Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Readers write about free play, where to stay in Las Vegas, and video keno

Q. What do you think about "free play" instead of cash back on your rewards cards? The casino where I go has started doing it that way. I have to play with my rewards. I can't just take the money home.

A. You've mentioned the primary drawback of free play, from a player's standpoint. From the casino's standpoint, that's the primary advantage. The casino is rewarding someone who is going to use the money to play in the casino, and not take it away to spend outside.

Free play is given in a couple of different ways. At some casinos, separate cards with a magnetic stripe are issued, and those cards are inserted into the same reader you use for your player rewards card. Credits are then loaded to the game. Elsewhere, you just place your rewards card in the reader, and punch in a promotions code to load the credits.

Given a choice, I'd rather have cash back that I can spend as I please. Ten dollars in cash is worth more than $10 in free play, where you're most likely to lose a portion before you can cash out. However, if the knowledge that the credits are being used for play leads casinos to give larger rewards, I'm all for it.

If your goal is to take something close to the full amount home, I'd suggest playing a low volatility game, such as the video poker games Jacks or Better or Bonus Poker, where two-pair hands pay 2-for-1. There's no guarantee that you'll still have most of the credits after you run them through the machine once, but those games give you a better chance at holding the line than slot machines or more volatile video poker games do.

Once you've wagered the credits once, you can cash out and take what's left home if you like. As with any money you have on the machines or on the tables, there's no requirement that you play. It's your money, not "theirs," and you can always take it home.

Q. I've enjoyed reading your reports from the gambling show (Global Gaming Expo) in Las Vegas. Some of the new games sound like a lot of fun, and I can't wait to try them. 

I have a question about staying in Las Vegas. My wife and I are thinking about going, and everyone tells us someplace different to stay. Where do you stay, and why?

A. For the Global Gaming Expo, I stayed off the Strip, at Sam's Town off Boulder Highway a few miles east of the Strip, and at the Orleans on West Tropicana Avenue. Both are locals-oriented places owned by Boyd Gaming, which in the Midwest operates the Blue Chip in Michigan City, Ind., and the Par-A-Dice in East Peoria, Ill. I enjoy staying and playing at the locals-type places, with large selections of video poker games and good restaurants at reasonable prices.

Most tourists going to Las Vegas will have different priorities than mine. Especially if it's your first time, you're going to want to spend time oooooh-ing and aaahhh-ing at the sites of the Strip. I highly recommend that any Vegas first-timer stay on the Strip. If you have money to burn, the megaresorts such as Bellagio and Venetian are ultra upscale luxury hotels. But if you're on a budget, you can spend a lot less money at the older resorts such as the Flamingo or Tropicana, and still take in the sights, and check out the shows and designer restaurants at the newer properties.

If gambling is a priority, and you're looking for the best shot to win, you'll find better video poker pay tables, better blackjack rules, better slot paybacks if you get off the Strip. Still, the spectacle of the Strip, is something that calls for full immersion at least once.

Q. I like to play the keno machines, but my friend says she'll only play live keno because the house keeps more money on the machines. Is that right?

A. Per dollar wagered, casinos usually give back more on keno machines than on the live game. Live games, most common in Nevada, often return less than 80 percent of money wagered, and even less than 70 percent in some casinos. Keno machines must fulfill the same payback requirements as slot machines, and in most states that means returns of at least 80 percent. In Illinois, for example, no electronic gaming device may return less than 80 percent of wagers to players. In Indiana, it's 83 percent.

Competitive pressures drive paybacks higher than those state-mandated minimums. Video keno paybacks in the high 80s and low 90s are common.

Video games move much faster than the live game, however, and make more money for casinos than live games do. You'll likely get a higher payback percentage on a video keno game, but your risk per hour will be much higher.

Monday, October 28, 2013

What's with royals? Readers want to know

Video poker players love to talk about royal flushes --- the ones they hit, the ones they didn't, the ones that are still to come.

I had a couple of e-mails from players who were downright philosophical about their royals. One asked what the lack of royals did to the payback percentage, while the other wanted to know if expert strategy --- a term I use often in this column --- gives you a better chance at royals.

