Wednesday, August 30, 2017

New Guide to Online Slots

In my time writing about casinos, there has been tremendous change in the games people play and how we play them.

When I started all this, slots had three mechanical reels.Video slots were in their infancy. Online play? There was no Internet. Home computers were for a few hobbyists.

Today, video slots are the kings in brick-and-mortar casinos, and their descendents, online slots, are thriving in many jurisdictions.

How do those online slots work? What do you need to know to play? That's the subject of my Ultimate Guide to Online Slots, new at

For the record, I'm not the "John" in "johnslots." It's a site that's all about the online slot experience, and they approached me to write their guide.

How does the house get its edge in online slots? How can you be sure the games are random? What's the difference between coin slots and online slots?

To explore those topics and much more, check out the guide.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Reel Deal on Slot Odds

I've taken on a couple of new projects of late, and one was writing a 2,000-word, illustrated blog entry on slot machine odds and how they work for It's their first slot machine entry to go with a main focus on bingo.

Slot fans will find it fun to read, I think. It's broken into small, easily digestible sections. The entry delves into the odds of winning, what goes into determining those odds, whether identical-looking games have the same odds, and much more.

Check it out at
 The Reel Deal on Slot Odds

In the near future, I'll be back with news on another project, a lengthy guide to playing the slots at, where my longtime colleagues Henry Tamburin, Frank Scoblete and Jean Scott already are posting,

Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The 2 percent solution

Note: This is an article I wrote about six years ago for Midwest Gaming and Travel magazine, which, sadly enough, published its last issue earlier this year. MWGT wanted stories longer than most I write, so this is 2,500 words. I could present the material on games with house edges of about 2 percent or less much more efficiently, but when I found this in a file search, I remembered enjoying writing it so much that I just had to share it again.

A cheerful Watson strode into the study, only to be filled with dismay. The great detective was slumped back in his armchair, eyes glazed over, staring straight at, but somehow not through, the windows ahead.

“Holmes! What is it?”

“The solution,” Holmes droned. “The solution.”

Watson’s face dropped. His shoulders sagged.

“Oh, my dear man,” he said mournfully. “How many times have I warned you … ”


Holmes leaped to his feet, eyes flashing, suddenly alert.

“You mistake me, Watson. You and I are going on a little trip.”

He strode to his desk, and lifted an envelope and unfolded the contents.

“Read this,” he commanded.

“Why, it’s from America,” the doctor exclaimed. “Are you to journey to America?”

“Read, Watson. Read.”

“I will, Holmes. I will.

“ ‘My dear Mr. Holmes, your fame has spread across the ocean as a man who can see around the corners, untangle knots and peer through any mystery that might present itself. My problem is quite a common one, I’m afraid, and yet I find myself unable to penetrate its depths.

“ ‘For the last decade or more, I have traveled to casinos as part of my entertainment. There have been times I have won money. More often, I leave a small sum behind. That does not bother me. I understand that the games have odds designed to part me from my money, and I have learned to celebrate the winning sessions when they come, and enjoy the entertainment while minimizing my risk when I lose. I do not wager more than I can afford.

“ ‘However, I find myself wondering if there might be some games that give me a better chance to win than others. I play a little of everything, risking a little at the roulette wheel, spinning the reels on the slot machines, maybe taking a flutter on blackjack or craps.

“ ‘I have heard that it is possible to win more often by counting cards at blackjack or learning strategies on certain video poker games, but I am afraid that I do not have the time or patience for such things. I don’t fancy myself becoming an expert by any means, but if there is a way to give myself a better chance to win, or at least have a little more of my money remaining at the end of the day.

“ ‘Mr. Holmes, do you have a solution?’ ”

  Watson looked puzzled. He’d been amazed to watch Holmes penetrate murders, stolen gemstones, concealed identities and international plots. But this …

“And do you, Holmes? Do you have a solution?”

“A 2 percent solution, Watson. Come. Let us go.”

It was not to America that the detective guided the doctor. Instead, he chose a nearby casino with an American-style mix of games.

“Do you know why casinos make money, Watson?”

“I suppose it’s that the games are set up so that the house side wins more often than the player side.”

“Nearly, Watson, nearly. Not quite correct, but quite good.”

Watson looked perplexed and slightly annoyed, but waited for the explanation.

“I’ll show you what I mean,” Holmes said. “Let’s walk over to that baccarat table.”

The table was just modestly busy, perfect for Holmes to point out the clues.

