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Pennsylvania outdoes Vegas on blackjack rules

| Friday, July 2, 2010

Welcome to Player's Advantage, a weekly column aimed at helping gamblers get the most out of their visits to Pittsburgh-area casinos.

Blackjack players will find a better game in Pennsylvania than they do in most Las Vegas casinos.

Under blackjack rules approved by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, a basic-strategy player will face a house advantage of less than 0.4 percent, according to the blackjack house-edge calculator at . That's better than about two-thirds of the blackjack games offered in Vegas. And it's waaaay better than the 5.26 percent house advantage at roulette or the slot machine edge of 8 percent or more.

The house edge indicates how much, on average, players can expect to lose. On a game with a 1 percent advantage, the casino will win $1 for every $100 bet over the long run. Some players will win, some will lose. But in the end, the house edge will hold up. If players have bet a total of $100 million at the game in a year, say, the house profit will be about $1 million.

If you play sound, basic strategy at Pennsylvania's blackjack game and bet $10 a hand, you can expect to lose about $4 an hour over the long run. If you play by gut feeling rather than the mathematically proven strategy, expect to lose more overall, even with occasional wins.

These Pennsylvania rules are particularly advantageous to players:

• Blackjacks will be paid off at 3-to-2 ($15 for a $10 bet).

• Dealer must stand on soft 17 (for example, a hand of Ace-6).

• Players may double down on any two cards (some sites limit doubling to hands totaling 9, 10 or 11).

• Doubling after splitting pairs is allowed.

• Late surrender is allowed (giving up half your bet after the dealer checks the hole card for a blackjack)

These rules are less advantageous: Pairs may be split to a maximum of three hands; aces may not be re-split.

Lance Young, director of table games at The Meadows, said the Gaming Control Board insisted that dealers be required to stand on soft 17. Allowing dealers to hit a soft 17, as many Vegas casinos do, adds 0.22 percent to the house edge, according to , which calculates the house edge for blackjack games at every Vegas casino.

Kevin O'Toole, executive director of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators looked at other jurisdictions in determining rules.

"Surprisingly, to some people, there's a lot of variety in the rules," O'Toole said. "We tried to take what we felt was the best program. Not every jurisdiction mandates surrender, for example."

Wheeling Island and Mountaineer casinos do not allow surrender, making Pennsylvania's game slightly better for players than West Virginia's. Wheeling will add surrender soon, table games director Mike Tusken said.

Pennsylvania's rules appear to outlaw the 6-to-5 blackjack payout that has wormed its way into many casinos nationwide. The difference is huge for the player. If you bet $10 and are dealt an ace and a face card, you win $15 on a 3-to-2 payout, compared with $12 for the same bet at a 6-to-5 table. The odds say you get a blackjack once every 21 hands or so. If a $10 bettor plays about 100 hands an hour, the difference costs you almost $15 per hour.

To take full advantage of Pennsylvania's blackjack rules, players should learn the basic strategy of when to hit and stand. It takes only a few hours to learn. Playing hunches will cost you money in the long run, even though some work out occasionally. Dozens of books, websites and computer programs are available; and are two good websites to check out.


For the week ended June 27, bets at Pennsylvania's nine casinos totaled $583 million and gross revenue was $42.2 million, the Gaming Control said. Gross revenue for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

• $5M: The Meadows, on wagers of $67.2 million

• $4.6M: Rivers, on wagers of $64.6 million

• $3.3M: Presque Isle in Erie, on wagers of $42.9 million


Wheeling Island, $75,160 as of Wednesday; Mountaineer: $63,770 as of Tuesday.

Mountaineer recently changed its rules to include every Hold 'Em player in the room in the payout when the jackpot tops $50,000. Half of the jackpot will go to the table where the bad beat happened - 50 percent of the payout to the losing hand, 25 percent to the winning hand and 25 percent to the rest of the table. The other half of the jackpot will go to players at all cash Hold 'Em games in the room. The maximum payout for those players is $500 each. Any excess will go back to players at the bad-beat table.


What's the schedule for table games at Rivers and The Meadows?

Rivers, The Meadows and Presque Isle in Erie are the first in the state to get table games. They will have low-limit trial runs on Tuesday for invited guests. Profits from Rivers will be donated to the Mario Lemieux Foundation; profits from The Meadows will go to the United Way of Washington County. Gaming Control Board representatives will observe the trial runs and take a day to review results. If all goes as planned, full-fledged games will start at 6 a.m. Thursday. Table game trial runs at the state's other six casinos will be July 11 and 16.

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