Once a year, in preparation for G2E (the Global Gaming Exposition), I take a walk through a host of Las Vegas casinos. I have two primary objectives for this walk. The first is to survey the changing landscape of proprietary table games and electronic versions.  The second is to consider security and advantage play issues for these variants. Last Friday, I dutifully marched through each casino downtown, from Main Street Station to El Cortez and back.  On Saturday, I started at Mandalay Bay, walked up to the Mirage, crossed the street to Casino Royale, and walked down the other side to the Tropicana.

Up through 2001, I spent the majority of my casino life immersed in the subtleties of beating blackjack, first as a card counter, and then as a would-be hole-card player, shuffle tracker and Ace sequencer. There was plenty of academic room to explore, even if my bankroll didn’t rise exponentially.

Then in 2002, I stumbled on the new kid in town, Three Card Poker at the Chumash Casino in Southern California. After I observed several dealers flashing their hole-card, I did a bit of research and realized it could be beaten quite easily. My next trip to Las Vegas, I looked for flashing dealers. I was stunned to find that Three Card Poker dealers flashed like crazy, everywhere, and no one in management seemed to know or care.

This was at the start of the proprietary game tidal wave, but the procedural issues that lead to a player edge for Three Card Poker shone a light on all proprietary games that couldn’t be ignored. Each new game comes with its unique game protection issues. Each new game can be beaten given the right circumstances, legally. On this trip, my interest focused back on card counting due to the unexpectedly large number of blackjack variants entering the market.

Consider these blackjack variants I saw during my survey:

  • Blackjack Switch
  • Burn 20 Blackjack
  • Double Attack Blackjack
  • Never Bust Blackjack
  • Power Blackjack
  • Spanish 21
  • Super Fun 21
  • Triple Attack Blackjack

That’s eight different variations of blackjack, each with different rules, different basic strategies and different game protection. Each variant is potentially vulnerable to a card counting methodology. In some cases, the vulnerabilities are greater than ordinary blackjack.

For example, Spanish 21 has a book on card counting written about it. Super Fun 21 was the primary target of a well-known Las Vegas card counter for over 5 years. The inventor of Blackjack Switch stated to me that his game is vulnerable to card counting. The truth is that there are simply too many blackjack variants to keep up with.

For ordinary blackjack, decades of experience has led to widely understood and widely over-used game protection procedures. Many casinos cut off 1 ½ decks from their six-deck shoes, enforce elaborate and time-consuming shuffles, limit mid-shoe entry, and train the attention of staff and surveillance on the game. On top of this, at many casinos dealers and supervisors must pass exams on blackjack basic strategy, attend seminars on card counting and obsess over the damage that one $10 card counter can do.

It is true that 20 years ago, card counting at blackjack was one of the main advantage play methodologies employed by the professionals of that era. What many casinos don’t realize, however, is that in the era of proprietary games, it’s mostly the weakest advantage players who target ordinary blackjack through card counting and it’s the weakest of the weak that get caught. The layers of protection used for ordinary blackjack are as unnecessary and outdated as they are profit-eating. Meanwhile, as blackjack variants take new and unique twists, new card counting opportunities are appearing with increasing frequency.  And some of these opportunities are not limited to blackjack variants.

Consider the game “2WayWinner” (Wildcard Gaming) I saw at a Strip casino. It combines blackjack with poker. The player is dealt a two-card hand, and the dealer is dealt two cards, with one card face up (as in normal blackjack). After viewing these cards, the player can then decide if he wants to play it as a poker hand or blackjack hand. This game may be countable. For example, if the hi-lo count is low, play 5-4 as a poker hand (pairs and straights are more likely), otherwise if the count is high, play it as a blackjack hand.

Another card counting opportunity might exist for the game “φ” (Zero) that I saw downtown (Squarejack Gaming). While played like blackjack from a six-deck shoe, the hands are scored like baccarat. The twist is that the player doubles, splits, hits and stands in an effort to score as close to zero as possible (with baccarat point totals). The dealer stands on a total of 4 or less. Both the player and dealer are allowed a maximum of 4 cards. Finally, a player is paid 3-to-2 when his first two cards pair and score 0.

It’s this last rule gives an obvious way to count the game – the more face cards there are left in the shoe, the easier it is to score 0. Using the traditional hi-lo count, the player raises his bet in a high count, when he’s more likely to get that total of 0.

To add to Zero’s possible issues, it comes with a countable side bet. This bet pays a bonus if the player scores a two or three card 0, with higher payouts for suited 0’s. Do your own research – but advantage play issues are clear.

The predicament here is simple to understand. Any blackjack variant that has multiple rounds dealt between shuffles is potentially vulnerable to card counting. As the number of tables offering traditional blackjack shrinks and the novelty versions expand, understanding that the possibility of card counting exists in every variant of blackjack is the unequivocal starting point.

The one saving grace for blackjack variants is that hole-carding opportunities for proprietary games are more prevalent and considerably stronger. Anyone who is a strong enough advantage player to devise new card counting systems for blackjack variants is probably doing far better beating other games by hole-carding.

Received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Arizona in 1983. Eliot has been a Professor of both Mathematics and Computer Science. Eliot retired from academia in 2009. Eliot Jacobson