Monday, April 29, 2013

Does the house make its money off winners?

Q. Sitting in the buffet, I caught a snippet of conversation that I was wondering if you could explain. (I wasn't listening in, they were so loud I couldn't help hearing.) One guy was saying that the casino really makes its money off the winners, and the other guy said something like, "Oh really? You mean we pay for all this when we win?" That doesn't really make sense to me.
A. Kind of leaves you wondering what kind of gambling palaces they could build if everybody won, doesn't it? If the casino makes money off the winners, then more winners must mean more profits, right?

But seriously, there is a way of looking at how the casino makes its money that looks at casino profits as a tax on the winners. Casino games make money because they pay the winners at less than true odds. If 38 people are sitting at a double-zero roulette table and each bet $1 on a different number on a single spin, the 37 losers each will lose their buck, and the one winner will be paid at 35:1 odds and walk away with $36. If the casino was paying true odds, the one winner should be paid at 37:1 odds and walk away with $38. The casino profit is the $2 not paid to the winner that he'd get if true odds were paid.

Same deal with sports betting. In most sports books, you have to put down 10 percent vigorish on top of your bet. Let's say you and I are betting on the same football game, with me betting on Team A and you on Team B. We each intend to bet $100, but we have to pay the vigorish, so we actually each bet $110. When my team wins --- hey, it's my example; I get to win --- you lose your $110 bet, but I'm paid only $100, along with the return of my $110 wager. The casino profit is the $10 it didn't pay me on my winning bet.

Sometimes the paying of winners at less than true odds is disguised a bit. In baccarat, for instance, bets on banker win more often than they lose, and bets seem to be paid at even money. However, bettors have to pay a 5 percent commission on winning bets, so winners aren't really paid at 1:1; they're paid at (1 minus .05):1, and that's less than the true odds of winning the wager.

So it goes with every casino game. There are going to be winners, and there are going to be losers, but the house will make money because it pays winners less than the true odds of winning the bet.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Blackjack freedom of choice helps if you know how to choose

Freedom of choice is a good thing for blackjack players who know their basic strategy, but for many players, it largely means the freedom to choose poorly.

Players who take the time to learn well are best off with a game that gives them plenty of options. Being allowed to double down on any first two cards and to split and resplit pairs is to the advantage of players who know how to use the options wisely. On the other hand, I see players every week who would be better off if double downs were restricted to hard totals of 10 or 11.

Of course, such players would be better off still if they just took a short time to learn how to use the options presented. Let's take a look at rules that can be beneficial to the player, but need to be handled with care.

Double down on any first two cards: When it comes to doubling down, I've seen some truly odd plays. I once watched a fellow double down every time he started with hard 12. Doubling when it's possible to bust in one card is such an unusual--and bad--play that the dealer was required to call "Double on hard 12!" to the pit supervisor every time the play was made.

I also once played at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at the same table as a man who doubled on every soft total--hands in which an Ace is at least temporarily being counted as 11 and which can't be busted with a one-card hit. He peeled off $100 bill after $100 bill, getting his comeuppance for doubling Ace-2 against a dealer's 9, and Ace-4 against a 7. The play that had the whole table trying to show him the error of his ways was when he doubled on Ace-Ace against a Jack, instead of the far superior play of splitting the pair. Such players would be better off if opportunities to double down were limited.

In multiple-deck games where the dealer stands on all 17s, it's to the basic strategy player's advantage to double on hard 11 unless the dealer's up card is an Ace, on hard 10 against everything except an Ace or 10-value, and on hard 9 against 3, 4, 5 or 6. If the dealer hits soft 17, double on 11 against all dealer up cards, including the Ace. No doubling on hard 12 or above, or on hard 8 or below.

As for soft hands in stand-on-all-17s games, double soft 17 or 18 if the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6, soft 15 or 16 against 4, 5 or 6, and soft 13 or 14 against 5 or 6. If the dealer hits soft 17, also double on soft 18 vs. 2, and soft 19 vs.6.

