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by John Grochowski

John Grochowski is casino gambling expert and a well-known and respected columnist. His syndicated casino gambling column appears in the Denver Post, Casino City Times, and other newspapers and web sites. Grochowski has written six books on gambling including the "Answer Man" series of books ( He offers one-minute gambling tips on radio station WLS-AM (890) and podcasts are available at your question to Grochowski at

Just like players in most of the country, blackjack players in the Chicago area took a hit in the wake of the Great Recession.

With a gaming tax hike as an added factor, casinos on both the Illinois and Indiana sides of the metropolitan area tightened rules, increased minimum wagers, and decreased the number of blackjack tables in favor of more slots and newer table games that are less vulnerable to advantage play.

The best games of yore are gone. I have wistful memories of the Empress Casino in Joliet offering $5 minimums at double-deck blackjack, with dealer standing on all 17s, double down on any first two cards, including after splits, split up to three times, and with late surrender offered. (Sigh.)

You won't find anything like that now. In fact, you'll struggle to find any $5 games at all.

Most games in the Chicago area use either six or eight decks, with a few exceptions. Table minimums are high, especially in Illinois where anything under $15 a hand is a rare treat for a midweek morning. Even Majestic Star, long the last bastion of $5 tables, has gone to $10 minimums except for the sporadic opening of a $5 Blackjack Switch game.

If there's a standard game for the area, it's six decks, dealer hits soft 17, double on any first two cards, including after splits, split up to three times to make a total of four hands except Aces may be split only once, and blackjacks pay 3-2. There are a few 6-5 tables in the area, so beware.

For the most part, that leaves games with a 0.63 percent edge against basic strategy players. That drops to 0.41 percent if the dealer stands on all 17s -- mostly at higher limit tables.

Hitting soft 17 is a major change in the market post-recession. For many years, the only casinos to hit soft 17 were Hollywood Casino in Aurora and Grand Victoria in Elgin, both on the Fox River in Chicago's far western suburbs. In Joliet, southwest of the big city, Harrah's and Empress -- which is now Hollywood Joliet -- had dealers stand on all 17s. Casinos on the Indiana side -- Horseshoe in Hammond, Ameristar in East Chicago and Majestic Star I and II in Gary -- were required by state regulations to have dealers stand on all 17s.

The Indiana requirement was eliminated and the Joliet casinos changed their rules, so that now, nearly all blackjack tables in the area have dealers hit soft 17. Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Illinois, the region's newest casino, also hits soft 17 on most tables.

Still, there's room for variation. Let's take a look at rules and conditions at each of the casinos within the Chicago metropolitan area.


Harrah's Joliet and Hollywood Joliet: The two direct competitors have always tracked each other closely, and both allow players to resplit Aces in addition to standard area rules.

At both casinos, $25-and-up players get...

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