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by John Grochowski


John Grochowski writes a weekly column that is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites throughout the United States (example: Chicago Sun-Tmes at ) and at John's books are available through his own site,

Editors Note: The G2E (Global Gaming Expo) is the worldís largest gaming event that is attended by tens of thousands of gaming executives from around the world. Over 550 exhibitors showcase their new products for the casino industry. The G2E is held each November in Las Vegas. John Grochowski attended this yearís G2E and wrote this special report for BJI


Twists on blackjack were few and far between at the Global Gaming Expo in November at the Las Vegas Convention Center, but one came with a twist within the twist.

Pith Gaming Enterprise had a table set up at its booth to show off its new side bet, Picture in the Hole Blackjack. Itís a wager that would appeal to players who like to take insurance. In fact, when I was asked what I thought, I responded, "Would I make this bet? No. Do I think it would appeal to some players? Yes."

All in the booth laughed. Thatís what side bets are about, after all, appealing to a segment of players who are willing to increase their action.

Picture in the Hole is basically a bet that the dealerís face down card will be a 10 value or an Ace, and it pays 3-2. Players may make the bet on their own any time the dealerís up card is not a 10 value. With a 10 value up, the dealer must first check for blackjack. With no blackjack, the dealer then offers the Picture in the Hole bet to players. Itís the only time the dealer takes the initiative to offer the wager.

Game inventor Barry Fairhurst took the time to walk me through a few hands.

"When might the player make the bet? Maybe when the dealer shows a bust card, hoping the dealer busts," he said, giving himself a 6 up and a 10 down. "Or maybe a player who has a 20, if the dealer has a 10 up, might want to protect against 20. And maybe some players might just like to take a chance any time."

The twist within this twist? The brochure handed out to those interested comes with a warning. This game can be counted, leading to a large player edge. The recommendation to operators is that Picture in the Hole should never be offered in games that do not use a continuous shuffling machine.

Speaking of player edges, last year Gaming Entertainment Incorporated introduced a Double Draw Blackjack side bet that its proprietor, poker champion Joe Awada, along with Olaf Vancura, who did the analysis, said gave players a 0.25 percent edge when used properly. Awadaís hope was that casinos would add the side bet to increase action on their regular blackjack games.

This time around, GEI tweaked the rules. In Double Draw, the player may wager an amount equal to the original bet anytime the dealerís face up card is a 2 through 6. Making the wager also brings a free draw. If you have 16 and the dealer has a 6, and you make the side bet, you get to see another card. If it improves your hand, great. If it busts you, you donít bust --- the card is just discarded.

In its original version, youíd get the no-risk draw even if you had 17 on up through 20. With a 20, youíd have a free shot at drawing an Ace to give you 21, and if you missed, youíd still have a 20. Thatís been scaled back. Now you get the free draw only when you have 12 through 16. If you have less than 12, you still get a regular draw before the free draw comes into play --- if you hit 8, draw a 7 for 15, you then get the free draw.

Awada says the tweak brings it back to an even bet. The house makes money only if Double Draw increases action on the regular game.

An older game, 3-Way Action, also has been tweaked a bit. The original version combined a one-card showdown, blackjack, and seven-card stud. The first bet would be settled based on whether you or the dealer had a higher first card. That would then be used as the starting point for a game of blackjack. After blackjack bets were settled, enough cards would be dealt out to complete a hand of seven-card stud.

The new version replaces the seven-card stud round with a three-card bonus poker hand, much like the Pair Plus portion of Three Card Poker. It also permits you to split pairs on the blackjack round --- the original version prohibited pair splitting. Awada says the house edge averages around 2.9 percent, although that can vary both with the skill of the blackjack player and with the three-card pay table used by the casino.

While the selection of new blackjack side bets was small at G2E 2009, Shuffle Master gave demonstrations of what it thinks could be a big part of the future of blackjack and other table games with its iTable. At least one operator agrees, a table games director who told me he thinks Shuffle Master "has hit a home run out of the park" with this one.

The iTable uses live dealers and real decks of cards, but it eliminates chips. Instead, wagering is on an electronic touch screen, with a screen at each position at the table. There are obvious advantages to the house. It gives an accurate track of wagers so that comps can be awarded based on actual play instead of estimates based on observations of average bet size on time of play. It eliminates mistakes on payoffs as well as scams such as past posting or collusion with the dealer over chip payoffs. It speeds play by making instant payoffs instead of the dealer having to pay by hand.

In short, it gives the house all the game security features it would get through using RFID chips or optical scanners but with more hands per hour as an added bonus.

What really excited the casino exec I spoke with, though, had to do with the potential of slot machine-like bonusing at the tables. As iTable is being introduced --- and the first ones were placed in casinos this summer --- the betting screens are enabled with Shuffle Master side bets such as Royal Match. Used in combination with a Shuffle Master card-reading shoe, it also can put up odds for side bets after youíve seen your cards. If you have a 17 against a dealerís 9, or a 16 against a 7, or anything else, it can offer you odds on winning the hand.

And with that electronic interface, iTable can be configured for bonus events such as awarding virtual tickets in an electronic drawing for every blackjack. Thereís the potential for the operator to get creative, to run a "Fours on the Fourth" promotion, for example, that gives you a prize entry for every pair of 4s.

Not every player is going to go for iTable immediately. Comp wizards wonít get to practice their craft if every bet is tracked accurately, and there is the potential for data on bet variation to be used to trace advantage players. Among average players, most are going to be more comfortable just riffling their chips. But thereís enough in this for operators that some will give it a go, and if enough are attracted by the side bets and bonuses, iTable could carve out a strong niche in a hurry.

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