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Invasion of the Robo-Dealers: Video Blackjack in Japan

By Allan Pell
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XII #1, March 1992)
© 1992 Blackjack Forum

Last year I met with investors who were planning to open a new casino near Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. Looking over their casino layout, I noticed a design plan similar to that which runs through nearly every Vegas casinos—75% of the floor would be devoted to machine games. I pointed this out to the head of the investment syndicate. His reply was right to the point: "Machines never show up late for work, they don't call in sick and they never, ever ask for raises."

Flash to present day ... does anyone remember my article about Japanese game centers-slash-casinos ("Blackjack in Japan," BJF X #4)? Here you can play Pac-Man, take two steps and play some slots, roulette or blackjack—and all the play is for fun (if you can call gambling with a 100% loss expectation fun). In these places, you can't cash in your chips or tokens ... well, in some places you can, but I won't get into the Yakuza's (Japanese mafia's) underworld gambling at the moment ... that's the subject of a future article.

And, yes, the Japanese, be they ever so clever, have managed to computerize most of the popular Vegas table games. There are multi-player roulette tables with regulation- size wheels, mini horse-racing tracks (better than the ones seen in the states), poker tables with 3-D projection dealers, and yes, there's multi-player simulated table blackjack. Now in Australia and Asia you can run into a robo-dealer. Some robo-dealers are beatable. Some are not.

Being a Japanologist (survive here for two or more years and you qualify for a Japanologist tee-shirt), I'll divulge the export secrets of the Japanese. It boils down to:

  1. What's mine is mine; what's yours is mine (meaning: we won't stop competing until you're dead and buried and your family pays us rent);
  2. In order to export a product, the product must be mass producible (note: that's all these jokers live for here—pumping boxes out of the factories);
  3. The Japanese market for the product must be close to saturation (meaning: we can't sell any more here, so let's stretch the tentacles of the Imperial Empire to some foreign shore ... BANZAI!!!).

At the present time, all of the above elements are in place for the electronic games market. If I were marketing director for IGT (International Games Technology), the biggest American producer of slots, I'd be sweating. The Japanese are coming. Banzai of charge at dawn ...

Japanese video blackjack machines fall into two categories: multi-player simulated table devices, and single player slot machines. I've discovered two multi-player simulated table devices, and three hitherto-unseen-by-Western-eyes single-player slot devices. All, save one, are incredibly interesting. So here we go, best to worst ...

Number One Multi-Player Video Blackjack Machine: Irem Blackjack

Osaka-based Irem Corporation introduced this, the first multi-player table simulation, several years ago. Presently, it is available in Australian and Asian casinos. In my learned opinion, this is the best of the Japanese machines because it is pure blackjack. No stupid distractions like bonus thingamajigs jumping around the screen to distract you—just pure blackjack.

The Irem machine simulates four-deck Vegas Strip games: double any first two cards, no double after splits, insurance, no-peeks under tens, and split pairs (but no resplits because of screen size restrictions). There are bonus features like: 5-card 21 or under auto-win, A-Spade/J-Spade x 2 win, etc. But these are option features which can be set to the individual operator's whims. I've seen machines with them, and some without.

Five video screens (at regulation table height) are positioned in a semi-circle around a central screen—the dealer. The player's screen displays game rules (in almost-intelligible English) which alternates with the Irem logo before play. One thing particularly amusing here is how the Japanese think they know how to use English—I mean "Jap-lish."

Dollar is spelled "dollor", and sentence structure is extremely stilted. Experience with the Japanese has shown me that a) they would rather fall on a samurai sword than ask a guijin (foreigner) for help. And b) Japanese businessmen are ketchy (ket-chi—meaning cheap and stingy). Paying a guijin for consulting would be the ultimate act of disgrace. And finally, c) many Japanese are outright racists (not to insinuate that Irem is so). A newspaper poll indicated that 55% of Japanese do not want to associate with foreigners—and again, hiring a foreigner is out.

Particularly amusing are Irem's voice prompts. "Let's play blackjack!" greets you before play. (In Jap-lish: "Ret'su pray brakjak.") But they get an A for effort.

