What is “Blackjack”? – Gambling With An Edge

Episode 5 of Colin Jones will air on its regular schedule next time, but this recent comment on the GWAE Facebook page deserves (maybe) an immediate reply:

Marketing the 6:5 variant as just straight blackjack is as preposterous as a casino marketing the house table game “Casino poker” “3card Poker” with a house edge dealt in the pit as just Poker. Beyond the question of proper “notice” of 6:5 odds in the case from this post, the concept of getting paid 3:2 on a natural 21 is so central to the game, hence the name Blackjack, that casinos should not be allowed to market the 6:5 variant as Blackjack. They should have to name it something else like the previous used Spanish 21 for another variant of the game. This would also resolve the concerns in the posted case.

As the President would say: “What a bunch of malarkey!” (And would you like some cheese with your w(h)ine and malarkey?)

Though the comment was in the context of the Massachusetts lawsuit regarding 6:5 blackjack, my response has nothing to do with that lawsuit. I am not discussing the legal definition of blackjack in Massachusetts, nor the regulations to which those casinos are bound, nor whatever fraud the Massachusetts casinos are alleged to have committed against patrons. I am writing more generally about the statement “6:5 is not blackjack” which is not at all a new claim. Didn’t LVBear say the same thing on Wong’s Green Chip website 15 years ago?

My comments could be interpreted as a guideline if we were going to construct a legal definition of the game of blackjack, or perhaps as a definition in a venue where statutes do not offer any definition of the game, or as a framework for taxonomists researching the game.

I am 100% in agreement that all payoffs for every game should be visibly posted on the table, or at least available to the player without having to leave the seat (brochure/QR code). Imagine going to Walmart, but instead of every price being posted on the shelf, you had to get a price check at the cashier for every item, and possibly even see the printed price only after agreeing to purchase the item. Price illusion is a variation of bait-and-switch. That’s a scam.

As for the definition of the game, the controversy boils down to the simple question: Is the 3:2 payoff on a natural 21 central to the game? Quite simply—no. For anyone who has experience playing blackjack and many other games at casinos around the world, that’s pretty obvious.

When I wasn’t yet a teenager, my aunt taught me and my cousin a card game that we had never seen. She called it “21”! She would act as the dealer, and give my cousin and me two cards each. She would take two cards as well, but since we were just kids, she would show us one of her cards. She taught us how to add up our hand total—each numeric card counting its printed rank, and then all the face cards counting as 10. The Ace was special, counting as a 1 or 11, whichever we chose. That Ace seemed like a pretty good deal, and if you got one with a face card to start, that was actually an automatic winner, provided she didn’t have one, too. If you didn’t like your starting total, you could draw additional cards. But you had to be careful not to go over 21, because then you lost immediately. We tried to figure out when it was a good time to draw a card, but since she was winning most of the time anyway, she said she’d just use a simple strategy and hit when her total was less than 17.

A decade later, imagine my surprise when I discovered that our childhood game was dealt in casinos, and still called “21” (!), although it often went by the alternative name “Blackjack.” During those summers playing card games with my cousin, I never lost any money to my aunt. Maybe you’re thinking because I learned how to count or get her hole card. Nope.

I never lost any money, because we didn’t play the games for money. We just played cards. Just like we played Uno, Rummikub, Chutes & Ladders, Sorry!, and Double Yahtzee. We also liked to play in the in-ground swimming pool. It was paradise! [No, not “Par-A-Dice”!]

Suppose every time I tagged my cousin in the pool, he had to give me $42.08, but the trick was that I had to keep my eyes closed, and he would just give me a hint by yelling “Polo” every time I yelled “Marco.” What game would that be? You have no idea, do you? Let me guess, you played a similar game called “Marco Polo,” but without the $42.08 payoff, so you now have no idea what game I’m talking about. Is my argument breaking through yet?

The point is that the payoffs in a game have little or nothing to do with its definition. Even in a possible exception like live poker, what matters is the betting structure, not the precise stakes or payoffs. The game is the game. If you want to gamble in a game by attaching financial stakes, that’s usually a separate activity. A good game is one that is fun to play even apart from any wagering or payoffs. I’m pretty sure Sidney Crosby and Ryan Donato both play hockey, even though Sidney probably gets paid 20x as much as Ryan. If I could play in the NHL, you wouldn’t have to pay me at all, because hockey’s a fun game. The game “Coin Toss”?—not so much.

