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The Venetian in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Santcomm/Wikimedia Commons)

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

• July 22, 2014 • 8:00 AM

The Venetian in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Santcomm/Wikimedia Commons)

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?

In casino parlance, the term “cooler” has two meanings. It may refer to a deck of cards that’s been fixed in a way to slow down a winning streak at a hot table. Ever get a good blackjack groove going—to the point where you let yourself think about what you’re going to spend your winnings on—only for it to grind to a screeching halt after the dealer shuffles? Skeptics and hardened card sharps might call that the work of an intentionally cold deck.

The other, semi-mythical version of a cooler is an actual person supposedly hired by a casino whose mojo is so spectacularly bad that he or she can ice down a hot table just by sitting at it. William H. Macy portrayed one of these fellas in the creatively titled 2003 indie film The Cooler.” To this day, rumors of old-school Vegas coolers float around the Strip like the smell of spilled Miller Lite and low standards at the old O’Sheas. Witch doctors, shamans, guys with just plain bad luck: It’s said that casino bosses have resorted to just about anything to ensure that the house always wins.

But like skinning a cat, frying a fish, or badgering a cocktail waitress, there are several ways to squeeze more cash out of the gambling masses. One is to simply change the rules.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reports that visitors who said they gambled during their stay has declined steadily from 86 percent in 2006 to 71 percent in 2013.

THE OWNER OF TWO big casinos on the Vegas Strip recently introduced a subtle change to their blackjack rules that’s likely to hit casual players the hardest. It’s a move that could eventually sweep the length of the Strip and sends mixed signals about the state of the city’s still-recovering gambling industry.

In March, the Venetian and Palazzo casinos changed the payouts on blackjack hands from three-to-two to six-to-five. That might not seem like a big difference to casual observers, but experts say the change significantly increases the casinos’ house edge.

“The house edge is like a fee for every hand that goes by,” says Richard W. Munchkin, a professional player and author of Gambling Wizards: Conversations With the World’s Greatest Gamblers. That fee goes up when casinos short players on payouts.

The idea behind blackjack is fairly simple: Try to make a better hand than the dealer without going over 21. Players and the dealer are initially dealt two cards: one up, the other down. They can choose whether to “stand” with those two cards or “hit” and be dealt additional cards, a decision typically based on what the player is holding and what he or she thinks the dealer has. The rules require dealers to take a number of additional cards up to a certain amount. That means a player can win by holding a higher hand of cards than the dealer or by simply allowing the dealer to “bust.”

Another way to rake in the chips is by making a “blackjack” or “natural 21,” that is, drawing an ace paired with a king, queen, jack, or 10 in your first two cards. A player who beats the dealer usually get paid at a one-to-one rate. Bet $10, win $10. Getting a blackjack is a less frequent occurrence, and one that’s a bit more lucrative. Until recently, it was standard for casinos to pay out blackjacks at a three-to-two rate, meaning that a $10 blackjack hand pays the winner $15. At the Venetian and Palazzo, the same hand now pays $12.

“It’s like a hidden tax that you’re being charged by the casinos,” Henry Tamburin, a gambler, gaming instructor, and author of Blackjack: Take the Money and Run, says of the payout change. “Most people don’t realize that.”

Tamburin says a player can expect to hit a blackjack about once every 21 hands. At an average of 80 hands an hour, that translates to the house snatching an extra $12 out of players’ hands every 60 minutes. Spread that over every player at every table at a casino and you can see why pit bosses might go all in on six-to-five.

PLUCKING TURKEYS

Las Vegas Sands, the company that owns the Venetian and the Palazzo, appears to be wagering that most players won’t notice the change. Or at least that they won’t care enough to go elsewhere.

“On the Strip, you get a lot of amateurs and out-of-town people who want more of the excitement with the lights and the noises of Vegas and are less concerned about the specifics of the game,” says Dr. William Thompson, a public administration professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and member of the International Masters of Gaming Law. “I think the casinos figure that these are turkeys that we can pluck a little better.”

Hanging umbrellas in the Palazzo in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: The Phoenix Enforcer/Wikimedia Commons)Hanging umbrellas in the Palazzo in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: The Phoenix Enforcer/Wikimedia Commons)

Las Vegas Sands declined to comment. “As a general rule, we do not discuss the behind-the-scenes strategies of our gaming operations,” public relations manager Elaine Chaivarlis wrote in an email.

Other gambling houses on the Strip are taking notice. Tamburin, who monitors payouts for his subscription-based blackjack newsletter, says he’s seen an uptick in six-to-five games in the last six months. “Up until about a year ago, most of the six-to-five games were low-limit and single deck games,” Tamburin says. Single-deck blackjack games are generally considered the most player-friendly because they allow players to better anticipate which cards may be coming. “Now these casino bosses have boldly implemented six-to-six on two-deck and six-deck games and they’re even doing it on higher-minimum tables.”

About two-thirds of the 30 or so casinos on the Strip are owned by two companies, MGM Mirage and Caesar’s Entertainment. An MGM spokesperson said the mix of three-to-two and six-to-five games at its casinos “varies according to guest demand and staffing.”

THANKS FOR PLAYING

The shift to six-to-five games comes as Sin City continues to dust itself off from the bad beat Vegas and many of its residents took during the recent recession. The job market has shown signs of improvement after peaking at nearly 15 percent unemployment following the housing bust, and even home prices appear to be climbing out of the rubble. Still, in an era where gaming revenue remains well below pre-recession highs, it’s a curious time for casinos to get stingy.

“On the Strip, you get a lot of amateurs who want more of the excitement with the lights and the noises of Vegas and are less concerned about the specifics of the game. I think the casinos figure that these are turkeys that we can pluck a little better.”

Thompson says the move is likely a response to a new reality on casino floors: People simply aren’t playing as much. “Gaming is becoming less and less of an attraction,” Thompson says. Instead, casinos are seeing an increasing share of their revenue come from other entertainment, like restaurants and night clubs.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reports that visitors who said they gambled during their stay has declined steadily from 86 percent in 2006 to 71 percent in 2013. Over the same span, the average time that gamblers have spent at the tables and slot machines has dropped from 3.3 hours to 2.9 hours per day.

Those who do try their luck are turning to options other than blackjack. The game accounted for more than half of casino revenues on the Strip in 1985, according to a report by UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. In 2013, blackjack made up less than one-quarter of house revenue.

There are two things that card sharps who want to play in a more favorable environment can do when faced with a six-to-five table: complain, and go elsewhere. Tamburin says that some casinos have previously pulled back after trying to change payouts. Meanwhile, gambling houses in downtown Vegas and elsewhere off of the Strip still largely offer exclusively three-to-two games.

But the wave of tighter tables threatens to become a sea change. In addition to dropping payout rates, Tamburin said strip casinos are also staking the odds against players by offering more “party pit” games. These blackjack tables, which often feature scantily-clad dealers, pole dancers, and loud music, also come with house-friendly rules that limit splitting cards and doubling down and may even pay blackjacks at the once unthinkable rate of one-to-one. At the same time, the advent of automatic shuffling machines mean players see more hands per hour. For occasional players, that means more opportunities to lose.

“The casino bosses are making the game of blackjack unbeatable,” Tamburin says. “Soon the public is going to realize it. They’re going to start losing their money a lot faster, especially the tourists out on the Strip.”

Chris Opfer
Chris Opfer is an attorney and freelance writer in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in a number of publications including the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, Popular Science, the Village Voice, and Draft magazine.

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