07/25/2003 12:00AM

Some casinos raise their edge by cutting blackjack payouts

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One of the oldest but truest cliches in Las Vegas is that the huge casino-hotels weren't built because of all the money that gamblers have won in town. Quite the contrary.

Casino operators are like actuaries in the insurance business. They calculate the precise odds on games of chance so that the house has an edge on every dollar wagered.

The casino's newest innovation to move the odds in their favor is to pay only 6-5 odds instead of 3-2 on a natural blackjack. This occurs mainly at single-deck hand-held blackjack tables. According the gaming web site bj21.com, there are 24 Las Vegas casinos that offer this reduced payout.

To protect yourself, you should always know the payouts and rules at the table where you are playing. If they are not clearly posted, ask the dealer or pit boss.

We asked local gaming expert Stanford Wong what the change from 3-2 to 6-5 odds really means.

"The best way to look at it is every time you get a blackjack it costs you three-tenths of a bet," said Wong who lives in La Jolla, Calif., but commutes to Las Vegas on a regular basis.

"That's the difference between 1.5 and 1.2 is, three-tenths of a bet. Say if you have a $10 bet, three-tenths of that is $3. A 6-5 odds blackjack will pay you $12 and a 3-2 odds blackjack will pay you $15. You are $3 worse off for every natural blackjack."

Wong, who graduated 25 years ago from Stanford University, broke the disparity down even further.

"You get approximately five naturals per hour in an average-speed game. So if it's costing you three-tenths per natural and you're getting five per hour, it's like a bet and a half per hour that the house is taking away from you at a 6-5 versus 3-2 payout for blackjack."

Measured in money won per hour, on $10 per hand you would get back only $60 versus $75 for your five natural blackjacks.

"When the 6-5 first came out, one casino had it in their advertising calling it a 'Whopping 6-5' with a capital W," said Wong. "It was as if 6-5 was bigger than what you got in a normal game."

Wong felt that was misleading because the only thing whopping was the casino's new advantage.

Wong knows his blackjack. He was so successful playing the card game that the casinos have marked him as an "advantaged player," another en vogue term in Las Vegas.

An advantaged player is not a cheat, but someone so skilled at playing that they win money from the casino.

"When I first went to Harold's Club in Reno, along one wall are pictures of people who won big jackpots playing slot machines," said an amused Wong. "I thought I'd like to win enough money playing blackjack so they'd put my picture up there to help publicize the casino. I found out quickly they don't put the pictures of blackjack winners on the wall."

Instead, the casinos ask him and other winners to leave.

"It is a different category than a cheat," said Wong. "A cheat is doing something illegal. An advantaged player is just a good customer that the casino would rather not do business with."

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up show.