There’s hardly a scarcity of gaming options in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State calls 12 land-based casinos home, and thanks to recently passed legislation will soon support online gambling, PA Lottery online, and a number of mini-casinos.
What Pennsylvania does lack to a degree are games that offer players a solid bang for the buck. Generally speaking, PA’s brick & mortar casinos are a hostile environment for players, a reflection on the high tax rates operators must pay on slots.
But good games do exist, if one knows where to look. We’ve done some of our own scouting, and have come up with a list of games players should feel comfortable taking a chance on.
Blackjack at Sands Bethlehem
Who would have thought Sands Bethlehem would play home to some of the best blackjack not only in the state, but in the entire country?
After all, the casino is spearheaded by notorious miser Sheldon Adelson, whose Venetian in Las Vegas wins the award for tightest slots on the Strip, and is home to the infamous triple zero roulette game.
The beauty of Sands’ blackjack games is that the rules are pretty much consistent across all stakes, from the $10 minimum table in the pit to the $100 a hand game in the high roller den.
Rules are as follows:
- Blackjack pays 3:2
- Double down on any two cards
- Split up to four hands
- Double after split allowed
- Resplit Aces (up to three hands)
- Dealer stands on all 17s
- Late surrender is allowed
- Dealer peeks for blackjack before action
The only difference between the low and mid-to-high stakes games are the latter are no mid-shoe entry. It used to be that the $25 and up games were dealt from a six-deck shoe, but they were recently changed, and are now eight-deck games. Thus, the appeal of the game took a slight ding, but nothing catastrophic.
We calculate the house edge of this game at a scant 0.3%, which after factoring in comps, makes it roughly break even — pending perfect basic strategy.
Low stakes video poker at Harrah’s Philadelphia
Generally speaking, Pennsylvania casinos will not appeal to video poker players. The machines are old and broken down, the keys often stick, and most of the payout tables are horrendous. The latter point holds particularly true for any one-off VP variant such as Ultimate X and Dream Card.
However, Harrah’s Philadelphia surprised recently by adding a game that while high in volatility, offers low-stakes players a dream payback percentage. The casino now features 9/7 Triple Double Bonus, which returns 99.58% and is available at denominations as low as $0.25.
As the name implies, Triple Double Bonus is an even wilder ride than the screamingly popular Double Double Bonus game. Four Aces with a kicker (2,3,4) pays out the same amount as a Royal Flush, while quad 2s, 3s, or 4s with any Ace – 4 pays out half a royal.
Of course, to account for those big payouts some of the more frequently hit hands suffer. Most notably two pair only refunds a player’s bet, and three-of-a-kind pays just twice the wager. Flushes do pay 7 units, which is favorable.
Triple Double Bonus is only available as a single line game at Harrah’s. The next best game isn’t that great at all — 8/6 Jacks or Better (98.39%).
High stakes video poker at Mount Airy Casino
Unequivocally, Mount Airy used to be the place for $1 denomination video poker players. Sadly, late last year it downgraded its games, and $1 players were hung out to dry.
At the $2, $5, and $10 denominations, however, the games are still quite good. And for worth it’s worth, the machines in the high stakes room that support these games are all newer, responsive, and relatively clean. Players will just have to be willing to ante up a least $10 a spin ($2 x 5 coins) to take advantage.
Find the following $2+ games at Mt. Airy:
- 9/6 Jacks or Better (return of 99.54%)
- 8/5 Bonus Poker (return of 99.17%)
- 9/7 Double Bonus (return of 99.11%)
- 9/6 Double Double Bonus (return of 98.98%)
- 4/4 “LV Airport/Illinois Deuces” (return of 98.91%)
Mount Airy has recently revamped its players club, but players will still only receive 1 point per $2 wagered on VP (0.05% cashback). But the free play offers for grinding out these machines should be generous.
Slots at Parx Casino
Before we begin, be forewarned: Pennsylvania slots are taxed at 54%, and to offset the high cost of operation, casinos offer pretty lousy returns on slots.
If you must play slots in PA, then we recommend taking the ride down to Parx Casino in Bensalem. Our analysis shows that over the past 2.5 years, Parx has offered the best returns on slots in the state, 90.88%. This ranks 0.35% over second place Valley Forge, and 1.63% over last place Penn National.
It’s important to note that video poker, which boasts much higher returns, is considered a slot, so the actual payback percentage on Parx’s slots is probably a bit lower. That is, unless the video poker players play really, really poorly (not inconceivable).
With regards to which of Parx’s 3,400+ slots to play, always go with slots with higher base denominations. As a general rule, a $5 slot will return more than a $1 slot, which returns more than a quarter slot.
At the bottom of the barrel are penny slots. Unfortunately, penny slots dominate the scene and are the most fun to play — so if you’re just looking to have a good time, by all means. Just be warned that they might return below 90%, and possibly below 85% if they’re progressive machines.
On the flip side, $5 and $25 slots could return as much as 95 – 97%, but the bankroll requirements are pretty massive.
Couple other tips:
- Fade slots that are in gigantic and gaudy looking cabinets. The flashier they are, the more expensive they were to make. Often to offset their high cost, the payback on these machines are knocked down a peg.
- Avoid slots branded after movies, celebrities etc. Typically the slot manufacturer will have to pay royalties to the brand, and lower the payback to make it worth it.
What about online gambling returns?
Pennsylvania online gambling will be taxed at the same rate as land-based casinos — a big mistake in our book, but something operators are going to have to live with.
However, we do believe the returns on slots and video poker will still be better online than live, for a few reasons:
- Not all manufacturers permit operators to adjust RTPs, and these manufacturers typically offer games that return 93 – 97%.
- Of the manufacturers that do give operators options, the bottom end of the range usually doesn’t dip below 90%.
- Video poker players do not have to play five coins on Game King games to receive an 800 coin payout on a Royal Flush, like they must at land-based casinos.
In New Jersey, the average return on online slots is somewhere in the vicinity of 96%, and while we do believe it’ll be lower in Pennsylvania, it should be nowhere near the land-based average of 90.1%.
Table game odds should also be favorable, but the disparity between land-based and online shouldn’t be as great. Roulette will probably offered as a single-zero variant online, whereas only double-zero games exist in PA casino pits. Online carnival games like Texas Hold’em Bonus might also boast more favorable rules.
On the flip side, we can’t foresee the blackjack games being better than they are at Sands. Even the Live Dealer games at Golden Nugget Casino in New Jersey support rather mediocre rules, and while the digital games are better, there’s always as least one unfriendly rule.
One thing is for certain though: online will be far superior for low budget video poker and table game players, with minimum wagers conceivably as low as $0.10 per round.