This section doesn’t include Poker. When you play poker in Vegas you win from or lose to the other players who are your opponents. Gaming is where you play against the casino and you win money from or, more likely, lose money to the house.
The purpose of this post is to outline what gambling you can do and to steer you in the right direction in terms of which games give you the best chances of winning (or losing less) and what strategies you can employ to minimise the house advantage over you. All this advice is subject to the overriding principle that you’re on holiday and you should play what you enjoy! There are the slots and there are table games.
When it comes to slots the only control you have is a fiscal one. In the earlier days of fruit machines in the UK you had a small amount of control in that you could ‘hold’ and ‘nudge’ reels but that ability has now been removed. All you can do now is put money in and the machine does the rest. You can only sit back and watch. Your control is in the sense that you decide how much you put in. Sometimes you’ll win but more often you’ll lose. The issue is whether you put more money in.
Many people have visions of huge buckets of coins going in and coming out of the machine. With a very few exceptions this has disappeared. Now you put notes in and get barcoded vouchers out unless you’ve lost it all. You then take the voucher and put it into another machine, instead of notes, or you can turn it into cash again by either taking it to the cashier’s desk or by putting it into a redemption machine that you’ll see dotted around the casino. These machines double up as ATMs enabling you to get more money out to gamble with.
Most machines will take any bill from $1 up to $100. You amount you gamble on each spin of the reels (or computer generated pretend reels) varies enormously depending on the machine, where it is and which button you press. Most properties have a High Limit slots area. We’ll forget about this for the moment and concentrate on the main gambling floor.
Many machines are prominently marked as ‘pay for pennies’ i.e. cents. That doesn’t however mean you are only playing for pennies, rather that you can do. Somewhere on every machine it will say what its maximum payout or jackpot is. Some jackpots are cumulative or progressive in that they increase every day until they’re won and can run into millions of Dollars even on a ‘pennies machine’. Elsewhere on the machine, often in small print, you’ll see it tells you that you can only win the jackpot (and other high payouts) if you’re playing max credits and therein lies the rub.
You have to decide how many credits you wish to play and you initiate the spinning of the wheels by pressing the corresponding button. A credit is the monetary unit of that machine so it will usually be 1c. Options may be as low as 20 credits but this can rise as high as 450 credits for machines with the most familiar branding. Therefore, even on a ‘pennies’ machine, if you press the ‘play max credits’ button so you have a chance of winning a jackpot, you have just gambled up to $4.50 on one spin of the reels. $4.50 is not that common but $3 is the norm for a max bet.
A spin takes 3 or 4 seconds. If you press the ‘spin again’ button immediately, allowing a short interval to take in what happened on the last spin, you’re placing a bet every 5 to 6 seconds. Let’s say 6 seconds. That’s 10 spins a minute or 600 spins an hour if you’re assiduous and stick to the task. At $3 max bet each time you are gambling at the rate of $1,800 an hour! Shocked?
Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re losing $1,800 an hour because even on the tightest machine on the worst possible streak you’re going to win on some spins. What constitutes a ‘win’ on a slot machine in the USA is interesting in itself. You gamble 300 credits ($3) on a spin. You hit a combination of low ranking symbols and the machine pays 60 credits. The machine says you’ve ‘won’ whereas you’ve actually lost 240 credits ($2.40). It’s only a win in the sense that you haven’t lost your entire bet. I think the proper definition of ‘win’ is that you come away with more than you started with but that’s how it is on Vegas slots.
In reality nobody plays at the same machine for an hour at such a fast pace. You may see players at the same machine for longer than that but they take time to chat, smoke, drink, text, relieve themselves and so on so their gaming rate per hour decreases but it can still be enormous. Also many players don’t max bet so they gamble and lose less albeit they can’t win the jackpot or higher payouts. If we repeat my above example playing 60 credits a spin instead of the max you could still be gambling at the rate of $360 an hour. Incidentally, beware if you do need the bathroom that you don’t leave your machine unattended with money in it or there’s a good chance it won’t be there when you get back. Either leave a friend on guard or take your money out.
