Last week I wrote about the newly installed electronic blackjack machines at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway. Although stories in the local newspapers alluded to the fact that these machines were long-awaited and that gamblers would be falling all over themselves to get a seat, the reality is a very different story. My wife and I, who visit this racino infrequently but we do, stopped by on a mid-afternoon Sunday. While the place was not crowded there were plenty of patrons playing the vast array of slot machines available. Very few were playing blackjack machines.
The craps, roulette, and baccarat machines were full but not crowded - a normal state of affairs. Although there was some indication in the newspaper stories that there would be a bank of blackjack machines on the first floor, we couldn't locate it. On the smaller second floor however there were at least three banks of blackjack machines, none with more than a couple of people playing.
The machines are manufactured by IGT, no stranger to the gaming industry. The one we eventually played on had a "magic" theme and a headless, bodyless, white gloved dealer dispensed cards, paid off winning hands, and sucked up your "chips" if you lost. The machine itself is pleasant enough - not too many loud noises, beeps, and honks. Pretty clear prompts. The terminal itself took a little getting used to but once you realized where the dealer's cards were displayed and where your cards and the other players' cards were, it was fairly easy even though I inadvertently pressed an incorrect button 3 times in this first foray! I'm thinking that's more my fault for not paying attention than anything to do with the machine's design. My wife had no trouble at all navigating the screen.
The nitty-gritty details serious gamblers want to know about this reincarnation of what was always a table game where people faced people are as follows:
* The game is played with 6 decks that are continuously shuffled. There were never more than 4 players at our table at any one time and only twice did I see identical cards come up so, for all it's worth, without a sign clearly saying the game used 6 decks, it could have been two for all I could tell. The continuous shuffle clearly dissuades any inkling of counting anything - card sharps take note!
* Blackjacks pay 3 - 2. It's only a matter of time before the New York guys catch wind of what has been going on all over the country, so collect on these 3/2 payoffs while you can. I am sure they will soon be 6 - 5.
* Double Downs are only allowed on a first two-card count of 9, 10, or 11. Eliminating the double downs with a soft hand to a break card is a distinct casino advantage. I'll leave it to you readers to Comment on exactly what percentage that advantage is.
* Dealer hits soft 17s, a now almost universal adjustment also in the casino's favor.
* Insurance is offered but there is no surrender - a sucker bet for one and another option taken away from the player for two.
* Splitting Aces is allowed for the normal one card on each Ace - standard rules.
* Non-aces like cards can be split and hit multiple times - standard rules again.
And that's pretty much it except for a dizzying offering of two different types of side bets both designed for suckers only. An entire placard beside the blackjack layout is needed to explain these side bets and since I was not going to play them ever, I didn't read them. One side bet is called the Hot Streak and the other is called the Upcard. Use your imagination about how these bets seek to separate you from your bankroll one dollar at a time.
And then we come to stakes! Although I do not agree with this direction casino stakes are going in, the minimums keep going up. I can almost understand that playing with a live dealer $2 or $3 blackjack bets do not even pay for his/her salary, never mind the casino's upkeep and overhead. And, I have heard that the $5 game is a just about break even game in this regard. Nevertheless, when the stakes go up, the players go down and I can never understand why the casinos do not see this. Twenty people playing $5 blackjack is a bigger casino overall edge than 5 people playing $15 blackjack. There are no $5 electronic blackjack tables at Empire City Casino; at least there weren't any there when we visited. Half of one bank of machines had a minimum bet of $25 and all the others were $10 minimums.
We enjoyed ourselves though. We walked away winning $305 between us, stopped for a drink on the way out and studiously avoided all the other electronic gizmos on the way out.
If you like blackjack these machines are worth a try. If you do not know how to play, try not to learn here. Get some practice at home or on your SmartPhone before risking a few hundred bucks.