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State shouldn't increase house edge in blackjack

| Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

A commission reviewing a proposal to make Pennsylvania's player-friendly blackjack rules permanent wants to know more about the house edge in the game.

Specifically, the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission asked the Gaming Control Board on Oct. 12 to compare the house advantage under Pennsylvania rules with those in other states, including New Jersey.

For people worried about Pennsylvania keeping its good rules, that sounds ominous.

Pennsylvania blackjack carries a lower house edge than games in many other jurisdictions. In other words, players have a better shot at winning in Pennsylvania.

The request for a comparison raises the specter of someone in power saying, "Hey, why don't we force our players to lose more• Everyone else is doing it."

Unlike most casino games, blackjack can be played under a variety of rules -- some good for the house, some good for players. The rules set for Pennsylvania casinos since table games started in July 2010 put the house advantage at less than 0.4 percent for the few players who adhere to "basic strategy," a computer-derived approach to playing each hand based on the dealer's up card.

The good rules include requirements that the dealer stand on soft 17 (Ace-Six), that all player blackjacks pay 3-to-2 ($15 on a $10 bet) and that players have the option of surrendering half their bet instead of hitting or standing.

The commission describes its job as reviewing proposed regulations from almost every state agency to make sure they are "consistent with legislative intent." The commission also studies the economic impact of regulations.

The comparison of house advantages at blackjack tables "will assist this commission in determining if the regulation is in the public interest," the agency says.

It's hard to tell for sure what the commission has in mind.

"We do not comment on our comments," spokeswoman Sarah E. Miller said. "Our comments speak for themselves."

Let's connect the dots. The Legislature approved casino gambling to raise money for the state. Weakening the blackjack rules would increase players' losses and, theoretically at least, increase casino revenue. Higher casino revenue yields more tax money for the state.

Might the commission consider suggesting a relaxation of the requirement that dealers stand on soft 17• Do members think Pennsylvania casinos should get the Atlantic City option of having dealers at low-limit tables hit soft 17 while dealers at high-roller tables stand on the same hand, as the operators of Parx casino in Philadelphia suggested to the commission• Might the commission think it's a good idea to introduce other anti-player rules such as 6-to-5 blackjack payouts ($12 for a $10 bet)?

Finding out the house edge in blackjack is not hard. A calculator at says Pennsylvania's current blackjack rules give a casino advantage of 0.38 percent in an eight-deck game and 0.36 percent in a six-deck game for a player following basic strategy perfectly.

That means such a player will lose 38 cents for every $100 bet over the long run, although anything can happen in one night or one month of play.

But few people play perfectly. Gambling experts say player errors add almost a percentage point to the house edge.

Here's the effect of other rules changes, according to the Wizard of Odds site:

Hitting soft 17 : Increases house edge by 0.22 percentage points.

Double-deck game rather than eight-deck game : Decreases house edge by 0.19 percentage points.

Blackjack pays 6-to-5 : Increases house edge by 1.39 percentage points.

Player may double only on two-card totals of 10 and 11 : Increases house edge by 0.18 percentage points.

Gaming Control Board spokesman Richard McGarvey said the board will respond to the commission's request and to all comments about making the rules permanent. The board's proposal said the surrender rule and requiring dealers to stand on soft 17 strike "a fair and appropriate balance" for the house and players.

While the Review Commission can pose questions, it cannot rewrite the blackjack proposal. The Gaming Control Board should stick to its original plan: Make the current rules permanent.

Give all blackjack players -- not just those in the high-limit room -- a fair shake. Keep Pennsylvania's game more attractive than those in neighboring states; if anything, make it the best in the country for players.

That will bring more players to Pennsylvania, giving the casinos -- and the state -- more blackjack profit in the long run.

Money trail

Gamblers lost $46.7 million last month at blackjack, craps and other house-backed table games in Pennsylvania's 10 casinos, the Gaming Control Board reported this week. In addition, the casinos collected almost $4.7 million in fees from poker games, where players compete against each other.

The $51.4 million in gross table game revenue is up from $36.9 million in September 2010, when SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia was open for only about a week. It's down from $52.7 million in August. State and local governments take 16 percent of the table game revenue in taxes.

For the week ended Oct. 16, slot players lost $46.2 million in the state's casinos -- or about as much as table game players lost in the previous month. The slot figure is up from $43.2 million in the comparable week last year.

The state gets 55 percent of gross slot revenue, or what's left after all payouts have been made.

Statewide, slot machines have paid out at a 90.1 percent rate since the fiscal year started in July. For every $100 bet, the machines return $90.10.

Payout rates for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

  • 89.84 percent: Rivers
  • 89.71 percent: The Meadows
  • 90.46 percent: Presque Isle in Erie


Where do "our" casinos rank in terms of bringing in money?

Just looking at September revenue, Rivers was No. 3 at $28.8 million in gross slot and table game revenue. The Meadows was No. 6, with just under $24 million; and Presque Isle was 10th, with just over $16 million. Philadelphia's Parx Casino was first, with $40.6 million.

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