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Best of John Grochowski

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A Comparison of Chicago-Area Casinos - Part 2: Blackjack

11 November 2003

Comparing games at Chicago area casinos often presents me with a bit of a problem. I can't get to them all fast enough to guarantee that the information gathered at the start of my rounds is as valid as that from the last casinos visited.

That's a particularly vexing issue with blackjack, where a seemingly minor rules change or two can turn a good game into a real bankroll gobbler. So in my tour of local casinos, I asked for a little help from a friend. The blackjack portion of my casino comparison shop is a combination of my own observations with those from a card counter who prefers to remain anonymous--a natural enough request.

Card counters and average or basic strategy players have different interests in playing conditions. For counters, the penetration (percentage of cards dealt before a reshuffle) is one of the most important factors in the game. For non-counters, penetration makes no difference in the house edge. Counters like a fast game. If you have the edge, playing more hands per hour works in your favor. For non-counters, a slower game gives the house edge less opportunity to work against them.

The vast majority of players do not count cards. For them, the most important factors are the house rules. How many decks are in play? Does the dealer hit soft 17. Is surrender offered? Are players permitted to double down after splitting pairs?

On that basis, Joliet has been the best place in the area to play blackjack for years. Empress and Harrah's in Joliet have the same basic set of rules--six decks, players are permitted to double down on any first two cards, may double down after splitting pairs and may resplit Aces. If you're dealt a pair of Aces, split them and draw another Ace, you may split again. Nowhere in the area outside Joliet is that permitted.

That package brings the house edge against a basic-strategy player down to 0.33 percent, and that's stood as the lowest in the area for most of a decade.

But the Joliet casinos don't stand alone these days. The six-deck game at Trump Casino in Gary is just as good, with a 0.33 percent edge against a basic-strategy player. Trump doesn't allow resplitting Aces, but does offer late surrender--a player who doesn't like his first two cards can surrender half the bet instead of playing out the hand.

The Trump six-deck game is available only to those willing to bet $25 or more a hand. Lower rollers get an eight-deck game with the same set of rules. That ups the house edge to 0.35 percent--still among the better games in the area.

There is one game among the eight casinos closest to Chicago with a slightly lower house edge than in the Harrah's Joliet-Empress-Trump games that I'd rate as the area's best for average and basic-strategy players. Harrah's Joliet has a four-deck game with the same set of rules as its six-deckers, lowering the house edge against a basic strategy player to 0.31 percent. However, the four-deck tables use continuous shuffling machines. That makes for a faster game, and with more hands per hour, players' average losses go up even while the house edge goes down.

What about the other five casinos--Elgin's Grand Victoria and Aurora's Hollywood Casino in Illinois, and Gary's Majestic Star, East Chicago's Harrah's and Hammond's Horseshoe in Indiana? For the most part, players get a better deal in Indiana, where all games have the dealer stand on all 17s. All of Grand Victoria's blackjack games and some of Hollywood's have the dealer hit soft 17, and that pads the house edge a bit.

Majestic Star, Horseshoe and Harrah's East Chicago have the same basic set of rules: Dealer stands on all 17s, players may double on any first two cards and may double after splitting pairs. There are no exotic rules such as resplitting Aces or late surrender. That leaves a house edge of 0.41 percent on six-deck games (all Harrah's tables and $25-and-up tables at Majestic Star and Horseshoe) or 0.43 percent on eight-deckers (lower-limit tables at Majestic Star and Horseshoe.)

Hollywood has those same rules on its six-deck games, for $25-and-up players. Its lower-limit eight-deckers have the dealer hit soft 17, increasing the house edge to 0.67 percent against a basic strategy player.

Grand Victoria uses six decks at all tables, but its dealers hit soft 17, leaving a house edge of 0.63 percent that's nearly double the best games in the area. That's a poor game for most players, but actually pretty good for card counters because Grand Victoria deals out all but one of the six decks. That's the best penetration in the area.

One more factor for a low-limit player to consider is that none of the Illinois casinos closest to Chicago offer $5 minimums anymore, and you'll have to go early on a weekday to find a $10 table. Even if you do find space at a low-limit table, you won't get the same kind of benefits as bigger players. When I walked through Harrah's Joliet, tables had signs explaining players wouldn't be rated for comps unless they were betting $25 a hand or more.

For true low rollers, Indiana is the play. You'll find $5 tables at Trump and Majestic Star. Combine low limits with favorable rules, and Trump offers the best game for players on a budget.

Articles in this Series
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski