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Video Blackjack in South Carolina

 
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Video Blackjack in South Carolina: Too Good to be True

By Outgoer and the Eradigator
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XVIII #3, Fall 1998)
© 1998 Blackjack Forum

To scout or not to scout? Our friend "Springbok" asked us to scout a game for him in South Carolina after "Carolina Maddog" made a post on Arnold Snyder’s private message board about great video blackjack (VBJ) games in South Carolina. The games did appear too good to be true, with an estimated advantage off the top of about 1.2% to 1.5% (depending on the frequency of the "oops" feature). To top it off, the double-deck game supposedly had 75% penetration with a spread of between $1 and $100 and the ability to play up to five spots—with no heat!

What could be better? Playing at 100 hands per hour with a reasonable spread this game could have been worth up to $300 per hour, with moderate risk compared to normal live blackjack. (Snyder had commented that 500 hands per hour might be possible on these machines. This would be realistic for ordinary VBJ machines, but with most video blackjack carousels, much more than 100-200 hands per hour are rarely possible.) If all this information was correct then the game would be worth exploring.

So, we decided to scout the game—despite our misgivings about it possibly being too good to be true. We were well aware of the existence of video blackjack machines with crooked software made by a major manufacturer (SEGA) that posted great rules but were in fact rigged to pay out at fixed percentages just like ordinary slot machines (see "Rip-Off Robo-Dealers" by Allan Pell, Blackjack Forum, December 1992).

In Nevada and New Jersey at least the gaming regulations make such games illegal by virtue of the fact that the probabilities in video card games must be based on random shuffles and deals, to match those of the live table games they simulate. But who knew what the situation would be like in South Carolina where there is no gaming commission? The only information we had from Carolina Maddog was that the machines were manufactured in South Carolina, manufacturers unknown.

Video Blackjack in Myrtle Beach

Anyway, we headed off to the sunny vacation spot of Myrtle Beach—just a couple of hours drive from the "South of the Border" Truck Stop on I-95. We decided to check Myrtle Beach out while we were there—it certainly seemed a better place to stay than the truck stop.

In Myrtle Beach we found quite a few places advertising video blackjack games—they were all basically small gambling joints. Some are larger than others, and it is doubtful whether many of them would have been able to handle big action. We had no problem with being paid despite the $125 max per day payout law that exists in South Carolina. They seemed to just print out multiple tickets if you win more than $125, but some places did have signs that said they would strictly enforce the paying out of only one ticket per day (which is what the law technically requires).

We could not find any of the double decks mentioned by Carolina Maddog. In fact, one of the biggest problems we had was determining how many decks were used. Most machines did not tell you how many decks were used and the operators didn’t appear too clued up either—which meant having to find out by counting the number of cards of the same suit.

We also found that most of the machines did not have the 5-card charlie rule. However, we did find one (with the 5-card charlie rule) that said it was four decks. About two decks were dealt, giving poor penetration of only 50%. The others we found with the 5-card rule also seemed to be (at least) 4 decks, with two decks dealt out. Obviously the game was not worth as much if there were only 4-deck or greater games and no double-deck games. Also, the bad penetration seriously reduced the advantage we could get from card counting (and so also increased the risk if we were to flat bet in order to get the approximate 1% advantage from the 5-card charlie rule).

We found a lot of different games in Myrtle Beach, with different rules, that were made by different manufacturers. The machines didn’t seem too professionally made and the manufacturers’ names normally just appeared as stickers on the machines, with local or 1-800 contact telephone numbers on them.

Now comes the problem of assessing honesty—something that should not be taken lightly given the apparent lack of regulation. We decided to play for small stakes until we felt comfortable with the games. We just used the hi-lo running count and kept a record of how long we played for and our net results. We also decided to contact the manufacturers and ask them about their games.

Virtually every place we played at we lost. As most people who understand statistics realize though, it takes quite a lot of play to reach a statistically significant conclusion on a game’s honesty. In some games though, we found that we kept getting high running counts near the shuffle point. In fact, in one place we ended on a positive running count 12 times in a row. Now, that is more statistically conclusive and did make us a bit suspicious of the honesty of these games. More on what the manufacturers had to say later.

South of the Border Video Blackjack

A bit disillusioned by Myrtle Beach, we decided to check out for ourselves the infamous "South of the Border" tourist trap that Carolina Maddog had originally posted about. Maybe there were better and more honest machines up there.

As reported by Carolina Maddog, we found two types of games, one with a male voice, another with a female voice, both with the "oops" feature. The one with the male voice had a penetration of about 75 cards but was definitely not a double deck game as Carolina Maddog had posted. At the "Orient Express" (where Carolina Maddog played) we counted four suited cards of the same denomination in one shuffle; they also had a triple 7s jackpot that was for "suited 7s."

So, although they did not have a sign saying how many decks the machines used, it must have been at least four decks. We played what looked like the same machine (also a male voice) at the "Silver Slipper," but there we found a sign above the machine saying that the game was dealt from eight decks. It also said that it had a "random deal," for what that is worth. We played for 2.5 hours at low stakes, again lost, but this time only had six more positive shoes than negative shoes.