What most slot players do is to play a machine they like until they get a significant win then they ‘cash out’, take their voucher and move to another machine they like and repeat the process. This is predicated on the machine being less likely to pay out ‘big’ again soon after it’s just done so. (There’s no mathematical basis for that whatsoever but it’s a commonly held belief). If they don’t win they’ve set themselves a notional limit and they’ll change machines if they haven’t had a good win by that point.
Example: I put a $100 bill into my favourite machine. I tell myself I’m going to move on when I double my money or the balance goes down to $60. After 10 spins I hit a good combination, my balance goes up to $300 so I take my ticket and leave. Alternatively my balance fluctuates slightly then I hit a bad run and go down to $60. I ‘cash out’ and move to another machine I like.
The secret here is what you do when you’ve won and you take your voucher out of the machine. Do you put it straight into another machine or do you turn it back into cash and walk away? If you’ve come to Vegas and you like to play slots then you’re going to put it into another machine because that’s why you’re here – to play. If you’re a very occasional gambler then you might keep the money and boast about winning in Vegas but you’re in town for other reasons and gambling isn’t important. Of course, the reality is you’re more likely to lose than win but there’s always hope.
If you do put your voucher back into another machine and repeat the cycle then eventually you are going to lose the entire $100. It may take a while but this is the inevitable consequence because the house always has an ‘edge’. This is nothing but mathematics. Slot machines are constructed so that the owner has a mathematical advantage over the player. The house can vary the machine’s settings within limited parameters so the edge is slightly higher or lower but an edge will always remain.
The simple fact also is that the house edge on a slot machine is higher than almost anywhere else in the casino. Also, as you saw from the above example, you can gamble far more than you realised in a short space of time. This is why casinos love slot machines. They are the ‘cash cow’ of gaming, they require little human administration and will always generate substantial income. Why else are there so many of them in your casino?
You recall I mentioned High Limit slots rooms a little earlier. In such a room it’s not uncommon for one credit to equate to $1. You remember how it was possible to gamble at the rate of $1,800 on the casino floor. In the High Limit room, on the same machine, now that max bet has just become $300 you can actually gamble at the rate of $180,000 an hour. Close your mouth, you’re dribbling!
Playing the slots can be fun. Each time I visit I will always put money in a Megabucks machine or two. These machines are linked across the whole state and all the money goes into a central pool (less casino profit margin, operating expenses etc). The result is a cumulative / progressive jackpot that’s always in excess of $10 million before it’s won. You still play the max bet of $3 a spin but you can win a fortune. Of course you’re equally likely to win the lottery but someone will win eventually. Oh, by the way, they don’t pay you in one lump sum, they pay you in 25 equal annual instalments (it’s written on the machine in tiny lettering). I’d still happily take upwards of $400,000 a year!
So how can you help yourself when playing slots, even if it’s only a little? I think there are three ways:
Always and I mean always put your player’s club or loyalty card into the machine before you start and don’t take it out until you’ve finished. Because you actually gamble so much and given that the house edge is so high you earn far more tier points, reward points, comp points or whatever they are in your casino’s scheme than you can do playing any other game. If you’re going to reach a higher level with the player’s club scheme chances are it will be by playing slots. It’s not by accident that it tends to be little old ladies who love the slots who hold the highest ranking cards rather than the brash gamblers at the table games. See Comps and Free Stuff for more on player’s club cards. Try not to lose your card even if it means attaching it to your person by a long stretchy cord. It’s a pain having to keep getting in line at the player’s club desk to print another one.
Secondly take advantage of the free drinks on offer. It’s in the cocktail waitress’s interests to keep you well watered on the basis that you tip her each time she brings you a drink. Take the drinks!
