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Las Vegas: A winner's guide to blackjack

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Las Vegas — JUST inside the Flamingo casino a few steps off the Strip, a trio of pink-felted $5 blackjack tables attracts a raucous crowd of enthusiastic players. Booze flows freely, and the piped-in music rocks. As the dealers snap and slap cards out of the plastic table shoes, the players' chip stacks accordion up — and mostly down.

Losing in Vegas is often considered par for the course, but it's happening at the blackjack tables at an accelerating rate. And it's easy enough to see why. A simple, small-print banner on one of the tables reads "Blackjack Pays 6 to 5."

It's the sign of the times. Vegas casinos have taken to rewriting the rules, turning a relatively fair game into something less advantageous for the player. It begins with tampering with the payoffs — in this case, from the long-standing 3-2 to the far more skewed 6-5 — and not before too long, finding a straight-up, unaltered, unshaved game of blackjack in Las Vegas of all places will be a nearly impossible task.

"Wow. I had no idea. I mean, who reads the signs?" said player Rory Kane, laughing and shrugging.

Which is exactly what the casinos are counting on.

By fudging just a few of the standard rules — reducing the blackjack payout to 6-5, requiring the dealer to hit and not stand on what's called a "soft 17" (an ace and a 6), and not permitting the player to double-down on any two cards, casinos have radically skewed the odds toward the house.

For an unsuspecting visitor playing $10 bets, that one rule change of 6-5 will cost an additional $15 an hour in estimated losses, five times more than the traditional version of blackjack. Play for a weekend and do the math. It's as if you're nearly tied in a game of baseball and suddenly in the last two innings, you're told you'll get only two outs.

Trying to measure the depth of this change, I visited Las Vegas for a couple of weekdays earlier this month, spoke with players, pit bosses and the experts, and was staggered by what I found. Though the casinos didn't return my phone calls to explain this shift, a supervisor standing behind the Flamingo's tables made the point.

"Why should I play here when you pay only 6-to-5?" I asked.

She paused for a moment, then said, "Well, we call this the Party Pit," pointing out that the Flamingo's new theme is that of a Cancún-like tropical beach party. In other words, sit down, have a drink and let the good times roll. Leave all that odds making to the house.

Cruising the maze of Strip casinos, I found numerous instances of blackjack tables where the odds aren't in your favor. At Rio, another "fun"-oriented casino, the blackjack pits had a proliferation of "carnival games," which might be more at home in a carnival than in a casino. The Rio's big come-on was a bevy of stacked "single-deck" games advertised with brightly colored electronic signs.

Edge to the houseSINGLE-DECK blackjack was the most advantageous game for players when played by traditional rules, offering a microscopic .18% house edge, which means a player's estimated loss will be 1.8 cents for every $10 wagered. At the Flamingo's Party Pit, a player is estimated to lose more than 10 times that amount, nearly 20 cents for every $10.

Although 1.8 cents or even 20 cents doesn't sound like much, stretch these numbers in a four-hour blackjack session and you're looking at nearly $50, and that's if you play a perfect game.

When my search for an old-fashioned 21 table took me to the upscale Venetian, I found a couple of high-stakes tables offering a decent game of double-deck blackjack. But with a $200 minimum bet -- and figuring that a blackjack bankroll ought to be 50 times the basic wager — $10,000 seemed like an excessive amount to risk for a few hours of honest fun.

Navigating the 170,000 square feet of Vegas' biggest casino, the MGM, I had better luck. A couple of rows of six-deck $10 blackjack tables offered some acceptable rules. A 3-2 payoff for natural 21s. Dealer standing on all 17s. Re-splitting aces. Doubling on any two cards. All in all, a .26% edge for the house, or 2.6 cents lost on every $10 bet. But you have to know what to look for. Sitting right next to these decent tables were others where the odds were ominous for the player. Nearly identical looking "single-deck" tables with a 6-5 payoff and miserable odds. Sit down at the wrong table and become fish food.

Nowhere on the Strip, however, could I find as much as one table of straight-up, traditional single-deck blackjack, a game that only a few years ago was abundant, at least in downtown Vegas. And to think there was a time when this simple game offered the house only a razor-thin advantage of less than .5% (provided the player makes all the logically right decisions).

It was an arrangement that existed without dissent since Vegas was born, when blackjack was played virtually everywhere under a universal set of rules and conditions. True, when Ed Thorpe came out with his card-counting "Beat the Dealer" books in the early 1960s, the casinos responded by adding more decks to a lot of the games, but it's nothing like the rewriting of rules taking place today.

After two long days of searching, I cheated. A few blocks down from the Rio, I popped into the offices of Pi Yee Press, publishers of books by blackjack expert Stanford Wong. It also publishes the monthly Current Blackjack News, a detailed breakdown of every blackjack table in the country. It's required reading for the serious card player.

"Blackjack is deteriorating severely because of corporate stupidity," said Al Rogers, Pi Yee's general manager and a semi-retired professional gambler. "They're going to kill off their own game unless they realize at some point you can't fool all the suckers all the time forever. Playing at a 6-5 table is like paying $64 for a movie ticket that really costs $8," he said.

