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Pilarski mailbag: House edge, burn cards and multiple-deck blackjack

10 November 2006

Dear Mark: For the lowest casino advantage, which game do you recommend that I play, craps, baccarat or single deck blackjack? Ray L.

There are oodles of variables, Ray, but with only finite space to hash over them, here's the bottom line, life preserver attached: It depends on how the games are played, and which bets you make on those games.

To illustrate, take craps. The house edge on this game can be anywhere from 0.18% to 16.1%. Optimal strategy would be betting on the pass line and taking 10X odds. You've now reduced the house edge to 0.18%. With 5x odds the casino advantage is only 0.32%, which is still a far better than a bet on the bank hand in baccarat which carries a casino advantage of 1.17%, or a slightly lower 1.06% if you can find a game that offers only a 4% commission on that wager.

Single-deck blackjack with favorable rules, along with employing perfect basic strategy does put the house edge under 1%, but still, unless you are a sophisticated card counter, a pass line bet with full odds would be the "best bet" of the three.

Dear Mark: I was recently in a home game when we had an argument about burning a card. I have looked and looked and I don't see any rules in the contrary. The situation was this. Two players were all in. One of the players said we should deal the cards without burning before the fourth and fifth card as that rule was only to protect against card marking. So we dealt the board out without the burns. After that hand we argued whether or not we should be burning the cards. We called the local casino and they told the person that asked for no burn that it was proper dealer etiquette to not burn a card. I still don't think that is right. Can you clear this up for me? Shane P.

For starters, Shane, whom did you call, the hostess in the casino coffee shop?

Two, you stated "One of the players said we should deal the cards without burning before the fourth and fifth card," but it seems you all agreed, then spit up sour grapes, and finally you wrote me.

Well, it's tough to referee after the fact an issue at someone else's kitchen table, but here's the deal, pun intended.

When it comes to burning cards, it is the function of the poker dealer to burn a card after each betting round ends and before the community draw cards (the flop, the turn and the river) are distributed. It's commonplace in all casinos and card rooms that I have ever worked or played in and it is done to prevent cheating.

Dear Mark: I have a question for you regarding blackjack odds. Can you tell me the house edge in each of the following types of blackjack games – single deck versus two-deck, four-deck, six and eight-deck shoe and continuous shuffle machines? Seth S.

The house edge rises as the number of decks increases, all other rules being equal. So, Compared to a single deck, a two-deck game handicaps your play 0.35%; four decks, 0.48%; six decks, 0.54%; and eight decks, 0.58%. As you can see, it is always to your advantage to play on a game that offers the fewest decks. Also note, 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.

As for a continuous shuffling machine (CSM), it does lower the house edge a minuscule amount compared to a cut card six-deck game, but that slight decline in the house edge will cost you more money. What? How's that? It's because the speed of the game increases by about 20% when a casino uses a CSM. If the dealer never stops to shuffle, you are going to be seeing a lot more hands per hour, and with that additional exposure of your hard-earned money, expect to lose more than any cut card game.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Here is the terrible truth. I get more pure happiness winning twenty grand at the casino crap table than when I receive a check for many times that amount as the result of honest hard work on my book." --Mario Puzo

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Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.