Resplitting pairs: I've occasionally been in casinos that allow only one split--if you split 8, 8 and are dealt another 8, you're stuck with 16 as the start to one hand. Most allow you to resplit pairs, so in that situation, you could have three separate hands, each starting with 8. Some allow up to three splits, giving you a total of four hands.

Players who do strange things such as splitting 5s or 10s--awful plays--are better off with a rule that stops them before they split again. But really, being allowed to resplit is to the player's advantage, provided the player knows when to split in the first place. As far as the basic strategy player is concerned, if splitting the pair is the proper play the first time, so is each potential resplit.

When should you split the pairs? Always split Aces and 8s, but never split 5s or 10-values. For everything else, it depends on the dealer's up card.

If allowed to double down after splitting pairs, split 2s or 3s if the dealer shows 2 through 7, 4s against 5s or 6s and 6s against 2 through 6.

If doubling down after splitting is not permitted, split 2s or 3s against 4 through 7, never split 4s and split 6s only against 3 through 6.

Regardless of whether doubling after splits is permitted, split 7s against 2 through 7.

The trickiest play is splitting 9s. Split (and resplit, given the opportunity) against 2 through 6 and against 8 or 9, but stand against 7, 10 or Ace.

Surrender: Surrender has become a rare option,. but when it's permitted, you can give up half your bet instead of playing out the hand. It's been about 15 years since I've seen early surrender, where you can make the play before the dealer checks for blackjack. In late surrender, you can't surrender when the dealer has blackjack -- you lose the whole bet.

I've seen players surrender 14s against 7s and 12s against 10s. I even watched one player surrender every 16, regardless of dealer up card.

If the dealer stands on all 17s, you can limit losses by surrendering hard 16 when the dealer shows a 9, 10 or Ace, and surrender hard 15 against a dealer's 10. If the dealer hits soft 17, surrender hard 15 vs. 10 or Ace, hard 16 vs. 9, 10 or Ace, and hard 17 vs. Ace.

A player who surrenders more than that could do with a little less freedom of choice.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Blackjack deck penetration and the non-counter

It had been kind of a nondescript morning at the blackjack table--up a little, down a little. Won all four hands when the dealer busted after I split a pair of 8s, resplit and resplit again. Lost half of it back on a double down on the next hand.

As I left the table, I was counting my $2.50 in winnings when a fellow who had been playing at the same table approached.

"I have a question, but I didn't want to ask at the table," said the 30-ish man, who introduced himself as Eric.

"I read a couple of magazines about gambling, and sometimes I read about blackjack on the Web. When they compare blackjack games, they emphasize something called 'penetration.'

"I don't see you write about that. But now that I have you here, tell me, what is 'penetration,' anyway? Is it something I should be worrying about?"

I told him I assumed he wasn't a card counter.

"No," he said. "Does that make a difference?"

It does. Penetration is important to card counters but not to most players. It's the percentage of cards that is dealt before the dealer reshuffles.

"Is it better for more cards to be dealt out?"

It is for a card counter. The more cards that are dealt out, the more cards the counter sees. And the more cards the counter sees, the more accurate the count.

In a common six-deck game, penetration is said to be good if 1.25 decks or less are cut out of play, average if 1.5 decks are cut and poor if 2 or more decks are left undealt.

"But you say that doesn't matter if you don't count cards?"
It matters a little, but in a different way. Penetration that a counter would consider poor is actually better for an average player or a basic strategy player.

"Really? Good penetration is a bad thing?" he chuckled. "Why?"

Because frequent shuffles slow down the game, and a slower game is better for most players because it reduces their exposure to the house edge.

Let's say you're at a six-deck table with "poor" penetration, playing about 50 hands an hour. Bet $10 per hand, and you risk $500 per hour. An average player loses about 2 to 2.5 percent of that--an average loss of $10 to $12.50 per hour. A basic strategy player loses about 0.5 percent in the long run, although it can be a few tenths of a percent more or less depending on house rules. That's an average loss of $2.50 per hour.

