CHICAGO AREA BLACKJACK REPORT
By John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the author of the excellent Answer Book series. His casino gambling column appears in the Chicago Sun-Times and he also writes for these publications: Midwest Gaming & Travel Magazine, Casino Executive Magazine, Slot Manager, and International Gaming & Wagering Business. Special signed copies of his books are available to subscribers as follows: The Casino Answer Book ($12), Gaming: Cruising the Casinos ($10), and the Craps Answer Book ($13). Prices include shipping & handling. Send check or money order to: Running Count Press, Box 1488, Elmhurst, IL 60126
Blackjack players in Chicago have learned to take the good with the bad.
The good? None of the eight casinos within a 45-mile drive of the Loop has tried the 6-5 payoffs on blackjacks or the "Super Fun 21" abominations that are bleeding bankrolls on the Las Vegas Strip. Continuous shuffling machines are rare --- there are a few at Harrah’s in Joliet, Ill., but for the most part they were rejected by the marketplace a couple of years ago when they were rolled out in force on the Indiana side of the state border at Harrah’s in East Chicago and Majestic Star in Gary.
The bad? If you’re playing near Chicago, you’re playing a shoe game. The only double-deck game within hailing distance is at Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Ind., about an hour and a half drive from the city. Penetration is iffy, with it being commonplace to cut two decks out of a six-deck shoe. And Chicago is no paradise for low-limit players. The only $5 table in the area is at the least busy casinos, Gary’s Trump and Majestic Star. Elsewhere, table minimums start at $10, and usually rise to $25 and up on busy nights and weekends.
What’s left is a fairly solid collection of shoe games, with the best for basic strategy players being at Empress and Harrah’s in Joliet (six-deck shoes at both, with dealer standing on all 17s, double on any first two cards, double after splits, resplit Aces), and at Trump in Gary (six or eight decks, stand on all 17s, double on any first two cards, double after splits, late surrender).
Double-deck blackjack has been tried in the Chicago area, but it’s never lasted very long. Part of the difficulty with the game is that in Illinois, it’s illegal to deal pitch style, from the hand. All cards must be dealt from shoes, and all player cards must be dealt face up. Empress in Joliet several years ago offered a two-deck shoe game with the same rules as its six-decker. It was a terrific game for basic strategy players, and even at 50-percent penetration, not a bad one for card counters, who could easily see every card dealt. The game disappeared in a few months.
Hollywood in Aurora, Ill., also tried a double-deck shoe, but made the rules so tough that no one lasted long at the game. Using the slogan "2-4-6-8, our blackjack is really great," Hollywood offered two-, four-, six- and eight-deck shoes, but playing with fewer decks meant a game where the dealer hit soft 17, double downs were restricted to two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11 and doubles after splits were not permitted. Today, only the six- and eight-deck shoes remain.
Pitch games are permitted on the Indiana side, but the current two-deck game at Blue Chip is dealt from a shoe. One other difference in gaming regulations between the two states is that in Indiana casinos, the dealer must stand on all 17s, while in Illinois casinos may choose to have the dealer hit soft 17. Competition in Joliet, with competing casinos just a few miles apart, has led both Empress and Harrah’s to stand on all 17s. Hollywood in Aurora, meanwhile, has the dealer hit soft 17 at low-limit tables, while dealers hit soft 17 at all tables at Grand Victoria in Elgin.
Let’s make the rounds through the blackjack pits at the eight casinos nearest Chicago --- four in Illinois, four in Indiana --- and, for good measure, go a little farther afield to throw in Blue Chip with the nearest double-deck game:
EMPRESS, Joliet: Decent basic strategy game, six-decks, dealer stands on all 17s, double after splits, resplit Aces. Penetration about 70 percent. Minimums usually $10, but can rise to $25 at peak periods, with $3,000 max.
GRAND VICTORIA, Elgin: This is the most popular, most profitable casino in the Chicago area --- and one of the weakest blackjack games. Ever since its opening in 1994, Grand Victoria has offered the same six-deck game in which doubles after splits are permitted but the dealer hits soft 17. For a few months in 2003, this was actually a pretty decent counters’ game, with 83 percent penetration. In October, penetration dropped to 67 percent. Also in October, Grand Vic added eight-deck tables with the same dismal rules. $10 minimums available weekday mornings, $25 most of the rest of the time, $5,000 max.
HARRAH’S, Joliet: Rules are the same as at Empress on six-deck tables. At high-limit tables ($50-$5,000), penetration is 67 percent, no mid-shoe entry. Low-limit tables ($10-$1,000) have slightly better penetration, perhaps 70 percent. There are also three tables with the same rules, $10-$1,000, but which use four-deck continuous shufflers. The best deal in the casino is at the low-limit six-deckers.
HOLLYWOOD, Aurora: Big players get a better deal than the low-limit folks. At six-deck tables, dealer stands on all 17s, double after split permitted, 70 percent penetration, $25 minimums to $5,000 maximums. Low-rollers get eight-deckers, dealer hits soft 17, double after split, 70 percent penetration, $10-$1,000. Games aren’t all that terrific, yet Hollywood seems more concerned about advantage players than most Chicago area operators. Outright banning is rare --- the Illinois Gaming Board says it has never approved internal controls that permits barring players --- but Hollywood has been known to limit spreads, telling one player of my acquaintance that his maximum bet was $25, at a $25-minimum table.
HORSESHOE, Hammond: The standard Indiana game has the dealer stand on all 17s, double after splits permitted, no other frills. That’s what you’ll get at Horseshoe, which caters to big players with high limits and easy comps. Six-deck games have 67 percent penetration, $25-$10,000. Eight-deckers have 70 percent penetration, $10-$5,000.
HARRAH’S, East Chicago: Same rules as at Horseshoe, but all games use six-decks. At high-limit tables, $25-$5,000, there’s 67 percent penetration with no mid-shoe entry. Low-limit tables, $10-$1,000, are one of the strongest players in the area, with 75 percent penetration.
MAJESTIC STAR, Gary: Same rules as Horseshoe and the Indiana Harrah’s, with a mix of six- and eight-deck games. Six-deckers are for big players, $25-$10,000, with no mid-shoe entry, 67 percent penetration. Eight-deck games, $5-$1,000, have 80 percent penetration --- this is the spot for low-limit advantage players.
TRUMP, Gary: Trump adds one wrinkle to the standard Indiana game --- late surrender is offered. At six-deck tables, $25-$1,000, penetration ranges from 70 to 75 percent; at eight-deckers, $5-$1,000, penetration is 70 percent.
BLUE CHIP, MICHIGAN CITY: For those with time on their hands, or for overnight stays, Blue Chip may be worth the extra drive. Most of the tables are the standard Indiana game, dealer stands on all 17s, double after split, but penetration is very good. Six-deck games, $10-$5,000, penetration is 80 percent. For higher stakes, there are two double-deck shoe games that really are no bargain --- $25-$2,000, dealers stands on all 17s, no double after split, 50-percent penetration. Bottom of the barrel at Blue Chip are three tables with standard rules, but four-deck continuous shuffling machines, $5-$500.
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