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Commission says blackjack dealers can 'hit' on 17

Cara DeRosa, dual rate, demonstrates dealing blackjack at Horseshoe Baltimore.
Cara DeRosa, dual rate, demonstrates dealing blackjack at Horseshoe Baltimore. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

The house would win more blackjack hands at Maryland casinos under a pending rule change approved Thursday.

State gambling regulators approved casinos' request to allow blackjack dealers to draw a card on a hand known as a "soft 17" — a change that would incrementally boost the house advantage and generate increased revenue.

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The change, endorsed on a voice vote at the monthly meeting of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Commission, must be approved in Annapolis by the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review.

A year ago, the gaming control staff rejected the casinos' request to allow dealers to "hit" on a soft 17 — a hand adding up to 17 including an ace, which can be counted as a 1 or an 11 — instead of having to stand pat.

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In blackjack, players try to score higher than the dealer without going over 21. Dealers at Maryland casinos must draw a card at 16 or below, and must now stand on all 17s. Players have no such restrictions.

Blackjack offers players the best odds of any game of chance in casinos, with the house holding a slight edge for players correctly applying basic strategy.

Maryland's rules are generally considered player-friendly. For example, Maryland casinos pay 3-to-2 on a blackjack, which occurs when a player reaches a perfect 21 by drawing an ace and 10-value card. That means a $10 bet yields $15. Some casinos in other states have blackjack payouts of 6-to-5.

Permitting dealers to hit on 17 would raise the house advantage by about 0.2 percent, said Charles LaBoy, the state's assistant director for gaming.

"It gives the casinos more flexibility to manage their floors," LaBoy said.

LaBoy said the revenue gains from such a shift would enable casinos to offer more tables permitting low bets — typically $10 or $15. Those tables are popular with players, but many blackjack tables at Maryland casinos now require higher bets.

"They'd like to offer more of that," LaBoy said.

But Tom Hyland, a longtime professional blackjack player from New Jersey, said the proposal "is very significant, to the detriment of the player."

"The best way to think about it is, if you bet $100 a hand and you get 100 hands an hour, it would cost $20 an hour," Hyland said. "It's a serious windfall for the casino."

Hyland doesn't fault casinos for seeking the change.

"I kind of think casinos should be able to offer any game they want and then people can choose," he said. "The sad thing is, the general public doesn't even notice. Sometimes the dealer ends up busting [after a soft 17], but most of the time the dealer gets a better hand. You're never supposed to stand on soft 17 as a player."

Last year, the casinos told the state that the change would "increase the house advantage, which will increase revenue, tax dollars and make us comparable with other markets," according to a 2014 memorandum obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request.

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The casinos' initial proposal was rejected last year because Maryland decided that "changing the rules to essentially lower the payout to players was rather one-sided," LaBoy said at the time.

He said casinos came back this year "and essentially they made a good enough argument."

If approved, LaBoy said the change would be communicated to players with signs at tables where the change is in effect. But first it must be reviewed and voted on by the House-Senate committee, a process that can take months.

Also Thursday, the commission approved, without debate, the proposed $128 million merger of Lakes Entertainment, which owns Rocky Gap Casino Resort, and Las Vegas-based Golden Gaming.

Golden Gaming operates casinos and taverns, and a subsidiary known as Golden Route Operations installs and operates thousands of gambling machines in taverns, convenience stores and other retailers. Lakes' principal asset is Rocky Gap, the once-troubled state-owned resort it acquired for $6.8 million in 2012.

"It makes the company stronger," said Scott Just, Rocky Gap's general manager. "It makes us more diversified."

The commission also approved Rocky Gap's request to add 54 slot machines and create a new outdoor gambling area on an existing smoking deck. The change will enable patrons to smoke and gamble simultaneously.

The shift will put Rocky Gap on a more even footing with some casinos in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where smoking is allowed inside, Just said.

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