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Don't let casinos monkey with state's good blackjack rules

| Sunday, May 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Cards lay on a table during a game of blackjack at the Rivers Casino.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Cards lay on a table during a game of blackjack at the Rivers Casino.

Pennsylvania would lose more than it would win if casinos get to tinker with table-game rules.

Regulators run the risk of befouling the goose that laid the golden egg if they fall for the suggestion that casinos need “more flexibility in table-game rules.”

That recommendation is buried within a 203-page report by Econsult Solutions of Philadelphia, hired by the Legislature to analyze the future of casino gambling in the state. The primary focus was the potential effect of Internet gambling in Pennsylvania. Econsult said the state could reap $113 million a year from online gambling.

The $153,000 study makes a persuasive argument that online gambling and traditional casinos appeal to different types of players. Three states already have online gambling, and Pennsylvania is a lucrative market because of its size. With the appropriate safeguards against underage and compulsive gambling — and, just as importantly, provisions to guarantee fair play by all involved — Internet gambling could be a welcome addition.

Officials of the Gaming Control Board, which oversees the state's 12 casinos, have declined comment on the report, saying they have not had time to review it in detail.

One thing to watch is how they respond to the recommendation for table-game “flexibility.” That sounds like code for letting casinos set their own rules.

Pennsylvania has some of the most player-friendly rules in the country. Because the state limits the number and location of casinos, the board spells out the rules for each game, including blackjack, the most popular table game across the country. The rules, which apply at all betting levels, include:

• Natural blackjacks must be paid 3-to-2 ($15 for a $10 bet)

• Dealer stands on Soft 17

• Players may “surrender,” or give up their hand in return for losing only half their bet.

Pennsylvania rules are better than those typically found in Las Vegas, Atlantic City or other gambling hot spots. For a player who adheres to basic strategy, the rules leave a house advantage of less than 0.4 percent.

In other jurisdictions, casinos generally allow dealers to hit Soft 17, which increases the house edge. The Econsult study cites those extra winnings by the casinos — or, viewed from the other side, additional losses by players — as reason for making the change.

“The Pennsylvania regulation tips the odds slightly in favor of the player, and, as a result, leads to less revenue for the casino,” the study says.

That's an overstatement. Having the dealer stand on Soft 17 is better for the player than allowing the dealer to hit, but the house always has the advantage.

Casinos aren't exactly suffering from the supposed inflexibility. The casino win in March was the highest on record. Given the state of the overall economy, holding steady or posting a slight gain is remarkable.

Pennsylvania casinos may offer a plethora of side bets, which always carry a significant house advantage. For table-game players who want the shot at a big payoff, casinos may offer side bets with a progressive jackpot — again, with a hefty house advantage.

The danger of caving on Soft 17 is that it would set a precedent for other machinations with the basic rules of blackjack. The surrender option would be a likely next target. That, too, is a minor benefit to the player.

Then, the road would be paved for the abomination of 6-to-5 blackjack, in which a ,$10 bet wins $12 for a natural rather than $15 under the 3-to-2 requirement. This rule, already allowed in many jurisdictions where casinos have the option, makes blackjack virtually unplayable.

In truth, most blackjack players make so many mistakes that they lose a lot. The house always has an edge, even against the handful who follow basic strategy religiously.

The state shouldn't let casinos rewrite the rules just so they can win even more.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

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