Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003 | 8:23 a.m.
Some oddball blackjack-like games in the Las Vegas area:
Poker Palace in North Las Vegas offers a gimmicky single-deck game in which blackjacks pay even money, but the deck is dealt out all the way to the last card. With a paltry $50 maximum bet and a large house advantage, this game is considered a mere curiosity piece.
-- By Jeff Haney
Source material: Current Blackjack News (bj21.com)
Mario Puzo once compared the house's edge in a casino game to a sharp sword.
In modern-day Las Vegas, that sword has grown considerably sharper.
Many casinos now offer blackjack games in which blackjacks pay off at odds of 6-5 rather than the traditional 3-2 that is, $6 for a $5 bet rather than $7.50 for a $5 bet.
It might not seem like a significant issue to many players, who tend to think, "Hey, I got a blackjack; I'm getting paid anyway."
But that minor adjustment in the odds can make a major dent in a player's bankroll.
Take, for example, a blackjack player who uses proper "basic strategy" meaning he knows when to hit, stand, double down and split. Let's say he bets $10 a hand and plays 100 hands per hour.
At a decent six-deck blackjack game dealt from a shoe such as those at the Palms, the MGM Grand and elsewhere he would lose an average of $2.60 in that hour, according to computer analyses.
At a good single-deck blackjack game such as those at the Las Vegas Club and elsewhere he would lose an average of $1.80 in that hour.
At a game that pays 6-5 for blackjacks, however, our hero can expect to lose more than $14 an hour.
In other words, he will lose his money at least five times more quickly at a 6-5 game than at a shoe game, and eight times more quickly than at an old-fashioned single-deck game.
Fools die, indeed.
"This is incredibly stupid," said UNLV professor Bill Thompson, who studies gaming issues. "Everybody knows blackjacks pay 3-2. Unless they're giving out free bottles of whiskey to everyone who sits down at the table, I don't know why anybody would play this game."
Thompson, tongue in cheek, suggested 6-5 blackjack rode into Las Vegas on the same wave as topless swimming pools and sexy pirate shows on the Strip.
"Maybe the casinos think that everyone coming to Las Vegas is thinking below the belt instead of with their brains," Thompson said.
Other gambling experts say the change in odds is so extreme that the 6-5 game shouldn't even be called blackjack; that some casinos have been misleading in the way they promote the game; and that if the 6-5 game continues to proliferate, it could cause tourists to view Las Vegas casinos as unnecessarily greedy.
They also place some blame on the players, though, for failing to do at least a little bit of homework before approaching the green baize: If you play a 6-5 game and lose your money, well, to paraphrase gamblin' man Jimmy Buffett, it's your own damn fault.
According to John Scarne's classic reference book, "New Complete Guide to Gambling," blackjacks have paid off at odds of 3-2 since 1912, when the American form of blackjack became popular in the betting parlors of Evansville, Ind.
Any game with substandard odds should not be called blackjack and should be avoided, says Don Schlesinger, author of "Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros' Way."
"Everyone should avoid the (6-5) game because, quite simply, it isn't blackjack anymore," said Schlesinger, interviewed via telephone. "Naturals need to pay 3-2 for the average player to have a fair shot at winning money at the game."
There are 159 blackjack tables with the 6-5 odds at 24 casinos in the Las Vegas area, and the game is spreading quickly, according to the monthly tip sheet Current Blackjack News.
Al Rogers, manager of the website bj21.com and a semi-retired professional gambler, tried to persuade state officials to prohibit casinos from calling the 6-5 game "blackjack."
"People are being scammed, and I don't like to see them being ripped off," Rogers said in an interview at his office near Decatur Boulevard and Flamingo Road. "It's like the casinos are saying, 'If you're not a complete sucker, you can't play.' "
Rogers stated his case in an impassioned three-page letter to the Gaming Control Board and the Gaming Commission on March 28.
"If this game is allowed to continue, the Commission and/or the Board should require the casinos to post large, prominent signs reading 'Short Pay Table,' " Rogers wrote.
Rogers' plea was rejected.
"It falls within the guidelines" of acceptable games, said Keith Copher, the Gaming Control Board's chief of enforcement. "People are not happy about it; they'd rather have the higher 3-2 payout. But the 6-5 game does fall within the guidelines."
Some of the promotional campaigns linked to 6-5 blackjack have also drawn fire -- and ridicule -- from gamblers.
For instance, an advertisement on the electronic sign at Bally's on the Strip reads: "Now at Bally's and Paris ... By Popular Demand ... Single Deck Blackjack."
The promo neglects to inform the gaming public that it's 6-5 blackjack, the inferior game.
"I find it misleading," said Michael Shackleford, a Las Vegas-based gaming consultant. "I seriously doubt that many people are demanding a game like this."
