While casino gambling has struggled to establish a strong foothold in Maryland, the lobbying of casino operators has struck a blow to blackjack players that visit the local casinos. The Baltimore Sun reported in its June 18th edition that dealers will now be able to hit a soft 17 in the standard live blackjack games in Maryland casinos.
Allowing a blackjack dealer to hit a soft 17 slightly swings the edge in favor of the house, thereby producing a greater margin of profit. While state gambling regulators have approved the measure, it still must pass the state legislature in Annapolis before it can be implemented. A similar request was rejected just last year.
A “soft” 17 is any hand that totals 17 and contains and ace. The ace can be counted as one or eleven. Because the hand cannot be busted by taking one hit like the beatable hard 17 (a seven and a ten), dealers are given a powerful weapon in their arsenal. A hard 17 will beat many players but allowing the dealer to hit the soft 17 will often allow them to outdraw players with 18, 19, or 20. Charles LaBoy, the assistant director for gaming in Maryland states that the increased edge is a mere 0.2 percent, not enough to change the fact that blackjack still offers the best odds in the casino for a player.
Some of the blackjack rules at Maryland casinos are player friendly; they pay 3/2 on player blackjacks instead of 6/5, for example. LaBoy characterized the rule change as an effort to continue this player-friendly environment by using increased revenues to offer more blackjack tables with low minimum bets.
At least one well-known blackjack player is crying foul, or at least publicly challenging the proposed rule change. Tom Hyland began his blackjack career in the casinos of New Jersey. He says that the soft 17 rule is a great barrier to the player. Hyland should know. Atlantic City was one of the first gambling destinations in the United States to introduce the soft 17 rule. The casinos’ profit from blackjack has risen accordingly, argues Hyland.
Hyland explains the 0.2 percent edge increase this way: if a player plays at $100 per hand and plays 100 hands an hour, the casino will generate and extra $20 in profit. Hyland says this is a huge windfall for the casino over time.
The rule-change proposal was supposedly rejected last year on the argument that it was one-sided and unfair, but regulators showed no such hesitancy this year in approving the request. The process of final approval may take months, but approval by the Maryland legislature is likely. Once the measure takes effect, players will be alerted to the rule change via a placard placed at each blackjack table.