How Vegas is changing the odds for blackjack players

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(LAS VEGAS) — Blackjack players say they’ve been noticing a difference at the tables in Las Vegas lately.

Even if they hit that lucky 21, they say they’re not getting the same amount of winnings as they did in the past.

Blackjack and casino experts, like Mike Aponte, who was part of the infamous MIT card-counting team, say this is no fluke, as casino owners have found ways to get more money from gamblers.

Aponte spoke with “Start Here” Thursday about the latest trend.

START HERE: [Aponte] says across the board, every game at the casino is designed for the house to win. But some are more tilted than others. You might have a good night or a bad night, but if you play thousands of hands the casino should only take a bit of your money.

MIKE APONTE: If you follow basic strategy, then the house edge only is about half a percent.

START HERE: But last year, according to data from the Nevada Gaming Commission, blackjack players lost more money than they have in nearly two decades. That’s not just because there are more people playing. In part, it’s because the odds have changed.

APONTE: It kind of started about 15 [or] 20 years ago where the casinos started introducing rule changes to kind of increase their advantage.

START HERE: So remember the basic rules of blackjack: You get two cards, the dealer gets two cards. Whoever’s closest to 21 without going over, wins. Simple. You put down 10 bucks, you get 10 bucks in profit.

Except when you get dealt exactly 21. That’s a blackjack.

APONTE: The beauty of blackjack is that the player will get a 3-to-2 [odds] payout on their wager, which is equivalent to 150%.

START HERE: Oh, so you put down $10 [and] instead of getting $10 now you get 15 bucks back next to your chips?

APONTE: Exactly.

START HERE: That little bonus payment, Mike says, is key. It’s one of the biggest reasons you can make back your money quicker. It’s why the house’s edge is so low. Well, casinos have slowly lowered that blackjack payout.

According to John Mahaffey, the founder of a group called Vegas Advantage which literally goes around counting table stakes, about two-thirds of blackjack tables now only give you 6-to-5 odds for a blackjack.

Which didn’t sound like a big deal to me at first. But Mike, our blackjack expert, says that means Vegas is taking more of its customers’ money.

APONTE: To simply lower that payout to 6-to-5 [odds], now the house edge goes up to 1.9%. I mean, it nearly quadruples.

START HERE: The reasoning for casinos seems pretty simple. If there’s more money to be taken, take it. But you might think: Wait a minute, won’t that stop gamblers from coming to Vegas? Mike says he thought it would, but it’s been just the opposite. Last year was a record year for casino gambling.

As Vegas becomes more of a tourist destination than a gambling destination, the gambling dollars actually get bigger. And that’s when Mike said something that blew my mind.

APONTE: They can really get away with it at the lower limit tables, because they don’t institute that at a higher limit table. They’re never going to do 6-to-5 [odds].

START HERE: There might be different odds in different areas of the casino. You’re saying high rollers are, all of a sudden, [seeing] different odds, maybe?

APONTE: Yes. So that’s a big change back from when I first started playing. When I started playing, the rules were the same throughout the entire casino for the most part.

START HERE: And this is the real takeaway here. High rollers were always treated differently in Vegas from the rest of us. But now, just like in so many aspects of life, the rich have a chance to get richer, quicker, while those with shorter stacks are seen as a bit more expendable.

That said, if you want to keep more of your money, Mike says the answer is not to find a table with higher stakes and better odds. The answer is to treat it like entertainment and set a limit, because the house is winning either way.

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