PA’s Player-Friendly Blackjack May Be A Problem For Online Casinos

Written By Joss Wood on November 9, 2018 - Last Updated on April 25, 2022
blackjack table

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) sets out detailed regulations for casino table games. These work out pretty well for players, especially in blackjack.

The rules for blackjack give players as close to an even chance as they’re ever going to find at a casino.

The theoretical return to player rate is 99.6 percent. In other words, the house only collects around $0.40 on every $100 wagered.

Online blackjack doesn’t usually offer anything nearly as generous. But within weeks, the first PA online casino license holders are expected to launch their online poker, casino, and sports betting games.

Online games same as live games, OK, otherwise it’s a perhaps

PlayPennsylvania reached out to the PGCB to ask whether the live casino rules would also apply to online games.

Communications Director Doug Harbach replied with both a yes and a no:

“The rules running within the software will be fine when they match our existing table games rules for the casinos. Anything different from those rules would need to be reviewed individually and the software changes approved by the Gaming Lab.”

So operators that set the rules to be the same as the live games will get PGCB authorization. Operators will need approval for anything different.

Pennsylvania rules allow late surrenders, blackjack pays 3:2

It is the game rules that determine how profitable a game is to the casino.

The PGCB rules mandate that a player who makes a blackjack is paid 3:2. While not completely unusual, many other jurisdictions set a 6:5 payout.

Similarly, PGCB rules allow for late surrendering. That is when a player has made a bet, he can surrender his hand before the outcome is known. The price is set at half the amount bet.

The rules in paragraph 633 a. 9. explicitly state:

“(a) After the first two cards are dealt to the player, the player may elect to discontinue play on his hand for that round by surrendering 1/2 his wager. All decisions to surrender shall be made prior to the player indicating whether he wishes to double down as permitted under §633a.10 (relating to Double Down Wager), split pairs as permitted under § 633a.11 (relating to splitting pairs), stand or draw. If the first card dealt to the dealer:

(1) Is not an ace or 10 value card, the dealer shall immediately collect 1/2 of the wager and return 1/2 to the player.”

And the detail goes on for several more paragraphs.

If online operators want to set different game rules that make games more profitable, they will have to explain to the PGCB why the changed rules are necessary.

Will some games not be offered online if they aren’t profitable?

Over in Illinois, State Senator Lou Lang told a legislative hearing on sports betting that Pennsylvania was not an example to follow:

“If you go too quickly, you make a real mess as Pennsylvania did.”

He was talking specifically about the 36 percent tax on sports betting. Online table games will pay a lower rate of 16 percent.

That is nicely comparable to New Jersey’s 17.5 percent and on the face of it should cause no problems.

However, when the game rules only permit a 0.4 percent return, things change.

After gaming taxes that leaves the operator with only 0.328 percent of each bet—less than 33 cents for every $100 wagered.

One of the attractions of online gaming is that games can be played at extremely low stakes.

PokerStars offers cash game online poker at stakes of $0.01/$0.02. It isn’t easy to find a live casino poker game at stakes much under $1/$2.

The new online sites that the PGCB is authorizing take in much less cash per player than the live casinos. And online players don’t spend at casino restaurants and bars.

The PGCB may face an overload of compliance requests

The PGCB has a lot on its plate right now. At its last meeting it authorized Presque Isle Downs and Stadium Casino to conduct online gaming.

Both companies present a challenge.

Presque Isle pitched for the license, but it is new owners Churchill Downs that will actually operate the online casino games.

Stadium Casino is an even bigger piece of work. The company doesn’t yet have a casino, let alone any employees or an online strategy to present to the board.

The PGCB has exercised its judgment flexibly in allowing both applications to proceed, but the Office of Enforcement Counsel (OEC) and other agencies will have to do a lot of work before giving their go-ahead.

Meanwhile. the PGCB can expect to receive a sudden influx of requests to approve game rules that vary from those imposed on the land-based casinos.

Balancing the competing demands of the needs of players and online casino operators will not be an easy task.

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Joss Wood

Joss Wood has a master’s degree in organisational development from the University of Manchester as well as an English degree from the University of Birmingham and also earned. His writing primarily centers on international online gambling markets, though he also writes about the legal US online gambling industry in addition to sports betting and esports gambling.

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