Do you STILL believe in Santa Claus?
by Ron Fitch

To open this article, permit me to relate an incident Kenny Uston encountered at Vegas World (now the Stratosphere) which he wrote up in one of his early 80's Blackjack newsletters. The incident clarifies the title of this article and sets the stage for discussion of an oft-neglected topic; namely: you get what you pay for.

This article was prompted by an encounter on my most recent scouting-trip to Las Vegas. One wednesday evening I was casino hopping with some friends, when my friend D.C. reminded me that I had ignored O'Shea's at the middle of the Las Vegas strip.

In my opinion, since the closing of Silver City, O'Shea's is now the current "sawdust joint" on the Vegas strip (minus the actual sawdust, of course). On this particular evening, the north-side of the casino was nearly "gutted" (I assume for renovation) forcing nearly a dozen slot and video poker machines onto the sidewalk, giving a casino guard the exciting job of keeping the grubby fingers of tourist passerbys off the neat looking "toys".

Eager to get out of there fast, I quickly scanned the few gaming tables they have, making a mental note that their shoe game SUCKED; as they HAVE for over 3 years now. Their double-deck game with it's poor penetration and suck-rules is no better.

A couple of tables over (furthest from the street), I was stunned to see a $5 single-deck game dealt to over 80% of the cards. While Oshea's 6-deck game does not allow doubling on any 2 cards or after splits, in this game you can double on ANYTHING, and the pit doesn't seem to be "sweating the action".

The "catch" to this game is that blackjacks pay 6-to-5 (i.e. $6 for $5, instead of the expected $7.50 for $5). You might be thinking that at least they are not paying even-money as they did at Vegas World. Ken Uston pointed out the "price" of even-money blackjacks, but what about a 6-to-5 payoff? To understand the "cost" of the 6-to-5 payoff, let's translate these numbers into a more palatable form.

In a conventional game, blackjacks should pay 6-to-4 (which is 3:2, or 1.5:1) - NOT 6-to-5!! This kind of bogus payout is what casinos offer on the Proposition or Place bets at the Craps table. A 6:5 payout is another way of saying that you are being paid 1.2:1, instead of the standard 1.5:1; giving the house an additional 1.50% advantage! Whew! Needless to say, the O'Shea's single deck game is a sucker opportunity that you should avoid!

Insurance, Surrender and other "hidden" sucker bets
Sucker payoffs like 6:5 for Blackjack are rather obvious. However, there are a number of other (what I call "hidden") sucker bets in Blackjack; most of which are not hidden, but well advertised. Most players are unaware that game offerings such as Insurance and [Late-]Surrender, along with games like Double Exposure and Spanish 21 are also sucker opportunities for players not able to analyze the percentages behind these offerings. Let's begin with Surrender.

In the web-article Evaluating Surrender I detailed the danger behind the [late-]Surrender option in many today's Blackjack games. It used to be that many casinos offered Surrender but did not openly "advertise" that fact. Caesars Palace has offered surrender that way for years. When in doubt, ask the dealer if you can surrender your hand - they will tell you.

Today, more casinos are not only offering Surrender, they are "advertising" that fact. Why? Because most players haven't a CLUE when it is proper to surrender a given hand. In the above mentioned web-article, you may recall that a "surrender error" costs you 1.5X your original bet. Essentially, surrender mistakes cost you the same amount as the even-money payoff blackjack payoff; or, approximately 2.33% of Action (money wagered).

The Insurance bet is also a sucker bet, for all but seasoned professional players; which is why Basic Strategy players (in the absence of additional information) should not insure a bet or accept even-money on Blackjack - EVER! What most players don't get is the fact that Insurance is nothing more than a side-bet that the dealer has a Blackjack - technically, you are insuring nothing. There is a myth that you should insure a "good hand", such as a 20, 21, or a blackjack. For the most part, the value of your hand has no bearing on whether or not the dealer has a blackjack; and in fact, having 20 or 21, usually reduces the dealer's chance of ALSO having a 2-card 21.

Remember, Insurance pays 2-to-1; which is another way of saying the payoff is 8-to-4. Against random cards, the odds against the dealer having a blackjack are 9-to-4, giving the house a 5.8% to 7.5% edge over most players who make the bet (the percentage-variance based by the number of decks in the game). Correctly executed, certain card-count and clump-track strategies can "make money" with Insurance. Then again, I remember that fateful evening at Whiskey Pete's (Primm Nevada, at State-line) where I mis-played 12 insurance/even-money bets in a row. When I finally got it right, I quit playing. While I had a nice winning session, imagine how much MORE I would have won if I had been on-track with the Insurance bets.

