Geoff Hall – Creator of Blackjack Switch

Many of you know of Geoff Hall's work even if you don't know his name. Geoff is the created of both Blackjack Switch - a blackjack variant that is widely available at Playtech casino and up and down the Las Vegas Strip - and Power Blackjack - another blackjack variant available at WagerWorks casinos. Geoff took some time out to talk to us ahead of the launch of his new game Freebet Blackjack.

Tell us about your history within gambling. How did you first develop an interest in gambling? Are you from a mathematical background?

I was always interested in cards and board games, even at an early age. I was the oldest of 4 boys and I often looked at ways of tweaking a game to try and make it more interesting or to speed the gameplay up. My parents play bridge at a high level and I suppose my interest of card games piqued when I first visited a casino and played Blackjack. After that first visit I studied the game from a book that I borrowed from a player I met at the Blackjack tables. I found it fascinating that there was a game being offered that could produce a player advantage by using mathematical methods i.e. card counting.

My background was heavily influenced by mathematics; it was easily my best subject at school. I ended up with an Honours Degree from The University of Leicester and continued to study for my Post Graduate Certificate of Education in order to enter the teaching profession. I taught Mathematics and Statistics, on and off, in various schools and colleges in the West Midlands to 11-18 year olds. I think that the last lesson I taught was back in 1999, the year before I developed my first casino game.

In your interview with Michael Shackleford it’s mentioned that you are both a skilled card counter and shuffle tracker. Where did your adventures in the world of advantage play start? Were you mentored by another player or self taught?

I taught myself to count cards from the book that was kindly lent to me by a fellow player. That was around 1988/89. There were 5 casinos fairly close to me so I would alternate between the casinos and would leave a longer gap before returning if I’d had a nice win there previouly. Of course, I was still teaching so the Blackjack play just helped to top up my salary and I wasn’t betting aggressively enough to earn huge sums at the tables. This also led to my longevity at the tables and it took a few years before I was barred from playing at one of my local casinos.

Shuffle tracking is notoriously difficult. How long did it take you to perfect this skill? Are there still many opportunities for skilled shuffle trackers to beat the game available?

Shuffle Tracking is very powerful because it gives you more opportunities to make higher bets at an edge and is far more difficult for the casino to detect. Effective shuffle tracking depends on the shuffle deployed by the casino but there are still opportunities around. In fact, when I was last in Las Vegas there was a casino that offered the perfect conditions for shuffle tracking.

I suppose that it took me a few years to realise that in certain shuffles it was easier to see how the cards were placed and, by simple calculation, the overall composition of the decks.

Another type of tracking is Ace locating whereby you know when certain Aces are about to be dealt. Under the right circumstances Ace locating is far more profitable than card counting. However, I used to do both which reduced my Ace locating performance. I played with someone who I met at the casino who is a very strong Ace locator and he taught me the basics along with the type of shuffles to look out for. When we were both playing on the table we were quite a formidable force as we could use a combination of Ace location, shuffle tracking and card counting between us.

Playing in the UK, you no doubt came up against the UK casinos very strict ID requirements. How quickly did you experience heat and how did it affect your ability to play?

I think that the combination of not regularly visiting the casino combined with modest stakes allowed me to extend my playing career without too much heat. After I got barred at one of the casinos I took up poker as I thought that it would give me some camouflage as a general player rather than a Blackjack player. As it happened, the poker worked well for me and I found that I was actually making decent money from the games with the added advantage of not getting any heat. Towards the end of my playing career I would guess that 80% of my time was playing poker and just 20% of my time was spent on Blackjack.

In the world of online gaming you are probably best known and the creator of Blackjack Switch, a game that is now one of Playtech’s leading Blackjack variant and offers what is unquestionably one of the best odd for the player across all online table games. Tell us a little about how you came to move into the field of developing casino games? What processes do you go through when you’re designing a new game?