First things first. On most video poker games, royal flushes account for about 2 percent of your long-term return. When you read that 9-6 Jacks or Better returns 99.5 percent with expert play, royals account for about 2 percent of that. Between royal flushes, you're playing about a 97.5 percent game.

Within that 97.5 percent, of course, there's room for a whole lot of volatility. Sometimes you're going to hit a cluster of four of a kinds, and win big even without a royal. Sometimes you'll struggle to find anything better than two pair, and you'll have a session that doesn't begin to approach 97 percent. It happens.

I remember volatility taking a big swing in my favor in the early days of riverboat casinos in Illinois, back when the boats were required to leave the dock for two-hour sessions. I was playing 8-5 Jacks or Better --- as good as it got in the Chicago area at the time --- and hit a four of a kind, and then another.

Cruise time was almost over, so I pushed the button to cash out. The tokens started to pour into the tray … and then the hopper jammed. I waited, and waited, and waited some more. By the time an attendant came over to check, there were only about 10 minutes left until the doors would close and I'd be stuck for another cruise. He cleared the jam … and the hopper stopped again. This time it needed a fill.

There was no question of getting off the boat now. I was stuck. So while waiting for the hopper fill, I started playing the next machine. Within five hands, I had another four of a kind. A few minutes later, quads again.

Then again, and again. Within half an hour, I had six sets of quads to go with the two four of a kinds on the other machine.

If we'd had ticket in, ticket out payoffs in those days, I'd have been happily off the boat with profits from two quick four of a kinds. Instead, my bankroll was even happier with six more quads, although my wife was a little miffed that I was a couple of hours late.

That's a long tangent just to say big wins are possible without a royal. And, of course, large, fast losses are part of the game, too. But overall, your payback percentage is about 2 percent lower whenever your session doesn't include a royal flush.
On to the second reader. "I read about expert strategy," she started, "and I was wondering. Does expert strategy help me hit more royals? I practice on the computer, and I try to play the right way, but it's been about a year and a half since I hit a royal. What's happening?"

Royal-less streaks happen, and they can get awfully lengthy --- "awful" being a key part of that phrase.

Given expert strategy, we'll hit a royal about once per 40,000 hands, a little more or less often depending on the game and its strategy adaptations. For someone who plays at a steady, but not really speedy, 500 hands an hour, that'll give us a royal about once per 80 hours of play.

But we can't count on that royal being there within 80 hours. With such a rare event, sometimes we'll go two or three times that long without seeing a royal flush. My reader seems to be in one of those streaks now.

Frustrating, but normal.

As for the question of whether expert strategy helps you hit more royals, the answer is not necessarily. Expert strategy is designed to maximize the average return on each decision you face, and sometimes that means we'll pass up the chance at a royal.

For example, playing 9-6 Jacks or Better and dealt Queens of clubs, diamonds and spades, along with a King and a 10 of diamonds, do you hold the three of a kind, or do you hold King-Queen-10 of diamonds?
If you hold the three Queens, you have no chance at a royal flush. If you hold the three diamonds, you'll draw a royal once per 1,081 hands. Still, holding the three Queens is a much, much better play. You're assured of three of a kind, and have a chance at a full house or four of a kind. Your average return is 21.5 coins per five wagered, compared with 6.7 coins if you hold the three diamonds.

You could hit more royals by using a "go for it" strategy in which you always discard cards that get in the way of royal possibilities. You'd also lose a lot of money using it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

WSOP Circuit stops at Horseshoe Hammond

The World Series of Poker has been a classic event --- perhaps THE classic event --- ever since its founding in 1970. At the first event, Benny Binion invited seven top players to his Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas. After competing not only in Hold’em, but in seven-card stud, razz, five-card stud and lowball, Johnny Moss was elected World Champion by his competitors.

The next year, the Texas Hold’em, winner-take-all tournament format that players know and love was adopted.

 Nowadays, the World Series of Poker goes on tour, with the big tournament still in Las Vegas every year, but WSOP Circuit events around the country throughout the year. The Chicago area stop is going on now at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond.

