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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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New Casino Games May Be Appealing, But Don't Expect a Low Edge.

26 October 2005

Most seasoned blackjack buffs either suspect or know for sure, that variations of the game occasionally popping up in casinos are gimmicks. They needn't be math mavens to make this inference. Intuition born of experience suggests that the features mask a high house advantage. While this may be a deterrent for serious gamblers, it shouldn't necessarily keep casual players away.

For instance, "side bets" of various types promise huge returns on small wagers. But something must be going on if a casino has no tables booking regular action under $10, yet touts big payoffs to encourage bets of only a buck. The odds of winning turn out to be way out of whack with the payoff. And what may seem like chump change adds up when bet often enough and the casino keeps the lion's share. Still, it's tough to fault folks who want to risk modest sums, in increments that don't make them nervous, dreaming of rich rewards by being in the right place at the right time.

Likewise, in Spanish 21, players have options such as doubling down on three-card hands, and get bonuses for combinations like 6-7-8 and 7-7-7. But all 10-spots, which the cognoscenti know are favorable cards, are missing from the shoe. This tilts the edge so heavily toward the casino that the joint can toss a few crumbs to the hoi polloi and still make money. Veteran players typically leave Spanish 21 to the neophytes. Which suits lots of those neophytes just fine because they don't have to worry about being castigated by anyone for not following the proverbial book.

A new wrinkle that eludes even relatively proficient players is a 6-to-5 rather than the normal 3-to-2 payoff on a blackjack. This isn't promoted as the attraction. At best, it's tossed off as a descriptor identifying a particular variation of the game. At worst, it's printed on the table where people ignore it until their first blackjack when they gripe about being short-changed.

The key to the 6-to-5 blackjack payoff is that its impact on the edge confronting players is much more substantive than meets the eye. The problem is that solid citizens typically figure they don't hit blackjacks all that often. And, when they do, the instant win appears to be the major benefit while the extra money is nice but not really a big deal. This is false logic.

Statistically, bettorsshould get blackjacks at a rate of about once per 21 hands. Say you play for three hours at a table with five active positions overall. During that time, in a multideck game, you can expect 210 hands including 10 blackjacks. If you bet a flat $10 per round, in a 3-to-2 game you'd earn $150 on those blackjacks. In a 6-to-5 game, you'd collect $120. The $30 difference comes right out of your pocket. How significant is it? You bet a total of $10 x 210 or $2,100. The $30 the house kept on payoffs for short blackjack alone is 1.4 percent of your $2,100.

Maybe you scoff at $30 and believe 1.4 percent isn't excessive considering whatever else the game might offer. But, compare it to what the casino projects it'll earn from a strict Basic Strategy player at plain vanilla blackjack. In this case, the edge is about half a percent. So, after 210 hands at $10 each, theoretical casino earnings are 0.5 percent of $2,100 or $10.50. The 6-to-5 blackjack payout penalizes players nearly three times as much as the edge everyone gripes about in the standard game.

Are there conditions under which 6-to-5 blackjack might be a good choice, despite the toll? One that comes to mind would be a game for players with limited budgets, allowing minimum bets of $2.50 or $5.00, when all the normal blackjack tables had lower limits of $10 or $25. At the $5 level, the casino effectively squeezes $0.07 from every bet by means of short blackjack payouts. This may be a reasonable price to pay for protection against the greater volatility inevitably accompanying higher wagers. The erosive effect of $0.07 per round may reduce the likelihood of, but doesn't preclude, fat profits or long sessions. Wild bankroll swings, however, can send bettors to the lockers in no time flat. The poet, Sumner A Ingmark, summarized this situation succinctly:

Giving casinos more edge may make fortunes fade slowly,
But overbetting a bankroll can wipe you out wholly.

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.