AN OFFER YOU MUST REFUSE —BEWARE THE 6-5 BLACKJACK PAYOUT
By Rob Wiser
A few years ago, I was playing host to a friend of mine from out of town. He’d never gambled in a Vegas casino and was eager to take a shot, so I drove him over to the Strip. He inquired about the various games and asked which one he should play. I explained to him why Blackjack was the best game in the casino, since with a good set of rules and the correct playing strategy—you can almost neutralize the house edge. So we sat down at a table and exchanged our cash for chips. I was about to show this rookie how it was done. On my second hand, I scored a ten and an ace. Twenty-one, baby—a Blackjack, or a “natural.” I had a $30 bet on the table, which would mean a nice $45 payout.
But then the dealer made a mistake—at least I thought he did. He paid me $36.
I pointed this out to him, and then he pointed to the surface of the table. There it was, imprinted on the green felt: Blackjacks pay 6-5. I scooped up my chips and told my friend we were heading to another casino. He was puzzled: ‘What was the matter? Wasn’t Blackjack the best game, and hadn’t I just won $36?’ A lot of you know exactly why I was annoyed. To a veteran player, getting paid only 6-5 on a natural, instead of 3-2, feels like someone’s just snatched money out of your wallet.
Why did these games start creeping into Vegas casinos a few years ago? Well, because in the eyes of the casino bosses, blackjack was a little too player-friendly. The games with good rules (especially single-deck games) attracted a lot of players, but the low house edge meant minimal profit margins for the casino. So they started offering variations such as “Super Fun 21” and “Spanish 21,” or regular Blackjack games with quirky side bets, such as the “Royal Match” (place an extra bet and hope that your first two cards are of the same suit). These new spins on Blackjack are never designed for your benefit. The casinos may advertise them like they’re some exciting bonus, but they’ve figured out the math on these bets, and it’s not on your side; not even close. I ignored these mutations and stuck with basic Blackjack, playing it as it was meant to be played. The rules varied slightly from casino to casino, but I could always assume that I’d be paid 3-2 if my first two cards totaled twenty-one.
Then the casinos started sneaking in Blackjack games that paid 6-5. They still hyped their single-deck blackjack—they just didn’t mention the 6-5 part. (I had to laugh when one Strip casino declared on its marquee: “SINGLE DECK BLACKJACK: PAYING A WHOPPING 6 TO 5 ON BLACKJACKS!” ‘What’s next?’ I thought, ‘…single numbers at roulette pay-off a whopping 3-to-1?!’)
This rule switch makes a major difference on your chances of walking away with a profit. With a $10 bet, a natural pays you $12 instead of $15. This adds up when you’re receiving a natural about once in every 21 hands, or four times per hour, on average. The math gets scarier. Consider a player who uses proper basic strategy. 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.
Al Rogers, manager of the website bj21.com, 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.) Casinos get away with this because the average player doesn’t know the difference. He figures any extra payout when he gets a natural is 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. In Blackjack, the big advantage we surrender to the house is that we are required to play our cards first. If we bust, no matter how weak the dealer’s cards are, the dealer wins. The 3-2 payout is a way to help even things up.
When choosing a game of Blackjack, there are other variables to consider (number of decks, the rules on splitting/surrendering, whether the dealer stands on soft 17’s, etc). But the first thing I check now is whether the game pays 3-2. We all accept the fact that we’re surrendering an edge to the casino when we stroll through the doors; after all, they’ve got a heck of a power bill to pay. But fair is fair. Let’s play this game the way it was meant to be played.