The Horseshoe Hammond event got under way on Thursday, Oct. 17, and runs through Monday, Oct. 28. It’s the fifth stop on a 22-city tour this season. It’s also the largest WSOP Circuit event.

According to a news release, more than 12,000 players are expected to compete at Horseshoe for more than $2.5 million in guaranteed total prize money. The festival will feature 12 tournaments across a wide range of buy-ins, formats and variants. Event highlights include Event No. 1 with a $500,000 guarantee and event No. 10 with a $2 million guarantee.

Horseshoe Hammond also hosted the fourth annual Chicago Poker Classic earlier this year, a 13-day festival that attracted some of the Chicago area’s best players. With a $1 million guaranteed opening event and more than $600,000 added to prize pools, satellites, cash game promotions and daily tournaments, the Chicago Poker Classic was the richest Chicago poker festival outside of the WSOP Circuit.

When the WSOP event is over, I’ll relay some of the highlights in this blog. Meanwhile,  you can check out Horseshoe’s site at

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steppenwolf wrap up Grand Victoria concert series

I don't get around to the Chicago area casinos as much as I did when I was writing a regular casinos column for the Chicago Sun-Times, so I appreciate it when the casinos pass along information on what's going on.

Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, in partnership with Onesti Entertainment, hosted a Summer Jackpot Series of concerts outdoors at Festival Park, adjacent to the casino Marilou Pilman of Grand Vic passed along information on the final show of the season. The Oct. 13 finale featured Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, along with John Kay and Steppenwolf.

“You have all the makings of another Woodstock,” John Kay of Steppenwolf told the crowd.  “But a lot more fun.”

I don't know about Woodstock, but I'm sure anyone who every fancied themselves as "Born to Be Wild" or yelled "Freebird" to any band playing anywhere had a great time.

In a press release,. Grand Victoria general manager Jim Thomason  said, “Our goal was to draw thousands of people to downtown Elgin.  This year was a test and due to the huge success of these shows, we are already working on next year’s lineup. ‘The City of Elgin was very instrumental in orchestrating all the moving pieces it takes to put on shows of this magnitude.”

This year's series opened Aug. 24 with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts along with Eric Burdon and the Animals. The second show, on Sept. 24, featured Grand Funk Railroad and Night Ranger.

For more information on the casino and its special events, visit

Friday, September 27, 2013

G2E Day 3, visting Bally and Titanic

On the final day of Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, my final tour of slot manufacturers' booths sent me searching for folks who know more about ships than I do. On its new Titanic slots, Bally Technologies kicks off bonus events with a U Spin turn. By now, you know how U Spin works. You touch the screen to move a wheel back and forth, and let fly to give it a spin.

On Titanic, a key U Spin is on the ship's control that's marked off into segments including slow, full half and stop, both for ahead and astern. That seemed like a lot of words, so I wanted to know what the device was called. For a quick answer, I turned to an online community, a message board consisting mainly of University of Illinois sports fans.

I got my answer within four minutes of asking. It's the engine order telegraph.

The engine order telegraph is important in Titanic, a feature-rich games filled with movie clips and iconic symbols. The celebration for big wins includes the famous moment in the movie when Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson stands on the prow and shouts for the planet to hear, "I'm king of the world!" Slot playing kings and queens also see coins flying across the screen during the classic scene.

On the Titanic game, the engine order telegraph segments are for bonus event launches and other awards. When Bally's Mike Trask showed the game features, a U Spin of the engine order telegraph took us to the segment marked Safe.

In the Safe feature, it was time to U Spin again, this time on the ship's  safe's combination lock. A single spin brought a credit award, opened the door and took us into a finely appointed ship's room. There, we got to pick icons --- a vase, a table, a woman standing in the room --- to collect bonuses.

Another event plays off Dawson's sketching skills. A drawing scene plays, and three sketches are displayed. A match game follows, with players doing a little virtual scratch off until they select three copies of the same drawing. That determines bet size on free spins to come.

