Blackjack is a game that has undergone major changes since its early days as Vingt-et-Un during the 1700’s in the casinos of France. Most students of the game will agree on a few points where the history of blackjack is concerned. First, blackjack has always been among the most popular gambling games. Second, few things had as big an impact on the game as the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City.
Blackjack Comes to Atlantic City
In the 1970’s New Jersey determined to replicate the sights, sounds, and gambling action of Las Vegas. It was a bold move for the state which saw an opportunity to create a gambling mecca on the East Coast. The motivation, as it always is behind such measures, was tax revenue. Opposition was raised but a compromise was reached. Gambling would be allowed in New Jersey, but casinos would be restricted to Atlantic City.
Just like Las Vegas, Atlantic City wasn’t much to brag about before the first casino arrived in 1978. New Jersey made blackjack a staple of its Atlantic City casinos along with games like craps and roulette. It didn’t take long for the state to recognize that it was going to have to take measures to attract out-of-town players. After all, most of the Las Vegas casino profits came from tourists. There simply were not enough locals to support three or four casinos year round.
The problem was that Las Vegas was established. It had hundreds of hotels and casinos for players to choose from. It was romanticized in films like the James Bond classic Diamonds are Forever. Plus, Las Vegas ran junkets all across the country. Basically, the casino would comp players a room and sometimes even airfare as long as they satisfied a minimum gambling requirement. You could buy a steak dinner and all the trimmings for $1.99. It was an unbeatable deal, and Atlantic City had to compete.
There were a few measures that the casinos in New Jersey took to establish themselves. A few of these were radical. Atlantic City casinos decided to change the rules of blackjack so that the game appeared more favorable to the player. They were hoping to attract whales and blackjack sharps, and that’s exactly what they got.
Blackjack Rule Changes in Atlantic City
Blackjack in Atlantic City is basically played like any other American version. The player receives two cards face up, and the dealer receives one face up and one face down card. The goal is to get closer to a total of 21 than the dealer gets without going over. A blackjack is an ace and a face card or a ten dealt on the player or dealer’s first two cards. A blackjack pays 3/2 while all other winning hands pay even money.
The first blackjack rule change that Atlantic City instituted was permitting players to double down on any two cards. In Las Vegas, players could only double on a total of ten or eleven. As you might suspect, this rule change was done specifically to attract advantage players who spend lots of money at the blackjack table. The casinos also knew that this rule would probably attract card counters. It is a rule that shifts the overall advantage in favor of the player.
The second rule change was to allow splitting up to three times. So, if a player was dealt 8-8 they could split the hand and split it twice more if another 8 fell on one of the split cards. Again, this was a rule change that was slightly in favor of the player. Surely the players would flock to Atlantic City in droves, hoping to take advantage of casinos that obviously didn’t know that they were doing. Late Surrender was also added. The casinos were out of their minds.
Other Atlantic City Blackjack Rule Changes in Favor of the House
Casinos never do anything by accident. Everything is calculated to make a big profit. Even though they were making rule changes that benefited the player, they were also making plenty of them that steered the advantage back toward the house.
To begin, Atlantic City began using an 8-deck shoe. In Las Vegas the standard was to use 4 or 6 decks. The Atlantic City casinos reasoned that it would be much harder for a player to count into an 8-deck shoe. It might not have been more difficult for the seasoned pro, but it did give the house an edge. More decks increased the chance of variance. A cold shoe could stay cold much longer. Of course, the same was true for a hot deck but the casinos had a way to deal with that. They could call for a shuffle up whenever they wanted.
The second rule change in favor of the house was requiring the dealer to hit the soft 17. In Las Vegas, the dealer was forced to stand on all totals of 17. In New Jersey, the dealer was required to hit A-6. This gave the dealer another opportunity to beat high player totals like 18 or 19. To this day Atlantic City is still known for having dealers hit a soft 17.
There will always be a debate about whether or not these measures were successful for Atlantic City. In later years the state would be sued by banned card counters in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The players won and New Jersey was forced to concede that card counting is not illegal. The concession didn’t stop them from banning players, however.
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