Now let's say you move to a table with good penetration and the speed steps up to 60 hands per hour. The risk rises to $600 per hour, making average losses $12 to $15 per hour for an average player and $3 per hour for a basic strategy player.

"Doesn't the risk increase for a card counter, too? Does playing more hands offset the gain from seeing more cards?"

Card counters want to play more hands per hour. The faster the game, the more it benefits whoever has the mathematical edge. Card counters--the handful of good ones who have the knowledge, skill, discipline and bankroll to make it work--actually gain a mathematical edge on the house.

Let a card counter with enough skill gain a 1.5 percent edge and risk $500, and the average profit will be $7.50. With a risk of $600, the average profit rises to $9.

"So a good game for a card counter isn't necessarily a good game for everyone else, and vice versa."

Right. Sometimes players' interests are at odds. A counter wants a fast game, but it's better for the large majority of players to have a slow one. A machine-shuffled game--but not a game with a continuous shuffler that makes it impossible to count--suits counters, but most players are better off with a hand-shuffled game.

Playing head-to-head with the dealer, or with few other players, speeds the game up for a counter, but playing at a full table reduces exposure to the house edge for the masses.

"Should I go out of my way to look for a slower game?"
House rules are more important. If other rules are equal, the house edge is lower with fewer decks. It's better if the dealer stands on all 17s instead of hitting soft 17. We want to be able to split and resplit pairs.

Often, the house won't let us resplit Aces--it's a plus if we can. We want to be allowed to double down on any first two cards--it's a negative if the house restricts double downs to two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11, or even just 10 or 11, as some do. We'd prefer to be permitted to double down after splitting pairs--if we split a pair of 8s, then draw a 3 for an 11 on one hand, we usually want to double. And if surrender is offered, that helps, too.

"You're saying an ideal game uses one deck, the dealer stands on all 17s, we can resplit pairs, double on any first two cards, double after splits and surrender if we want to?"

No casino would offer that game--a basic strategy player would have a nice edge on the house. Then we'd want a fast game, just like the counters.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

$5 video poker brings a taxing problem

Q. I started playing quarter video poker many years ago, then moved up to dollars, and now I have my eye on the $5 machines. (Don't worry! I have the money to handle the jump, and I always stay within my bankroll.) Is there anything different I should look for in a $5 game instead of a dollar game?

A. For the most part, video poker players should look for the same things in any denomination of machine. A 9-6 Jacks or Better machine will return 99.5 percent in the long run with expert play regardless of whether the game takes nickels or $5 tokens.

One thing that may be of concern to high-denomination players is the frequency of hands that will trigger IRS-level jackpots. Casinos are required by the federal government to have players sign IRS form W-2G before they can pay any jackpot of $1,200 or more.

On $5 machines, relatively common four-of-a-kind hands trigger the IRS requirement on some games. If you're playing Jacks or Better, four of a kind returns 125 coins per five wagered, a payoff of $625 that's well below the IRS threshold. But on Double Bonus Poker, where four of a kind pays 250 coins or more, the payoff becomes at least $1,250, and that must be reported.

The average player will draw quads a little more often than once an hour. I've seen fast players get in more than 800 hands an hour, and for them it's closer to two four of a kind hands per hour. If you're going to be doing IRS paperwork that often, it's essential that you keep good records so that at tax time, those who itemize can deduct gambling losses from wins.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sheep bones, gum logos and other gambling trivia

In the race to see which is more cluttered, my home office or the corner of my mind that collects little pieces of gambling history, well, I guess my home office wins hands down. Nonetheless, bits of trivia are trying to escape, so let's empty a little of the clutter:

**The slang expression rolling the bones has an origin that is quite literal. Dice were carved from bones for thousands of years. It was not at all unusual in Roman times for dice to be fashioned from sheep's knuckles.
Dice have been made from wood, clay, stone, peach pits, animal horns, teeth, ivory, bronze, porcelain, even jewels. The oldest known dice with regular sides were found in northern Iraq. They're made of baked clay and date to about 3,000 B.C.

