PAUL'S POINTERS: HOW TO SCOUT A CASINO BEFORE PLAYING BLACKJACK
by Paul Wilson
BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November 2014 issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.
A friend of mine asked me recently what I look for in a casino to determine if I will play blackjack there or not. During the course of our conversation, my friend remarked that I was always saying that I struggled to generate column ideas, yet here was a topic that was a slam-dunk (we'd also been talking college basketball). So, thanks to a causal conversation, this month we are going to take a look at scouting a casino to determine if its blackjack games are worth sitting down at and wagering any part of our bankrolls. This is not meant to be a "be all and end all," but should serve as good starting point for you. It's what I look for and so should you.
DOES THE CASINO OFFER BLACKJACK AND IF SO HOW MUCH?
This may sound a bit obvious, but I have visited casinos over the years, including in Las Vegas, that don't deal blackjack. Reasons may include state laws or merely the fact that the casino is very small or simply a slot parlor. Some casinos offer blackjack, but the hours are limited either because the casino actually closes or the table games area is only open for one or two shifts. I first encountered this at the Gold Spike in Las Vegas back when it used to be a casino. I read somewhere that the Downtown Grande in Las Vegas doesn't offer blackjack 24/7 these days, but I'm not terribly familiar with that property. Many casinos actually have "last call" and close their doors. I've encountered that scenario in multiple Midwestern/Northern states. In all those cases it was relatively late at night, but operating hours are still something you need to know.
The "how much" portion of this segment title encompasses the number of tables available on a regular basis. By "available" I mean open on any given day and on any given shift. Many Las Vegas casinos offer playable games, but they rarely have any tables open during the day-shift or during weeknights. When there are only three tables or less open when you want to play, chances are they will be crowded and you may not be comfortable for any number of reasons in that environment, if you can even get on the table. I really don't table hop much, but when I was younger I did. I still like the option of being able to move to another table. I won't sit down and be the 5th, 6th, or 7th player at a table either.
When it comes to table games sometimes looks can be deceiving. When scouting a casino that appears crowded (or empty), take a moment to notice how many tables are actually open and how many betting circles are on the layout. I've seen as few as five and as many as seven. I tend to play a lot of double-deck games and prefer to play solo or with one or two other players. In a six-deck shoe game, I don't mind another player or two. At the end of the day, the math is the same, but only if you can get on a game. If the casino you are scouting has the best game you can imagine, but you can't get on a table, it's not worth much to you as a player.
WHAT ARE THE HOUSE RULES?
The house rules are the most important factor in choosing a blackjack game in a casino. Let me repeat that and say it with me: The house rules are the most important factor in choosing a blackjack game in a casino. Once we have deciphered that blackjack is available to us to play on our schedule, we have to know the rules for the games being dealt. Anything can happen in a single session, but over time, the rule variations you expose your chips too will greatly affect your bottom line. Many casinos post table rules on placards near the third base side on the table. Many don't. Make a habit of asking the dealer the rules. You'd be amazed how many struggle to answer this simple question.
The first order of business is to make sure that player blackjacks pay 3:2. Avoid the 6:5 payouts. It's rare to find a single-deck that doesn't pay 6:5 in Las Vegas these days, but there are an alarming amount of 6- and 8-deck games only paying 6:5 on player blackjacks. That's not right and you shouldn't play these games. Why? Over the long-term you can expect to be dealt a blackjack about once every 21 hands. If you are playing on a semi-full table you can expect about 60 hands per hour, so roughly three blackjacks per hour. If you flat bet $10 per hand, those three blackjacks should each return $15 plus your original wager. When you only get paid $12 on those blackjacks (6:5) you are losing $3 each time in this example or about $9 per hour. That's pretty expensive. There are a lot of people that work hard for $9 per hour in gambling towns and properties. Have some respect for them and your bankroll and avoid 6:5 payout games.
I only want to play blackjack games that allow me to double down on any first two cards (DOA) and after splitting pairs (DAS). DOA is crucial in that it allows you to attack weak dealer up-cards by doubling 9-counts and soft hands. Examples include Ace-3 versus 5 or 6; or Ace-6 versus 4. There are many soft doubles in basic strategy and they should be part of your bag of tricks. DAS is worth about 0.13% in your favor. Most places allow it, but on occasion you'll find games that don't. Avoid them.
You should be able to split and re-split Aces up to a total of four hands. Admittedly, that is getting difficult to find in double-deck games. However, I am noticing more and more 6-deck games not allowing the re-split and limiting players to only two hands. The inability to re-split your Aces will cost you about 0.05%. Not a lot you say, but every little bit helps and you'll think it's a lot when you are stuck with a hand of Ace-Ace and Ace-something, possibly even Ace-Ace on your second hand. I've been there.
It's to your advantage if you can play games in which the dealer stands on soft 17 (S17). It's rare in most markets, including Las Vegas, and has been for many years. When dealers have to hit their soft 17s (H17), player odds are reduced by 0.20%. It's an insidious rule and one that I've grown to despise greatly over the years. Some higher limit rooms in Las Vegas still offer S17 games. If your bankroll supports steady black-chip action, then by all means, find a S17 casino to play.
Late surrender is another rule that I prefer, but don't encounter too often. It's worth about 0.05%. I've seen it on the occasional 6-deck game, but not on fewer decks in many, many years. Consider late surrender and S17 bonuses if you can find them.
WHAT ARE THE BETTING LIMITS?
