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Improving the Game of Blackjack

Casinos make changes to blackjack all the time. They introduce variations to make the game “better.” Unfortunately, their idea of what represents an improvement may differ quite greatly from what their customers perceive as beneficial. More often than not, for every new wrinkle that is introduced, something advantageous to the player is removed.

The Dynamics of Change

Take, for example, the reintroduction of single-deck blackjack. That’s a change players have been calling for ever since the multi-deck games were introduced in the 1970s to discourage card counting and advantage play. Compared to an eight-deck shoe, a single deck game reduces the House margin by about 0.48% if (a huge IF) no other changes are made to the basic rules.

To make up for this lost edge, the most casinos choose to offset the switch to a single deck with the simultaneous introduction of a new payout structure for natural blackjacks. Instead of offering the traditional 3-for-2 payout, they now give only 6-for-5. That amounts to an increase in the House edge of 1.4% and an overall net increase in advantage to the casino—a classic case of “one hand gives and the other takes away.”

It is highly unlikely that casinos will ever give anything away without exacting a price. After all, they are businesses and need to make a profit to survive. However, there are more than a few actions they could take to make the playing environment more hospitable, as well as some measures to enhance players’ enjoyment of the game.

A Win-Win Situation

Experienced blackjack players generally don’t like to play at tables with beginners—or drunks or clueless socializers, for that matter. There is nothing more ruinous to a good session than the seating of one or more new players who know little if anything of Basic Strategy, common etiquette and even the value of chips. Their disruptions and errors can throw off even the most focused professional.

The mechanism that supposedly separates beginners from experts in the pit area is the table minimum. Supposedly, novices (and poor players) will sit down at the tables with the lowest stakes while they are learning the game. Although that might have been true, once upon a time, nowadays even the $100 tables are no longer safe from first-timers with more money than card sense. What might be a nuisance at the $5 tables becomes a very real threat everyone playing for higher stakes.

Casinos love such newbies, of course. They part with their money quite easily. So why not designate a special area of the pit just for them? Call it the “party zone”—the antithesis of a “high rollers” area—to differentiate it from the serious blackjack tables. Let the learners have fun with the socializers as they encounter the ways of the game. It will serve the casino, because the beginners will feel more welcome and less intimidated, while old hands of the game can go about their business in relative peace.

Clarifying the Rules

No other table game has as many rule variations as blackjack. So-called “Las Vegas Rules” are about as close as it gets to a basic version, but even in Sin City, every casino has its own twist on the game. Some force their dealers hit on soft 17, while others require them to stand. Most allow doubling down after a split, but not all. Surrender is not typically offered, except when it is. No wonder the game seems so confusing to non-players!

First, it should be mandatory at every blackjack table that the House rules be clearly posted. At minimum, information should be provided regarding the number of decks in play, soft 17 treatment, doubling after a split, surrender and resplitting Aces. In the interest of fairness, a statement of the anticipated House edge percentage for the game would be helpful, too.

Then, would it be too much to ask for a single form of “standard blackjack” to be available at casinos? The rules could strongly favor the House, such as eight decks, splitting up to two hands only and no doubling down on totals other than 10 or 11. It would be of benefit mainly to beginners, who could sit down at a “standard table” and play the same game they had learned at another casino. Having such a standard would make the other variations more inviting, where offered, to those who truly understand the nuances of the game.

Other Changes to Consider

For players who enjoy playing multiple hands, it is often quite difficult to find vacant spots for additional wagers. Why not offer a game similar to Blackjack Switch, where at least two hands are dealt to every player, but without the funny business of switching cards and paying even money on natural blackjacks?

Along the same lines, how about reducing the number of seats at a table to three? The table minimum would have to be high to make up for fewer players, but dealer throughput in terms of hands per hour wouldn’t necessarily decrease. It would be a faster game, whether one player controlled all three hands or three players were seated—fewer decisions would be required per deal.

The practice of calling the game “Blackjack” should probably be reserved only for versions that payout at 3-to-2 for any natural 21. As in Nevada, let other variations go by names like “Super Fun 21” or “Single Deck 21” to differentiate them from the pure version of the game.

Anyone who has ever played at a table equipped with a continuous shuffle machine probably agrees that such machinery should be banned. Let dealers earn their keep and shuffle the cards manually. It also creates a natural break in the action for players to heed the call of nature or go to the ATM—another machine that some players probably wish would also be banned.

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