BY MAX FONTANA
“Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”
—From the movie: The Color of Money
“There is a very easy way to return from a casino with a small fortune: Go there with a large one.”
Don’t Be Fooled by Lousy Blackjack Payouts
In blackjack—the most popular casino table game—the popular assumption is that “single-deck games,” where the cards are dealt from a single deck rather than multiple decks dealt from a shoe, are a better gamble. Unfortunately, in today’s Las Vegas, this often is not the case. In fact, the casinos have instituted some sneaky rule changes that have made a lot of single-deck games a lousy bet (even though they still love to advertise their single deck games on their marquees, as if they’re doing players a great service).
The main rule switch you’re going to notice—if you’re paying attention—is a 6-to-5 payout when you receive a blackjack, instead of the traditional 3-2 payout. This means if you bet $10 and score a blackjack, you’ll be paid only $12 instead of $15, (or with a $5 bet, you’re getting back $6 instead of $7.50.) That might not sound like a big difference, but it sure adds up when you’re receiving a blackjack about once in every 21 hands, or four times per hour, on average. This cuts significantly into your odds of walking away with a profit.
Consider a blackjack player who uses proper “basic strategy,” meaning he knows when to hit, stand, double down and split. He bets $10 a hand and plays 100 hands per hour. According to computer analyses, on a decent six-deck blackjack game dealt from a shoe, he would lose an average of $2.60 an hour. At a good single-deck game, paying out 3-2 on blackjacks, he would lose an average of $1.80 an hour. But on a single-deck game that pays out 6-5 on blackjacks, he would lose more than $14 an hour. This means he’ll lose his money at least eight times faster than he would on an old-fashioned single-deck game!
Old-school players call it a scam. Al Rogers, manager of the website bj21.com, even appealed to the Nevada Gaming Control Board and Gaming Commission to try to prohibit casinos from calling the 6-5 games “blackjack”.
“If this game is allowed to continue, the Commission and/or the Board should require the casinos to post large, prominent signs reading: ‘Short Pay Table,’” Rogers wrote to them. (His appeal was rejected.)
How come so many casinos have been able to get away with this? Well, mainly because the average player isn’t informed enough to know the difference. He figures if he’s getting any extra payout when he gets a blackjack, it’s a bonus. What he doesn’t realize is that the traditional 3-2 payout is what makes the game fair for the player. It helps to cut down what would otherwise be an unacceptably high house edge. Combine the 6-5 payout with the fact that most tables now require dealers to hit their soft 17s, and you’ve got a game with a house edge that’s nearly 15 times greater than the single-deck games of the 1980s. And to kill your bankroll even faster, many Vegas casinos use CSMs (Continuous Shuffle Machines) that increase the number of hands dealt per hour by 20 percent. With any game, the faster it’s played, the more “exposure” you are giving the casino to your bankroll per hour.
So be wary of those flashy casino marquees proclaiming “single deck blackjack”—and don’t sit down at a game that pays anything but 3-2. Otherwise, you’re just another one of those suckers contributing to the casino power bill.
The most alluring slot machines in the casino are the ones with meters over them, showing some gigantic jackpot amount that keeps climbing and climbing—often well into the millions of dollars. Players go bonkers for these games, which have incredibly long odds but offer the chance to win a life-changing sum with a single spin. These are called “progressive” games, and here’s a quick explanation of how they work. Progressive machines are linked together by a network. Every time a player places a bet on one of the machines, a percentage of the bet is added to the jackpot total. The more that people play the machines, the faster the jackpot amount grows, until someone wins the big one (and gets his picture taken while holding one of those giant cardboard checks). Once the jackpot is won, the meter resets to a predetermined amount (say, $100,000) and the chase begins again.
Casinos offer three types of progressive machines. The first are “stand-alone” progressives, which are not linked to any other machines. Instead of the top prize being a fixed amount—say, $10,000—a percentage of every coin played is added to that machine’s top jackpot. The jackpot keeps climbing until someone wins it.
The next level of progressive machines are known as “in house” or “proprietary” progressives. These are groups of machines that are linked together within a casino, or within multiple casinos operated by the same company.
The final and most famous category of slot machines are “wide area” progressives, a concept that was introduced in 1986 with the debut of MegaBucks machines. These games are linked together from many unrelated casinos, sometimes across the country. With thousands of players on these games simultaneously, the jackpots soar into the multi-millions. Rather than being operated by the casinos, they are operated by a third party. (Slot manufacturer IGT created and operates MegaBucks, in addition to other wide area progressives.)
While progressive jackpots might offer a chance at the ultimate payoff, the odds are extremely remote. If you’re looking to play awhile and get the most bang for your buck, you’re better off playing a game with smaller jackpots because they pay out more frequently. Many players prefer winning small sums here and there on a regular basis, rather than chasing some mega-million dollar prize that’s akin to playing the lottery.