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by Basil Nestor

Basil Nestor is author of "The Smarter Bet Guide to Craps," "The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack," and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit and drop him a line.


I live in Los Angeles. Two hours south of me, near San Diego, is Barona Casino. Until recently, Barona had the best public blackjack game in the world, at least judging from the rules. The contest was played with a single deck. Naturals paid 3:2. You could double down on any two cards and after splits. The game allowed late surrender. The dealer hit soft 17 (which was the only negative twist). Overall, pretty nice huh?

Put it all together, and the rules gave the casino nearly 0% advantage when a player used only basic strategy. In other words, it was theoretically possible for players to count cards and earn hefty profits.

For many years, there wasn’t another regular public game in the world that beat Barona’s outstanding rules. Thus, you might expect that San Diego was nirvana for advantage players.

Heaven in San Diego?

Alas, no. Barona’s 0% single-deck games had poor penetration. Table minimums were usually $100, sometimes higher. Moreover, as you might expect, the pit crew followed the action on those tables as teens follow Facebook.

That meant the games were hardly countable. Counters were lucky if they could squeeze out a 2:1 spread without getting a tap on the shoulder. "Sir, we’ve been watching your play. You’re welcome to flat-bet hands at this game, or play other games, but you’re not allowed to change your bets while you’re sitting at this table."

So …Was Barona’s blackjack good? The best answer is provided by asking another question … Compared to what?

Keep in mind that I had to drive two hours to play at Barona. Let’s do some quick arithmetic. Drive 150 miles one-way or 300 miles round-trip at 30 miles per gallon, and each gallon costs $4. That’s $40 in gas, and it doesn’t include the value of my time, nor food, nor wear on my vehicle.

If my average bet was $200, then after four hours I might be able to squeeze out $240 in average gross profit with a 0.5% positive edge. Or $200 net, assuming the tap on the shoulder never came. Or it would be -$40 if… well… you get the picture.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, all the games use continuous shufflers and casinos charge a vig (fee) per hand. Sounds awful, right? But wait… You can play/bank the dealer’s hand! That’s right. You can bank the blackjack dealer! So, the effective edge can be solidly positive, up to 2%. It varies depending on the skills of the players, the size of their bets relative to the vig, the size of your bets when you play against the dealer, and how often you bank. Let’s be conservative and say the positive edge is effectively only 0.5% and my bets are $200. Then L.A. beats Barona. No counting required. Even if it’s 0%, L.A. beats Barona in some circumstances.

In other words, basic edge calculations are just the beginning. Those numbers are only one factor to consider when you choose to play or pass.

Always do the Full Calculation

Here are some important things to ask when choosing a game. What are the financial advantages and disadvantages of the game besides the theoretical edge? What are the comps and promotions associated with playing at a particular venue? Remember, there is nothing theoretical about getting $50 cash in a promotion.

How friendly are the dealers and the pit? What is the aesthetic experience? Go ahead and put a value on "fun" and "pleasure" because you would otherwise spend time (and probably money) doing something else like watching a movie, going to a club, or traveling to another destination that doesn’t serve free drinks (or in the case of Hustler Casino, free donuts and coffee in the mornings).

Now consider the expenses of playing… the real costs! These include travel, lodging, and other expenses besides the cumulative price of the house edge.

Usually, proximity has a huge role in making a game worth playing. Driving more than an hour or staying in a hotel often negates a game’s theoretical advantage. Differences of less than 1% are sometimes swamped by the value of promotions or the simple advantage of playing in a casino that serves better food.

Does this mean you should ignore edge calculations and just play willy-nilly, accept whatever rules are foisted on you by greedy casino managers? No. But don’t base your decisions entirely on theoretical advantages. Be honest with yourself about the real peripheral costs and advantages of landing your butt in a particular chair.

An extreme example of this occurred recently when I was playing blackjack near Athens, Greece. The house edge was 0.62%, but that didn’t include the fee of 10 Euros for getting into the casino, or the 12% conversion fee charged by my bank for changing dollars into Euros and then back into dollars (about 6% each way).

Strictly speaking, I would have been better off driving to Barona and pushing my money into a Wheel of Fortune slot machine. On the other hand, I was in Greece for business anyway, near the casino, and I had $1,000 Euros in my pocket. What else should I have done? Two free café mochas more than negated the entrance fee, and the gambling gods were good to me. Luck more than paid the 12% vig charged by money-grubbing bankers.

Death of the Gimmick

A few months ago, Barona stopped offering the 0% single-deck games. I was okay to see them go. In my opinion, they were gimmicky distractions rather than truly beatable contests. Perhaps I would have felt differently if they were across the street rather than two hours away.

In any case, I don’t expect a casino to intentionally offer beatable games. The reality of being an advantage player is that you must find advantages that casino’s and other opponents don’t see. It’s beautiful to find a game when the other side has no idea that it’s a goldmine waiting for a miner. Sometimes it has little to do with the theoretical house edge. Calculate the true costs and profits of your game. That will always help you win more.

And never forget the value of a good café mocha.


(c) copyright 2012 Basil Nestor

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