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by Mark Gruetze

Mark Gruetze write’s the weekly "Player’s Advantage" gambling column for the Pittsburg Tribune-Review in Pennsylvania. His columns are online at He has been a skilled recreational player for more than 30 years, focusing on blackjack, video poker, and poker. E-Mail questions or comments to

Note: What follows is a summary from Mark Gruetze on the recently released state study on casino gambling in Pennsylvania.

While citing projected benefits of allowing online gambling in Pennsylvania, a $153,000 state study recommends giving casinos "more flexibility" with table game rules. Specifically, the report released on May 7 takes aim at one of the statewide regulations that put Pennsylvania blackjack among the best games in the country.

Buried amid the talk of millions of dollars in additional tax revenue from allowing all forms of online gambling is a suggestion that the state eliminate the requirement that dealers in existing casinos stand on Soft 17. "In other states, casinos are not required to stand on Soft 17," says one paragraph in the 203-page report. "The Pennsylvania regulation tips the odds slightly in favor of the player, and as a result leads to less revenue for the casino."

The S17 requirement is among several player-friendly rules that apply to all blackjack games in the state, regardless of betting levels. Others include a stipulation that all naturals pay 3-to-2 (no 6-to-5 allowed) and that all tables offer late surrender. Combined with DAS and DOA, those rules cut the house edge to less than 0.4 percent for a basic-strategy player.

Pennsylvania law allows a maximum of 14 casinos in the state, and regulators kept their locations scattered to minimize competition. An additional license might become available in 2017, but it would be for a third "resort casino," which is significantly smaller than operations such as Parx in Philadelphia and Rivers in Pittsburgh.

The proposed change in S17 is among recommendations to streamline regulations put into effect when the state approved table games in 2010. Other recommended actions that would directly affect players include allowing alcohol sales after 2 a.m.; permitting cash advances with credit cards on the gaming floor; and letting players cash third-party checks of more than $2,500.

The study, titled "The Current Condition and Future Viability of Casino Gambling in Pennsylvania," says legalizing online gambling in the state could raise $113 million a year in tax revenue. It suggests a full range of online gambling, from poker to blackjack to slots. It also addresses the potential of legalized betting on professional sports, fantasy sports leagues and "prediction markets," which offer wagers on events such as presidential elections.

Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware are the only states currently allowing online gambling. Nevada allows only poker. New Jersey and Delaware permit additional games.

As the sixth most populous state in the nation, Pennsylvania is an attractive market for online gambling. Several analysts have predicted an online measure will come to a vote within two years.

Federal law requires that gamblers playing online must be physically in the jurisdiction where they are gambling. Geolocation software is designed to pinpoint where they’re playing.

The Pennsylvania report suggests that Internet gambling and traditional casinos cater to different markets, with Internet gamblers generally being younger, predominantly male, with higher incomes and more education and more likely to be employed. "The fact that iGaming caters to a market of new gamers presents casinos with an opportunity to attract new customers," the report says.

Internet gambling cannot provide the social interaction and amenities of traditional casinos, it says, but online betting allows players to place smaller bets, play several tables at once, play from home and avoid crowds. "This, combined with the fact that iGaming typically happens in the home in the afternoon or evening, suggests that for many this is a substitute for other forms of home entertainment rather than a substitute for traditional offline casino gaming."

The report estimates that online gaming could result in traditional casinos losing as much as $15 million a year or increasing revenue by as much as $92 million.

"The balance of the evidence suggests that the impact would be on the positive side," the report says.

This isn’t the first time the H17 suggestion has come up. Before the blackjack rules were established, casinos argued for that option as well as 6-to-5 payouts for naturals. When the rules came up for review in 2012, the H17 argument was made again. BJI readers and blackjack fans across the state wrote to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in favor of keeping S17 and the other good rules. The board did so.

So far, the suggestion to change S17 is only a paragraph in a massive report that focuses on far broader matters. A formal proposal has not been made.

Gaming regulators should note that the study reaches too far with its statement that S17 "tips the odds slightly in favor of the player." True, S17 is better for the player than H17. But the house always has the edge on anyone other than a skilled card-counter.

Editor’s Note: Even though the report contained no formal proposal for comments by players, you can still send a written or emailed comment on the proposal to allow h17 at all blackjack games in Pennsylvania to:

Kevin O’Toole, Executive Director

Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board

PO Box 69060

Harrisburg, PA 17106-9096


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