What is inherent in the definition of the game? A few things come to mind, and “payoffs” is not one of them:

  1. The competitive structure of the players. For instance, most casino table games are “N vs. 1” where some number N>=1 of patrons compete against 1 entity (the dealer’s hand), while a poker tournament is a “Best of N” involving some number of participants N>=2.
  2. The criteria that determine a “winner.” In blackjack, the highest total without going over 21 wins (and a two-card natural 21 beats a non-natural 21). In hockey, the team with the highest number of goals wins.
  3. The process of reaching the criteria in #2. In blackjack, everyone starts with two cards, then there’s hitting and standing, and then we determine the winner. In hockey, there’s skating around, running into each other, and whacking at the black biscuit with sticks.
  4. The strategic options and choices of the players. In some cases, the opponent plays a fixed strategy (such as the dealer in blackjack), though a random element is introduced (the shuffled deck, or the RNG in a video poker machine), while in complex games, the opponent is also free to make choices during #3.
  5. The equipment used. This is #5 on the list, but still more critical than payoffs. When we consider the game universally called “roulette,” most people would agree that its defining elements are: numbered wheel, bouncing ball. American Roulette is still roulette, and so is Triple-Zero Roulette (yes!), but card roulette might be debatable. Mathematicians would consider card craps to be identical to dice craps, but most gamblers would say that “throwing the bones” is central to the game of craps. I’ll give them that. I don’t think I’d enjoy hockey as much if it were a video-game implementation, with the physical skating around removed. And most people would distinguish real sex from pornography, due to the different equipment used, not due to the different payoffs.

If “payoffs” even makes the list, it would be #6 or lower, and let’s face it, the public agrees. Whatever the game, there can always be a variety of payoff structures, none of which change the game. Texas Holdem is still “Texas Holdem,” whether it’s a 9-handed 10-20 no-limit game, or a heads-up 3-6 limit game. Jacks or Better video poker is still “Jacks or Better,” even if we reduce the paytable from 9/6 to 7/5. Three Card Poker didn’t become a different game when they lowered the Ante Bonus from 1/4/5 to 1/3/4. Lucky Ladies has a different paytable for 2-deck tables, but it’s still “Lucky Ladies.”

A two-card 21 with an Ace and Face is still special, because it beats a non-natural that required hits to reach 21, in the same way that a two-card natural 9 in baccarat is special, regardless of whatever bonus payoff is or isn’t awarded. If you think the 6:5 payoff transforms blackjack into some different game, then I invite you to be the first to file for a patent on this intriguing new game. IANAL, but as a statistician, I can tell you the probability that you will succeed in getting a patent. That would be 0.000000000000. (According to casino/AP consultants, if you put 12 decimal points on a number, you become an expert.)

So why are all these people claiming that 6:5 blackjack isn’t blackjack? It’s a little thing that I call “sour grapes.” (I just came up with that term.) The industry has a product called “blackjack.” They raised the price of that product, just like they did when they went from S17 to predominantly H17. Do I like it? Of course not. But when Terrible’s lowered the blackjack price during their Opening Night 3:1 Blackjack Promotion, there were no players whining or filing lawsuits demanding separate licensing for a “new game.” I recall players whining that they couldn’t get seats (I couldn’t!).

Maybe the “6:5 is not blackjack” campaign is just a strategic attempt to sway public opinion. If that’s all it is, I’m not on board with that marketing plan. I think that staking nonsensical positions on an issue does the cause a disservice by undermining the credibility of the AP community. (Bill Zender is respected for being a straight shooter who calls it like he sees it, even when his position is unpopular among his casino colleagues.)

I believe that the best approach to handling the 6:5 “problem” is what it always has been: demand transparency and disclosure from vendors, educate the consumer, and promote competition. The real problem is a state like Ohio allowing only four casinos, with a geographic monopoly in each of its major cities. Or the Seminoles in Florida getting a monopoly for the next 30 years. Or the tribes lobbying to make Internet gambling a felony in Washington. Or the Oklahoma tribes having no competition from Texas. Or the Vegas Strip being mostly owned by two major companies (MGM and Harrah’s), and having no monorail to let tourists escape to the more generous downtown casinos.

Twenty years ago, the Pair Plus paytable went from 40/30/6/4/1 to 40/30/6/3/1 (tripling the house edge!), and the gamblers didn’t even blink. The game was still Three Card Poker, but even way back then, the gamblers were writing on the wall. We should promote competition to allow the gamblers to vote with their feet, and then when they plop down and put their feet up, we should concede that they get what they deserve, and sometimes the rest of us pay a price, too. Gamblers don’t even learn basic strategy, for chrissakes!

For every person who goes online saying “6:5 is not blackjack,” I would suggest the following thought experiment: If you owned a casino, wouldn’t you call your Table Games Manager into your office on Day 1, and ask, “Remind me why we’re paying these gamblers 3:2 on naturals.”

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