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by Mark Gruetze

Mark Gruetze has been a skilled recreational casino player for more than 30 years, focusing on blackjack, video poker, and poker.


The player in the middle of the table at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino pleaded for the dealer to turn up a 21.

"Please have an Ace under there," the player begged as the dealer, showing a face card, slowly pulled the hole card toward the reader that would tell whether the player won a jackpot by losing the hand. Others at the table, even the dealer, joined in the pleas for a blackjack.

The reason for this unnatural hope for a dealer natural was the player’s $2.50 wager on the Lucky Ladies side bet. He had been dealt two Queens of Hearts. If the dealer had a blackjack, the payout would be 1,000-to-1; if not, the payout would be 200-to-1.

Unluckily for that player, the hole card wasn’t an Ace. Still, his pink-chip bet brought him five black chips.

The excitement that ensnared everyone at the table illustrates the attraction of blackjack side bets, which are common throughout Pennsylvania casinos. The lure of big payouts for small bets brings out the gambler in casual players and those who should know better.

Pennsylvania, home to some of the most player-friendly blackjack rules in the country, allows casinos to choose from about a dozen side bets. State regulations require all blackjack games in all 12 casinos to pay 3-to-2 on naturals, offer late surrender, allow double after splitting, and permit doubling on any two cards except a natural. That yields a house advantage of less than 0.4 percent in an eight-deck game.

Enter the side bets, which can carry a house edge of more than 15 percent. Casino consultant and former casino executive Bill Zender says they tend to be more popular in Midwestern and Native American casinos than in destination spots such as Las Vegas.

Zender says he advises casinos not to offer more than three types of side bets. That minimizes confusion for players and dealers alike.

Savvy players understand that side bets are for suckers. Why would you want to put even a couple of dollars on a bet with an onerous house edge when the standard blackjack game is almost a coin flip for a basic-strategy player? Maybe it’s a moment of weakness or a bit of a cover play. Here’s a look at the side bets allowed in Pennsylvania (with the house advantage calculated by

House Money

This is an intriguing bet because it involves a bit of strategy itself. "House Money," which is fairly new, gives players the option of adding their winnings from the side bet to their blackjack bet. Say a player with a $10 blackjack bet and a $2 House Money side bet is dealt a suited Ace-King. That combination pays 9-to-1 on the side bet and, like other side bets, is paid off before players act on their blackjack hands. With House Money, the player with the Ace-King has the option of adding $20 – the original bet plus $18 in winnings – to his blackjack bet. In this case, his original $10 bet grows to $30, and the blackjack payoff gives him a $45 win.

Only four types of blackjack hands win the side bet...

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