Massachusetts and Pennsylvania: A lesson from two blackjack payouts By Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports April 19, 2021 at 7:00 pm Sometimes you learn from other peoples’ troubles; other times you learn from good examples. For gaming regulators and operators, the saga of blackjack rules in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania illustrates those different paths. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments this month over lawsuits accusing the state’s two casinos of shorting blackjack players by millions of dollars by improper use of 6-to-5 payouts on players’ two-card 21s at many tables. Gaming regulations allow for such payouts at specified tables, but the lawsuits contend the casinos didn’t meet the governing conditions. Some players said 3-to-2 payouts were limited to tables with minimum bets of $100 or more. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission amended the rules in October 2020. Pennsylvania’s comparable regulations cause no such consternation or confusion. Since the Keystone State launched table games in 2010, its Gaming Control Board has enforced several player-friendly blackjack rules applying to all betting levels both at traditional casinos and online. Those include: Player blackjacks must be paid 3-to-2. Dealers must stand on soft 17. Players may double down on any two cards. After the dealer checks for blackjack, players may surrender their hands, giving up half their bet, instead of hitting or standing. Shutterstock The two-pronged Massachusetts approach not only sanctioned worse odds for most casino customers but also generated costly legal action. Regardless of how the justices rule, the lawsuits’ allegations of “stealing” from casino customers and dealing “unlawful” or “crooked” games will leave sour feelings among players and operators. In contrast, Pennsylvania rules emphasize a fair return for operators, while also offering some of the country’s best blackjack rules for players. That approach contributed to continuous year-over-year growth in table game revenue until COVID-19 hit in 2020. Blackjack accounts for the lion’s share of table game profits at most casinos. Before the pandemic, Pennsylvania trailed only Nevada in total gaming revenue. And that came despite Pennsylvania topping all other states in gaming tax revenue. Its casino growth is continuing. The $700 million Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia opened in February with 2,200 slots, more than 150 table games, a FanDuel Sportsbook, and a 200-room hotel. In November, the state’s first “mini-casino” opened near Pittsburgh. Four other such casinos, which may have 300 to 750 slot machines and up to 40 table games, are in various stages of design or construction. Obviously, decent blackjack rules aren’t the main reason, or even a primary one, for the impressive growth of Pennsylvania gaming. However, they demonstrate a conscious balancing of the competing needs of operators, players, and the state. Players deserve a fair shake while they fork over their money to the other two. Casinos that embrace 6-to-5 payouts and other anti-player bastardizations of a great game disrespect their customers. The 6-to-5 and 3-to-2 payouts sound close, but the difference adds up quickly. With a $50 bet, a player blackjack wins $60 at a 6-to-5 table, compared with $75 at a 3-to-2 table. With a player averaging a blackjack every 22 hands or so, the reduced payout costs the $50 bettor about $45 per hour. Even players who don’t care about math realize their money and their fun just doesn’t last as long at a 6-to-5 table. A handful of highly skilled blackjack players can reduce the house edge to near zero, or even gain a slight advantage, with computer-perfect strategy, card counting, and other legal “advantage” tactics. Regardless, casinos typically keep about 15 percent of the total blackjack buy-in — thanks to the built-in house advantage and because so few players reach the highest levels of skill. Besides, operators have a popular method of increasing their blackjack revenue without resorting to changes in the basic rules of the game: optional side bets, such as Lucky Ladies, 21 + 3, In Between, and a host of others. Like most casino-gambling states, Pennsylvania has approved numerous side bets that offer players the chance of a sizable payout for a small additional bet, while the edge for the house on many such bets is higher than that of slot machines. Some casinos offer two side bets for each table spot; some players wager more on side bets than on their blackjack hand. Gaming Control Board Executive Director Kevin O’Toole said Pennsylvania will maintain its universal 3-to-2 requirement even after last year’s pandemic shutdowns and the resulting drop in gaming revenue. That reminded me of a conversation I had with him in 2011 when regulators were reviewing the temporary rules used to launch Pennsylvania’s table games. Many blackjack fans had expected the state to back away from the player-friendly setup. But O’Toole held firm. After saying he saw no reason to allow 6-to-5, he offered a suggestion for the casinos: “Why don’t you market yourself as having the best blackjack game in the country? Maybe that’s why you’re doing so well.” There’s a lesson that operators across the country should take to heart.