Like Surrender, Insurance mistakes are costly. Why? Because you are agreeing to accept an even-money payoff for a Blackjack, when in most cases the dealer doesn't have a reciprocal blackjack. We have already seen that the "cost" of blindly accepting an even-money payoff is 2.33%, in favor of the casino. Realize that the odds of ANY one hand on the table being a blackjack are only 1-in-21 hands. The odds of a player AND the dealer having a blackjack together (i.e. a "Blackjack Push") is 1-in-21 Squared (1:21 X 1:21 - or 1-in-441 hands). Admittedly, against today's non-random shuffles a Blackjack push happens a bit more frequently than 1-in-441 hands. Nevertheless, unless you have a reliable method of tracking the cards, Insurance and even-money blackjacks are bad bets.

Over/Under, Streak Bets and Bonus Blackjack
A side-bet which has come and gone in Las Vegas but pops up in "newer" gaming jurisdictions from time to time is the Over/Under bet. Over/Under is a side-bet made before the cards are dealt. You are betting that your first two cards will be Over or Under 13. If you guess wrong, or your total is exactly 13, then your side-bet loses. You may be wondering, why 13? 13 is the most common total for 2-card hands; for the player OR the dealer.

In the past, card-counters and clump-trackers have made money at this bet. However, in the absence of accurate card-track information, the average player faces an over 6.5% house edge on the Over-bet and a 10+% house edge on the Under-bet - DEADLY.

In recent years, Donald Trump's casinos have been offering what is known as "The Streak Bet". This is a side-bet that you will win 2, 3, 4 or 5 hands in a row. As a clump-track player, while I have made money at this bet, for most people it is a sucker bet. The house makes its money by offering less than true-odds on the payout (such as paying 4:1 on a 5:1 proposition and 7:1 on a 9:1 proposition, etc.)

Bonus Blackjack allows you to make a side-bet that you and/or the dealer will receive a blackjack on the next hand. The payoff is 15-to-1 and 30-to1 respectively, while the odds against this happening are 21-to-1 and 441-to-1, respectively. This side-bet can be found at Blackjack tables all over Laughlin and the smaller casinos in Las Vegas. I don't recall having EVER seen a player make this bet; much less win any money at it.

Sucker Game-variations
Over the years, a number of game variations have come and gone in Las Vegas, making their way in even more recent years to Atlantic City, to snag the more unsuspecting players there. I am referring specifically to the games of Double Exposure Blackjack and Multi-Action Blackjack. An even more recent addition, Spanish 21, can be found in most casino jurisdictions today. What makes all the above games so horrible are the subtle changes made to each game, which most players are unable to properly accommodate with their playing style.

With Double Exposure, BOTH dealer's cards are dealt face up. The catch is that the dealer wins ALL ties (except a Blackjack PUSH), giving the house a near 9.0% advantage, while blackjacks pay even-money; pushing the house edge to over 11%!!! In Spanish 21, the house offers a number of worthless bonus payout options in exchange for removing the 10-cards from each deck (the face cards remain however), creating a 48-card "spanish" deck.

While "Basic Strategies have been devised for both games reducing the edge considerably, most players are unaware of these strategies, blindly and desperately attempting to catch a streak. They would be better of playing "Casino WAR" instead. Even with "Basic" strategies for these games, the house still has a considerable edge.

In Spanish 21, removing the 10's reduces the dealer break-ratio considerably. If you have read the article "The Truth about Dealer-breaking - are we being misled?", you know that reducing the dealer break-ratio is tantamount to increasing the house edge considerably; again, because most players are not smart enough to counteract it.

With Multi-Action Blackjack the house benefits in many ways. To begin with, in this game you are required to make 2 or 3 bets; forcing many players to bet beyond the constraints of their bankroll. Additionally, in border-line hands, players often choose to not hit hands they might otherwise hit, for fear of losing all their bets, should they break ahead of the dealer. Clump-trackers know that in low-ratio rounds standing-short too much is tantamount to giving the game over to the house.

Some final thoughts
Thus far, I have essentially pitched a case for "if it seems to good to be true.... it probably IS"! If more players TRULY understood this, the table-hold for Blackjack would plummet significantly. In many cases however players DO wake up; a reason that many of the above side-bet game offerings have left the state of Nevada; probably forever.

While I have painted a rather bleak picture regarding side-bets and game variations in Blackjack, once in awhile players catch the casino bosses "asleep at the wheel". A couple of memorable offerings come to mind: The "Bust Box" at the Las Vegas Hilton (back in 1993) and Early Surrender at the Holiday Inn Boardwalk in 1997. Both casinos experienced a serious "Hit" in those games; I guess the reason why they are no longer offered.

Keep your eyes open. Casino bosses are always looking for new ideas to lure new lambs to the slaughter. Occasionally, they don't think it through and offer a player-favorable game such as the game-trial known as "9-9" offered at the Flamingo in Reno several years ago; now only a delicious memory. However MOST of the time, the "if it seems to good to be true" axiom still applies.

I end this article by reiterating the title: Do you STILL believe in Santa Claus?

If so, then you deserve what happens.