**Coin-operated gaming devices in the late 1800s included games with large revolving wheels divided into color segments. Players wagered on which color the wheel would stop. They're considered the forerunners of modern slot machines, even though they didn't have reels. The first recognizably modern three-reel slot was the Liberty Bell, invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco in 1899. The machine was so popular that for many years all slot machines were referred to as bell machines.

The bar symbol used on modern slot machines is derived from a Bell Fruit Gum logo. The gum was dispensed in slots designed by Herbert Mills in Chicago in 1910, and other fruit symbols on slots were derived from the gum flavors.

Among the most popular early slots were poker games, although the machines did not usually pay out coins. Payoffs had to come from the operator. After the introduction of the Liberty Bell, poker-based slots waned in popularity, until the invention of video poker in the 1970s.

**The game of 21 got its common nickname, blackjack, from a practice in illegal casinos in the early 1900s. Some casinos paid a bonus if a two-card 21 was made up of an ace and jack of spades. Others paid bonuses if an ace of spades was accompanied by a jack of either clubs or spades. The black jack was the key to the bonus, and became the name of the game.

Less commonly used nicknames for the game of 21 include Pontoon and Van John. Both arose in the South, probably around illegal casinos in New Orleans. Both nicknames probably are corruptions of the pronunciation of the French game vingt-un, which means "21" and is believed by some to be a blackjack forerunner.

**Horizontal gaming wheels, such as those used in roulette, were invented in England in 1720 for a game called roly-poly. Roly-poly was similar to roulette, except there were no numbers on the wheel. There were alternating white spaces and black spaces, along with a "bar black" space and a "bar white" space. The "bar" spaces were the equivalents of zero and double-zero -- if the ball landed in either space, bets on black or white lost.

Roly-poly was banned in England in 1745, but the horizontal wheel traveled well. By 1796, modern roulette was being played in France.

**The kings in decks of playing cards represent real leaders and conquerors from history, although not all had the title of king. The deck we use today is based on cards designed in 15th-century France. The king of spades represents the Biblical King David, the king of clubs represents Alexander the Great, the king of hearts represents Charlemagne and the king of diamonds represents Julius Caesar.

The four suits represent civilizations that have influenced our culture. Spades represent the Middle East of Biblical times, clubs represent Greece, diamonds represent the Roman Empire, and hearts represent the Holy Roman Empire.

Perfect for Caesars Palace, don't you think?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Can playing the streaks help in roulette?

Q. When I play roulette, I wait until the same color hits three times in a row, then I bet the opposite color. If there have been three black colors, I bet red, and if there have been three red colors, I bet black. My friend says he'd go the opposite way, that if there are three red numbers in a row, he'd think red was hot and stay with it. Who's right?
A. To use one of the favorite phrases of gaming analysts, the wheel has no memory. It doesn't know if the last three numbers have been red, black, mixed or polka dotted. Past results have no effect on future outcome. Regardless of what happened in the last few spins, on the next spin there's a 47.37 percent chance the number will be red, 47.37 percent that it will be black and 5.26 percent that it will be a green 0 or 00.
Is there an advantage to your system? Sure. If you wait to bet until three numbers of the same color turn up, you do a lot more watching than betting.Watching costs less.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Faulty app leads blackjack player astray

Q. Here is a question about a murky corner of the basic strategy table for blackjack: Do you hit or stand on soft hands with three or more cards?

The only blackjack book I have at hand is Henry Tamburin's "Blackjack: Take the Money and Run." Tamburin says, "As a general rule, a player should never stand on a soft hand that totals 17 or less." I read this to include hands with three or more cards as well as hands with two cards.

I recently purchased an application that allows many ways of practicing blackjack. The application is a solid piece of work that takes into account most rules variations. Plenty of knowledge and care have gone into its creation. If I follow Tamburin's dictum with a soft hand of 17 or less, I get scored with an error. The default strategy table in the application follows the rules for hard hands with all hands of three or more cards.