Finally set yourself sensible financial limits. ‘Bankroll management’ as it’s called is very important to a gambler. You’re in Vegas for 5 days. You have $1,000 to gamble with. The reality is you have $200 a day. If you spend more you’ll run out. If you like to gamble in the morning and the evening and do other stuff in the afternoon then you have two daily sessions to provide for so don’t lose more than $100 in a session. If you find this hard only bring $100 into the casino with you and leave the rest in your room. If you do get carried away and lose, say, $400 on one day then arrange an excursion for the following day so you can’t gamble at all. Any variation of these simple rules will work unless you have a really bad gambling habit. If you have a winning day then you’ll go home with some money left or, incredibly, more than you came with!
A word or two now on the more popular table games and, ironically, possibly the world’s favourite table game doesn’t involve cards or a table – Roulette.
Roulette is easy to understand and fairly slow paced. You can often sit to play if you wish. Roulette chips are like tournament poker chips and have no cash value – the house assigns a notional value depending on the limit you’re playing so on a $1 table a chip or check will be worth $1. The roulette table comes with sets of different coloured chips. When you buy chips you get your own colour so your bets can be distinguished from other players’.
A roulette wheel in Vegas consists of 38 numbered slots: numbers 1 to 36, a zero, and a double zero. The felt where you place your bets consists of spaces for each individual number and for various “outside” bets such as black, red and various combinations of numbers such as high, mid and low. After the players make their bets, the dealer spins the wheel and a ball and after several seconds of revolving the ball will land in one of the numbered slots to indicate the winning number. The dealer places a token on the winning number on the felt and all losing chips are swept down a hole to be sorted into their colours and recycled.
You’ll see many different strategies being employed by roulette players. Some seem to cover almost every number with a few larger bets among them. Others place larger bets around a couple of favourite numbers. It really doesn’t matter because there is no optimum way of playing roulette. You can’t play it well or badly as you can with the card games; you just play.
If you play long enough you’ll lose because the house has a mathematical edge as explained above. In the case of double zero roulette the edge is 5.26% which is actually very high in the casino’s favour. Wait a minute you say, if I bet on black there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be right because the only alternative is red! Not so, unfortunately, because the zeros are green. When the ball lands on zero or double zero all red and black bets are lost and the house celebrates.
In Europe roulette tends to be played with just one zero instead of two. This reduces the house edge to between 2.7% and 1.35%. If you look very hard you can find the occasional single zero roulette table in Vegas and, if so, it obviously pays to play that version. There used to be one in Stratosphere (please let me know if it’s still there) and in some of the high limit rooms on the Strip although the minimum bet is likely to be not less than $25.
Personally I don’t play roulette because I like to be able to kid myself that I’m playing a game optimally and thereby reducing the house edge and with roulette I can’t do that.
This is the other game you’re likely to have come across as a novice. So many times when I’m playing a more intricate game a player near me will say ‘this is too hard, let’s go back to blackjack’. That’s why the casino offers so many blackjack tables. The object of the game is very simple: to beat the dealer which you usually do by getting more points than the dealer without going over 21.
There are a few things you need to know: aces count as 1 or 11 and picture cards as 10. A blackjack consists of an ace and a picture card (or ten) and it outranks all other combinations totalling 21. You must bet before you see any cards. You’re then dealt two cards. The dealer’s also dealt two cards but one of his will be dealt face up so you can see it. If the dealer has blackjack his cards are turned over and that’s that. If not you decide whether you want a further card – you ‘hit’ if you do and ‘stand’ if you don’t. You can hit as many times as you like as long as the total of your cards doesn’t exceed 21. Try not to say ‘stick’ instead of stand, that’s what you say when you’re playing at home with your gran. Alternatively you can wave your hand horizontally above the cards to indicate ‘stand’ or draw your hand towards you to indicate ‘card’.
In fact there are also a couple of other actions you can make. When you have two cards only you may elect to double. You double your bet and are dealt only one further card face up. This ends your action. You do this when you have two good cards and the dealer’s showing a bad card like a 5 or a 6. If you have a pair you may also split. Again, you effectively double your bet, the dealer separates your cards and they become independent hands. You have all the above options in relation to each. If you’re dealt a third card of the same value you can split again!