Know what the betting minimums are before you buy-in. The table minimum and maximum bets are clearly posted on placards, normally on the third base side of the table. The numerical amount will be posted, but you'll often see a colored placard assigned to each betting denomination. For example, red generally denotes $5 or $10 minimums; sometime you'll find blue or yellow for $10. Green is associated with $25 and black with $100 minimums. Orange and yellow placards are often associated with $15 minimum bets. The color schemes aren't set in stone, but I mention them in case you are curious or perhaps I am blocking your view of the numbers when I am hunkered down at third base on the table you're scouting.
You need to know the minimums your bankroll will support. Don't bring $300 for a blackjack session and expect to play a $25 game for a few hours. Also, save yourself the embarrassment of trying to buy in for $20 on a $25 game or placing $3 in the betting square when $10 is clearly posted. It happens, but it shouldn't happen to you. Realize and accept the fact that even if a casino offers a great game, but the limits are too high for you, then you shouldn't play it. Live and bet within your bankroll. The quickest way to ruin is to over bet your bankroll.
HOW MANY DECKS AND WHAT'S THE PENETRATION?
Generally the fewer decks the better. All things equal, and they usually are not these days because of the short blackjack payouts offered on so many single-deck games, the casino advantage will increase as more decks are added to the game. A single deck offers virtually no advantage, while double-deck increases the house edge to 0.35%, six decks increases it to 0.58%, and eight decks increases it to 0.61%.
I prefer to play double-deck games with good rules and good penetration. Remember penetration refers to how deep the cut-card is placed and determines how many cards the dealer will deal into play before shuffling. I prefer to see as many cards as possible Strive for 70% or greater if you can find it.
Some players prefer six-deck games. I will play them on occasion. If you are card counting, then six-deck and even eight-deck games might provide more favorable betting situations where the increased house edge is overcome by high positive counts. Remember a six-deck game is comprised of 312 cards (52 cards per deck x 6). Assume at least 220 of those cards (the more the better) will be put into play before the next shuffle. This creates opportunities for greater positive (and negative) running counts and also requires more refined true count conversions than the simple double-decks games I tend to play.
HOW ARE THE CARDS SHUFFLED?
This is an area that is often overlooked. Most single- and double-deck games are shuffled manually or "hand-shuffled." I prefer this for a number of reasons. Not that I expect anyone of cheating, but I do watch dealers shuffle a time or two until I am comfortable with their approach. Casinos that employ a hand-shuffle each have their own way of doing it. I don't have much to say on that topic; it provides a consistent shuffle and that works for me. Mainly, hand shuffles slow the game down and give everyone a break. I treat it like the media timeouts in college basketball. It's a chance to stretch, take a deep breath, and think about what is going on around you. It shouldn't change your playing strategy, as basic strategy is basic strategy. If you are being rated, realize that you are "on the clock" during the shuffle. The fewer hands you play against the house edge, the better; unless you are an advantage player in an advantage situation.
On occasion, you might notice a card during the shuffle and track it all the way to the end of the shuffle when it's time to cut the cards. If it's your turn to cut the cards, you can effectively cut that card into or out of play. I'd rather start a single-deck game at +1 versus -1 count if I can help it. Honestly, shuffle tracking is very difficult for most and I'm no good at it. I will catch sloppy technique or something that just doesn't look or sound right on the table on occasion though. You can learn a lot by just paying attention.
Many casinos use an automatic shuffler with multi-deck games. This device shuffles cards while another set of cards is being played. When the dealer comes to the cut card, they insert the just completed decks of cards into the automatic shuffler tray and remove the already shuffled cards from another tray. After a quick cut, these cards are ready for action. Automatic shufflers reduce the amount of downtime significantly, especially on a six-deck game.
One type of automatic shuffler I prefer to avoid is called a continuous shuffler (CS). It's basically an automatic shuffler that never stops, plus a dealing shoe. Generally these devices are loaded with five to six-decks of cards and they are shuffled continuously while the live play is going on. Generally after a hand or two, the dealer will insert the cards from the discard tray back into the CS where they will be continuously shuffled until dealt. These devices are fast and eliminate card counting. You can count the cards you see that go into the discard tray, but it won't do much good because they won't be there very long. With this device the game is continuous because the dealer never stops to shuffle. Needless to say, your hands per hour will increase significantly, up to 20% more per hour, when playing with one of these monsters.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Let's review. You should scout the tables before you sit down to play. Make sure the game you are playing pays 3:2 on player blackjacks. Incredulous as it may seem, a few casinos now vary from table to table (the Four Queens in downtown Las Vegas is an example of this). Know the rules and seek out the best combination you can possibly find. Stick to games that allow DOA and DAS. Ideally you should be able to split and re-split Aces up to four times. If you have a choice, stick with S17 versus H17 and play games that offer late surrender and use it when necessary.
Be sure you know the table minimums before you sit down to avoid overplaying your bankroll and to save yourself some embarrassment (the former is more important than the later). Know how many decks are offered. Most casinos offer a choice; generally two or six decks. Know which one you want to play before-hand. If there are only a couple of tables offering the number of decks you want to play, be prepared to play the other game or to walk-away. These are decisions to make before you enter the casino. Assuming equal rules and payouts, the fewer number of decks the better. Play in manually-shuffled games rather than games dealt with an automatic shuffler or the uncountable, speed-demon, continuous shufflers.
There you have it, folks. These are the basics I look for in scouting a casino for my blackjack action. Other factors like geography, whether pit personnel will rate your action (and how accurately), players' club promotions, comps, future mailers, loud music, and comfort level with other patrons are factors too. I'm sure you can probably think of a few others to add to my list. Until next time, remember the words a wise baseball coach once told me when I was a kid, "Luck is when opportunity and preparation meet." Scouting a casino is part of your preparation.
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