“You see that only one hand of cards is being dealt, instead of each bettor receiving his own cards? Instead of wagering on his own hand, the bettor may wager on which side wins, player or banker.”

Watson thought hard.

“Then how is it possible for the house to make money, Holmes? After all, one side or the other must win.”

“Or it could be a tie, Watson. But on ties, those who wager on either player or banker get to keep their wagers.”

“Then how … ”

Holmes stared, stone-faced, then let a tiny smile crack. Finally, the great detective guffawed heartily.

“Oh, Watson. Permit me this small laugh at your expense. You see, I have information that you do not.  The banker side wins more often than the player side. Therefore, the house has an advantage on bets on player. BUT … the house collects a commission on winnings when the banker side wins.”

“I see, Holmes, now that you’ve explained it. The house can lose more than half of the time, and still win.”

“That is correct. In the case of baccarat, the house has a 1.09 percent advantage on banker wagers, and 1.24 percent on player. To use American standards, for every $100 wagered on banker, the house expects to keep $1.09. For every $100 wagered on player, the house expects to keep $1.24.

“Both advantages to the house, you will consider, are less than 2 percent.”

Watson’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. It was as if a new day had dawned.

“And THAT,” he said, “is the 2 percent solution.”

“Exactly, Watson. Exactly. I will tell my American correspondent that without spending a great deal of time and effort learning to count cards in blackjack, learn to recognize the best video poker games and applying the most advantageous strategies to them, or learning to control the dice at craps, he cannot hope to win consistently. However, he can win a little more often, keep some of his money more of the time, if he will limit his wagering to the games that give the lowest advantage to the house.

“Further, I shall draw that line at 2 percent. If a game has a house advantage of 2 percent or less, it goes on a list of games my correspondent might consider playing. If the house advantage is more than 2 percent, it goes on a list of games he might consider avoiding. The choice, of course, is his.”

Watson’s curiosity was raised.

“What reasons might he have for playing the games on the list of those to avoid?”

“Oh, there are many reasons, Watson. He told us in his letter he travels to casinos as part of his entertainment. Perhaps he simply enjoys some games that are more advantageous to the house. Perhaps he finds them, for lack of a better word, ‘fun.’”

Holmes raised an eyebrow at his own statement, then continued.

“Look around you, Watson. What do you see most?”

“Why, slot machines, Holmes. There might be a few hundred chairs at gaming tables, but there are thousands of slot machines. Are they part of the 2 percent solution?”

“No, Watson, they are not. The house advantages are quite high. On low-denomination machines, such as the American one-cent and two-cent games, house advantages tend to exceed 10 percent. Even on higher denomination games, such as American dollars, the house advantages usually are between 4 and 6 percent, depending on the competitive situation of the host casino. Additionally, we must consider that play on slot machines is very rapid. A slot machine enthusiast can make many more wagers in an  hour than can a table games player. So no, Watson, slot machines are not part of the 2 percent solution.”

“Then tell me, Holmes, why are they getting most of the play?”

“People who wager in casinos find them fun. There are games within a game on many of them --- there is more here than meets the eye. And slot machines offer the chance at a big jackpot of thousands, sometimes even millions of dollars. Whether they win or not, players enjoy the anticipation as they wait for the jackpot mystery to unfold. If my correspondent truly enjoys that kind of entertainment, as many do, the 2 percent solution is not for him.”

With that, Holmes whirled and paced quickly to a blackjack table.

“This, Watson, can be an element of the 2 percent solution, but for many it is not. It is one of the few games in which it is possible for players to gain a mathematical edge on the house.”

“The counting of cards mentioned by your correspondent, Holmes? How does that help?”

“Unlike the mathematics in most games, those in blackjack change with each turn of the cards. A card removed from the deck changes the composition of the deck remaining to be played. A greater concentration of high cards increases the percentage of two-card 21s --- blackjacks --- that are dealt. That favors the player, so counters of cards raise their wagers in such situations.”

“I understand, Holmes. But the American said he had neither the time nor patience for counting cards. Can this game still be part of the 2 percent solution?”

“It can, Watson, if he will take the time to learn what is called ‘basic strategy,’ and learn the most advantageous times to take another card, or to stand on what he has, or to split pairs of like cards to make two hands, or to ‘double down’ --- that is, to double his bet and taking just one more card. If he learns that strategy, he reduces the house advantage to just about half a percent, or a few tenths more or less depending on house rules.”

“The rules differ from house to house, Holmes?”

