As far back as the early 80’s, I started experimenting with dealing deeper into the deck in Blackjack. The results were always positive, generating more revenue and higher hold percentages. In 1992, as a partner with a casino management group that took over the bankrupt and aged Aladdin Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, I oversaw the management of the table games.
Our management team had taken over a casino where the predominant table game was six-deck Blackjack with a deck depth penetration of 66 percent. The dealers were instructed to place the shuffle point plastic cut card four decks from the front, cutting off two decks, or 100-plus cards from play.
After two weeks of operation, I instructed the dealers to deepen the deck penetration and deal out five and a half decks, cutting only 26 cards out of play which is a total shoe penetration of 92 percent. The results were as anticipated, more revenue and a higher hold percentage. This was done during the card counter explosion of the 1990’s. At the time, dealing deeper into the shoe was an extreme change to the industry-wide accepted Blackjack procedure for determining the shuffle point. Most other Las Vegas Strip casinos placed the shuffle point card at the four-deck point (66 percent penetration) and a few placed it at the four-and-a-half deck point (75 percent penetration).
When asked by another casino executive why I would even consider cutting off 26 cards, my comment was that, “If I cut off more cards, I’m afraid I will run out.”
Why would I even consider attempting to do such a risky thing as deal deeper into the deck. Had I lost my mind? Didn’t I worry about being overrun with Blackjack card counters? Why would I do such a thing? We never did get “overrun” by card counters and raked in the revenue.
It still surprises me the number of table game managers that insist on cutting off a deck and a half, and sometimes more. Several executives have ventured forward and are “actually” cutting off somewhere near one deck of cards, but those examples are limited. In many cases I witness penetration strategies where the “fear” of card counters overrules the thought of increasing revenue. What I hear is, “I’d rather be safe than sorry”, or “I don’t want my casino to be an attraction for advantage players.” Obviously, revenue potential is taking a backseat to the overexaggerated possibilities of card-counting loss.
Cutting off too many cards cost you Hand Decisions
It is simple logic that the shallower you deal into the deck or shoe, the less hands dealt you achieve per shoe or deck. This translates into less hand decisions, which also translates into a reduction in profit potential. If you do not deal out the hands, you cannot win the money. The real question is, how much money am I leaving on the table by not dealing deeper into the deck or shoe?
As an example, let’s take the standard main gaming floor six-deck Blackjack game. Most casinos have wisely decided it was profitable to utilize multi-deck shuffling machines (MDs) to shuffle the cards. MDs are quicker, safer, and the only time wasted not dealing is the transfer time it takes to replace the used cards with the freshly shuffled batch.
Based on previous calculations, increasing the six-deck game’s penetration from 4.5 decks to 5 decks, one half-deck of cards, increases the number of rounds dealt per hour by 0.7 rounds in a MD-dealt game and 1.5 rounds in a manually shuffled two-pass shuffle game. That’s under optimal situations such as an MD transfer time of 30 seconds or a two-pass manual shuffle time of three minutes, which includes the card transfer. If you go to your casino floor and clock observed MD transfer times you will probably find out the average time is closer to 1 minute, while any observed six-deck manual shuffle will take closer to four minutes to complete, transfer and all.
There usually is limited emphasis placed on quicker deck transfer or faster manual shuffles in most casinos. Management would want the process to move along faster, but there are no procedures in place to occasionally measure the time or correct any discovered poor results.
The next question should be, “How does a decrease by one half-deck penetration affect my Blackjack games as far as potential revenue?” Based on an “average Blackjack player model,” I can calculate the cost of decreasing deck penetration on a six-deck game for a medium-size casino to be approximately $60,000 a year if all games are utilizing MD shufflers and approximately $170,000 if the cards are all hand shuffled. Both methods are calculated under optimal conditions as explained previously. If you increase deck penetration by half a deck you increase your annual revenue potential by $60K or more. What if you increase deck penetration by an entire deck? Does a potential annual revenue increase of $120K get your attention? Based on those numbers, is there any reason why you would not want to maximize deck penetration?
Cutting off too many cards costs you House Advantage
Do you know that limiting your deck penetration also decreases the mathematical house advantage of your Blackjack game?
Here is the theory: Blackjack Basic Strategy (BS) is the computer optimal strategy for making hand decisions, i.e., when the player should hit, stand, double down, split, and even surrender their hand if that option is offered. After that first round of play has ended, if the game continues, which all Blackjack games do, the deck composition has changed. After that first round some BS-suggested plays are not so optimal. The Wizard of Odds website shows Blackjack’s mathematical advantage under specific decks and rules and breaks out the final product into three separate outcomes: (1) Optimal Results, (2) Basic Strategy with continual shuffler, and (3) Basic Strategy with cut card.