What's a casual player to do to avoid falling into the pit? There are some pretty simple blackjack do's and don'ts, Rogers advises, and by following them and studying the Blackjack News, I finally found the statistically best blackjack games in Vegas: single-deck paying 3-2. Of the 1,000 or so blackjack tables in Sin City, four still offer the game. Two in the gritty El Cortez Hotel, nestled among blood banks and pawn shops on the wrong edge of downtown. And two inside the nearby and slightly more attractive Four Queens.

When I entered the Four Queens later that evening, blinded by the black, red, blue and yellow paisley carpeting and the garish, dust-covered train-station chandeliers, it was still a bit of a hunt. But there, in the back row of tables, up against the wall and with a view of a service closet, with no special signs or markings, lurking with a placid, unassuming Zen-like simplicity, was the coveted object of my search. For two hours, I held down the third-base seat, winning a modest but steady amount. A little bit amazed that while the other shakedown tables were packed, I was often the only player at this table. And extremely self-satisfied that I was playing at the very best blackjack table in all of Vegas.


Marc Cooper is a visiting professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He is the author of "The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas."*

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Where to find a few good tables

With the shuffle, the odds and the various protocols for playing constantly shifting, a blackjack table in Las Vegas tells you a lot about the hosting casino. Some give players a fighting chance; others are out there to fleece any poor fool. Here is an incomplete snapshot of a few casinos and the games that were offered two weeks ago.

---

MGM Grand

3799 Las Vegas Blvd.---

The game

Single-deck, 6-5 payoff,

dealer hits S17

The minimum

$10

The lowdown

A sucker game. The best advice is just don't sit down.

The game

Multi-deck, 3-2 payoff,

dealer stands on S17,

doubling after split OK,

re-splitting aces OK

The minimum

$10

The lowdown

A much better game, and at least the drinks are free.

---

Four Queens

202 Fremont St.---

The game

Double-deck, 3-2 payoff, dealer hits S17

The minimum

$5

The lowdown

Yeah, this is OK but not great.

The game

Single-deck, 3-2 payoff, dealer hits S17, double-down on any two cards; double after splitting

The minimum

$10

The lowdown

On a $10 bet, you stand to lose 18 cents — this is the best table in town. Bring a seat cushion. Play this right and you have an even chance of winning.

---

The Venetian

3355 Las Vegas Blvd.---

The game

Multi-deck, 3-2 payoff, dealer hits S17, re-splitting aces OK, late surrender offered

The minimum

$10

The lowdown

Not bad, but you can do better.

The game

Double-deck, 3-2 payoff, dealer stands on S17, doubling after splitting OK

The minimum

$200

The lowdown

It's an expensive game, but it's pretty sweet. Bet a lot and win a lot — if you're lucky.

---

Rio

3700 W. Flamingo Road---

The game

Single deck, 6-5 payoff, dealer hits S17

The minimum

$10

The lowdown

Immediately step away from the table.

The game

Multi-deck, 3-2 payoff, dealer stands on S17

The minimum

$15

The lowdown

A marginally better game.

The game

Double-deck, 3-2 payoff, dealer hits S17

The minimum

$200

The lowdown

Yikes. At $200 per bet, you'd better bring a big wad of cash.

---

The Flamingo

3555 Las Vegas Blvd.---

The game

Multi-deck, 6-5 payoff, dealer hits S17

The minimum

$5

The lowdown

Forget it. This is just about the worst game in town. Only a casino vacuum cleaner picks up more.

The game

Single-deck, 6-5 payoff, dealer hits S17, double after splitting OK

The minimum

$10

The lowdown

Keep on walkin'.

The game

Multi-deck, 3-2 payoff, dealer stands on S17, doubling after splitting OK

The minimum

$100

The lowdown

Expensive and just barely fair. You can do better.

*

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Do's and don'ts before you take a seat

For the card player, blackjack is a winnable game if you pay attention to where you throw your chips. The general rule of thumb is simple: Stay away from the sucker tables where your odds might be 6 to 10 times worse. And remember it's better to play at a $25 table with good rules than a $5 table with bad ones. More specifically:

What to do

Try to find a table where you can combine the most number of these rules: Dealer stands on soft 17 (an ace-6 combination); player can re-split pairs including aces; player can double-down after splitting; house offers late surrender; and, if possible, play with the least number of decks.

Spend the $2 or so to pick up a laminated "basic strategy" guide from any casino gift shop. This is the mathematically correct way to play the game. Don't play on hunches, guesses or intuition.

Get a player's club card from each casino and use it. Being comped room, food, beverages, entertainment or merchandise helps offset losses.

Purchase a copy of the Current Blackjack News, or consult any online tracking service to see the house advantage at any table in Vegas. The cost of one bulletin is the same as one bet.

What not to do

Play when a blackjack game pays only 6-5. Insist on a 3-2 payout.

Play a "special" single-deck game, especially Super Fun 21. Payouts are always 6-5. Some rip-off versions offer even money on blackjack. Avoid these at all costs.

Play at a table with a continuous shuffle machine. You'll lose 20% faster and be at a disadvantage on every hand.

Play where you can double-down only on 10 or 11. You should be able to double-down on any two cards.

— Marc Cooper

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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