Norm Wattenberger, a blackjack expert and creator of the "Casino Verite" computer software, cracked: "Soon we'll see, 'For extra excitement, both dealer cards are hidden!' "
Officials with Park Place Entertainment, the parent company of Bally's and Paris, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Also, in a recent promotional letter, Harrah's informed lucky gamblers that "every blackjack player's dream has come true ... yep, single deck games."
The letter went on to describe a game at The Rio in which blackjacks pay not 3-2, not 6-5, but even money. This game has the worst odds of any blackjack game currently being dealt anywhere in the world.
"Imagine a company so nefarious that it would purposely lie to players," Schlesinger said. "Harrah's should be ashamed of itself."
Officials with Harrah's Entertainment Inc., parent company of Harrah's and The Rio, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Officials with Station Casinos, MGM MIRAGE and Mandalay Resort Group also did not respond to requests for comment on 6-5 blackjack.
Stanford Wong, author of the seminal "Professional Blackjack," said that while casino management has every right to offer 6-5 blackjack, the game should be portrayed accurately in promotional material.
"There have been instances of 6-5 not being presented honestly," Wong said. "The first casino ad I saw for 6-5 called it a 'whopping' 6-5, as if 6-5 were bigger than 3-2. Yes, 6 is bigger than 3, but 6-5 is not bigger than 3-2."
Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter, took the side of the casinos' marketing departments.
Well, sort of.
"Things like demand and dreams coming true, that stuff can't be quantified," Curtis said. "It's hype. Casinos are allowed to hype their product.
"But, if they want to market it like that, they have to realize they're fair game for a guy like me who's going to call them on it and tell them they're full of (malarkey)."
Using basic strategy at the blackjack table does not erase the house's advantage, but it does afford the player a good run for his money. Which is why blackjack, rather than Casino War or the Big Six wheel, is by far the most popular table game in Nevada.
A second reason for blackjack's popularity is the perception that it's a game of skill, not luck. From the publication of Dr. Ed Thorp's "Beat the Dealer" in 1962 to the Caesars Palace scene in "Rain Man" to last year's "Bringing Down the House," a book that chronicled the adventures of a high-level, card-counting team, books and movies have promoted the mythology that savvy gamblers can win piles of money from the casinos at blackjack.
The reality is that for every proficient card counter, there are probably hundreds of poseurs who think they have the right stuff -- but as far as being a threat to the casino's bankroll, they're more like Kenny from "South Park" than the late Kenny Uston, the legendary card counter.
The blackjack games that pay 6-5 could eventually destroy that mythology, says Wattenberger, the gambling software developer.
"There is a symbiotic relationship between card counters and casinos," Wattenberger said. "They need each other. Forty years ago, before Thorp's book came out, table games were not nearly as popular as they are now. If it weren't for advantage players, the casinos would be wall-to-wall slots.
"The average person is never going to study (blackjack) enough to gain an advantage over the house -- but it makes them feel better knowing they're playing a game of skill. You lose that with the 6-5 games."
Curtis, the publisher and part-time star on the Travel Channel cable network, predicts players will eventually abandon 6-5 blackjack.
"Over time, bit by bit, person by person, the entire market is going to react as a single organism and people will move away from that game," Curtis said. "It will hurt the casinos in the long run."
A couple of generations ago, Horseshoe founder Benny Binion said that giving customers "good whiskey, good food and a good gamble" was the secret to his Las Vegas success.
Schlesinger, who is preparing to publish a third, revised edition of "Blackjack Attack," said 6-5 blackjack is an example of "a good gamble" becoming scarce in modern Las Vegas.
"Casino owners, in their infinite greed, seem to have no shame these days," Schlesinger said. "There are all sorts of side bets and rules variations that have been concocted to extract more money from the unwitting players."
Schlesinger did say the players should know better: "With books and websites that furnish accurate analyses of all the games, it's easy to become an informed, tough player."
Thompson, the UNLV professor, said players who are craving the single-deck experience can still satisfy their urge in Las Vegas.
The Horseshoe, for example, still offers one of the city's best single-deck games -- and no 6-5 tables.
"This is the way we've done business for 50 years, and there's no plan to change it anytime soon," a Horseshoe spokeswoman said.
As does Schlesinger, Shackleford, the gaming consultant, criticizes players for patronizing the 6-5 tables.
"To be honest, if I owned a casino, and my goal was to maximize profits, I might have some of these 6-5 blackjack games to capitalize on people's foolishness," Shackleford said.
Even so, Shackleford said, "I definitely think it's a public service to warn people about this game."
As Shackleford and many others will tell you, if you come across a table that pays 6-5 for blackjacks, don't worry about whether to hit, stand or double down.