Table matters!

Jan 3, 2006 2:21 AM

For the first time since the downturn that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, blackjack revenue in the state of Nevada is showing signs of fading.

For the fiscal year ended June 30, 2005, the state’s blackjack tables won $1.17 billion, a 3.57 percent decrease from the $1.21 billion won in fiscal 2004. The latter was a healthy 12.2 percent gain over the $1.1 billion won in fiscal 2003.

Moreover, the most recent revenue figures reveal that blackjack revenue in October was $92.4 million, a 2.3 percent slide from last October’s win amount.

Experts say that, if in fact the popularity of blackjack has peaked or is actually declining, several factors may have contributed.

They include the advancing popularity of poker, which may have lured some players from the "21" tables, as well as the lottery-like payoffs offered by slots and other gaming machines.

But mostly, experts agree, the casinos may have brought on the downturn by introducing new games and policies designed to squeeze more money from the tables.

"Whether the casino wanted to deter card counters or simply stack the odds further in their favor, they’ve introduced several measures over the past couple of years designed to fatten their bottom line," said a former executive of a popular Las Vegas casino. "The process is called ”˜sweating the money’ and most casinos have done it, at least to some degree."

One of the most noticeable measures is reducing the blackjack payoff to 6-5 from the industry standard 3-2.

"We have about a dozen tables — all single deck games — that now pay 6-5 for a natural blackjack," said Kate, a dealer at a major Strip resort who asked not to reveal her last name. "The six- and eight-deck games still pay 3-2 for a natural, but when dealing from a shoe, you’re not likely to find many counters."

Card counting was cited by pit bosses as the reason the casinos began paying less for a blackjack — even though Nevada casinos can and often do ask a patron to leave if they suspect they are counting cards.

While a drop from 3-2 to 6-5 doesn’t sound like much, no serious or professional blackjack player would ever tolerate it.

"The difference results in a swing of about 1 percent in the casino’s favor," said a high limit player. "And you can really feel the bite when you put a $2,000 bet out there and win only $2,400 instead of $3,000. Those deficits add up."

When asked about the reduction in blackjack payoffs, another dealer at a Strip resort said most customers "don’t seem to notice," and that there hasn’t been any significant migration to the six- and eight-deck games.

In addition to cutting the blackjack payoff, casinos have taken other steps to increase their advantage.

"Dealers are now hitting a soft 17 (an ace and a six), which results in a slight edge," Kate said. "The only exceptions are at the high limit tables, where we will stand, but just as a courtesy to the bigger players."

Dealers will also cut the deck "thick," that is, about half way through the deck so they can re-shuffle more frequently, she added.

By cutting thick, the shoe has a "bad penetration," which undermines card counters because they won’t have the ability to use the entire deck.

Another tactic that has been mentioned by professional players is card counting by the dealer, who will arbitrarily re-shuffle when he’s determined the deck has become unfavorable to the house.

Although it hasn’t yet been reported in Nevada, casinos in Missouri are allowed to lower the table limit in the midst of a game, in order to gain advantage, presumably over a card counter. (Card counters aren’t banned in Missouri, but the state’s gaming regulators give casinos a wide berth in which to thwart them!)

Most recently, a few casinos have introduced high-tech blackjack tables that feature scanning devices, RFID chips and player tracking systems.

But the tables have not been well-received by players (and some casinos), so their future in Nevada is in doubt (see related story on page 1).

Another addition has been perpetual-shuffle dealer machines, which shuffle the deck after each hand, and blackjack variations such as Super Fun 21, which uses a single 52-card deck but pays a reduced 6-5 for a natural and bars players from doubling down on certain cards.

The bottom line is blackjack could be headed for the same fate as high-limit sports betting.

"The casinos just don’t want to deal with the high end players any more," Kate said. "They’re content to draw in the $10 and $15 players, who are probably less likely to complain about or even recognize the changes that have occurred with blackjack."