This is the very basic procedure but there’s much more to blackjack than this. There’s an enormously helpful website that goes by the name of wizardofodds.com and I have no hesitation in advising you to click on the link and visit their pages that tell you more and even provide a very simple strategy for playing good blackjack. If you feel like it my friends at The Wizard will also tell you more about the other games I set out below with further tips on how to lose less by playing them well!
Blackjack proper comes in two variations: single deck and multiple deck (which means up to 8 packs of cards are in use). At a single deck table the dealer collects the cards after each hand and has to shuffle before dealing the next hand. This is the slower variation for this reason but very much has its fans. In the multiple deck version all the cards are loaded into a ‘shoe’ after shuffling – a rectangular plastic box with a hole at one end or into an automatic continuous shuffle machine. In the case of a shoe, action stops when a ‘curtain’ card is reached towards the end of the shoe and then a laborious shuffle ensues. If a continuous shuffler is used the cards are being shuffled by the machine as you play and there is no break in the action.
Casinos like continuous shufflers as they get more hands dealt per hour and therefore more profit. Many players don’t like them because there are no action breaks and because it makes it nigh on impossible to count cards. Read more about counting cards at blackjack on The Wizard – it’s interesting if you have nerdish tendencies but you’re not likely to make money out of it!
If you learn to play blackjack well the house edge can be reduced to something very slightly below 0.5% which makes it one of the most player friendly games in the casino (if you’re playing it well). Compare this with the 5.26% when you play roulette.
I referred to ‘blackjack proper’. There are a lot of variants such as Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch which are based on blackjack. The rules are much more complex and take time to learn. At first glance Blackjack Switch seems attractive. You play two hands (so double the outlay per hand) and you can literally switch a card from one hand to the other. Too good to be true? Of course, what you gain by this you lose elsewhere as the dealer no longer busts on 22 and has to hit 23 or higher before you win. What at first appeared to be a give away now has a higher house edge than blackjack proper.
I have what I call my first rule of casino gambling. If the house offers you something it’s because it’s good for them, not you. So insurance is a ‘sucker’ bet, so is the ‘even money’ option when you have a blackjack and dealer is showing an ace and similarly most of the blackjack variant games are not designed for your benefit.
Three Card Poker
A fun alternative that’s very simple to play is Three Card Poker, so named because you’re dealt three cards as is the dealer. After betting the hands are compared and, if your hand ranks higher than the dealer, you win. If not, you lose.
You must make a bet (an ante) before you see your cards but you may then decide whether to make a further bet or not. If you like your cards you make a second bet equal to the first (a play bet). If you don’t you fold but you lose your ante bet. You win even money unless you hold a three card flush, straight, three of a kind or straight flush in which case you are paid at better odds.
There are also bonus bets available which you can play if you wish. The most common is Pair Plus. You place a separate bet on the Pair Plus logo before you see your cards. If you’re dealt a pair or better you win at odds from even money for a pair up to 40 to 1 for a straight flush. If you’re not dealt at least a pair you lose this bet.
There may be other bonuses available depending where you play. Harrahs properties offer a Millionaire Maker where, for $5, you can win a million Dollars if you and the dealer together hold a super royal flush in diamonds (ace through nine of the suit). The actual chance of this is about 1 in 20,358,520 so, yes, you are being financially abused when you play. There are other payouts for lesser hands. Many casinos offer a Prime bet where you get paid if all your cards are the same colour and a little more if the dealer’s cards are the same colour also. The house edge on this is not quite so bad at 3.62% which is still better than roulette!
The casino wants you to play as many bonus bets as possible because they have an edge on each and the more money you wager the more they ultimately win from you. As always you play the elements you prefer. I know people who only play Pair Plus (in which case you aren’t allowed to play Millionaire Maker, also the house edge is 7.8% which is not healthy). If you play ante and Pair Plus you’re looking at a combined house edge of about 5.32%. See what you enjoy most. Could you face playing at a table where a million can be won, being dealt the winning cards but not having played that bonus?
