As table games take less and less of the casino’s total gaming revenue, casino managers have tried to increase its hold percentage ”” the amount of the handle that the casino retains — through various belt-tightening measures.
The process of squeezing more hold out of the win is called "sweating the money," and it has been most apparent at the blackjack tables.
Some of the techniques a casino will try to swing the advantage in its favor may include replacing the deck, changing dealers, going to a shuffle machine or even calling the "eye in the sky," trying to find a reason to excuse a player who appears to be winning too frequently.
But lately, casino operators have been less subtle as they tip the playing field in their direction. In several Las Vegas casinos, they’ve reduced the blackjack payoff to 6-5 from the industry standard 3-2.
"We have 10 or 12 tables ”” all single deck games ”” that now pay 6-5 for a 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, even in its most casual form, was cited by the dealer 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 who asked for anonymity. "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, a shift supervisor 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 its 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, Kate 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 Las Vegas, 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!)
Missouri casino executives argue that it is their right to use countermeasures in order to ensure the profitability of their games.
In Las Vegas, the bottom line is blackjack may 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, and pay them 6-5 for a blackjack.
"Even our baccarat pit is changing," she continued. "They don’t even wear tuxedos any more. What’s a baccarat pit without tuxedos?"