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SAYS "NO" TO 6-5

By Mark Gruetze


Mark Gruetze writes the weekly "Player's Advantage" gambling column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in Pennsylvania. He has been a skilled recreational casino player for more than 30 years, focusing on blackjack, video poker, and poker. E-mail questions or comments to:

Pennsylvania blackjack players have reason to rejoice. The state intends to keep its player-friendly blackjack rules, the executive director of the Gaming Control Board said.

"We like the rules as we set them out," Kevin O’Toole said in a meeting with reporters and editors at The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (where I’m employed).

Those include a requirement that naturals be paid 3-to-2 and that the dealer stand on soft 17. Those rules, plus late surrender, give Pennsylvania’s blackjack game a house edge of less than 0.4 percent for a basic-strategy player. That’s better than most games offered in Nevada, Atlantic City, and elsewhere.

The Gaming Control Board sets the rules for all games offered at Pennsylvania’s 10 casinos. The rules for all games are in the process of being review as the state moves from temporary table-game regulations to permanent regulations.

"A casino game can be played a lot of different ways," said O’Toole, who has 30 years of experience as a gaming regulator. "Certainly, there are operators out there, very reputable operators, who say ‘we should be able to run our games the way we want to."

However, "That’s not my perspective, and it’s not the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s perspective." "At least for the time being, I don’t think the board would be inclined to change the traditional way we’re playing blackjack," O’Toole said.

Before Pennsylvania casinos launched table games in July 2010, the board rejected industry requests to allow 6-to-5 and h17. It’s likely that casino representatives will ask the board again to allow those rules for blackjack.

"An operator might – I don’t say take advantage of patrons, but at least get the maximum bang for their buck, and that might be at the expense of the gambler," O’Toole said.

"Every single game has a house advantage. So, the casinos, over time, are going to make a profit. That’s why they’re in it and why it’s a growing industry."

In previous writings for the Trib and the Blackjack Insider newsletter, I encouraged people to speak out against potential changes in Pennsylvania blackjack rules.

More than 20 people have written the Gaming Control Board about keeping the 3-to-2 and s17 requirements, a spokesperson said.

Among those were BJI Editor Henry Tamburin, and a BJI subscriber who proposed a test in which each casino would offer an equal number of tables under the existing rules, and under the more restrictive rules.

"Such a controlled experiment, if allowed for a sufficient time (a year would seem reasonable), may be what both government and industry need to determine once and for all what specific blackjack offerings maximize revenue for the industry and the Commonwealth," the letter said. "The industry, now dominated by MBA-wielding bean counters, apparently has taken the position that squeezing the ignorant customer as tightly as possible is best for its bottom line. I believe, as did Benny Binion and many of the other great gambling entrepreneurs, that offering a good gamble achieves the best long-term results. Let’s see who is right."

O’Toole, who started his regulatory career in New Jersey, said Atlantic City casinos were allowed to institute 6-to-5 and h17 after almost 30 years of not having those rules.

"I think (New Jersey regulators) were responding to an industry that was declining in their area. And there was more of an incentive to ‘let’s give our operators as much of an advantage as possible.’"

"We don’t need it in Pennsylvania."

O’Toole, Gaming Board Chairman Gregory Fajt, and newly appointed board members Kevin McCall and Anthony Moscato stopped at The Trib while touring Western Pennsylvania casinos. McCall, who said he played craps and cards before being appointed to the board, agreed with O’Toole on not changing the blackjack rules. Moscato, who said he never gambled but does not oppose it, did not comment about blackjack rules. Board members are not allowed to gamble in any casino operated by a company that holds a Pennsylvania license.

While O’Toole said he couldn’t promise the bans on 6-to-5 and h17 would last forever, he suggested that casino operators should trumpet the player-friendly rules.

"Why don’t you market yourself as having the best blackjack game in the country?" he advised. "In fact, maybe that’s why New Jersey’s not doing too well and you guys are doing very well."

Pennsylvania casinos aren’t exactly hurting with the current rules; the first seven months of table games generated $255 million in gross revenue statewide, according to Gaming Control Board figures. State and local taxes take 16 percent of the gross table game revenue, compared with 55 percent of the gross slot machine revenue.

The temporary rules that launched table games still need to be formally proposed as permanent. Then, they go to the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission and are open to comment from legislators, industry representatives, players, and anyone else who wants to offer an opinion. The Gaming Control Board responds to all comments before submitting the final regulations to the Review Commission for a public vote.

Therefore, like a player with a 20 against a dealer’s 6, blackjack fans must wait for the final card to fall before celebrating.

For now, it appears Pennsylvania blackjack will remain among the best games anywhere.

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