Example: Dealer's upcard is a 3. You are dealt a 2, a 3 and an Ace. You have a total of either 6 or 16. The way I read Tamburin indicates that the best play is a hit. The application says I should stand.

Am I misinterpreting Tamburin's rule?

A. It seems your blackjack app is not quite as solid as you would like to think. It is leading you astray on soft hands.

You are not reading Tamburin wrong. He is correct and your application is in error. It seems to be defaulting to basic strategy for hard hands after you receive a third card. That's a serious bug, since you can't bust soft hands with a one-card draw.

Look at it this way. If you stand on soft 16, how can you win? The only way is if the dealer busts. If instead you hit, what's the worst that can happen? You can't bust the hand, so the worst you wind up with is another hand that can win only if the dealer busts. You could draw a standing hand, or you could draw one that's no worse than your starting point. There is no downside to taking a hit.

There is no downside to hitting the hand, and the upside is that you could draw a low card that will turn your hand into a winner.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Separate gambling fact from fiction

Casino lore is full of myths, legends and superstitions.

That's natural enough. Few players understand the math, the odds and percentages that explain what's really going on in the casino. It's easier to blame that losing streak on someone else's poor play, and more fun to claim our own smart play led to a big win, than to make sense of the eternal tide of random results.

I try to bust casino myths from time to time, but they're persistent. Rarely does a week go by in which I don't hear from a reader about one long-held misconception or another. Let's take a look at some of the most common casino myths:

MYTH: Other players hurt you at the blackjack table.

FACT: Other players sometimes hurt you, but help you just as often. Their play has no effect on your long-term results.

No one knows what cards are coming next, nor do we know what card the dealer has face down. The player you think is taking the dealer's bust card may actually be taking a card that would have given the dealer a pat hand.

Let's say the player at third base - the last player to make a hit/stand decision - has a hard 16, and the dealer has a 6 face up. If the player follows basic strategy, he'll stand and the dealer will get the next card. If he makes a bad play and hits instead, the dealer gets the second card down.
Which would you rather the dealer have, the next card or the second one? Answer: It makes no difference. You don't know what the cards are, and either is just as likely to be the one that busts the dealer - or makes his hand.

MYTH: Hot craps tables are likely to stay hot; cold craps tables are likely to stay cold.

FACT: Unless you've found a rare player who can control the dice, every roll is an independent trial. Past outcomes have no affect on future results.

Several years ago, I tried an experiment in which I waited for two consecutive passes, then tracked the next decision. Of the next 1,000 sequences, 489 were passes - almost dead on the 494 average expected by random chance. No evidence there of hot streaks continuing. At the same time, I charted 1,000 sequences starting with two don't passes. The result: 470 wins for don't bettors, 493 losses and 37 pushes on 12. No evidence for cold tables, either.

Do hot and cold streaks occur at the craps table? Sure, just as they do in any game of chance. That's a natural outgrowth of probability. Can we predict when the streaks are coming? No. All a hot streak means is that the table has been hot in the past. That streak has no value in predicting future results. If it did, we could all stand and watch, waiting for a hot roll, then jump on and get rich.

MYTH: If the same roulette number comes up three or four times in a row, it's time to jump off that number - it's not "due" again for hours.

FACT: Numbers are never "due" or "not due." On an American wheel with both a 0 and a 00, the odds against any given number turning up on the next spin are 37-1. That's true whether the number just hit on the last spin, the last four spins, or if it hasn't hit at all in a couple of hours. Just as at the craps table, each trial is independent, and past outcomes have no effect on future results.

Rarely, a wheel may be biased, with some numbers turning up more often than expected by random chance. The wheel may be off balance, there may be a warp or a loose fret. In such cases, a number that has been showing up frequently may continue to hit more than once per 38 spins. Finding a wheel bias is painstaking work that most of us won't do. Still, the long shot that a wheel is biased gives us more reason to stay with a repeating number than to jump off.

MYTH: The casino can reward slot players by pushing a button to let them win a jackpot.