My first game, ‘Blackjack Switch’ came about from playing the regular game. I used to like playing the two end boxes and one night I just noticed how often I would have ended up with two strong hands if I could have switched my top cards around. This led me to think about a two-handed game whereby you could switch around your top cards if you wished. I held the thought for about 6 months and, during a trip to Vegas, I noticed a Blackjack variant called ‘Spanish 21’; that was back in 1999. After that I worked on a version of Blackjack that allowed players to switch cards and finally exhibited the game at G2E in Vegas in October 2000. ‘Blackjack Switch’ had its first installation into Harvey’s Casino (now Harrah’s) in Iowa, in February 2001. I went on to develop the ‘Push 22’ rule in 2003 and it was this rule that transformed the game of ‘Blackjack Switch’ and led to the installation into ‘The 4 Queens’, in Las Vegas, in December 2003 and subsequently other casinos across America.

How did the success of Blackjack Switch make you feel? What impact did it have on your life and business?

The buzz and excitement you get when players are playing a game you created is amazing. The 4 Queens field trial was a mixture of exhilaration and panic. When the table was full it felt great but if the table emptied I would start to think that players had gone off the game, much to the amusement of the casino director.

Due to the length of time it took to develop the ‘push 22’ rule, a lot of money had been spent getting the game to where it was before The 4 Queens trial. The success of that trial coupled shortly after with the incredible success at Casino Royale allowed the game to gather momentum; and as more and more casinos added the game then so I became more relaxed if I saw an empty ‘Switch’ table on a casino floor. Financially I still had some catching up to do but I could see that ‘Blackjack Switch’ was one of the few games that made the breakthrough into being considered a successful game and that made me feel good even though at that stage I was still juggling my finances. I remember driving around in a 10-year old Ford Fiesta and speaking to a friend when the speedometer suddenly packed up. He said to me “You’ll remember this when you are driving around in a nice car in a few years time”. I treated myself to a Nissan GTR last year so that conversation still remains very clearly in my mind today.

How do you feel your experiences as an advantage player have influenced your development of casino games?

I believe that it has had some significance when considering which rules would be vulnerable to counting. However, when I develop a game, I try and see the game from a gambling perspective and what changes or additions would make the game more appealing. I believe it’s that ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ persona to designing games that has helped me to view the games from different perspectives when needed.

Once you have a new game concept that you feel is ready to go, how do you go about marketing the game? Is there a built in audience that’s checking in with you on a regular basis? Do you then start approaching a list of previous or likely clients? Or is it mainly done through conferences and shows? Do you find the game usually goes to the first client to take an interest or is there a bidding process between interested buyers?

I’m fortunate in that today I have a very good working relationship with Shuffle Master, the leading casino games distributor. When I marketed ‘Blackjack Switch’ I had no contacts in the industry. My only link with the casinos is that I played in them as an advantage player so it was difficult to get myself heard at the casinos. The 4 Queens were very open and they loved the switch concept so that really gave me a huge boost. After that you can work on the success of the game and, all being well, you can use those results to get into the next casino. It’s sort of like a ladder with certain casinos allowing you to ‘step up’ and speak to other casinos on higher rungs. For example, The 4 Queens led to Casino Royale. The next stage is a medium Strip casino and then you can use that

platform to approach the bigger Strip properties. Even with my background and reasonable success with new games, some of the big Strip casinos have told me that they would never install one of my games until it has spread along The Strip.

Nowadays, with my relationship with Shuffle Master, I can simply arrange a meeting and show my new products. If Shuffle Master like the concept then we are comfortable dealing with each other and we both know what we want so it’s easier to draw up an agreement. Fortunately, I have kept Nevada as my customer base which allows me to keep in touch with personnel within the industry as well as still having the thrill and excitement of training and watching a creation go live on the casino floor.

I also like to sit down anonymously as a player and see how other players react to my game. That’s also a great way to monitor your game as well as enjoying a real buzz when you get positive comments from other players at the table.

Playtech aren’t the only major online software providers to have picked up one of your games, IGT exclusively offer Power Blackjack, a fantastically fun Blackjack variant that allows you to replace double cards you don’t like and split 2 card 15s and 16s. Tell us a bit more about the development of this game.

