Gambling Tips > Blackjack

Blackjack Then and Now

By Henry Tamburin

There have been more changes to the game of blackjack over the past five years than there had been the previous fifty years. Many of the recent changes have been implemented by casino management to increase their table revenue, or to eliminate the threat of card counters. Let’s examine these changes and their affect on the average player.


Single Deck Games
In the good old days, if you wanted to play a blackjack game with great odds you’d fly to Vegas and play their single deck games. Back in those days, the dealer pitched the cards to the player and when a player got a blackjack (and the dealer didn’t), the player got paid at 3-2 odds. The house edge on the game for the player that knew his basic strategy was only a few tenths of a percent (and depending upon the rules, in some single deck games the basic strategy player was playing dead even, or even had a slight advantage over the house).


Nowadays, good single deck games are going the way of the horse and buggy. Even though you’ll still find plenty of single deck games in Vegas (and elsewhere), the vast majority of them only pay 6-5 for an untied blackjack. That’s a horrible game with a house edge 7-9 times higher than the gold ole 3-2 single deck games.  The result of this change is the fleecing of the unknowing player who sits down at a single deck game thinking the odds are good when in fact they are horrible. Stay away (no, better run away) from any 6-5 single deck game.


Dealer Standing on Soft 17
Historically, casinos began replacing their good single deck games with games dealt with six decks of cards from a dealing shoe. This increased the house edge by a few tenths of a percent and because only 70-80% of the cards were dealt out of the shoe and then reshuffled, the edge that skillfully card counters had, compared to a single deck game, was diminished (but not eliminated). In the good old days, the house had their dealers stand on soft 17 (i.e. any hand containing an Ace counted as 11) in their 6-deck games (they stood on any other 17 and, of course, hit on 16 or less). In fact casinos all up and down the Strip in Las Vegas, and also in Atlantic City, had mostly 6-deck games with dealer standing on soft 17 (s17).


Nowadays, many casinos that deal a 6-deck blackjack game have their dealers hitting soft 17 (h17) rather than standing. Recently, many casinos in Atlantic City have switched from standing to hitting soft 17. The new MGM Grand in Conneticut has a mix of s17 and h17 tables so be carefule (Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are thankfully all s17). In other gaming venues, you’ll find a mix of s17 and h17 games but the trend is going to h17. The result of this minor rule change increases the house edge about 0.2% against the average player. It doesn’t seem like much of an increase, but every little bit hurts the player in the long run.


Shuffling the Cards
In the old days, dealer’s manually shuffled the cards. This gave them a break from the constant motion of dealing cards to players, and it also gave them a chance to chit-chat with players while they shuffled the cards.


Nowadays, you’ll find mostly automatic shufflers mixing the cards. Most casinos use two different stacks of six decks of cards per table with an automatic shuffler. While the dealer deals the cards from one six deck stack of cards (from a dealing shoe), the other six decks of cards are being shuffled offline by the automatic shuffler. This eliminates the down time of manually shuffling the cards, and from the casino’s perspective, the less the downtime, the more hands they can deal per hour, and the more profits they earn.


But the next generation of automatic shufflers is a horse of a different color because they dramatically changed the game. Known as Continuous Shuffling Machines (or CSMs), they were designed to make the game of blackjack unbeatable by card counting. The CSM holds 4-5 decks of cards. The dealer will deal a round of cards from the CSM and then after the round is completed (sometimes two rounds), the discards are placed back into the CSM where they are randomly mixed with the 4-5 decks. In other words, when you play in a blackjack game that uses a CSM,  the odds against players remain fixed on every hand dealt and the house always has the edge (the game is no longer beatable). Another benefit from the casino’s standpoint (and a detriment to all players) is that dealers using a CSM do nothing but continuously deal the cards hand after hand after hand. There is no pause in the action. Therefore, the casino can deal out about 20% more hands per hour and this negatively affects the average player because they stand to theoretically lose more money per hour (remember the house has the edge on every round). Given a choice, you should stay clear of playing any blackjack game that uses a CSM (the most common CSM is the King Shuffler, look for that name on the shuffling machine, or just watch to see if the discards are returned back to the automatic shuffler after round or so, and if so, you’ll know it’s a CSM).


Side Bets
In the old days when you sat down and played blackjack, you just, well, played blackjack. There were no other bets available other than the main game.


Nowadays, many blackjack tables have side bets. For example, you could make a side bet that your first two cards total 20 (Lucky Ladies), or your first two cards are sevens (Super Sevens), or your first two cards plus the dealer’s first card are a flush, straight, straight flush, or three of a kind (21+3), or the player's first two cards are of the same rank (Pair Square) or any number of other side bets. These side bets are clearly marked on the layout and they usually cost the player a buck to make and usually have fairly high payoff odds (more than the usually 1-1 payoff on a winning blackjack hand). Unfortunately, these side bets also have a high house edge meaning the purpose of the extra bets is to increase the casino’s table revenue. Except for a few side bets that can give the skilled player the edge using specific card counting systems, the vast majority of side bets should be avoided by average players. When you sit down at a blackjack table, just play the game and avoid making any side bets.


Different Versions of Blackjack
In the old days, when you sat down  at a blackjack table you were fairly certain you were playing blackjack the way it was meant to be played.


Nowadays, you’ll find versions of the traditional game of blackjack on the casino floor. Super Fun 21, Spanish 21, Double Exposure, are just a few new versions of the traditional game of blackjack that have appeared in casinos. I don’t have the space to review all these games, but suffice it to say none of them offer a house edge lower than what the basic strategy player can get today by learning a relatively simple list of playing rules for the traditional game. For average players, your best bet is to stick with the traditional game using the basic playing strategy.


Have there been other changes in the game? You bet, and in a future article I’ll discuss these. Until then, go get a blackjack.