All betting is through tokens purchased in advance. Japanese game-center tokens come in two sizes equaling U.S. 50 cent and 5 cent pieces. Hmmm. Does this mean something? You can pump in up to a zillion tokens and play credits, or one shot at a time. A "continue bet" (parlay) button, when hit, will continue the amount of the previous bet plus the amount won. And a "X10" button, when hit, will add 10 units (to 10, 20, 30 and so on) to a maximum of 50 units bet. And there's a "normal bet" key.

Okay, "Ret'su pray brakjak!"

I usually take on this video blackjack machine head-to-head (my suggested manner, should you run into this robo-dealer). Or you can pray with up to four other players. The deal is from right to left. Cards come out with card-dealing sound effects. Robo does not burn cards, and it takes its face down hole card first. Players' cards are dealt face up.

Once you receive your second card you have six seconds to make a playing decision, else the machine automatically stands your hand. Your first two-card hand totals are shown on the screen to speed play, and when you hit, a voice prompts you with the total.

The voice also prompts you when you bust, or get a brakjak, but the brakjak also gets you a musical fanfare, "Ta dah!" Hit, stand or bust, play moves from player one to five. After the last player finishes play, the robodealer goes into action, and the hole card is revealed. Again the voice prompts the dealer's totals. When robo busts or makes a pat hand, payoffs are made. A small light above each player's screen blinks if you win. Payoffs are made in credits. Hit the "bet" button and the whole degenerate gambling cycle begins anew.

Beating the Irem Video Blackjack Machine

I've counted down the number of cards played in several game centers to discover that between 157 to 159 cards are dealt before the machine shuffles. (This seems to be constant.) The machine even voice prompts you when it's shuffling, and gives graphics of the procedure. Penetration of 157 to 159 cards dealt means that three decks out of four are dealt. Head to head, I utilize the unbalanced Red-Seven, and just increase my bet from 1 to 10 or more units when the count goes from favorable to very favorable.

Months ago I started with 50 units at my game center in Shibuya. I now keep a running balance of 450 to 600 units at the center. (You have to check-in your tokens; the center keeps them for you until you return.) This amazes them. They don't know how I do it.

With more than one or two players, it's hard to keep track of other players' cards. The screen angles make them difficult to see. By standing behind two or three players, you can Wong this machine. From behind or above, the screens are easy to watch. You can jump in with a ten or twenty unit bet when favorable, and jump out. I sometimes employ this strategy. I simply pre-load tokens, stand up, watch the play, then hit the X10 button when the count is favorable.

A super-advanced card counter could employ a more powerful playing strategy but he'd have to side-count the number of rounds to make accurate true-count estimations, and he'd find his most profitable play head to head.

Second Choice Video Blackjack: Sega's Blackjack Super Magic Vision

This one's interesting, but does not win a cigar. Built by Sega Enterprises, it's similar in layout to the Irem machine, but more elaborate, with better design, and possesses superior graphics. The dealer in this device is a 3-D computer graphic woman blackjack dealer on a 35-inch reflection screen, and in her background a casino is visible. The computer-generated image speaks, shuffles and deals the cards, "I'm Rachel, how are you?"

And there's also a dealer shift change every ten minutes. Rachel dissolves, "Good-bye," another buxom-blond guijin type appears, "Nice to see you, I'm Susie!" When the betting time limit runs out (5 seconds), "No more bets," and right before they deal, "Good luck!" Sega did their homework here, and the voice recordings are excellent. I'm surprised they hired guijin voice actors. Too bad, the good ends here.

The machine shuffles after every round. The best we can play against this robo-dealer is basic strategy. Playing conditions allow you to double down on your first two cards and double after splits. One card on an ace, no peek under tens, and insurance is offered.

Of course, there is the ever-present bonus hand schedule, very similar to the Irem machine, but Sega's got one interesting bonus feature, "Silver and Gold Fever." At random a gold or silver bar will appear on the screen when your first card is dealt, and the dealer will say, "Gosh, it's silver (or gold) fever." On the bars: a "X2" (on the silver) or "X3" (on the gold). If you win that round, your winning amount is automatically multiplied by that amount. In other words, a winning hand on a four-unit bet would return 8 units on silver or 12 units on gold.

