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Pa. holding on to good blackjack rules, top regulator says

By Mark Gruetze, Trib Live

New restaurants, new entertainment options and new games are ahead at Western Pennsylvania casinos in the coming year. And gamblers across the state might finally be able to wager online legally.

But the most exciting news, at least for fans of the most popular casino table game, is what’s staying the same: Pennsylvania’s player-friendly blackjack rules.

“I don’t foresee any changes,” Gaming Control Board Executive Director Kevin O’Toole tells Player’s Advantage.

“Our board has consistently recognized their responsibility to protect the gaming public in all aspects of legalized gaming. Part of that is to have rules of the game that provide an appropriate house advantage to the casino but something that still meets a standard of reasonableness and a standard of fairness. We’re pleased with how we have accomplished that in games that have been on the books since 2010.”

Mohegan Sun, Pennsylvania’s first legal casino, opened in November 2006. Eleven more slots-only casinos opened in the next four years, and the Legislature approved the addition of table games in 2010. Unlike many other jurisdictions, Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board established rules that apply to casinos throughout the state and at all betting levels. Whether betting red $5 chips or black $100 chips, blackjack players in the Keystone State enjoy one of the best games in the country because of this combination of rules:

• All player blackjacks must be paid 3-to-2; for example, a $10 bet would win $15. In many areas – including the majority of tables on the Las Vegas Strip, according to a recent report – a blackjack pays a measly 6-to-5, or only $12 for a $10 bet. It might not sound like much of a change, but a player gets a blackjack once every 20 or so hands, on average. A $10-a-hand player gives up about $12 an hour with the lower payout.

• Dealer must stand on Soft 17 (Ace-6). Many jurisdictions allow the dealer to hit Soft 17, which increases the house advantage.

• Player may double-down on any two cards and may double after splitting a pair.

• Casinos must offer “surrender,” which allows players to give up half their bet instead of hitting or standing. Casinos almost never advertise that this option is available. Savvy players use it sparingly, but the technique further reduces the house edge.

With Pennsylvania rules, a player who takes the time to learn basic strategy, which provides the mathematically correct play for any situation, faces a minuscule house edge of less than 0.4 percent in a six- or eight-deck game. For comparison, slot machine players contend with a house edge that’s 20 times greater.

In a double-deck blackjack game, which Meadows Casino in Washington County might start dealing in 2017, the house edge drops to 0.2 percent.

“A lot of people have told me they’d really like to see a double-deck offering,” says General Manager Rod Centers, who joined Meadows in October after Pinnacle Entertainment of Las Vegas took over operation of the casino and racetrack. “We’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”

Within two years of adding table games in 2010, Pennsylvania displaced New Jersey as the country’s No. 2 state in gambling revenue, and casinos now provide more than 18,000 jobs in the state. The favorable blackjack rules are a key contributor to that success.

Casinos are in no danger of losing money on blackjack or other table games. The proliferation of side bets and the uninformed play of the majority of gamblers guarantee that. Statewide, gross table game revenue has increased each year, topping $839 million in fiscal 2015-16.

Regulators deserve blackjack players’ thanks for providing a great game at every casino and every betting level.

“The state of Pennsylvania has done it the right way,” Centers says. “When you look at our blackjack rules in the state, they’re very player friendly, and we’re going to support that.”

In the next Player’s Advantage: Local casinos plan changes, expansions in 2017

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review’s gambling columnist. Reach him at PlayersAdv@outlook.com

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