FACT: There is no jackpot button in the casino front office, the surveillance room or anywhere else. The casino has no control over when jackpots hit.

The closest the casino has to control is in programming it orders from the slot machine manufacturer. The manufacturer offers chips that will make a game pay out at different levels - the casino might order an 89 percent chip, or a 92 percent chip on the same penny game. Some games might pay the top jackpot an average of once per 10,000 pulls; on others the jackpot might hit only once per 20,000, 100,000, even 1 million or more pulls.

All those are long-term averages. Given millions of pulls, those averages will hold up. But there's no way to predict, or change, what will happen on any specific spin of the reels. Each spin is as random as humans can program a computer to be. A casino can't make a jackpot appear on the next spin. There will be winners and losers. The casino can't determine who will be which. It just knows the losers will more than balance out the winners.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Can basic strategy give players an edge?

Q. The blackjack rules I play under yield about a .38% house advantage.

Does that (somehow) include the variables of doubling down, splitting and 3 to 2 blackjack payoff?

I thought that I could overcome that house edge using those variables but it looks like I might be wrong and therefore doomed to eventual failure in coming out ahead. (I play online so can’t count cards.)

Actual rules are 4 decks, stand on soft 17, double after split, no surrender, dealer peeks for blackjack

A. When the house edge is listed at .38%, that assumes basic strategy for hitting, standing, splitting and doubling, and takes into account the 3-2 payoff on blackjacks.

If you used dealer strategy, hitting all 16s and below, and standing on all 17s and higher, the house edge would be about 5.7 percent. It’s through making the proper hit, stand, split, double decisions that you get it down to half a percent or so.

Without counting cards, you can narrow the house edge, but not eliminate it.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Reader asks: Can you track roulette numbers on paper?

Q. My wife and I went to the casino, and I was playing roulette. Sunday night I played at one table for five hours. I was sitting on the end where every employee passes to enter the pit. I had a piece of paper on which I was keeping track of the numbers, and I had a round copy of the wheel that I was reading and studying to pick my next bet. We played till about 1:30 a.m., then went to the hotel. I was comped two meals in the morning and then we went back to the casino.
I went to the same table and started to play the same way. I put down about 5 bets and this pit boss comes over and tells me to put the paper away. She said I can't have it on the table and can't be writing down the numbers. I told her I played last night and no one said any thing.

I put it away and played some more bets. Then this other pit boss tells me to put away the little copy of the wheel that I was using. So I did and won a little money.
Is it OK for me to copy down the numbers and use this picture of the wheel?
When we play at a different casino close to home, no one says anything about me copying the numbers. What gives?
A. There is nothing wrong with tracking roulette numbers, but in any game some casinos and some individual supervisors are more paranoid than others. The casino does have the right to set its own policy and can refuse to accept your bets if you don't comply with its policies.

 What they're afraid of is that you'll find a biased wheel, an unlikely circumstance. If you want to write down numbers and have a copy of the wheel in front of you, by all means do it until you're asked to stop. Once you're given the word that you can't do that anymore, that's that. Put your stuff away. Whether you continue to play is up to you.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Reader asks: Hold the flush, or chase the royal?

Q. I was recently playing a 25-cent Bonus Poker machine. I bet the maximum number of coins and up came the 7, 10, Jack, Queen and King of clubs. Without thinking, I held all five clubs for a flush and a payout of 25 coins. As soon as I did this, I was kicking myself for not going for the straight flush or royal flush for a payout of 250 coins or 4,000 coins.
 I also had six other cards to make my flush and six to make a straight.
 I believe I should have thrown the 7 of clubs away and drawn one card. What is the correct play and what are the percentages?
A. The correct play in that situation is to discard the 7 of clubs and give yourself a chance at a royal.
Once you have seen your initial five cards, there are 47 possible one-card draws. One, the Ace of clubs, would give you a royal flush worth 4,000 coins, and another, the 9 of clubs, would give you a straight flush for 250 coins. Any of six cards - the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 8 of clubs - gives you a flush worth 25 coins. Any of six others - the 9s and Aces of hearts, spades and diamonds - gives you a straight worth 20 coins.

