuffle the discards after each round with the rest of the 4 or 5 decks. After the dealer finishes dealing a round, instead of putting the discards into a traditional discard tray, she puts them into the CSM, where a microprocessor randomly places the cards into the stack of 4-5 decks (using an elevator system). So every hand you play with a CSM is like playing the first hand from freshly shuffled decks of cards. In other words, the odds are always fixed in a blackjack game dealt from a CSM.

Why did casinos implement CSMs? It was basically to thwart card counters. Normally, card counters track certain cards as they are played from a shoe in order to know if there is an abundance of low or high value cards left in the unplayed cards. If a card counter "counts" a lot more low cards (like 2s through 6s) rather than the high cards (10s, picture cards and Aces) in say the first two decks dealt from a shoe, he knows the rest of the decks have more high cards compared to low cards. This is when the edge shifts toward the counter and he, therefore, increases his bets. But with a CSM, the ratio of low to high value cards stays more or less constant from one round to the next, so card counting doesn't work.

Does the CSM change the house edge? It's not obvious, but it actually lowers the house edge very slightly, which is good for all players (the reason is very technical but has to do with the use of a cut card in a standard game versus no cut card in a CSM game). However, don't get too excited by the decrease in house edge because this is more than neutralized by the faster speed of the game. With a CSM, there is never any pause in the action, and, therefore, the dealer can deal about 20 percent more hands per hour. This increases the player's exposure to the house edge, which results in an increase in the theoretical hourly rate of loss for players. In other words, you stand to lose more per hour with a CSM game compared to a game using a batch shuffler or a manually dealt card game.

How do you know a table is using a CSM? The most common CSM is the King Shuffler manufactured by Shuffle Master (their name is usually imprinted on the same of the shuffler). The CSM looks like a big black box. At the bottom of the box is a slot where the dealer takes the cards and deals them to the players. At the top, is another slot where the dealer inserts the discards. The easiest way to know if a CSM is being used is to see what the dealer does with the discards after a round. If she places them in a discard tray, that's OK; but if she places them back into the shuffler, that's a no-no.

So be careful if you play blackjack and avoid these three casino changes, which are not very player friendly: dealer's hitting soft 17, single deck games that pay 6-5 on blackjack, and tables that use a CSM. If you do so, you will be one smart player.

Recent Articles
Best of Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit www.bjinsider.com/free. For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit www.goldentouchblackjack.com or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at www.smartgaming.com.

Henry Tamburin Websites:

www.smartgaming.com

Books by Henry Tamburin:

> More Books By Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin
Henry Tamburin is the author of the best-selling book, Blackjack: Take The Money and Run, editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, and Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack course. For a free 3-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter with full membership privileges, visit www.bjinsider.com/free. For details on the Golden Touch Blackjack course visit www.goldentouchblackjack.com or call 866/WIN-BJ21. For a free copy of his casino gambling catalog featuring over 50 products call 888/353-3234 or visit the Internet store at www.smartgaming.com.

Henry Tamburin Websites:

www.smartgaming.com

Books by Henry Tamburin:

> More Books By Henry Tamburin