When we decided to contact the 1-800 phone number on the machine for the manufacturer, guess what? It turned out to be a limo service!! We also found that the machine with the female voice does not seem to have a shuffle point (which could mean it shuffles after every hand OR just doesn’t show you when it shuffles). We played one of these machines for about two hours and kept a running count, which ended about even.

On arriving back in Myrtle Beach we decided to do a bit more investigating by finding out about the regulations surrounding the games and what we could glean from some of the manufacturers. Both sources proved enlightening, but we did not hear what we wanted to hear.

Posing as potential purchasers, we asked one manufacturer about how the house can get an edge when it offers good rules like the 5-card charlie. The reply we got was that he thought the normal advantage on the video blackjack was about 15%! The scary thing, though, was that he said they sold an additional software program that would stabilize your advantage up to the state regulatory limit of 20%. He said that some places chose their version that enabled you to set that advantage lower so as to encourage business from high rollers.

This manufacturer was really trying to sell us his "cheating" software, saying it was better than the other company’s cheating software. He claimed his was better because it provided a random deal to the customers, and just changed the dealer’s hole-card depending on the player’s cards so as to maintain the advantage at a fixed %! He claimed that this was technically legal because it provided the players with randomly dealt cards.

He said he thought the others were not technically legal because they stacked the deck against the players (by keeping a larger proportion of the high cards behind the cut card). In an earlier discussion with a colleague of his it was claimed that their software had been checked by the S.C. Department of Revenue, which was satisfied that it complied with the state regulations.

This manufacturer told us that everyone who bought a machine from him also bought this add-on software. He even told us of one operator who declined the special software but was back after a few months because he had had a losing month. He also told us of one place that had the software from the other company (that stacked the decks). Funnily enough, this was one of the places we had played at where we kept getting high running counts.

So, obviously, there seem to be two main types of "cheating" software on the market—one that stacks the decks so it is like always playing at a bad negative count (even though the count keeps going up!), and another that alters the dealer’s cards as required. In the first case it is fairly easy to detect cheating by keeping a count. However, in the second case (and in possibly numerous other ways) cheating can be very difficult to detect except after analyzing the outcome of lengthy play.

We then contacted the South Carolina Department of Revenue and Taxation (SCDORT) to find out a bit more about the regulations. In speaking with them on the phone, it appeared that their main concern was with collecting the annual license fees that applied to video gaming machines. However, they did send us a copy of the legislation that governs the operation of video gaming machines (Article 20: Video Gaming Act – 1993 Act No. 164, section 19A, effective July 1993).

This legislation requires each machine to be licensed (s. 12-21-2778) and regulated by the SCDORT. Of specific interest are the following two sections:

12-21-2774 (1) which says that each licensed machine "may not have any means of manipulation that affect the random probabilities of winning a video game."

12-21-2782 (A) (1) "The Department of Revenue and Taxation shall promulgate rules and regulations regarding the type of machines that may be licensed providing for minimum technical standards to ensure that the games are random, have a minimum payback of at least eighty percent, are secure and accountable, do not operate in a misleading or deceptive way, ..."

We wonder how SCDORT could possibly approve either type of "cheating" software? Do they seriously see nothing legally wrong with such software or is it the case that there is no enforcement of this legislation? Apparently there are some court cases that revolve around the video game industry but we were not able to find any details about these. Also, at present, the video gaming industry is the subject of much heated political debate. So changes in legislation may be imminent.

Final Analysis: South Caroline Video Blackjack

We eventually decided to give up on the games. We felt that the big problem for anyone wanting to play these games was that even if you do find an honest game there would be nothing stopping the operators from adding software to rig it afterwards. Then you could lose a ton of money in a short time if you thought the game was still on the level.

In our opinion, Carolina Maddog must have been extremely lucky. Either he was lucky enough to stumble upon an honest game or he was invoking some special powers from the First Church of Blackjack! One of the best ways to prove a game is honest is to beat it. So, even given his limited hours, the amount Carolina Maddog won would have been quite a feat if he had played a game with a 10-20% vig.

Interesting enough, the suppliers of the machine with the female voice (not the one Carolina Maddog played) claim it is random. However, when we inquired about the specialized software they said that although they did not supply it, they assured us that it would not be a problem to buy it from another source and add it on.

After spending a short holiday in Myrtle Beach we had to head out early because Hurricane Bonnie had its own plans. The mayor of Myrtle Beach suggested that it would be in our best interests to evacuate. Similar advice seems to apply to video blackjack in South Carolina—it’s in your best interests to avoid it.

So, be warned, although there might be honest video blackjack games in South Carolina, if you don’t find one you’re sure to lose your shirt if you play for serious money. ♠

For Further Reading on Blackjack and Video Blackjack

For more information on how to detect non-random video blackjack software, see Arnold Snyder's How to Beat Internet Casinos and Poker Rooms, which discusses non-random blackjack software found at online casinos.

For more information on casino cheating at live blackjack games, see The Big Book of Blackjack by Arnold Snyder, and Bill Zender's How to Detect Casino Cheating at Blackjack.

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