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Best of John G. Brokopp

Gaming Guru

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The Best Deals in Chicago-Area Blackjack

10 March 2004

The columns for the past couple of weeks have been devoted to slot players and the best casinos to play their favorite games. Today and for the next several weeks let's focus our attention on blackjack, the ONLY casino table game (not including poker) where playing strategy has a direct impact on whether you win or lose.

The mathematical odds fluctuate continually during a game of blackjack. Playing the game correctly by making decisions based on basic strategy, coupled with some form of keeping mental track of the cards that have been dealt, can tip the house/player advantage scale very close to even.

Today I'll compare the blackjack games played at the Joliet casino properties: Harrah's Casino & Hotel and Argosy Empress Casino & Hotel. Next week's column will focus on the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin and the Hollywood Casino in Aurora. Then our blackjack spotlight will shift to the northwest Indiana destinations.

First of all, when it comes to the basics, Harrah's and Argosy Empress are quite similar. Argosy has more tables, 14, as compared to Harrah's with 11. The hand-shuffle games at both casinos are played with six-deck shoes. Six decks is not the most ideal game for players, especially when compared to the two-deck "hand pitch" games available in Las Vegas, but it's the standard around here and blackjack players have to live with it. Besides, six decks are better than eight decks, which is another option for games played out of shoes.

Now for some blackjack facts from the two properties that are all GOOD news for players: At both Harrah's and Argosy Empress, the dealers DO NOT hit "soft 17", players are allowed to double-down on any two cards, they are allowed to double-down after splitting, and they can split up to a maximum of four hands INCLUDING ACES. All of these are favorable rules that can help deflate the house advantage.

That's where the similarity ends. Now for some noteworthy differences:

First and foremost: In blackjack parlance, penetration refers to how deep into the shoe the cards are dealt before the dealer shuffles up for a new round. The deeper into the shoe the cards are dealt, the better for skilled players. In this important aspect of play, the advantage goes to Argosy Empress. As a rule the cards are dealt until approximately a deck and a half remains. At Harrah's, closer to two decks are cut out.

Second: All 14 blackjack tables at Argosy Empress utilize hand shuffling by the dealers. Advantage: Player. At Harrah's, there are some tables that use a shuffling machine. Worse than that, Harrah's also has tables with a continuous shuffler.

When the decks are hand shuffled, there's time to relax between rounds. More importantly, players can give their bankrolls a break. Shuffling machines speed up play, decrease valuable player "down time", and subject bankrolls to an increased "grind". But continuous shufflers are the real menace. Not only do they make for non-stop play, they make it impossible for skilled players to keep mental track of the cards. If you take the game seriously, avoid continuous shufflers at all costs.

One bit of bad news for players on a budget from both Harrah's and Argosy Empress: Neither casino currently offers a $5 minimum game. At Harrah's the minimum is $10 and at Argosy Empress it's $15.

If you're a high roller, the properties differ on limits. For the record, Argosy Empress offers higher limits. At Argosy Empress, for $15 the limit is up to $1,000. For the $50 games you can bet up to $2,000, and for $100 you can bet up to $3,000.

At Harrah's, for $10 the limit is up to $500, for $25.00 it's $1,000, and for $50 and higher it's up to $2,000.

Finally, Argosy Empress is offering a special promotion at its blackjack tables during the months of January, February and March. Every player who is dealt a "natural" (two-card total of 21) will receive a coupon good for 100 entries into the monthly drawing for a Nissan Xterra, along with hundreds of other prizes from Speedway and Autozone.

John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp
John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp