What's New in Blackjack
by Henry Tamburin

A few months ago I had the opportunity to attend the two largest gaming conferences that were held in Las Vegas - the Global Gaming Expo and the World Gaming Congress. I've summarized below some interesting games and/or side bets that were being promoted by different vendors to the casino industry. Some of these games/side bets have already made their way to the casino floor; others are still in the prototype stages and could be playing at a casino near you in the future.

Ultimate Blackjack
This game is not player against dealer but rather you wager on the best blackjack hand that can be made with 4 cards. You can wager that the highest hand will be a blackjack, 21, 19, 18, or 17-and-under. Payoff odds are blackjack (4 to 1), 21 (3 to 1), 20 (1 to 1), 19 (8 to 1), 18 (35 to 1), and 17-or-under (30 to 1). After players make their wagers, the dealer will deal 4 cards on the layout and determine which combination of the four cards makes the best blackjack hand according to traditional blackjack rules. For example an ace-2-3-6 would be a 20 (consisting of ace-3-6). An 8-K-9-4 would be a 21 (8-9-4) and 2-3-10-2 would be classified as a 17-or-less (i.e. all four cards play). The vendors claim the game is the "fastest version of 21". I no sooner got home and casino math wizard Stanley Ko had already figured out how to beat this game by card counting (see his web site www.gambology.com for details).

3 Way-Action
How's this - you get to play blackjack, war, and poker on the same hand! The game works like this. The first bet - on war - is decided when the dealer gives you one card face up and deal's her upcard. High card wins the war bet (simple). Then she deals you and herself a second card. You play out your hand per traditional blackjack rules (it is blackjack after all). The one caveat with the rules is that if a player draws a 6 card 21 or less, player automatically wins the bet. After the blackjack hand is decided, the dealer will deal the player the remaining cards for a 5-card poker hand (like Let it Ride). There is a posted payoff table (I don't remember the payouts) and if you have at least a pair or higher you win the payoff odds. Pretty soon we'll be able to play 10 games with one blackjack hand. I'll pass on this one.

This is regular blackjack with an optional 3-Card Poker side game. You wager on the blackjack hand and if you like, you can wager an equal amount on the 3-Card Poker Hand. Your first two cards and the dealer face up card make up your 3-Card Poker hand. If you have a flush, straight, three-of-a-kind, or straight flush you win at 9 to 1 payoff odds. This game is not bad from a math standpoint, as the casino edge is less than 3%.

Hit and Win
This blackjack game pays based on the spread between your hand and the dealer hand. If you beat the dealer by 4 you win at 4 to 1 payoff odds. Win by 3 and the payoff is 3 to 1, by 2 it's 2 to1, and win by 1 and it's 1 to 1. If you and the dealer push with 17 you automatically win at 1 to 1 payoff odds. However, a 21 and BJ vs. dealer 21 or BJ is a push. Who wants to push with a blackjack hand, anyway ???

Digital 21
This is an interesting way to play blackjack without any paper cards. It's you against a live dealer except the digital cards are delivered to the player's LCD screen which sets right on the layout. The system also includes a virtual shoe/shuffler, a sensor that knows when a player has made a wager (to activate his screen), automatic totaling of the players hand (hey, in this game you don't even have to know how to count), and even a casino optional suggested playing strategy. The border for each player's LCD screen also changes color and design to instantly notify the dealer of a winning hand, a losing hand or a push (actually the dealer doesn't even have to check the player's hand - they can payoff off or collect losing wagers by the color of the player's border). Digital 21 has already gone through several field trials in Las Vegas and I predict it will soon be coming to a casino near you in the not too near future.

Double Pay Blackjack
Another variation of Digital 21, this game also uses the same Digital Card System but offers the blackjack player the opportunity to play two hands on each round. Here's how it works. Player makes two bets and the first two electronic cards dealt to a player are common cards that are used for both hands (sort of like the cards dealt in 5 and 10 times video poker machines). Each hand can be played differently. The only caveat is that the first two cards are your starting cards for both hands. You could end up with a great hand and a lousy hand (or even bust) depending on what the draw cards are. Or you can lucky and get a blackjack hand, which will win both hands. I played the game for quite a while and got to like it especially the electronic cards (there's a video display in front of each player which shows the electronic cards).

Bonanza Blackjack
This is traditional blackjack with a $1 side bet that could win a player up to $25,000. The game is played with digitized cards (like Digital 21) and players communicate with the dealer by using the appropriate hit/stand/double/split decision button on their player screen (or the casino can not have buttons and just let the player use traditional hand signals). A player wins the $1 side bet if the player's first two cards total 20 and the dealer's upcard is a 10 value card. Depending on the suit and rank of the player's first two cards and whether the dealer's card matches, the player can win anywhere from $10 (if player's 20 is different suit or rank and dealer has any 10 upcard) up to $25,000 (the player's 20 must be same rank and suit and the dealer's first two cards are matching). I found understanding the payout table a little confusing but I did find the music and sound effects celebrating a Bonanza Jackpot Winner to be amusing (music from the Bonanza TV show).

Super Fun 21
Billed as "not a new game, but a more fun and exciting way to deal single deck blackjack". There are a lot of player bonus payoffs (double down on two or more cards, surrender is allowed even after hitting, splitting or doubling down, and so forth) but the price you pay is even money for your blackjacks (except 2 to 1 if you get a blackjack in diamonds). This game is already being played in a bunch of casinos in Las Vegas. Casino's edge is about 0.7% for the basic strategy player if the dealer stands on soft 17 and 0.9% of he hits soft 17. I'd stick to traditional blackjack, which has a lower house edge.

Continuous Shuffling Machines (CSM's) & Facial Recognition Technology
There were several vendors touting their CSM's as a way to thwart card counters and shuffle trackers while also getting 20% more hands dealt per hour. One of the new models, by VendingData Corporation called the Continuous Random Ejection Shuffler, works by having most of the playing cards remaining in the random ejection shuffler in a continuous shuffling mode except for a small batch (i.e. one or two decks) used by the dealer during play. After play, the batch is returned to the continuous shuffler and a new batch of cards is used for play. From the player's perspective the game looks like a hand held one or two deck game but it is essentially a 6 or 8 deck continuous shuffled game disguised as a single or two deck game (how's that for fooling the gaming public). The folks at Biometrica told me they have sold a ton of their facial recognition software to the casino industry around the world. . The software allows the casino to compare the photo of anyone playing blackjack (the eye in the sky will be alerted to take your picture while you are playing blackjack) to a database of known card cheats and even professional card counters and shuffle trackers. The company was also promoting the installation of their system at entrances to casinos so undesirables including terrorists could be spotted immediately.