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July 22, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: Gaming:

Lower blackjack minimum may not be deal for players

What might seem like a bargain often comes with rules that increase the house’s edge

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TIFFANY BROWN / LAS VEGAS SUN FILE

In response to the recession, some casinos have lowered minimum bets for blackjack. But the cheaper games can have rules that boost the house edge, such as a 6-to-5 payout for blackjacks instead of the traditional 3-to-2. The change means a blackjack with a $10 bet wins only $12 instead of $15.

You’ve seen bargain-basement hotel rates and coupons for meals, show tickets and retail purchases — even volume discounts on bottle service in nightclubs and lounges.

But what are Strip casinos doing with their main attraction in the economic downturn?

Gambling games, priced in terms of how much players will lose over time, aren’t like products on a supermarket shelf. Or are they?

In fact, several Strip casinos have lowered table minimums on games in an apparent attempt to attract more customers during tough economic times. For example, Wynn Las Vegas offers some $25 double deck blackjack games on weekdays, down from a $50 per hand minimum. On the other end of the spectrum, and for a vastly different clientele, the Sahara is offering $1 blackjack.

Players view the moves as a retreat from the high minimums of years past, during the tourism boom. At the time, table minimums at many Strip properties rose sky-high, along with hotel room rates, mixed drink prices and restaurant checks.

Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter, says many major casinos are lowering minimums to lure players. Curtis calls it a rare sign of player-friendliness by casinos loath to offer games that don’t make enough money to justify free drinks for gamblers and staff salaries.

High minimums “never made a lot of sense,” Curtis says, because they cause gamblers to burn through their bankrolls more quickly and leave.

Strip casinos in the downturn have become aggressive pitchmen for non-gambling discounts, plastering the Internet with offers for tourists as well as locals. Not so for gambling games.

Casinos — mindful of the competition, which can quickly adopt similar games or rules, unlike, say, shows, restaurants or other major attractions — are especially sensitive to details of their games.

For example, Curtis says the lower minimums have been reported everywhere, including at Harrah’s and MGM Mirage casinos.

But when Harrah’s Entertainment Western Region President Tom Jenkin is asked about any changes in limits, he says his company’s seven Las Vegas casinos “have not nor are we planning to lower table game limits.”

Caesars Palace, for example, which raised limits last year, offers “a wide range of betting limits, including the highest available in the city,” Jenkin adds.

So maybe when Jenkin says Harrah’s has not lowered game limits, he means it hasn’t lowered its maximums as opposed to the minimums.

And MGM Mirage spokeswoman Yvette Monet avoids using the word “lower” in her answer. “We adjust our table game limits based on daily visitor volume,” she says.

Another aspect of the games also comes into play — the rules. The more favorable the odds of a particular table game, the higher the minimum bet requirement — a strategy that limits the number of players who can take their shot against the casino. Lower limits almost always mean worse rules for players, says Al Rogers of Pi Yee Press, which publishes blackjack rules and odds by property in its Current Blackjack News newsletter.

Players may think they’re getting a better deal with a lower-minimum game when the opposite is typically true, he warns.

Rather than tempting players by reducing their house edge, Strip casinos, Rogers says, have continued a trend that began before the recession, to lower the odds for blackjack and related games by worsening rules.

Blackjack wagers on the Strip fell by nearly $1 billion for the 12 months ended April 30 after peaking the previous year, according to the Gaming Control Board. Strip casinos kept 10.9 percent of those wagers, a fraction of a percentage point less than in the previous period.

Rogers contends that casinos have sacrificed profit in their attempts to thwart card-counters, a small segment of players relative to the masses who are also turned off by games in which the odds are more favorable to the house.

For example, many Strip casinos offer games paying 6-to-5 for blackjacks instead of the customary 3-to-2 and those where dealers hit “soft” 17s, meaning they must draw another card on hands containing an ace valued at 11, giving the house a chance to improve a relatively weak hand. Both strategies increase the house edge.

“They know they’re offering a worse product. Their own math will tell them that. But lower minimums make it look like the customer is getting a better value,” Rogers said.

Curtis is more accepting of cheap games with unfavorable rules, even the Sahara’s $1 blackjack, which pays only even money on minimum-bet blackjacks.

“It’s only a dollar,” Curtis said. “Players like the idea that they can retreat back to that point if they want. And it gets people in the door.”

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