Here's a good twist that could be added to the regular Vegas table games. Just put extra cards gold and silver (no number denomination) cards into the deck(s). If the dealer gives a player one of these cards, the player win (if he wins) is multiplied appropriately.

Sega's betting limits are from 1 to 5000, but to get to a 5000 unit bet, you'd have to use the "continue bet" (parlay) button, so the odds of being able to place a bet that high are in Carl Sagan's domain. I think the maximum you can bet (by hitting the bet button) is 50 units.

Now I hate to use the word "think," but I have to. I tried to arrange an interview with someone at Sega Enterprises to clear up some foggy points, but their public relations manager turned me down with lame excuses. He was also rude to my assistants who tried to contact him. He typifies everything that is bad about Japan. A nasty letter to him merited a reply from him that he'd at least send product brochures (gee, don't go out of your way, pal!) For Sega, a final word: cute technology, but thumbs down!

Single-Player Video Blackjack in Japan, First Choice: Vegas 21

Tokyo-based Eagle Software developed the program for this game and then licensed it to Taito Corporation for manufacture and distribution. Taito is not the exclusive licenser for this game, but seems to be the main source of distribution within Japan. This game may be offered for foreign consumption under different manufacturer's names, but with the same rules and graphics. Taito says that it may be already available in some Asian casinos from other manufacturers.

The game was brought into the Taito line around June 1991, and is currently being test marketed in Japanese game centers. At first, I completely dismissed this device as just another baka (pronounced bah-kah, meaning stupid) blackjack slot. But there was one feature here that made this version of 21 incredibly interesting. Vegas 21 allows you to split your first two cards regardless of whether or not they are a pair... hmmmm.

The best you can play against this machine is basic strategy, but you would want a special basic strategy to take into account the new pair-splitting aspect. Not having vast number crunching capabilities, I can only begin to theorize about this machine. [Note from Arnold Snyder: According to Stanford Wong's Basic Blackjack, you would be correct to split 6-9, 7-8, and 8-9 against all cards except dealer ace or ten. To my knowledge, no one has run a complete basic strategy for this game.]

Right away, I envision possibilities of being able to dump your stiff hands—splitting them against 4, 5 and 6 up-cards. And several hours of play in both Taito's showroom and other Japanese games centers began to reveal this. But would there be advantages in being able to dump stiffs against the power cards—10's and aces? A computer study would have to be made in respect to this and a new basic strategy formulated. But I believe that perhaps once the ground work is done, the new basic strategy would achieve an advantage over this device. Okay, let's get into the meat and potatoes of this machine...

This is a two-deck game. Vegas Strip rules apply here: dealer stands soft 17, no resplits, no double after splits, and insurance is offered. The machine shuffles after every deal. Again, the machine gives you voice prompts for totals (except for insurance, and you would never take it on this game). The voice prompts greatly speed the game as you can turn your mind off. Thing about it IGT! The machine employs a large 19-inch monitor, and the high resolution graphics are sharp and excellent.

Since I'm sticking my neck out on the possible advantage a smart player could have over this machine, I'll also mention the bonus schedule. The upper right hand corner of the screen contains the bonus schedule. The bonus increases with each unit wagered. Five units wagered changes the bonus on a same-suit blackjack from 10 to 50 (that is, 50 units are added to your win) so you total out with 60 units for laying out five. A maximum of ten units can be bet on each round.

Second Choice Single-Player Video Blackjack: Sigma

This is a machine similar to the one seen in the Vegas casinos. In fact, it's almost identical. However, the Japanese version does not shuffle after every round. The catch is you cannot tell when it does shuffle. (So what's the point, Sigma?)

This machine also uses Vegas Strip rules, single deck, and late surrender. The best you can do against this beast is basic strategy, but there's one other little gimmick waiting to bite you: bet imprisoning. If you push the dealer, your bet is imprisoned until the next round. If you lose, you also lose the previous bet. Ouch!!! I hate this machine because of that.

