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Crown offers worst BJ game in Australia

Posted By: Richard Cook
Date: Thursday, 22 March 2012 at 12:25

Jason Dowling March 22, 2012 The Age

THEY say the house always wins. At Crown casino they have gone to great lengths to ensure the adage holds true.

Rule changes at the casino mean the house does not lose when it has a hand of 22 in Blackjack Plus - a version of the world's most popular casino card game.

Blackjack is also commonly referred to as 21 because the aim is to get 21 and not go over. But under Blackjack Plus, which is the form of blackjack on all low-bet tables at Crown, a ''stand-off'' occurs if the dealer's hand is 22, meaning no one wins.

Players are not given the same leniency if they go over 21.

Blackjack Plus was approved by Victoria's gambling regulator in December and has been introduced to low-bet tables, often used by recreational gamblers and tourists - not high rollers flown into Melbourne.

The Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation found ''the rules of the game to be compliant with principles of player fairness and game security''.

One gambler, Chris Lewis, disagrees. ''It is ridiculous because the name of the game is get 21, so why should the house get rewarded for getting 22?'' Mr Lewis said.

Dealers had been sympathetic when he complained, he said.

Mr Lewis, a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University's Public Policy Institute, said he was angry Blackjack Plus was approved.

''I can understand Crown trying to make a profit, because they are just a corporation … the government is the real villain here,'' he said.

Crown has also added double zero to its low-bet roulette tables to boost the house position.

Anti-gambling crusader Tim Costello said if Crown was allowed to get 22 playing blackjack then ''Essendon should be allowed to have 19 players on the field''.

''The finger is now pointed at the VCGR to explain how they are acting in the public interest; 21 is now a game of 22,'' he said.

Crown spokesman Gary O'Neill said Blackjack Plus was different to the original Crown Blackjack game because the payout for getting blackjack (an ace and a picture card) was slightly higher (3/2 instead of 6/5), and bet limits and odds were prominently displayed on Blackjack Plus tables.

''Customers at Crown can continue to choose between Blackjack Plus, the original Crown Blackjack or pontoon across various price points,'' he said.

A spokeswoman for the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation said the commission assessed each submission from Crown on its merits and ''whether it is fair in terms of established return-to-player standards''.

Statistically, the return to players for the original Crown Blackjack is 99.66 per cent. For Blackjack Plus, the return to players varies from 97.17 per cent to 97.14 per cent depending on the number of decks used.

It is not just gambling where Crown has the edge. The casino is the only gambling venue in Victoria where smoking is still permitted (high roller areas), has the only 24-hour gaming machine licence and continues to pay rent to the government of $1 a year for its Southbank site.

Gamblers lost more than $1.3 billion at Crown casino last financial year.

Read more:

Further comment by Chris Lewis, a Visiting Fellow at the Public Policy Institute (based in Canberra) at the Australian Catholic University.

and reproduced below:

It appears that Australian governments are prepared to support large corporations at the expense of the consumer.

Take the Victorian Government’s ongoing acceptance of Crown Casino profits, although some may argue that such an industry helps create employment and provides government with taxation to help fund various policy needs.

While Crown already benefits greatly from poker machines, with a previous estimate that gamblers can only expect to get back $90 for every $100 bet, Crown has recently adopted change to increase its profit share from Blackjack tables.

On a recent visit to Crown (early March 2012), I was dumbfounded that Crown had a Blackjack Plus game with very different rules. In contrast to traditional Blackjack, which traditionally sets an objective for player and dealer to get close to the ideal 21 and not bust, Blackjack Plus allows a ‘stand-off’ (draw) if the dealer gets 22 and the player sits on 17, 18, 19 or 20.

Blackjack Plus was approved by the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) on 3 December 2011, under section 60 of the Casino Control Act 1991 (the Act).

Sure Blackjack Plus offers the player some concessions; that being automatic payout if one draws 21 or five cards and under (score not exceeding 21), even before the dealer plays out his or her hand.

However, such concessions will not offset Crown’s greater take of the cake. Upon my request, a VCGLR spokesperson acknowledged that that the return to the player is lower “than other forms of Blackjack”, but “within the range already established by other table games”. With Crown table games offering a return to player range of 99.66 per cent (natural Black Jack) to 93.1 per cent (Big Wheel), the return to player for Blackjack Plus was estimated to be 97.14 to 97.17 per cent, depending on the number of decks used.

Such estimates may downplay the reality that inexperienced players can lose much more per $100 of turnover than experienced players.

One gambling odds site Wizard of Odds indicates that such a rule gives the house an advantage of around 6-7 per cent (when eight decks of cards are used), which means that for every $100 turned over, the player would be expected to lose about $6-7.

According to the site, this advantage is reduced to about 4-5 per cent when the other advantageous concessions to players are considered: about 0.5 per cent for a bet being immediately paid out for hitting 21, and around 1.5 per cent for drawing 5 cards and under.

So, believing that Crown would offer some choice, I was staggered to learn from one pit manager on the day (a Saturday) that only tables of $50 or more per game had non-Blackjack Plus options.

When I wrote to Crown asking for an explanation to why such a game existed, all I got back was a message “Thank you for your interest in Crown Melbourne. Could you please advise, as to what publication you are preparing the article for?

When I wrote to the VCGLR to ask why such a game is tolerated, a spokesperson indicated that “under section 61 of the Act, the VCGLR can give directions to the casino operator regarding table games, including setting the minimum and maximum number of any particular game that is to be available to be played in the casino”. Further, “Crown is required by law to inform patrons of the rules of the game and must make the rules of the games available to players, including, publishing them on the Crown website”. However, in the commission’s words, “the decision to offer a game for play is a commercial decision made by the casino operator and its success or failure is dependent on market acceptance of the product”.

Sadly, the introduction of Blackjack Plus game by Crown suggests that Victorian governments continue to promote Crown Casino’s quest for greater profits with much less consideration being given to fairness.

This is hardly new given past deals between the Victorian government and Crown. In 2009, A Deutsche Bank evaluation found that Crown will make more money than it would lose after a deal increased Crown’s tax rate on its poker machines from 21 to 32 per cent in exchange for a boost to its gaming tables from 350 to 500. While the Victorian Government expected a $60 million tax windfall from the deal, it was estimated that Crown would profit by an extra $41 million by 2015 and by $10 million a year after 2015.

No surprise here, but Crown constantly discriminates against smaller punters to maximise profits. In recent year, rules changes have included Crown reducing the odds in terms of payout for blackjack (21 from 2 cards) on cheaper tables from 6-4 to 6-5. Further, Crown required blackjack dealers to ‘hit’ on ‘soft 17’, which meant the house gets a final chance to win instead of paying out players holding cards at values of 18-21.

It is indeed a sad state of affairs when an Australian government allows ongoing rule changes which further disadvantages the smaller punter, although most gamblers (and even dealers) I spoke to that day were not impressed with the ‘stand-off’ 22 rule.

Sure times are tough and state governments need taxation revenue, but allowing Crown to introduce its Blackjack Plus game provides another policy example where a spade can indeed be called a spade in terms of describing greedy behaviour with government support.

About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Public Policy Institute (based in Canberra) at the Australian Catholic University.



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