Over the last few weeks, I’ve written a couple of columns that described a variety of mechanisms game inventors use to create a house edge. Every table game has one. There are no exceptions.
Blackjack uses the edge that players must act first, so if both player and dealer bust, only the player loses. The fact that this mechanism has been in place for potentially hundreds of years doesn’t make it any better (or worse) than any other mechanism.
In Roulette, the mechanism is a combination of the “0” (and “00”) and the fact there are 37/38 numbers on the wheel and the payouts all assume 36 numbers to get to 100%.The house keeps those extra few points.
Craps uses a relatively similar mechanism whereby it tends to pay out 1 less (or 1/2 less) than the true odds. It also uses a few other little mechanisms – like a 12 being a push on the Don’t Pass line. So, a 12 is a loss on Pass and a push on Don’t Pass.
These mechanisms have been around for decades or centuries and nobody gives them much thought. Now, if a casino decided tomorrow that a 2 will also be a push on the Don’t Pass line, then they would be changing the mechanism and greatly increase the house edge.
A casino that did this would potentially lose customers to another casino that kept the status quo. If, on the other hand, the casino did this and paid out a fraction more for the Don’t Pass line (I’m not going to bother calculating this as it does not matter for the purposes of this column), then the question of whether this is good or bad depends on just how much extra they choose to pay out.
In other words, mechanisms are not necessarily good or bad. From the player perspective, the questions are really: What is the payback, and is the game more/less fun than something else?
I recently had a conversation with Roger Snow, executive VP at SHFL Entertainment, in which we discussed Four Card Poker and its main mechanism, namely the player gets five cards to the dealer’s six cards. Would players really play a game in which the dealer got such an obvious advantage?
A game’s advantage is not determined by the operating structure of the game. It is determined by the overall rules, including the betting structure and the payouts. Four Card Poker has a very similar payback as Three Card, a game in which the player and dealer get the same number of cards.
Four Card Poker makes up for the dealer’s advantage of getting an additional card by allowing the player to make a 3x play bet when it is to his advantage to do so. If a player is too timid to make this 3x wager and simply chooses to play it like Three Card Poker and either fold or make a 1x play wager, then he will be giving the house a huge advantage.
The simple strategy of wagering 3x when the player has a pair of 10s or better will serve the player well. My booklet “Expert Strategy for Four Card Poker” contains a slightly more complex strategy that can shave the house edge down a bit further.
Changing mechanisms to existing games can be risky. Many have tried to change the game of Blackjack. Few have succeeded.
Spanish 21 was the first to do so, removing the 10’s from the deck (the actual 10’s, not the face cards), which gives the house a bit more of an edge. But, it added in a variety of bonus payouts for certain hands (like three 7’s or 6-7-8) and gave the player some liberal options – doubling on any number of cards.
The end result is the payback of Spanish 21 is virtually identical to regular Blackjack. As to whether the game is more fun or not, obviously that is subjective. But with a peak of about 400-plus tables, and still at least a few hundred, I would tend to say there is a strong contingent that considers it more enjoyable than regular Blackjack.
Another risky move in the Blackjack arena came from Geoff Hall, the inventor of Blackjack Switch and Free Bet Blackjack. Both use the mechanism that a dealer 22 will push against all player non-bust hands (except a natural Blackjack).
This is a huge advantage for the house. But, each game gives an equal amount back to the player. The ability to switch the second cards of your two blackjack hands (in Switch) and making “free” doubles and splits in Free Bet provide the player with huge advantages.
Of course, in the case of all three of these games, the player must learn how to properly adjust his game for these rule changes. Spanish 21 requires a completely new strategy table to deal with the missing 10’s.
Spanish 21 also pays for Charlies (hands of a certain number of cards that do not bust), so the strategy must be tailored to account for the number of cards the player has. The player may not hit a 2-card 15, but might hit a 5-card 15.
Blackjack Switch has yet an entirely different strategy from Blackjack and Spanish 21. Not only must a player learn when to switch the cards, he must also learn an entirely new hit/stick strategy because of the Push 22 rule. Doubling on Soft Hands becomes prohibitive because the dealer will bust that much less often.
Free Bets has a relatively easy strategy as to when to take the free double/split, but also requires learning the right hit/stick strategy because of the Push 22 rule.
Paybacks for Spanish 21, Blackjack Switch and regular Blackjack are almost identical. It would be quite unfair to look at either of the newer games and declare it “unfair” because of the mechanism it uses to create a larger house advantage. Everything it takes, it gives back in other ways.
To fully take advantage of this you must learn the new strategy for these versions of blackjack. Admittedly, the casinos count on a number of people to simply take regular blackjack strategies over to these new games.
Thus, even fairly competent Blackjack players might become rather poor Spanish 21 or Blackjack Switch players.
Blackjack Switch is much newer than Spanish 21 so it is not as clear whether players consider it to be more fun than regular Blackjack. But with about 150 tables, the evidence would seem to be pointing in the direction that they do.
Critical to all casino games is learning the right strategy. We offer a number of booklets to help you learn all of the casino’s most popular games. You can see our entire set of offerings on our website at www.gambatria.com.
Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].