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CASINO ANSWER MAN

by John Grochowski

John Grochowski is a blackjack expert and a well-known and respected casino gambling columnist. His syndicated casino gambling column appears in the Chicago Sun Times, Denver Post, Casino City Times, and other newspapers and web sites. Grochowski has written six books on gambling including the "Answer Man" series of books (www.casinoanswerman.com). He offers one-minute gambling tips on radio station WLS-AM (890) and podcasts are available at http://www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=38069. Send your question to Grochowski at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.

Q. I was playing at one of those blackjack tables that you touch the screen to bet, but thereís a dealer with real cards. Even though the cards were real, the screen lit up with a total for the hand. How do they do that? I was talking with the dealer, and he thought they were a halfway station to fully automated games, and that one day heíd be out of a job. Do you think thatís whatís happening?

A. You didnít tell me what system was being used, but Iíll hazard a guess that it was an iTable from Shuffle Master. The iTable does have video screens for wagering at each player position, and it does use a dealer and real cards. The cards can be dealt from an i-Shoe with optical card recognition. Itís the recognition from the card-reading shoe integrated into the rest of the card-reading system that enables the table to display hand totals on the screens as cards are dealt.

That information also allows the system to offer instant odds on side bets such as whether youíll win or lose given your first two cards and the dealerís up card.

Thatís the "how do they do that" portion of your question. For the rest, we enter into speculation. Automated and partially animated versions of table games have been with us for a couple of decades now, and they remain niche games. In certain jurisdictions that place greater restrictions on table games, the electronic versions have a bigger place. In addition, we have seen some growth in large, full-service casinos, sparked by the success of Rapid Roulette.

However, casinos are going to go where the money leads them, and right now, that still favors live versions of table games. Thereís a market for fully automated blackjack, and that market is growing. However, thereís no imminent danger of fully automated games taking over the market.

Iíd be more worried about casinos chasing the market away by the continuing tightening of belts and toughening of games. It doesnít have to be as bad as the trend toward 6-5 payoffs on blackjacks. It stuns me to see the dealer hitting soft 17 even at low-limit six-deck tables nearly everywhere I go. Not long ago, that used to be a rule for the one-deck and two-deck tables, and when a casino hit soft 17 on a six-deck table, you knew it was a joint where the execs wanted both hands in your pockets. Now hitting soft 17 is standard on any table with less than a $25 minimum, and not uncommon in the more expensive seats.

An average player might not know that the game is tougher when the dealer hits soft 17, but over time heíll notice that his bankroll doesnít last as long as it used to. To me, thatís a bigger danger for live blackjack than any inroads by electronic versions.

Q. My wife and I were in Las Vegas, and I got my first taste of full-pay Deuces Wild. That 5-for-1 payoff on four of a kind really helps the game. Does it make a big difference in strategy?

A. If youíve been playing Not So Ugly Deuces Wild or the version the late Lenny Frome called Illinois Deuces, the most noticeable differences come on two-pair hands and four-card flushes. Those two games differ only in the payoffs on five of a kind and straight flushes, which are 16-for-1 and 10-for-1 on NSU, and slightly lower at 15-9 on Illinois.

Full-pay Deuces pays 5-for-1 on four of a kind, but only 3-for-1 on full houses. NSU and Illinois Deuces pay 4-for-1 on both four of a kind and full houses. That difference between the payoffs on quads and full houses in full-pay Deuces is important. It means that dealt two pairs, such as Jack-Jack-8-8-5, the best play is to hold just one pair and toss the other three cards. It doesnít matter which pair. The expected value per five coins wagered is 2.81 on either pair, but only 2.55 for holding both pairs.

That changes in NSU and Illinois Deuces, where a full house is worth as much as quads. Given the same starting hand, we hold both pairs and go for the 8 in 47 chance at a full house. In NSU and Illinois Deuces, EVs are 3.40 for holding both pairs, but only 2.74 on holding one pair.

Thereís another major pay table difference on flushes, where the full-pay game pays 2-for-1, but NSU and Illinois Deuces step it up to 3-for-1. One common situation where that makes a difference is when weíre dealt four cards of the same suit, and also dealt a pair. Given an initial deal of 4-7-9-Queen of hearts and a 7 of spades, the best play at full-pay Deuces is to hold the pair of 7s. EVs are 2.80 on the pair, and 2.55 on the four hearts.

Itís different other games. EVs in NSU and Illinois Deuces are 3.83 on the four hearts, and 2.73 on the pair.

There are further differences in that we chase straight flushes more aggressively in Illinois and especially NSU Deuces, but the two-pair and four-flush hands are major steps youíll need to keep in mind as you sample the full-pay game.

Q. If I want to toke the dealer in Let It Ride, does it matter which spot I tip on, first, second or third?

A. Assuming you have options, the place to toke is on the final bet. Thatís the one that has to stay in action; you can choose to pull either or both of the first two bets back.

When Let It Ride was new, if I was on a winning streak, I used to put tokes on the line on all three spots. Iíd put $1 in front of each of my three bets. If I didnít like my cards and pulled bets back, I got the bet for the dealer back, too. The last bet always stayed in action. We were guaranteed to either win together or lose together.

One day, I was told I could no longer toke in that way. The casino now would allow bets for the dealer only in front of the final player wager. Policies may be different at different casinos --- I donít play that much Let It Ride. If in doubt, ask the dealer about house policy.

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