Higher blackjack stakes: a big win for card counters, or more chiseling by casinos?

A good bet?

Like many of the amendments crowding this year's ballot, the scheme to inject steroids in Colorado's gambling industry, better known as Amendment 50, has its pros and cons. But even its pros may turn out to be cons of one kind or another.

On one hand, there's no debate that the five-dollar limit in state casinos is pitifully low. The casinos are pouring millions into a campaign contending that they need Amendment 50 -- which would raise the maximum bet to a hundred dollars and introduce craps, roulette and 24-hour operation -- as a way to compete with Vegas, the Indian casinos and even Deadwood. And their promise to kick back some of the revenue boost to community colleges has won the support of several newspapers around the state (but not the Denver Post).

Yet given how even the modest "historic preservation" gambling experiment introduced years ago has gutted and corporatized all the charm out of the mountain towns, it's a good idea to look this screamin' deal over carefully.

A modest vote-no effort launched by attorney Jon Anderson and former Westword writer Scott Yates calling itself Keep Vegas Out raises some reasonable caveats. And former legislator Jerry Kopel, a longtime critic of state lottery expansion (get details in "Against the Odds," a Westword article from 2000), has written an intriguing analysis of 50 that suggests the community colleges could get very little out of the arrangement.

But there are reasons for the casino's prime market -- degenerate gamblers -- to question the hike, too. The people who would presumably benefit the most from Amendment 50 are table players, especially blackjack fans. (Roulette's for suckers, and anyone who really knows how to shoot dice is already comped in Vegas). Raising the stakes doesn't mean much to maniac slot players, but blackjack players would certainly welcome the opportunity to vary their bet. The five-dollar minimum and maximum at most tables makes it impossible to get any kind of edge on the house. Casinos have tried to get around the paltry minimum, to some extent, by offering tables that encourage streak bets or multihand action -- but their attitude toward anyone that actually understands the game and tries to exploit bet variation is instructive.

Recently I've been following the fortunes of a serious blackjack player named Kevin, who works for a grocery chain and likes a little action in Blackhawk now and then. Kevin counts cards -- not an easy feat when you're dealing with a four- or six-deck shoe, but he has a system. And when there's an expectation of greater-than-average face cards coming in the next few hands, Kevin works the tables that allow him to sizably increase his bets.

Does this work for him? Not always. It especially doesn't work at the casinos that do what they can to discourage card counters. (Counting isn't illegal in Colorado, as long as you don't use some electronic device, but there's no law to keep casinos from banning counters as a matter of policy.) At the Mardi Gras and the Riviera, Kevin has had dealers (acting under pit boss instructions, no doubt) abruptly change the size of the deck cut and thus the proportion of the deck in play, making counting all but useless. "Oh, you didn't like that, did you?" Kevin recalls one of the dealers telling him. "You can only take advantage for so long."

Gee whiz. It's almost as if... gasp... the casinos don't want anyone to win! Apparently the only entity allowed to take advantage is the house, which already has plenty of advantages before you ever put a chip on the line.

Kevin hasn't found the same attitude at other casinos. He's allowed to try his system, imperfect as it is, and eke out a modest profit (and sometimes a bruising loss). And perhaps the higher limits will allow everyone a little more betting flexibility and the possibility of actually breaking even. But the willingness of some casino operators to deprive a hardworking counter of even a modest return says plenty about Amendment 50, and who the real winners -- and losers -- will be if it becomes law. -- Alan Prendergast

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts