Are People Just Now Learning About Vegas’ Tricky Game Rules?
Vegas casinos want your money! Okay, that part you knew — but were you aware of some of the tricky tactics they use to try to get more of it? Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published a report that gamblers lost nearly $1 billion at Las Vegas Strips casino Blackjack tables last year, amounting to the second-highest total on record. Yet, the reasons cited for this increase weren’t the result of inflation or some massive whale that happened to go bust. Instead, they attributed at least some of the losses to changes casinos have made to table game rules.
From what I’ve seen on Twitter, this news seems have to people shocked (or “shook,” as the kids say). Yet, as someone who’s visited Las Vegas several times in recent years, I figured these updates were common knowledge at this point. So, seeing as this is apparently eye-opening information, let’s talk about some of the ways Vegas gaming has been changing and how these adjustments impact players.
The Changing Gaming Rules in Las Vegas
Increasing the house edge
It’s not really a secret that casinos make their money on the concept of the “house edge.” Basically, these are rules that put the probability of winning in their favor. Some games, such as slot machines, are known to have large house edges while others, such as blackjack and baccarat, are at least smaller. Well, even that’s starting to change.
One of the examples cited by WSJ is 6:5 Blackjack. While this isn’t a new game, its popularity has grown. The big difference between 6:5 Blackjack and a “traditional” table is that, instead of earning 3:2 when you hit Blackjack, you earn (you guessed it) 6:5. So, if you’re betting $50 a hand, you’d only get $60 on a Blackjack instead of $75.
Although this is the most obviously harmful change to Blackjack rules, it’s far from the only game variation that exists between tables. In some cases, dealers will stop on all 17s, whereas others still require them to hit on “soft 17.” Additionally, certain tables will restrict the number of times that players can split hands (especially aces), whether they can double down after splits, and whether they have the option to surrender. All of these rules can impact the house edge, but none are as blatant as the 6:5 payout.
Another major game alteration that’s featured in the Journal’s piece is Triple Zero Roulette. According to Vital Vegas, this variation made its Strip debut at the Venetian back in 2016. As anyone who’s ever made the mistake of thinking that roulette odd/even or red/black bets had 50/50 odds can now tell you, the American version of the game traditionally includes two green zero spots (zero and double zero) in addition to the red and black numbers. Now, that’s increased to three zeroes at some tables — with some even sneakily disguising triple zero on the board by putting a logo or icon on the felt instead. Needless to say, this adjustment manages to pad the house edge even further, which is bad news for betters.
Another change cited by WSJ is an increase in table minimums. According to their research, the minimum amount that players need to bet in order to play a table game on the Strip has increased. These tend to go even higher at peak times.
Personally, I’ve seen this happen even while I’m at the table. When my wife wanted to play Blackjack for the first time, we made a point to visit the Tropicana (one of the less popular locations on the Strip) early in the morning in order to find a table with a low minimum. Luckily, we were able to find a $5 table — with 6:5, of course — but, soon after we sat down, the pit boss informed the dealer to raise the minimum to $10 per hand. The good-ish news is that, when they do this, they do still allow players who joined earlier to play at the previous minimum. Still, even with just a couple of players, they were willing to double the minimum. This experience makes it easy for me to believe similar things are happening at all kinds of tables.
Combing the two
Incidentally, these two factors are intertwined. On the whole, tables with lower minimums have worse rules (meaning larger house edge). So, if you want a better chance of winning, you’ll need to head to the high-limit tables.
To me, this is really where the rising losses likely kick in — and where raising awareness of these bad rules could potentially backfire. With the “regular” rules being relegated to the top-tier tables, I can imagine a scenario where players might play larger denominations than they’re actually comfortable bidding in order to get the better rules. This isn’t to say that these negative changes shouldn’t be called out, but the truth is that some casual gamblers may still be better off playing at “worse” tables for lower minimums than pushing themselves to bet more at “better” tables.”
At this point, it’s hard to say how these changes will impact Vegas in the long run. On the one hand, WSJ speculates that these rip-off rules could eventually backfire and lead to softer demand. However, considering that some of these adjustments have apparently gone under the radar of the greater public for some time and that players continue to regularly play things like slot machines that have long been known to have worse odds, I’m not so confident that greater awareness will lead to any sort of reversal. With that said, however, I do think it’s possible that Vegas is still riding high on pent-up demand from the pandemic and that weakening attendance could perhaps lead to some concessions on the part of casinos.
In the meantime, while the specific rules of these tables may have changed, the way you should go about gambling on them has not. Ultimately, the best way to play in Vegas is to go in with a set amount of money you’re ready to lose and to view that budget as an expense for entertainment. After all, while winning is great, losing is not only awful but is also more likely.