Slot players who loved the movie will find plenty to like, regardless of whether they've ever heard of an engine order telegraph.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

G2E, day 2, Aristocrat, Spielo, Konami

A few  notes from Global Gaming Expo, Day 2:

**After two days of being accosted by zombies near the exhibit hall --- they growled at me, but ultimately parted enough that I could get through without turning undead --- I got my chance to see Aristocrat's The Walking Dead game through its license with AMC. It's feature rich, with Reel Growth extending reels 2, 3, 4 and 5 up an extra 1 to 3 spaces for added potential wins. In The Horde bonus, the Horde invades the screen and leaves wild symbols behind. As Aristocrat's Dallas Orchard demoed the game, a zombie took a shot in the head, splattering blood --- and wild symbols --- across the reels. When the blood starts flowing, it's good for the players.

**Spielo's Sphinx 3D is spectacular. Sphinx has been a great title for Spielo (formerly Atronic) for a long time, and in the new version, the 3-D effects are spectacular. As Mike Brennan, who was showing me the game watched, the coins from a big win seemed to jump right off the screen, and right at me. I reach out and grasped, and told him I'd like to take some of those coins right now.

Stacked wilds here are really stacked wilds. Coin-shaped discs depicting a scarab stack up on the same reel position. As the stack grows, it increases the number of times a winner is collected. At one point, I had a winner that included a stack of five scarabs. I collected the 250 credit win once, and a scarab disk was taken away. That was repeated, repeated, repeated and repeated again, until the last scarab had been used, I got the 250-coin win five times. It's a new way of stacking wilds that would work effectively only with great 3D.

**One of the pleasures of G2E is experiencing game features without investing any money. At the Konami booth, I sampled The Force of Legend, an Xtra Reward Game featuring Action Stacked Symbols The lion was a wild symbol, and each lion expanded into a stack to fill a three-symbol column. I triggered a bonus event, and had to choose credits or 45 spins under Konami's Balance of Fortune mechanic. I choose spins, and on No. 44 triggered 150 more. The total for 195 spins: $1,524.50 in imaginary money for a $4.50 imaginary bet.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Notes from G2E, Day 1

On the first day of Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, I toured the booths of Incredible Technologies, WMS Gaming and International Game Technology. I also looked in on some new table games, but that's a subject for another time.

Impressions of the beginning of the long march through the slotmakers' booths, with one game from each:

**Incredible's second King of Bling game, Bounce 2 Nite, is a blast, with a couple of new features, One is Iced Out, triggered by diamond symbols on the first two reels. The diamonds are held, and everything else goes into respin mode. The diamonds dance, bounce, sway and spin in time to the music, and the tempo picks up as the wins mount. The respins continue as long as they bring more diamonds, which lock into place. The goal is to ice out the screen, covering it in diamonds.

The Bounce 2 Nite feature involves bouncing a flashy car. Touch the front left bumper, and it raises and bounces down with a crash, revealing bonus credits. Touch other areas of the car, and they bounce too. The awards are random, not determined by where you touch the car. Focus groups just liked making it bounce.

**WMS has much, much to offer, and I can't possibly do justice by focusing on one game. There'll be more to come in magazines and in my syndicated column, but for now. I loved its new Iron Man game, with plenty of images, sounds and clips from the movie. Bonus rounds are iconic. Slot players will love seeing the Jericho missiles fired onto the screen to create winners.

The playing field has 5 reels, each 12 symbols deep. The center 5x4 section is the bonus zone. You need the bonus characters to land in the zone to launch the bonus events. When Black Widow shows up, you want her in the bonus zone.

**IGT is involved in all market segments, and I'll be writing about its Megajackpots and video poker games later. One core game I had fun testing was Centipede, with its skill-based bonus. IGT went for an old-school video game feel, and it really game through.

In the bonus event, you use a joystick to move into position, then one of four buttons to fire at the crawling centipede, elimnating some segments for bonuses and sending the remnants on their separate ways. I did destroy the first centipede to move to level 2, but alas, could not advance again. I still got a nice bonus, and a lot of fun.