Since opening its brick and mortar casinos a little more than a decade ago Pennsylvania has unseated neighboring New Jersey as the #2 market in the country in gross gambling revenues. And part of the reason behind its success is the wide and eclectic range of gaming options it offers.
But in terms of player value, not every game is equal, with the PA market boasting some of the best odds in the country on certain games, and cringeworthy returns on others.
Blackjack is far and away the best game to play in the Keystone State. The reverse is also true, Pennsylvania is perhaps the best state in the US for blackjack players. This is because state regulations by the PA Gaming Control Board require its casinos to offer blackjack with a specific list of rules across all betting levels:
- All player blackjacks always pay off 3:2. This is the standard traditional core concept of the game, but in many areas (particularly in Las Vegas) there has been a shift to 6:5 payouts for blackjack. 6:5 blackjack is a terrible game that should be avoided by any serious player, and effectively banning it from the state has drastically helped Pennsylvania’s blackjack reputation.
- All dealers must stand on a soft 17. This is a smaller advantage, but still significant as hitting on soft 17 adds about 0.2% to the house edge.
- Late surrender is always offered. While the situations in which it is wise to surrender are infrequent it offers the player an occasional advantage.
- Players can re-split up to three hands.
- Double down rules are also generous. Players may double on any two cards, and are also allowed to double after splitting.
All combined this game configuration makes it so the house advantage is always less than 0.4% with ideal strategy.
In addition to these standard rules a few Pennsylvania casinos also allow the player to resplit Aces, further reducing the house edge by about 0.07%.
Baccarat and Craps
Baccarat is another very popular game in Pennsylvania. While not offering unique rules the Player/Banker bets are fairly good even after the small commission (Banker only) is accounted for. In particular the Sands Casino in Bethlehem is known for the game, having added low-limit electronic live dealer baccarat tables to its stadium gaming in addition to its traditional baccarat offerings.
Craps is also a decent option. It seems Pennsylvania casinos are offering 3-4-5x odds bets. While odds bets are necessary for lowering the house edge, 3-4-5x is not the most ideal system for players. Still, some prefer this version for its simplicity.
Other table games
Beyond the aforementioned, the rest of Pennsylvania’s table games are not particularly great.
While always a popular option, roulette in Pennsylvania is played with American-style wheels. Thanks to the extra 00 green spot these offer inferior odds to European roulette (5.26% vs. 2.70% house edge)
In the past we have seen European wheels, but they were only in high-roller rooms, requiring a minimum wager of $50 – $100 per hand. Lately, it appears that even some of these wheels have been replaced with their American counterparts.
As with blackjack, the rules for Pai gow poker are closely regulated by the state. However, the rules required are pretty standard and do not grant local players any significant edge.
Pai gow is an enjoyable game and a small stake can last a long time with the right strategy, but it is not particularly advantageous.
Texas Hold’em Bonus
This poker-based table game unfortunately only pays with a Flush or better. This is similar to Atlantic City rules, and inferior to Las Vegas rules which pays with a straight for a significantly lower house edge.
Pennsylvania’s poker scene is not insignificant, but most casinos have yet to really stand out for poker players. Here’s a glance at a few that are worth the time:
- Parx Casino has recently rebuilt its poker room moving it into the main building as part of its ongoing expansion project. The new room is the largest in the region and offers 48 tables and a decent daily tournament schedule.
- Harrah’s Philadelphia has a more modest 28 tables, but occasionally hosts WSOP satellite events and is part of Caesars family so uses Total Rewards.
- Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and its 30 table room is probably the best option in the western half of the state.
- Sands Casino offers a 27-table poker room, and often features six-figure bad beat jackpots. But the poker comp rate isn’t very favorable, and it doesn’t offer the same game variety as Parx.
Slot machines launched in 2006 while the state didn’t allow table games until 2010, but the four year advantage did not result in establishing a great slot atmosphere for players. We presume this is because operators were forced to tighten their belts due to the oppressive 54% tax rate on slots.
Still, slots represent the larger share of casino revenues, even if they have slightly declined while table games keep growing.
Overall, slot machines paid out 90.5% of what was wagered in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, lagging behind the neighboring casino market in New Jersey by roughly 1%. Parx Casino and Valley Forge appear to offer the best slot payouts, averaging about 91%, while at the lower end of the spectrum Lady Luck Casino and Hollywood Casino both only paid out 89%.
Overall the video poker options are not great in the state and generally speaking aficionados will be better off driving to Atlantic City. There are a few exceptions however:
- Mount Airy Casino is the best option offering a 54% return on Jacks or Better video poker at the $2, $5, and $10 levels. Their Bonus Poker also offers a return of 99.17%, and Double Bonus returns 99.11%.
- Fans of Double Double Bonus can get 98.98% at Valley Forge, Sugarhouse, Mount Airy, or Parx (though at Parx this is only at the $5 and $10 levels.)
- Most others should probably be avoided.
It is also important to note that video poker is widely played outside of casinos at truck stops and bars. While there is a planned Video Game Terminal section of the current state Gaming Expansion, this has not been enacted yet.
As such these machines are not allowed to pay out money, though state law enforcement estimates there are tens of thousands of illegal machines that do. Video poker cannot be trusted at these locations so stick to casinos for the foreseeable future.
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