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21 Causes for the Decline of Advantage Blackjack
by Robert Loeb
Robert Loeb is a criminal defense and gambling attorney in Chicago. He is the co-author, with I. Nelson Rose, of Blackjack and the Law, which is available on www.amazon.com.
As the Blackjack Insider newsletter winds down as a regular monthly publication at year's end, it's appropriate to take a step back and look at the historical path the game has taken in the last twenty-one (give or take) years. So here is a list of 21 (what number did you expect?) factors that have contributed to a decline in the quality of the game, and not to be a total pessimist, a brief look at some positive developments for the future.
- The first reason for the cause of the decline is that the gambling (I still hate the sanitized word "gaming") industry has expanded by becoming a desirable destination for unique (and often expensive) hotels, restaurants, business conventions, night clubs, entertainment, sports, and fun in the sun. In doing so, Las Vegas and other venues have diminished their focus on gambling. They are making more money on these other attractions, as more and more non-gambling "tourists" are contributing to the casino's bottom line. They don't know how to play the games, but they'll take their shot at the tables. Their poor play provides more profit to the casinos than even the recreational but regular gambler used to provide, so the casinos are offering games with a higher house advantage than they did 21 years ago. Bottom line: The American public is terribly unsophisticated when it comes to gambling.
The blackjack game itself has declined, because they don't offer what Benny Binion used to call "a good gamble." The playing rule changes which have led to the decline of blackjack play are as follows.
- Casinos have altered the playing rules. Forget the fact that 50 years ago, the standard Las Vegas blackjack game was single deck with rules that made the house advantage over a basic strategy player of about 0.1%. Twenty-one years ago, the standard Las Vegas Strip multi-deck game used to allow surrender, dealer stands on soft 17, and doubling down after a splitting was allowed, for a net house advantage of 0.26 of 1% for a competent, non-counting basic strategy player. Nowadays, the better standard Strip game has no double after split, the dealer hits a soft 17, and surrender is not offered, raising the house advantage to 9.5 or 0.6 of 1 percent.
- 6:5 games. The more prevalent game now pays just 6:5 for a blackjack (natural 21), instead of the traditional 3.2. This raises the house advantage by a multiple of approximately 6, approaching a full 2%. In other words, the house makes six times as much money from a basic strategy player, and the game is much more difficult to beat for card counters.
- A sophisticated player used to be able to track a shuffle, but automatic shuffle machines have taken away that advantage play.
- A card counter used to be able to beat a game that had good penetration, but continuous shuffle machines thwart any attempt at counting cards.
- There used to be single-decks games, or a predominance of double-deck games; now they are almost all six- and eight- deck games.
- There are fewer blackjack tables. Twenty one years ago, the MGM-Mirage casinos has around 70-90 tables each, almost all with the good games discussed above. Now, they have about 50 tables each and 46 of those are either 6:5 games or have continuous shuffle machines (CSM). Card counters can't beat the CSMs.
- That leaves about four tables remaining that have a low house advantage and an opportunity for card counters. But now surveillance only has to watch four tables instead of 90; this makes these four beatable tables traps for card counters, who are being ejected with record frequency.
- Dealers used to have to manually lift their bottom card to check for a blackjack. Mirrored peek devices have changed that.
- RFID chips, Mindplay, and other computer tracking programs employed by the casinos help them detect when a player is counting cards.
- Shared technology and databases allow casinos to warn each other about the identity of players who are counting cards.
- Facial recognition software helps casinos recognize card counters.
- Emails, faxes and scanning allow casinos to immediately share data about players who they deem to be undesirable.
- The use of computerized player's cards has become virtually universal in casinos, allowing casinos to personally track advantage players who wish to remain anonymous.
- States have reaffirmed the right of casinos to bar advantage players.
- States have reaffirmed the right of casinos to employ countermeasures to thwart advantage players, altering the game that is being offered to mere tourists.
- Unconstitutionally vague and nonsensical statutes deter team play.
- Currency transaction reporting requirements, and anti-structuring laws, thwart the use of cash, robbing players of the ability to remain anonymous within casinos. The government requirement that casinos file Suspicious Activity Reports accomplishes the same purpose.
- One can no longer have separate identification cards (or driver's licenses) in multiple states, preventing APs from remaining anonymous.
- Casinos have the capability of reading license plates upon arrival at a casino, and legally or otherwise, determining the identity of players.
- The data measured and stored at the gambling tables and prevent advantage plays for comps; the casinos have greatly cut back on complimentary price deductions, freebies, and cashback, particularly for table games players. In fact, consistent with the ability to extract money in many ways from people who go to casinos, casinos can now get away with charging resort fees, parking fees, etc.
The landscape isn't all bad. Computers have allowed players to simulate games, improving a player's abilities, and even allowing APs to devise winning strategies against new games offered by casinos. However, the trends continue to be favorable to casinos, and players will have to be continually creative to create positive expectations when gambling at casinos.
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