In addition, any of nine cards - the Jacks, Queens and Kings of hearts, spades or diamonds - gives you a high pair worth a five-coin return.

That's 23 cards that complete a winning hand; any of the other 24 would leave you with a loser. Per 47 times you make this play, your expected return is one royal flush for 4,000 coins, one straight flush for 250, six flushes for 150, six straights for 120 and nine high pairs for 45. That's a total of 4,565 coins per 47 plays, an average of 97 per hand.

If you stand pat on the flush, per 47 plays your return is 1,175 coins, or 25 per play. You're nearly four times better off taking the chance with a one-card draw.

The only time to stand pat on a hand that includes four cards to a royal flush is when it includes a pat straight flush.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Slots never due, so don't chase losses

Those who have read me for very long know that one of my running themes is that a slot machine is never "due." to hit. From time to time, I send out a warning to slot players that they shouldn't expect a slot that has been cold for hours to suddenly start paying out the big bucks.

Some things apparently can't be repeated often enough.

I once received a phone call from a woman who'd had a bad day at the reel-spinning slots. Actually, "bad" doesn't begin to describe it. Awful, horrendous, disastrous is more like it.

Normally a table games player - she likes roulette - she recently decided to play a $5 three-reel slot machine. The machine took two coins at a time, so she was betting $10 on each pull.

And cold? Better she'd just given her money to the cashier and left the casino. Because after she lost what she had brought with her, she started drawing money against her credit cards. That's expensive money, with a hefty charge off the top being added to any credit card interest.

Before it was over, she'd lost . . . well, her initial message said $4,000, but when I spoke with her
later, the amount had grown to about $7,000.

"This machine was paying out nothing," she said. "I kept playing because I figured it was due. It had to give me something back. I played that machine for hours," she said, "and it didn't pay out anything like 95 percent."

And when it didn't give her anything back, she thought something was wrong with the machine. She complained to the casino, and she complained to the gaming board . When both told her there was nothing wrong with the machine, that it's normal for a machine to stay cold for long stretches, she complained to me.

Then it was my turn to tell her there probably was nothing wrong with the machine, and that it's normal for a slot machine to stay cold for long stretches, especially on three-reel games with low hit frequencies. Those frequent payoffs for less than our bets do tend to stretch out play, and bonuses on video games help soften the losing streaks.

Our player, unfortunately, was operating under a couple of misconceptions that, coupled with some poor money management, made for a day of casino hell. Here's where she went wrong:

**Cold machines can stay cold: In today's microprocessor, random number generator-controlled slots, your last pull, or your last 10, or last 100, have no effect on your next pull. If the top jackpot is programmed to come up an average of once per 10,000 pulls, then the odds of hitting it on the next pull are 1 in 10,000. That's true even if you've been playing all day and have counted 10,000 pulls without a jackpot, and it's still true if you've hit the jackpot on the last pull. The odds of hitting any particular combination are the same on any given pull, regardless of whether that combination was last hit one pull ago or 100,000 pulls ago.

There is nothing in the programming that would tell a machine to suddenly start hitting if it's been cold for hours. If a machine has paid out little all day, the most you can say about it is that it's been paying out little all day. There is no way to tell if it's going to stay cold or turn hot over the next few hours.

**Payouts vary wildly in the short term: In a period as short as the 10 or 12 hours this woman said she gambled, a machine can pay out 50 percent or less. That would lead to big, fast losses for a day, but the machine still could easily pay out 95 percent for the month, which is about normal for a  $5 three-reel game. A machine that pays out 50 percent for 10,000 pulls would have to pay out only 96.55 percent for the next 290,000 pulls to average 95 percent for 300,000 trials.

Our gambler, if she played 10 hours, was losing about $700 an hour. It's pretty easy to play 500 pulls an hour - really dedicated slot fanatics play faster. So let's say at two coins at a time for 500 pulls, she was risking $5,000 an hour. Her $700 hourly loss represents 14 percent of her wagers.

