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'Wizard' predicts state will tighten blackjack rules

| Friday, Nov. 19, 2010

Blackjack players in Pennsylvania should enjoy a good game while they can, says the gambling statistician known as the Wizard of Odds.

"I applaud Pennsylvania for giving the players good blackjack rules," Michael "The Wizard" Shackleford said last week from Las Vegas. "I would anticipate that the rules are going to get worse. In markets where there's not a lot of competition, you tend to see lousy rules."

Pennsylvania launched table games in July with several player-friendly rules, including a stipulation that player blackjacks be paid 3-to-2 ($15 for a $10 bet) rather than the 6-to-5 rate ($12 for a $10 bet) that has wormed its way into other jurisdictions. Other rules that limit the house advantage for the state's 10 casinos include requiring the dealer to stand on soft 17 (Ace-6) and permitting "surrender," in which players may give up their hand in return for losing only half their bet.

According to the "blackjack house edge calculator" at Shackleford's , Pennsylvania's rules reduce the casino advantage to less than 0.4 percent for a player adhering to basic strategy.

As the Gaming Control Board considered rules this spring, industry representatives asked for the option of 6-to-5 payouts and hitting on soft 17. Kevin O'Toole, the board's executive director, said in June that the blackjack rules could be reviewed after a few months. He declined comment this week about potential changes.

Shackleford predicted casinos will press for the option of hitting soft 17 and paying 6-to-5 on naturals. Those two rules have the greatest impact on house advantage in six- and eight-deck games.

Shackleford is the second national expert to tell Player's Advantage that Pennsylvania's attractive blackjack rules won't last long. Anthony Curtis, a former pro player who now is publisher of Huntington Press and , said in July that payouts frequently get tighter after casinos have been open a while. Curtis predicted a change to the dealer hitting soft 17.

Shackleford said introducing a 6-to-5 payout would increase the house edge on those games by about 1.4 percentage points -- almost four times the current casino advantage for a basic-strategy player. Six- and eight-deck games that hit soft 17 and pay 6-to-5 on blackjacks have a house edge of 1.9 percent, Shackleford's calculator shows.

The industry will argue that the state could reap millions more in tax revenue, Shackleford said. Of course, the casinos would rake in even more, and players would be left holding the bag.

Shackleford is a professional actuary who worked with the Social Security Administration in Baltimore as a claims adjuster and eventually was responsible for calculating the costs and benefits of proposed changes in Social Security law. He also compiled the agency's annual list of most popular baby names.

As a hobby, he started a website devoted to gambling odds. It became so popular that he left his Social Security job in 2000 to work full time on the website and as a gaming consultant. He helped design many slot machines for Internet casinos.

Shackleford's site is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in gambling. It has rules, strategies and odds for more than 100 games, from blackjack and craps to Internet casino versions of War and Rock, Paper, Scissors.

"My goal is to be the encyclopedia of gambling," he said. "I like to be the go-to place if you have an obscure question about gambling."

He said the worst bets in a casino -- the ones with the highest house edge -- include keno and side bets at blackjack and other table games. However, he said players lose the most money per hour at slot machines.

In general, he said, players should avoid simple games such as slots and instead learn the strategies for games such as blackjack and video poker.

"To boil down gambling strategy, the harder a game is to understand, the better the odds are if you play it properly," Shackleford said. "But don't just sit down at the table and go by the seat of your pants. Get a good book or go to a good Web site, like mine, and learn how to play properly."

Question of the Week

What's the difference between "2-to-1" and "2-for-1" payoffs?

One word means a lot. A bet that pays 2- to -1 gives you two chips for each one you bet. If you bet one chip and win, you end up with three -- the two you won plus your original bet. On a 2- for -1 payout, the two-chip total includes your original bet.

For sale: WSOP bracelet

Peter Eastgate's 2008 World Series of Poker bracelet is for sale on eBay. The listing says all proceeds will be donated to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Eastgate won $9.15 million in the tournament and was the youngest Main Event champion. Now 24, he said earlier this year that he was retiring from poker. Opening price: $16,000. Bidding ends Nov. 25.

Money trail

Pennsylvania's 10 casinos generated $197.5 million in gross slot revenue in October. the Gaming Control Board said. That's an increase of $20.4 million from the $177.1 million generated by the nine casinos open in October 2009. The state's tax take is based on the gross. The statewide slot machine payout has been 90.38 percent since the start of the fiscal year in July. For every $100 bet, the machines return $90.38.

Gross slot revenue in October for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

  • $21.3 million: Rivers, on bets totaling $266 million. Payout since July: 90.26 percent.
  • $21.2 million: The Meadows, on bets totaling $269.8 million. Payout since July: 90.31 percent.
  • $14.5 million: Presque Isle in Erie, on bets totaling $185.9 million. Payout since July: 90.28 percent.
Additional Information:

Michael Shackleford

Profession : Actuary, gambling mathematician, gaming consultant

Residence : Las Vegas

Main Web sites : ,

Age : 45

Author : 'Gambling 102'

Favorite bet : Sports wagering, especially proposition bets such as the number of touchdowns or punts in a football game

Quote : 'If you remember just one thing on blackjack, insist on 3-to-2 (payouts for naturals).'

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