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Pennsylvania casinos enjoy another big year in table games

| Sunday, July 30, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Dan Ott reacts before going all in at the World Series of Poker main event, Saturday, July 22, 2017, in Las Vegas. Ott lost the hand and placed second. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Dan Ott reacts before going all in at the World Series of Poker main event, Saturday, July 22, 2017, in Las Vegas. Ott lost the hand and placed second. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Dan Ott reacts before going all in at the World Series of Poker main event, Saturday, July 22, 2017, in Las Vegas. Ott lost the hand and placed second. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Dan Ott reacts before going all in at the World Series of Poker main event, Saturday, July 22, 2017, in Las Vegas. Ott lost the hand and placed second. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Fans of blackjack, baccarat and specialty games such as Three Card Poker play an increasingly important role in the success of Pennsylvania casinos.

While casinos still make most of their money from slot machines, the share from table games is growing. Revenue from table games in the state has increased each year since they became legal in 2010, while slot machine revenue has dipped.

In the just-ended 2016-17 fiscal year, table game players at Pennsylvania's 12 casinos lost $866.5 million, the state Gaming Control Board reports. That's an increase of 3.25 percent from 2015-16. Slot players lost $2.34 billion in the fiscal year, a decrease of 2.2 percent. Total casino gaming revenue was $3.2 billion, a drop of 0.78 percent, Gaming Control says.

In 2010-11, table games provided 17.8 percent of gaming revenue statewide; that figure has risen every year, hitting 27 percent in 2016-17.

It's difficult to pinpoint what drives the increasing popularity of table games. Most have a significantly lower house edge than slot machines, especially for players who take time to learn the best strategies. That means table games are a better bargain for gamblers. Table games also offer more chances for friends and strangers to celebrate together when the right cards or number come up. And in Pennsylvania, casinos might subtly encourage table game play because of profit margin; while state and local governments get 54 percent of slot revenue, they take only 16 percent of table game revenue.

Blackjack has long been the king of the table games, but its dominance has faltered nationwide as new games — for example, Three Card Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em and Pai Gow Poker — have grown in popularity.

Unlike Nevada, Pennsylvania does not specify how much revenue each type of house-backed game generates. Industry experts estimate blackjack accounts for 50 percent to 60 percent of table game revenue in Pennsylvania. That can vary by casino. In some areas, high rollers flock to baccarat.

Poker, in which players compete with each other and the house takes a rake, or fee, from each hand, generated $59.18 million in 2016-17, Gaming Control says. That's 6.83 percent of table game revenue.

A recent study by David G. Schwartz and Courtney Nickson of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas finds that casinos on the Las Vegas Strip have reduced their reliance on blackjack over the past 30 years. In 1985, the study says, blackjack accounted for 77 percent of casino games and more than half of table game revenue. In 2016, barely half of the table games were blackjack, and it provided only 29 percent of what casinos won at the tables.

As an inveterate blackjack fan, I note that the decline in blackjack on the Vegas Strip coincides not only with the growth of other games but also with the casinos' sabotage of traditional blackjack rules. Most Strip tables now deal games offering only a 6-to-5 payout ($12 on a $10 bet) on player blackjacks instead of 3-to-2 ($15 on a $10 bet). Numerous blackjack experts advise against playing these games, and savvy gamblers could be staying away, while newcomers quickly learn their money doesn't last long enough at the chintzier game.

The conditions on the Strip contrast starkly with Pennsylvania's player-friendly rules. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board stipulates that all blackjack games, regardless of table minimum, must offer 3-to-2 payouts on naturals. In addition, dealers stand on Soft 17 (Ace-Six) and players may surrender, or give up half their bet rather than hitting or standing. Both of those rules are hard to find outside Pennsylvania.

The Center for Gaming Research study notes that baccarat has out-earned blackjack on the Las Vegas strip since 2009. Baccarat accounted for 29.7 percent of table game revenue in 2016, and mini-bac provided another 2.28 percent.

In addition, the study finds, the role of craps declined “remarkably.” The game generated 28 percent of table-game winnings in 1985, but less than 10 percent in 2016.

Roulette tables took about 10 percent of the floor space and generated about 9.5 percent of the table game revenue in 2016, the study says. In 1985, roulette had 6.6 percent of the floor space and generated about 6.6 percent of table game revenue.

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at

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