‘Power Blackjack’ was my 2nd Blackjack variant that I designed. Again I looked at what players either dislike in the current game or would like to do in a new game. The worst 2 hands in Blackjack for a player are 15 & 16 so I thought “Why not let the player eliminate these hands by giving them a chance to split them like you would a pair”. So, for example, you are dealt 10, 6 now you can go ahead and receive a card each on the 6 and 10 as though you had split them normally. The other option called the ‘Power Double’ allows players to discard the doubling card if they don’t like it and take the next one out of the shoe. This ‘Power Double’ option happens on 9, 10 and 11 doubles so if you double a 10 and receive a 4 then you can discard that and take the next card out instead. All these ‘Power’ features are simply added by substituting the ‘Push 22’ rule for the dealer. You can also play the game in Las Vegas and a couple of casinos in Washington.

Online casinos aren’t the only market for your games. Tell us about some of the games you’ve marketed to the major casinos in Vegas and other offline gambling destinations. How does working with offline casinos differ from online casinos?

I actually find offline, or land-based, casinos easier to work with as I prefer a face-to-face encounter with a live demonstration. My online sales have arisen from sending either information through email contact or explaining the game on the ‘phone. I’m working to get more online presence with my latest game and have a good feeling about it. I’ve learnt a lot from my ‘Blackjack Switch’ days when I was fresh out of my teaching profession and still wet behind the ears to a large extent.

The land-based casinos that I have dealt with spread from the small casinos in Laughlin or Iowa up to places such as Bellagio, The Wynn, Mandalay Bay and other prestigious properties. I have good connections on The Strip now and my reputation as a games inventor has been solidified by the success of ‘Blackjack Switch’. Similar to being an author, if your first novel is successful then publishers are willing to take a look at your 2nd book.

You’re just about to launch some new games offline in the next couple of weeks. Tell us about these games? Where are they launching? What promotional activities are you engaged in for the launch?

I will actually be in Vegas from November 25th – December 16th training and installing my new ‘Free Bet Blackjack’ game into The Mirage and Casino Royale, following an excellent trial at The Golden Nugget. I’m really excited about this game, very similar to how I felt about ‘Blackjack Switch’ when it first hit Las Vegas. The player reaction to the game has been tremendous to date and the game is actually gaining more momentum than ‘Blackjack Switch’ even did in its early days. I have 9 UK installations with another 7 planned for early next year so I’m feeling very optimistic at the moment. I do plan to make a greater presence online and I have set up a Facebook page and will be working on a Twitter in the New Year.

Shuffle Master are licensed with the game Worldwide but I do keep the UK and Nevada and will try and have as much fun as possible installing the game in the near future.

The beauty of ‘Free Bet Blackjack’ is its simplicity coupled with the attractive rules that are added to the game. In a nutshell, in ‘Free Bet Blackjack’ whenever you get a doubling hand of 9, 10 or 11 or a splitting opportunity, except 10-value cards, then the dealer will pay for your doubles and splits. The only rule that the casino uses to allow for this free doubling and splitting is the ‘Push 22’ rule. All other rules stay the same i.e. ‘Blackjacks’ pay 3/2 etc.

You were also a key player if the development and implementation of Playtech’s iPoker network. Tell us about how that came about, what you were brought in to do and what challenges this particular project presented?

Basically, I set up the staffing and ran the iPoker team in the UK when Playtech were in their infancy regarding poker software. I even flew to Estonia and sat down with the Chairman and Directors to show exactly how the poker games were dealt in a live environment. When I left iPoker, due to my casino game developing demands, there were 10 people working for the iPoker network. Thecurrent person who runs it is a friend of mine that I introduced as my right hand man and he now runs the UK iPoker network and the last I heard there were around 60 people employed there.

Finally , in a prior life I used to do some work in music journalism and as such I’m always interested

to hear about different peoples tastes in music. Could you give us your top 5 albums?

I would base my choice of albums on a mixture of the actual music itself along with the memories that the particular album brings to me. The common factor in my choices is that the artists not only wrote the music themselves, they could actually play instruments as well. They are:-

  • The Beatles – 1967-1970

  • Supertramp – Crisis What Crisis

  • David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

  • E.L.O. – Out Of The Blue

  • Queen – A Day At The Races