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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 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=38069Send your question to Grochowski at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.

Q. Youíve written about the high house edge on blackjack side bets, but arenít they really win-win for everyone? Players who like them get what they want, players who know better donít have to make them, and the house gets some extra profit and maybe can keep better games in the pit. If I ran a casino, I think Iíd have several side bets on every table, and let the bad players take their pick. Wouldnít you?

A. I can agree with the idea that high house-edge side bets donít hurt players knowledgeable enough to avoid them. As for it being a win for players because of benefits to the main game, Iím dubious. We havenít seen profits from side bets used to shore up the blackjack rules in the last decade or so. Instead, weíve seen an erosion of rules, making for a tougher game than the one we played not so long ago.

The most notorious rules setback for players is 6-5 payouts on blackjacks. But the most far-reaching probably has been the virtual elimination of S17 games at low limits, and even at a large segment of high-limit tables. Even with six or eight decks, blackjack has evolved to a H17 game. There doesnít seem to be any inclination on the part of operators to reverse that, with or without side bets.

Should operators put several side bets on the same table? Probably not. There are a couple of issues to consider. Operators have to pay a licensing fee to side bet owners. Putting multiple bets on the same table would mean multiple fees. Operators might be able to cut a deal to use more than one side bet from the same company Ė for example, 21 + 3 and Lucky Ladies from Galaxy Gaming, or Royal Match and Bet the Set 21 from Bally Technologies. But the side bets have to draw enough action to justify the fees, or the casino drops them.

Each side bet also requires some dealer training, and taking the time to settle the bets brings a reduction in hands per hour. Multiple side bets would slow the game, which is not a problem for the house if it gains enough action on the side to make up for the reduction of hands. But think about the possibility of four players each making a different side bet, and the dealer trying to keep it all straight. Some dealers would have to take it slow.

Blackjack games with multiple side bets have a natural home at tables with electronic wagering, where bets can be settled instantly, without mistakes. Thatís already possible on DigiDeal tables or Ballyís iTables. But at dealer-paid tables, the cost-benefit ratio would have to be weighed carefully.

Q. A long time ago, there used to be a video poker game where you could designate your own royal. Instead of the 4,000-coin jackpot on Ace-King-Queen-Jack-10 of the same suit, you could mix it up and designate something like 5 of hearts, 9 of clubs, 7 of diamonds, 3 of spades, and 2 of diamonds as your jackpot hand. Do you know why the game disappeared? Seems like a fun idea.

A. I vaguely remember the game, and I even recall playing it once at Texas Station in the northern part of Las Vegas, but I forget important details.

Were you allowed to designate just one royal, or could you designate four. Thatís important, because on other video poker games, you get four royals Ė A-K-Q-J-10 in each suit. So to have as many royal possibilities in your game as in others, youíd have needed to designate four rank and suit combinations.

Even if you were allowed to designate four royal combos, some strategy considerations would have led to fewer royals in your game. You might hold a lone Jack because of the possibility of pairing it up for paying hand, and occasionally draw a royal. But if your big-pay hand is 9-7-5-3-2, you wonít hold any of those cards on their own, because pairing them up does not give you a winner.

Without remembering all the details, Iím confident that the game you describe would have a lower overall return than others with regular royals that otherwise have identical pay tables. Thatís the most likely reason the game disappeared Ė players discovered they werenít winning as much as on other games.

Q. Do video poker machines adjust and get tougher to beat for better players? If the machine sees that you always hold a low pair instead of a high card, does it stop dealing cards that match your low pair and start dealing matching high cards, so you see you would have won with a different play? If youíre in a guessing game against a computer, you canít win, can you?

A. There is no guessing game. Cards are determined by a random number generator, and all it does is deal the cards. It has no strategy in doing so, and it neither knows nor cares what your strategy is.

Programming the game so that it adjusts its deal to beat your strategy is illegal in every U.S. gaming jurisdiction. Youíre not playing against the random number generator and itís not trying to beat you.

Several years ago, there was an attempt to introduce artificial intelligence in a video Holdíem game, but it never carved out a niche in casinos. IGTís Texas Holdíem Heads Up had no pay table to beat. It was strictly player vs. machine. It used artificial intelligence and neural net technology to simulate a player, and that player WAS trying to beat you. It anticipated play, tried to read your tendencies, raised, checked, folded and bluffed. It slow-played some hands and tried to bully you on others. It even seemed to step up its game against better players.

But in traditional video poker games, youíre not playing against an opponent thatís trying to beat you. Youíre playing against a pay table, and there is nothing in the programming that would subvert your attempts to draw a winning hand.

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