If you see a particularly large semi-circular table where most of the players are Asian you’re probably looking at a Baccarat (or Punto Banco) table (or you may be watching a James Bond film). Baccarat always looks fascinating at first glance but the reality I find very disappointing. Here’s the link to the Wizard page. You’re dealt two cards, as is the dealer, but you may be entitled to a third depending on your holding. You had three betting choices of who might win the hand comparison: banker, player or egalite (French for a tie).
Banker is most likely to win and the payout is even money which would appear to be attractive but the casino takes a 5% commission. ‘Player’ pays even money and a tie 8 to 1. In reality Baccarat is a glorified coin flip but is very popular with high rollers. It’s a pretty leisurely game and you’ll see players making careful notes of potential trends on paper pads provided to them. You see this sometimes at roulette also but there are no actual trends that can be predicted. The house edge is less than 1.25% on the banker and player bets but huge on egalite at about 14.44%. I suggest you watch for a while and see if you fancy it. The minimum bet amount may be quite high at $25 or even more.
Pai Gow Poker
This is a game I do like – sometimes referred to as the ‘waiting for my plane’ game because it’s very low risk and, in theory at least, you can play for hours without losing too much money whilst still having the possibility of a big win.
You’re dealt seven cards as is the dealer. You have to divide these into a five card hand (which must be higher ranking than) and a two card hand. You then place each face down on the table where indicated – ‘L’ and ‘H’. You placed a bet before you received your cards and there is no further betting. The dealer reveals his cards. If both of your hands beat both of the dealer’s hands then you win even money. If both of the dealer hands beat both of your hands you lose. If only one hand beats the other then you ‘push’ (tie) and you keep your money.
There are more pushes than wins in Pai Gow hence the low risk and the slow pace of the game with a modest number of hands per hour. Many people waiting for a plane have run low on funds and are killing time hence the nickname. Also, because the house edge is so low, the casino will take a 5% commission when you do win. Taking this into account the house edge is about 2.7%.
You can become the banker yourself when it’s your turn – the turn moves round in rotation. If you elect this beware you are playing against the other players. If they win you have to pay them but if they lose they pay you. This reduces the house edge slightly but, of course, you have to cover all the table’s bets including that guy at the end who’s playing green chips at $25 a time!
Also note there is a ‘house way’. Sometimes there will be more than one way of setting (sorting) your cards into two hands each of which appear sensible. The dealer has to sort the house way and has no discretion. You can sort how you like and this occasionally enables you to turn a push into a win or vice versa. Generally it pays to follow the house way as casinos don’t ordinarily have their staff do something that will cost them money. The dealer will tell you the house way on request.
I said there was a chance of a big payout. This is because there’s an optional ‘Fortune’ bonus bet. You place this before you see your cards. If you’re dealt three of kind and upwards you win on the bonus at odds up to 8,000 to one for a natural seven card straight flush. ‘Natural’ means without a joker since Pai Gow is played with a joker which you may be dealt and which can be used to represent an Ace or any card to make a straight or a flush. The house edge is 7.77%.
There’s also an ‘envy bonus’ whereby, provided your bonus bet is at least the advertised house minimum sum, you are paid if one of the other players hits certain bonus hands. This can also pay up to $5,000 and reduces the house edge further. Some casinos also offer cumulative or progressive Pai Gow bonuses where you pay an additional $1 and the jackpot increases until it’s won.
At first Pai Gow seems a little intimidating, having to sort so many cards and making sure one hand is higher ranked than the other (and with the man at the end looking at you) but the dealers are invariably helpful as are many of the other players and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
There is a variant using tiles rather than cards (rather like dominoes). I spent a lot of time learning the game so I could look cool and knowledgeable but there’s no optional jackpot bet and so you’re only playing for even money less 5% commission and I didn’t think it was worth the effort. Again however this is a very popular game with Asian players.
Perhaps the best looking table game is not played with cards at all but with dice instead. Craps invariably attracts a large and noisy crowd, is great fun to watch but one of the most volatile games in the casino. By this I mean you can win or lose a lot very quickly which is one of the factors that makes it so popular.