“Indeed they do, Watson, and even sometimes from table to table. Still, if my correspondent will take the time to learn basic strategy, blackjack is well within the 2 percent solution, or even a 1 percent solution. If he will not, then blackjack becomes a borderline game. An average player, one who knows a little basic strategy but misses some fine points, faces about a 2 to 2.5 percent house advantage. Poor players face house advantages of 5 percent or more. They should find another way to spend their money.”

Watson grinned at Holmes’ deadpan expression. Then he noticed a crowd around one table, cheering loudly, slapping each other’s hands and raking in the chips.

“What about that game, Holmes? Will you blend that into your solution?”

Holmes permitted a hint of a smile across his lips.

“Of course, Watson. Are you familiar with craps?”

“I know that it is played with two dice. Other than that, I know every little.”

“A shame, Watson. That is a game I will certainly recommend to the American. There are several wagers that fall well within the 2 percent solution. One is called the pass line. It starts with what is called the ‘comeout roll.’ If the shooter rolls a total of 7 or 11 on the two dice, those who wager on the pass line win, and if he rolls a 2, 3 or 12, they lose. If it is any other number, it becomes the ‘point.’ If the shooter rolls the point number again before rolling a 7, pass bettors win. If the 7 comes first, they lose.”

“That sounds deucedly complex, Holmes.”

“Do not trouble yourself, Watson. For those who play, the details become second nature quickly enough. You should note there is a bet called ‘come,’ which is decided in the same way.  The only difference is that it is made when there is already a point number for pass line wagers. The house has a 1.41 percent advantage on either pass or come. Further, there ware wagers called ‘don’t pass’ and ‘don’t come’ that work in nearly the opposite way. They win when pass and come lose, and lose when pass and come win, except that a 12 on the first roll on don’t pass and don’t come just returns money to the player, with no winnings. On these, the house has an advantage of 1.4 percent.”

“I see, my dear Holmes. All well within the 2 percent solution.”

“Indeed, Watson. Such is also the case for what are called ‘place bets’ on the numbers 6 and 8. If the player places the 6, he wins if the shooter rolls a 6 before rolling a 7. If the 7 comes first, the bettor loses. The house advantages on either 6 or 8 are 1.52 percent.

“However, Watson, there are many other possible wagers on the pass line, with much higher advantages to the house. My correspondent would be wise to stick to pass and come, don’t pass and don’t come, placing the 6 and 8, and pretending the other possiblities, tempting as they may be, don’t even exist.”

Watson pulled out his notebook and pen, and checked off a list.

“Baccarat, blackjack, craps. Is there anything else you would like to show me, Holmes?”

“Patience, Watson. We have just a couple of more stops. Do you see the game Three Card Poker?”

“Yes, Holmes.”

“It is really two games in one. One is ante-bet, in which the player’s hand must beat the dealer’s, and the other is Pair Plus, in which all hands of a pair or better are paid. We shall disregard Pair Plus as being just outside our parameters. There are several versions of the pay table, and the best has a house advantage of 2 percent. However, in ante-bet, we can look at the house advantage in two ways. If we regard the house advantage as the percentage of the ante, which players must make to start play, that he house expects to keep, it is 3.4 percent. However, if we regard it as the percentage the house expects to keep of the ante plus the optional bet players make if they like their  cards, then the advantage is 2.01 percent.

“Even I shall not draw so fine a line to keep the game outside the 2 percent solution by a margin of one one-hundredth of a percent.”

“Why Holmes,” Watson said with a chuckle. “I should never have expected you to be so cavalier on a matter of precision.”

“Tend to your notepad, doctor,” Holmes said matter of factly. “There is one more stop we must make.”

The direction caught Watson by surprise.

“We’re walking back toward the slot machines, Holmes. I thought you said they were not part of the 2 percent solution.”

“They are not, my dear Watson. And I fear that for my American friend, neither are these.”

He pointed to a large number of video poker games.

“If you are willing to learn the necessary strategies, and to look at the pay tables and sort the best games from the worst, many video poker games fall within that 2 percent threshold. A select few even give an advantage to an expert player. However, our correspondent wrote that he is not willing to put in the necessary time. So alas, we must leave casing out the best of these for the moment.”

“So Holmes, what we have in the 2 percent solution are baccarat, blackjack, craps, Three Card Poker, perhaps video poker for another client. If I may make so bold, what game would you choose? No, don’t tell me. Let me guess. You would be a counter of cards, applying your skills of observation and analysis to gain an  advantage.”

Holmes grinned broadly at last.


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