Since the earliest days of casino gambling, the battle between blackjack players and casinos has taken many twists and turns. The struggle is a lot like a chess match. The card counters make a move by coming up with a better method. Check. The casinos counter with new rules and variations. Check. On and on it goes, and it will likely continue this way with neither side being able to totally checkmate the other. There is, however, some evidence to support the idea that casino operators think card counters are getting smarter. Are blackjack players improving? The casinos seem to think so, and they are looking to counteract this increased skill in a discreet way: by cutting comps for blackjack players.
In a live casino, comps have been a staple since the very beginning. In the old days, big players and high rollers would be rewarded directly by the supervisor, pit boss, and sometimes even the casino manager. The comps, or freebies, could include meals, hotel rooms, massages, cigars and cigarettes. There really wasn’t a way to track how a player was comped in the old days. It was assumed that casino personnel were not giving away too much and cutting into their profit. Many times they did, and card counters reaped the rewards. Some blackjack players used to factor in comps to their overall win/loss data.
Let’s say that a blackjack player sat down with a $500 bankroll and played for five hours. In that five-hour session the player managed to win $300. At about the three-hour mark of the session a pit boss notices the player is winning and decides to comp the player a free meal at one of the casino’s nice restaurants. The value of the meal, for the sake of example, was $50. Well, the player accepts the comp for the meal but keeps on playing and winning. Now, the pit boss is in a tin fizzy because he has to explain why his shift got killed. So, he does what a lot of casino bosses did back in the day. He gives the player a room in the casino’s hotel for a couple of nights. We’ll say the value of that room is $75 per night. Once all is said and done, the blackjack player has walked away with a $300 profit plus $200 in comps. In the player’s way of thinking, the total profit for the session was $500.
Now, that example is a little bit exaggerated to make a simple point: it really used to be that way in Las Vegas when the little state of Nevada was the only place you could find a legal casino. As the casino industry spread to other states through land-based casinos on Native American property to riverboats on the Mississippi River, the gaming companies introduced a better way to track and monitor how much a player was betting and how many comps he/she was receiving. A player’s card, sometimes called a rewards card, was introduced. Today, every live casino uses some variation of a rewards card to track play.
The Decline in Comps for Blackjack Players
Casinos fully understand that card counters and blackjack players have gotten smarter over the years. What is the reason for this? Many point to the Internet as a big factor. Not only do players have digital access to hundreds of books on the subject of blackjack and card counting, they also have the ability to play blackjack around the clock at any number of online casinos. Playing blackjack online is a more convenient option for many people, and card counters can even practice their skills at some online casinos for free. Online casinos also offer nice bonuses and other incentives which can help a player add to their bankroll.
According to a recent article in the Atlantic City Weekly, noted gambling authority John Grochowski states that the house edge for blackjack has dropped from around 2.5% to less than 1% as card counters and blackjack players have become more intelligent about the game. Even more concerning for the casinos, their attempts to make blackjack harder to beat seem to have failed. There are fewer single-deck and double-deck games, higher minimums, and dealer hitting on soft 17. The addition of various blackjack side bets, too, has failed to offset the evolution of the blackjack player. Even recreational players have knowledge of basic strategy these days and can fare okay if they show discipline at the blackjack table.
The effort now employed by live casinos to once again increase the house edge is tied to that rewards card mentioned earlier. Comps these days are issued according to play, not merely on the discretion of the casinos bosses. Players are rewarded with points that they can exchange for free meals, hotel rooms, spa treatments, and more. The process of awarding points is all automated. For example, slots players are awarded one point per “x” amount of dollars bet. In many live casinos this amount is $10. So, for every $10 the player runs through a machine the player receives 1 player point. In many casinos, 1 player point is equivalent to $0.01. 500 player points would translate to $5.00 in comp value. This can vary from casino to casino and can be higher in some cases.
Table games like blackjack are different in how players are rated and awarded points. The casino determines the points awarded based on the house edge of the game. Therefore, you would typically receive more points while playing roulette, a game with a large house edge, than you would while playing blackjack or craps, games with the lowest house edge.
The kicker is that the casino has a lot of liberty in deciding what they think the house edge is in a game like blackjack. Nailing down the precise number is hard because there is no way to know definitively which players are counting and which are not, or which players understand basic strategy and which don’t. The casino assumes a house edge of less than 1% across the board and comps accordingly.
Is Online Blackjack the Solution for Smarter Blackjack Players?
If current trends continue and the popularity of online blackjack and other online casino games keeps rising, the smart blackjack player may find playing blackjack online to be a more attractive option. A big reason for this is that online blackjack players are not “rated” the way that players in a physical casino are. All players are qualified to receive the same deposit bonuses and loyalty rewards no matter which game they prefer. Online casinos do not attempt to increase their house edge by giving fewer rewards and bonuses to blackjack players.
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