Here is the breakdown for a six-deck shoe where the dealer hits soft 17 and the players are allowed to double on any two cards, double after splitting and re-split Aces (https://wizardofodds.com/games/blackjack/calculator/).
Optimal Result: 0.548%
Basic Strategy with continual shuffler: 0.551%
Basic Strategy with cut card: 0.571%
What is the distinction between these three examples that makes their outcomes different? The depth of deck penetration.
In the “Optimal” example, the computer is tasked with collecting results based on one round and shuffle. The decision to play the hand is based on the knowledge of the cards in the player’s hand and the dealer’s exposed card.
With the “Continual Shuffler” example, the computer is instructed to deal out several hands prior to the previously dealt cards coming back into play. This allows for minor deck depletion and a small change in the six-deck composition. The one or two subsequent hands will create minor situations where Basic Strategy is not the best option based on the altered deck structure.
Finally, the “Cut Card” example illustrates the effect the depleting deck has on how Basic Strategy decisions can be in error the deeper the deck is dealt. I will assume that the Wizard used a six-deck penetration of approximately 4.5 decks (75 percent).
The above percentage changes from “Optimal” to “Cut Card” are not huge changes, but they illustrate the point that there is a mathematical significance between dealing the shoe shallow versus dealing the shoe deep, a significance not overly noticeable per hand, but definitely noticeable over a long period, like a year of decision results.
Stop fearing Card Counters
Over the years I have advocated for not fearing card counters. Being a past card counter, I understand the limitations of counting cards successfully and understand that only the truly “professional” counter can gain and maintain a long-term advantage over the game of Blackjack. Just because someone read a book or watched the movie “21” doesn’t mean they possess the skills needed to beat the house.
In April of 2022, I republished an article in Global Gaming Business magazine titled, “Cost of Counting.” The article originally appeared in the now-defunct Casino Enterprise Management magazine in March 2013. The article goes on to highlight how the real cost in revenue to card counting is due to management’s fear of counting. One of the more costly problems centers around the fact that almost all casinos limit deck penetration in fear of a few professional-level card counters. Note: It has been estimated that the number of professional-level card counters is less than 200 throughout the entire area of North America.
Question: Do you fear card counters? If you say “no”, then why are you cutting off more than a half a deck of cards in any Blackjack game? If you cut off 26 cards, you will not run out when finishing the last hand of the shoe or deck. So why cut off more cards? Another question: How many card counters did you identify attacking your casino in the last year that are on a professional level? Maybe a couple? In that case, did the identified card counter beat the casino out of a total of $120K or more? That would be how much it would cost if you operated a midsize casino and cut off a deck and a half on games at present. The actual cost of lost money to the professional card counters is a lot less!
It is not hard to detect professional-level card counters if your floor and surveillance staff have the correct training. And it is not difficult to confirm you do have a professional counter in the house if your surveillance team has the proper spreadsheets and/or counter software. Consider mitigating card counter risk (if any) through training and tools, and then capturing that money that is already out there on the tables waiting to be harvested.
Attention to game pace and hand decisions is extremely important to the game of Blackjack (or any table game). One avenue to increase hand decisions and revenue potential on your Blackjack games is to increase the depth of your deck penetration. The example given in this article calculates that a mid-size casino with six-deck games could increase their Blackjack annual revenue by $60K to $120K by moving back their shuffle point.
By cutting off one half-deck of cards (26 cards), any Blackjack game can be dealt to the optimal depth without running out of cards on the last hand. Cutting off more than a half a deck in any game is a waste of revenue potential.
This article points out that the deeper one deals into any Blackjack game, the Basic Strategy player, who is making optimal hand decisions during the first hand of play, may not be making the same optimal decisions the deeper he or she plays into the deck due to unanticipated changes to the deck or shoe’s composition. Although the mathematical gain is minor, it still has a significant effect on revenue over an annual period.
Using the fear of card counters, although common in the gaming industry, is not a valid excuse for shallow deck penetration. If card counting is such a concern, then management needs to mitigate any risk through effective floor detection training and the application of confirmation tools such as spreadsheets and software. The threat of card counting in Blackjack is totally overrated, but it persists to be a hindrance concerning the maximizing of Blackjack’s revenue potential.