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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. He writes the weekly "Player's Advantage" gambling column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in Pennsylvania. E-mail questions or comments to:

Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino has a better view of water than many riverboats that also offer gambling.

Perched near the formation of the Ohio River, the land-based casino boasts stunning overlooks from the first and second floors as well as a riverfront walkway and a 1,000-seat riverside amphitheater.

It’s a brief walk from Heinz Field, home to the Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, and PNC Park, home to the Pirates.

Inside, players will find a range of options to test their skills. Many BJI readers already know Pennsylvania casinos offer some of the best blackjack rules in the country:

  • All naturals must pay 3-to-2 (no 6-to-5 games are allowed)
  • Dealer stands on Soft 17
  • Late surrender.
  • Double on any two cards.
  • Double after splitting.

Those rules apply to all blackjack games, regardless of table minimum.

On a mid-December weeknight, Rivers had 49 tables set up for blackjack – 41 on the main floor and eight in the high-limit room. Not all the tables were open. Ten on the main floor were roped off for a tournament that featured a $25 buy-in; another dozen or so were unstaffed.

Most of the open tables had betting minimums of $10 or $15, with CSMs at more than half. At non-CSM tables, the shoes are eight-deckers with about 70 percent penetration. The shoes have a notch for inserting the cut card, so there’s little variation from one dealer to another.

The $25 tables all had eight-deck shoes, and a player willing to peruse all the offerings could find a couple of $10 or $15 tables dealing from a shoe.

Rivers allows pairs to be resplit to a maximum of three hands, except Aces may not be resplit. For those willing to leak away money on side bets, Rivers offers Lucky Ladies, 21+3 and In Between.

The high-limit room has minimums starting at $100; one table had a $300 to $5,000 betting range. All high-limit tables use six-deck shoes.

Like other Pennsylvania casinos, Rivers is 50 percent nonsmoking, at least technically. Smoke doesn’t abide by the boundaries. The only way to tell the nonsmoking table game pit from the smoking one is which one has ashtrays at the tables.

Don’t expect the first-rate rules on blackjack to extend to other games.

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