Each player takes it in turns to be ‘shooter’ and to roll two dice along the table. With certain exceptions you keep rolling until you hit a total of seven (adding together the pips on both dice). Most bets then lose and the next player becomes shooter. Some players don’t like to roll and others elect a companion to roll the dice for them – see any James Bond film again where the invitee always wears a low cut dress and has big boobs.
You can place a myriad of different bets which are placed in different locations on the table which pay from even money to 35 to 1. Extra bets are added between each roll. You can end up with a lot of money on the table at once. Some bets are one roll only bets and your stake is removed if the requisite number isn’t hit on that roll while others remain until a seven is hit. You can even bet on seven to be hit but beware the other players who lose with a seven won’t like you for it.
One of the fascinations in watching craps is how the dealers know who’s bet what. Craps dealers are among the highest trained workers in the casino. Generally it takes three staff to run each table plus a supervisor so it needs to be profitable for the house to finance this. There’s a lot of interesting terminology you’ll hear called out like ‘yo’ (eleven), ‘midnight’ (twelve), snake eyes (double one) and ‘hard ways’ (other doubles). As a general rule the whole table wins or loses together. You’re likely to win when a shooter continues to roll many times without hitting a seven. It has been known for a shooter to roll successfully for an hour or more. On the other hand if a seven keeps being hit on the second or third roll after you place your bets it’s easy to lose a great deal in a very short time.
There are many different craps strategies so I’m going to refer you to The Wizard again to explain in more detail should you require it. I advise you spend quite a time watching the game before you play live then start at minimum stakes which will usually be $10 on The Strip.
There are many other table games that a Strip casino will offer. You’re likely to come across many of the following:
- Caribbean Stud Poker
- Crazy 4 Poker
- Casino War
- High Card Flush
- Let It Ride
- Mississippi Stud
- Sic Bo
- Texas Hold’em Bonus
- Ultimate Texas Hold’em
All of these games have merit but most also come with a house edge which varies from medium to ridiculous. You should watch each game in play and then join in if you like what you see bearing in mind that your chances of winning are modest. After slots, the casino makes most of its money from table games.
My personal favourites to look out for are Mississippi Stud and Ultimate Texas Hold’em. High Card Flush is growing fast in popularity. It’s a very simple game. You’re dealt seven cards and you simply make the longest flush you can with optional bonus bets for holdings like straight flushes. Essentially your flush has to be longer than the dealer’s to win. Only if you have the same length does the high card matter. Because this game is so simple there’s often a crowd of players. You can win a huge payout but, obviously, that doesn’t happen often.
Player’s club cards
Just like I advised you when playing slots, it’s essential to hand over your player’s club card when you sit down at any table game as you earn tier, ranking and/or reward points as you play. The supervisor will enter your details into the computer based on how much you play for. You then earn points based on your length of play. When you leave you’re signed off from the system and the appropriate points credited to your account (normally the next day). The supervisor will check on you from time to time to see if your staking has changed. The house keeps a careful record of what you win and lose by noting how much you arrive at and leave the table with.
The higher you stake and the longer you play for the more points you earn. To maximise your point awards follow this strategy:
- Play the first two or three hands at a higher stake than normal (this is when you are being assessed by the table supervisor)
- Play when it’s busy (they don’t have time to watch you closely and re-assess you)
- Increase your stake whenever the supervisor is watching you
- When you leave the table change your chips into cash at the cage. Always sit down with cash, never chips – it seems like you’re spending (losing) more than you are.
As I told you elsewhere MGM group casinos have introduced new rules with effect from 15th December 2015 whereby you don’t earn points playing table games, just playing slots. It remains to be seen how this will play out and how long this will last. Players are not going to like it. If they vote with their feet as they have done before and play elsewhere I imagine the experiment will be short-lived but watch this space.
Here’s the link to my Comps and Free Stuff post to give you more information about players clubs and how to work the system to your advantage.