Far from having to sink as low as 50 percent, a machine could gobble up the funds that fast while paying 86 percent.

**Money goes faster on slots than on tables: Borrowing money to gamble is a bad idea no matter what your game. And slot players must remember that their game is the fastest in the casino, far faster than even craps.

With $1,000 in your pocket, it might be tempting to try the $5 machines. But if the losses mount early, it's far better to switch to $1 slots or even quarters than to dig for more money.

If she were playing roulette, her favorite table game, at 45 or 50 spins an hour, our player would have had to bet $100 per spin to risk as much per hour as she risked on the $5 slots. A $5 slot player is every bit as much a high-roller as a $100 blackjack player; in fact, the $5 slot player's expected average losses are higher.

Early in the day, our player was offered a complimentary dinner in the casino's high-end restaurant. It's the least they could do.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Good service makes for happy customers

On any given day, most people who play in casinos are going to lose money. Casino operators know that, and players know it too.

The trick for the operators is to make the players feel good about their day out. Little customer service touches go a long way toward keeping us happy, or close. Check out a few readers’ stories of times the casinos got it right:

Mae: I was in a casino that was practically empty. That seems to happen a lot lately. Crowds seem smaller than they used to be.

Anyway, I practically had my choice of slot machines. There were probably a few hundred people scattered around the casino, but in any one area there were only a few, and I could play what I want. I started looking for a machine, and a slot attendant caught my eye. “You should start with that one over there,” she said. “It still has money on it.”

I smiled and thanked her, and went to check it out. It was an older quarter three-reel game, and I usually don’t play those very much. But sure enough, there were 31 credits on the game. I guess the player must have left, because there was no club card in the machine and the attendant wouldn’t have told me to play if there was still someone there.

So I played the 31 credits. To be honest, I felt a little funny about it, and I put in $10 of my own, too, so I started with 71 credits. I wish I could tell you I won a big jackpot or something, but nothing like that happened. I hit the single bars a few times, and a few cherries, and played for a while, but in the end I lost the 71 credits. Then I went and played the video slots I usually play.

Still, it was really a nice, unexpected bonus to start with “their” money. I’d never had that happen before, and I’ve never had it happen since. I always figured the casino just kept the money when someone left credits.

Margie: This was pretty cool. My husband and I drove a couple of hours to a casino I’d never played in before. He’d been there a few times, but I hadn’t. When we got there, I spotted a sign that said they were giving a free case of soda to new club members after some minimum amount of play. It was a kind I liked, so I asked my husband about how much I’d have to play. It would be a nice bonus, since I buy it anyway.

He said I probably wasn’t eligible, that he thought I already was a member of the club. There’s another casino we go to that’s owned by the same company, and he said they have the same club.

I didn’t think to bring my card from the other club. He did. He had his card in his wallet. So I went to the booth to get a new card, and I asked them about the soda. They said yes, I was already a member, but that I’d never redeemed a new member bonus, so if I played, I could get the soda.

It only took me about a half an hour, and I was playing penny slots. We played a couple of hours more than that, had a nice time, went to the steak house for a nice dinner. Then on the way out I picked up my soda. I teased my husband that he should have left his card at home. Maybe we could have gotten two cases. They were so nice about it.

Eleanor: I once did a really dumb thing in a casino. I went to cash out, and pushed the button to print out a ticket. While it was printing, I changed glasses. I wear bifocals for normal wear, but looking at the screen for a long time gives me headaches. So I change to a pair of reading glasses while I play, then change back when it’s time to walk around.

So I put my reading glasses into their case in my purse and put on my regular glasses, and started to walk away. A slot attendant saw what was happening, and shouted after me, “Wait, honey! You’ve forgotten something,” and she stood by my machine.

I’d forgotten something all right – ticket with $283 on it. “It’s a good thing I caught you,” she said. “If we don’t notice, there’s always somebody ready to pick off those tickets.”

I thanked her, and thanked her again, and slipped her a $10 tip. It was worth it.