Where to find the best blackjack games in Vegas, and how to avoid the tricks and traps that take down most players
By Joseph Pane
“Since one-deck games are very hard to find in other parts of the country, a lot of Las Vegas visitors are eager to play as soon as they see it offered—but they jump in without looking at the rules of the table. These rules determine how big of an edge the house has against you.”
You have two choices when you go to Las Vegas to play blackjack :
1) You can prepare yourself by gaining a full understanding of the game—so that even if Lady Luck doesn’t follow you on your trip, you can still have enjoy plenty of time at the tables.
2) Or, you can check into your hotel room, head down to the casino, and take a seat at the first blackjack table you see—without bothering to check the rules of the game you are playing, or understanding how these rules will affect you. (This will almost guarantee that you will lose more than you were mathematically supposed to.)
Playing smart blackjack doesn’t begin when your cards are dealt. It starts before that, with the table you choose to play at. I’m about to explain how to choose the right blackjack games in Las Vegas, a learning process which I equate to loading the family into the car and taking a trip to grandma’s house. I remember watching my dad as he prepared the family car for that long drive. He’d make sure the car was tuned up. Then he would check the oil and filters, and make sure the air pressure on all the tires met the manufacturer’s specifications. These tasks not only assured a worry-free ride, but also helped with fuel efficiency, which kept the cost of the ride to a minimum.
Now let’s translate this into casino terms. When playing blackjack without possessing the skills of a card counter, you are playing a negative expectation game. That means the longer you play, the more your money is bucking the house edge that is built into the game of blackjack. However, you do have choices here. The obvious choice, if you ask me, is to learn how to count cards so that you can shift the house edge to your side of the table. I could teach you how to do that, but I’d need to do so in a future issue of Casino Player.
Right now, my goal is this: to explain how to play blackjack in Las Vegas in a way that my father would have been proud of. In other words, you will have prepared for your trip. There will be a cost, just like dad incurred a cost for the long drive to grandma’s house—but if you follow my tips, you’re going to save money on your next trip. You’re going to lose less—or, with an assist from Lady Luck, you’re going to leave the casino a winner.
Don’t Be Deceived
To the novice’s eye, all blackjack tables look the same—but that could not be any further from the truth. The blackjack tables within many casinos are as different from each other as hot and cold, black or white.
Your first task upon entering the casino will be to decide what type of blackjack game to play. Will it be a six-deck game, or will it be a two-deck game? Or will you be looking for a taste of “old Las Vegas” and try your luck against a single deck?
Since one-deck games are very hard to find in other parts of the country, a lot of Las Vegas visitors are eager to play as soon as they see it offered—but they jump in without looking at the rules of the table. These rules determine how big of an edge the house has against you. Most one-deck games in Las Vegas now pay the players only 6 to 5 when they receive a blackjack. The normal payoff for a blackjack (also known as a “natural”) is 3 to 2.
That may not sound like a big difference, but to veteran players like myself it would be similar to driving to grandma’s house with a flat tire, or a gas tank close to empty. Not something dad would want to subject the family to.
The math of the game says you will receive a blackjack once every 21 hands. At a blackjack table, the average number of hands dealt to a player can be a much as 60-85 hands per hour. This number of hands I projected will vary from dealer to dealer, and from table to table, based upon the speed of the players and the speed of the dealer. In keeping with this schedule of hands, this would mean that every hour you are playing, you should receive at least four blackjacks per hour.
If your average bet was $20 a hand, you would be paid $30 for every blackjack you received. However, if you sat down at a table that paid 6 to 5 for a natural (and most players don’t even bother to see if this rule applies), your payouts would be $24 instead of $30. You’d be giving away $6 on every blackjack you received. In one hour, you’d be giving the casino an extra $24 that should have gone into your pocket!
One of the only casinos in town where you can find a one-deck game that pays 3 to 2 on a natural, and has a house edge of only 0.17, can be found in downtown Vegas at the El Cortez.
Rules To Remember
Now let’s look at some other factors that will help you to determine a game worth playing, versus a table you should avoid.
With a 6-deck game, you should only play if the following rules are offered: Dealer stands on all 17’s; double down on any first two cards; splitting up to four hands; double down after splitting; re-split aces; and surrender. A game with these rules has only a .26 house edge when you play with perfect basic strategy.
A 6-deck game that hits soft 17’s; does not allow re-splitting of aces; and has no double down after splits raises the house edge to .94.
Again, these numbers may seem trivial—but if you’re playing $20 a hand for four hours a day, at a conservative rate of 60 hands per hour, you’re putting $4,800 of your money into action. A .94 house edge will raise your expected loss to over $451. But when playing the 6-deck game with a .26 edge, your expected loss drops to just shy of $125. That’s a $326 difference for every four hours that you play.
The following casinos offer 6-deck games with player-friendly rules. At some of them, you’ll be up against that miniscule.26 percent edge. But be sure to find out about the rules of that table before you sit down and start betting money. You can always ask the dealer.
Good Vegas Casinos For 6-Deck Games:
If you prefer playing a 2-deck game, look for a game where they stand on all 17s, and doubling down after splitting is allowed. If you can find a double-deck game that also offers surrender, that’s a bonus.
Without being able to count cards, you won’t be able to take full advantage of the surrender option. So be careful not to overuse it, or you will cost yourself money. The advice I’d give a non-counter, in a game where surrender is offered, is to use this option only when they have a hard 16 vs. a dealer 9-10, or Ace and a 15 vs. a dealers 10. Otherwise, you should use basic strategy. A double-deck game with these rules has a house edge of 0.19
Vegas casinos where you will find a double-deck game with good rules include:
The basic intent of this article is to show you how to enjoy your future blackjack sessions in Las Vegas without having to pay a king’s ransom in the process. So let me also touch on another form of blackjack that many professional players won’t go near. I’m talking about tables that have a Continuous Shuffle Machine dispensing the cards to the players. These machines are called “CSM’s” in the casino’s jargon.
No card counter would ever play at these tables, because the cards that are dealt are put right back into the CSM to be dealt again. When this happens, the players will always be playing with a near neutral or zero count 100% of the time. Therefore, card counters can never achieve an advantage at a table with a CSM.
However, if you are not counting cards and can play perfect basic strategy this may be a situation that you’ll want to explore—because it can reduce your exposure to the house edge. You see, “perfect” basic strategy is based upon a complete deck of cards. Therefore, at a CSM, the count will always be at or close to zero, which means you will be playing every hand correctly if you’re playing perfect basic strategy. The only drawback to playing this type of game is that the machine makes it faster. You will play more hands per hour, which will probably cost you more money by the end of your trip.
Nevertheless, there is one little trick you can employ to counter this. If you decide to play at a CSM table, where basic strategy plays are always correct, you must first find a table that has all seats occupied and has a nice social vibe. In other words, players are chatting away with each other and interacting with the dealer. This will slow down the number of hands dealt per hour down, meaning that you will play less hands per hour. This reduces the amount of your money you are wagering against the house edge.
I hope that during your next trip to Las Vegas you utilize these blackjack tips to improve your chances of going home with some extra cash in your pockets—and that less of your money ends up in the casinos’ cages.