Third Choice Single-Player Video Blackjack: ParentJack by Taito

The Japanese word for parents is Oya (pronounced Oii-ya). Japanese refer to card dealers as their Oya, hence the name of this strange game: "ParentJack." The reason this game is called ParentJack is because you are the Oya, or dealer/parent.

Now this is a strange game, because you can bet on the player's hands. There are four players, and you can wager on one or all of their hands. Hmmm! To start the game you hit "Start."

The dealer gets one up-card and one down-card. Players too! You, as the dealer, cannot see what the players' first two-card totals are. Then you bet on whatever players you wish, from one to 100 units. Then you hit the "Deal" button.

Now, here's the catch: the players make very stupid plays, like hitting 17 and 18, never doubling, and never splitting. [Note from Arnold Snyder: You could kill this game if you could control how the hands were played for the players you bet on, or even if the players always played basic strategy. You would bet on players with strong up-cards, like 10 or Ace. You'd also have a small advantage on a player hand showing a nine. But since the players make weird plays like hitting 17 and 18, the game is clearly rigged against you.]

The players are animated, they tap the table for hits and wave off to stand. It's quite interesting to watch, but probably offers no serious play.

Once all of the players have finished, it's time for the dealer. Here's where it really gets mondo-weird. You, as the dealer, can do anything you please. You can stand on any total, or hit any total... and all the while you cannot see the players' first down cards until you've finished.

When players win, the machine wins. When the dealer wins, you win. Got that?? [Note from Arnold Snyder: This game is based on Vingt-Un, Napoleon's favorite game. It was an 18th-century version of blackjack that featured player and dealer bluffing. It was not a house-banked game. For more information on strategy, see The Big Book of Blackjack.]

This was too bizarre for me. Thank God I got to play it within Taito's showroom. I would have gone through several thousand Yen before I figured this one out. My first strategy was to wager on players with weak cards—4, 5, and 6—when I had a power card up. I hoped they would break on the draw. I would then draw to any pat hand I had (like a real dealer), and the house always wins, especially with dumb players, right? Well, the jury is still out on this one.

One thing I can say about Taito—they were friendly and very helpful. Mr. Koike (General Manager of International Sales) was extremely courteous, generous with product literature and information, and very open. Taito is already in the American market with a subsidiary which makes home and game center games; and from the way Mr. Koike was speaking, they seemed to be contemplating entering the U.S. casino market. Look out, IGT!

The Future of Video Blackjack

Will dealers and croupiers become extinct? Will the silicon chip rule the casinos of tomorrow? Computer chips don't palm casino chips, don't eat up tokes, and don't require worker's compensation insurance. Computer chips can keep the games running 24 hours a day, faster and more accurately than any human.

I have seen the Japanese electronic games. Roulette has already been tackled, as has blackjack. Sega already has a poker version of their blackjack machine—same screen and player layout, except it's a draw-poker game. During a chat with an IGT executive, it was revealed that they're working on a multi-player craps layout.

Yes, the machines will work their way more and more into the casinos. Some casinos today are exclusively machines (i.e. downtown Vegas). But without the human element, the fun is completely lost. You can beat a human, but can you beat a machine? Especially a machine that has been programmed to grind you down and defeat you.

God knows what they'll be able to sneak into their computer programs. Bad shuffle techniques, etc., can be camouflaged inside a ROM chip, and you'd never know! When the machines take over, the smart players will leave, and the house will crumble. I think the casinos realize this.

The machines will not completely dominate casino environments, but the technology will get better. The Japanese machines already antiquate many U.S. products. You'll see craps machines, but with 50-cent minimums. And 25-cent multi-player blackjack machines. You'll see the machines offer the minimums of the past without the personnel overheads of the present. This is where I think this technology will lead the casinos.

Sayanara from Pell-San. ♠


For more information and stories about video blackjack and blackjack variations, see The Big Book of Blackjack by Arnold Snyder. For optimal basic strategy on most blackjack variations found in the world, see Stanford Wong's Basic Blackjack.

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