I've been playing blackjack a long time - 25 years if we're just talking about the casino game, 40-plus if we include occasional interludes in poker games in my college dorm, and 50 in just-for-fun games. I learned the basics from some second cousins and the annual New Year's Day extended family gathering at my great-grandfather's house in Chicago.
So I have a lifetime of playing with live dealer's that shapes my preferences. I want to see the cards shuffled, chat with the dealer and other players and stack my own chips.
But would I play an automated game? The answer became an obvious yes recently when I was in a casino with these sets of rules:
Live game, traditional seven-spot table: Six decks, dealer hits soft 17, double down on any first two cards, including after splits, split pairs up to three times for a total of four hands, blackjack pays 6-5, minimum bet $10.
Automated game, five seats at a console: Six decks, electronically shuffled after every hand, dealer hits soft 17, double down on any first two cards, but no doubling after splits, split pairs only once, seven cards total 21 or less are an automatic winner, blackjack pays 3-2, minimum bet $2.
Let's break that down. Both games were six decks, but the automated game shuffled cards for every hand. That meant it was impossible to count cards on the electronic version. Both games had the dealer hit soft 17, a negative for the players. And both games allowed double downs on any first two cards.
The live game rule on pair splitting was more favorable to players. For a basic strategy player, if it's right to split a pair the first time, it's also the correct play to resplit any new pairs that are created. If you split a pair of 8s and are dealt another 8, you want to be able split that again. The automated game didn't allow that. And the live game is also better for players in that it allowed doubling down after splitting pairs. If I split a pair of 6s and draw a 5 to make an 11, I want to be able to double.
On the positive side for the electronic game, seven cards totaling 21 or less was an automatic winner. That's something you'd rarely see on a live game, but it's also just a tiny gain for the player. Seven-card Charlies cut just one one-hundredth off the house edge.
But the major overriding concern here was the payoff on blackjacks. The live game paid only 6-5 on two-card 21s, while the automated game paid 3-2. A 6-5 payoff pads the house edge by 1.4 percent, and that makes the impossibility of counting cards at the automated game a moot point. The extra 1.4 percent house edge is too much for counters to overcome.
To evaluate the games by house edge against a basic strategy player, the live game had a 1.98 percent house edge, while the electronic game house edge was 0.78 percent. Had the live game paid 3-2 on blackjacks, the house edge would have dropped to 0.62 percent, and been a better game than the electronic version. As it was, there was no contest.
As casinos and game manufacturers look to get table players used to electronic games, that's one way they can do it. If the automated game has lower minimum bets and better rules than the live versions in house, then I'll give it a try. I have no objection at all to being given a better shot to win.
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski's weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.