Multiple-deck blackjack games give house a greater edge

QUESTION: I favor the joints out west where I can still find a hand-pitched game of blackjack. Even with an occasional “card down” or “one hand on the cards, please,” I prefer it to the salvo of a shoe-dealt game. I’ve been to Atlantic City a few times and can’t find anyone pitching cardboard. All I find are shoes that don’t fit me, and I don’t like to limp. Is there some law or something against it? — Randy

ANSWER: In the past in Atlantic City, Casino Control Commission regulations required all the casinos to deal blackjack from a shoe. Today, some casinos offer a single-deck blackjack game, but these single-deck games only pay 6-5 when you get a snapper rather than the standard 3-2. This raises the house edge on this game to at least 1.58%. Warning: Never play on this game!

Atlantic City casinos, unlike those in Vegas, cannot ban players from counting down the deck, so management relies on shoes to thwart counters. They can also limit the size of your bets, refuse to allow mid-shoe entry, lop off three decks with the cut card and shuffle up anytime they suspect a player of counting. The last time I was in AC, I was on a rare $5 game and bumped my table minimum bet up half a dozen times to $25. As a result, I got some of the aforementioned special treatment. As they were in no mood to offer any grub for my play, I politely thanked the dealer, and off I went to my go-to spot every time I am in Atlantic City: the Irish Pub, where I had some crab cakes and a couple of pints of Guinness. The best thing about gambling is that you can walk when you want to.

Speaking of displeasure with the shoe game, there was an incident in Atlantic City in the 1980s involving Frank Sinatra. On Dec. 1, 1983, while gambling at the Golden Nugget Casino, Sinatra and Dean Martin browbeat a dealer and a pit boss into breaking New Jersey law by hand-dealing the cards instead of dealing them from a shoe. The New Jersey Casino Control Commission didn’t find it funny, so it fined the Golden Nugget $25,000, which Sinatra eventually paid out of his own pocket. Four employees, including the dealer, a supervisor and pit boss, were suspended without pay.

When the only game in town is a shoe (multiple-deck) game, you give more of an edge to the casino. Compared with a single deck, a two-deck game handicaps your play minus 0.35%; four decks, minus 0.48%; six decks, minus 0.54%, and eight decks, minus 0.58%. As you can see, the house edge goes up substantially when you go from one deck to two, but the change is less dramatic as you add more decks.

So how much is this costing you in dollars and cents? If you were to play 100 hands per hour at $10 per hand, each minus 0.1% would cost you approximately $1 per hour. Playing on a game with two decks versus one will cost you $3.50 per hour, with each additional deck costing you increasingly more.

Wherever you play, Randy, just make sure you choose the most straightforward game you can find that offers a 3-2 payoff on a blackjack. Go for the fewest decks possible and a limit you can afford. This is your best bet for shrinking the house edge.

Mark Pilarski is a contributing editor for numerous gambling publications. E-mail questions to

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