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The House Advantage
The first important concept to understand about gambling in Las Vegas is that the odds for all the games provide an advantage for the casino ("house"), generally known, appropriately enough, as the "house advantage" (or "edge" or "vigorish"). The casino is a business, and wagering is its product. Because the house establishes the rules, procedures, and payoffs on every game, it builds an automatic commission into every bet to ensure a profit margin.
Here's how it works. Let's pretend that I'm the house and you're the customer and we're betting on a series of coin flips. The deal that I make with you is that every time the coin lands heads up, I win and you pay me a dollar. Every time the coin lands tails up, you win -- but I only pay you 90¢. The law of averages maintains that out of every hundred coin tosses, heads will win 50 times and tails will win the other 50. If I take a dime out of every one of your winning payoffs, the longer you play, the more dimes will wind up in my pocket. If you started with a $50 bankroll, after 1,000 tosses, even if you win half of them, you'd be busted out. (Because it requires two trials -- win one, lose one -- for the house to make its 10¢ "commission," your "negative expectation," or house edge, in this example is 5%.)
The second important gambling concept is known as "fluctuation" (or "variance"). In plain English, we're talking about "luck." Looking at our coin-toss game through the lens of averages, if you and I flip a coin 1,000 times, it's reasonable to expect that the coin will land heads up and tails up close to 500 times each. However, if we flip the coin only 10 times, it's conceivable that the coin could land heads up only twice or as many as eight times. Now let's say that we made the same betting deal as above but we limited the number of tosses to 10. This would largely eliminate your 5% disadvantage and leave it up to "the luck of the toss" or, in other words, the fluctuation. Thus, a short-term fluctuation in the law of averages eliminates the long-term threat of the negative expectation.
How do these concepts -- the house advantage and negative expectation, as well as short-term fluctuation -- apply to the choices that you make as a casino customer? Your decisions, based on these concepts, will determine not only what you play, but also how you play, how long you play, and, ultimately, how well you play.
Luck Versus the Edge
The average "bankroll" (cash carried for the sole purpose of gambling) of a Las Vegas visitor who plans to spend some time in the casino is roughly $500. This is a crucial statistic. The amount of your bankroll and your preferred style of "action" (how you risk your bankroll) define your relationship to luck and the house edge.
Basically, the parameters of gambling action are fast and slow. Some people, though they're in the minority, like their action fast and loose and high risk; these are true "gamblers," in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The extreme version of this type of action is to take the whole $500 bankroll and lay it down on a single play -- say, red or black on the roulette table. The odds are not quite even. The green 0 and 00 on the roulette table give the house an advantage of 5.26% (Roulette, below). Still, even though the odds are less than fair, the immediate result will be the same: double or nothing.
Making one play eliminates both the law of averages and the long-term threat of the house advantage; here you rely solely on the luck of the draw. If you want to go on a roller-coaster ride of luck, with a minute or so of adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding excitement, lay it all down at once. In a matter of moments, you'll either have twice the money you arrived with or none of it.
A less extreme version of this wild ride is to break your bankroll into two units, and make two bets. Here you can either double your money, lose it all, or break even. Similarly, if you separate your $500 bankroll into five units and make five bets, or 10 units and make 10 bets, your ride lasts a little longer and your outcome is a little less black and white: You can double, bust out, break even, or come out somewhat ahead or behind. Still, the cumulative danger of the house advantage barely comes into play.
Luck can supersede the house advantage, but only in the short run. And though luck accounts for winners big and small -- such as the California nurse who lines up four Megabucks symbols on the $3 pay line to win $9 million or the $2 dice shooter who parlays a hot hand into a couple of hundred bucks -- the lack of luck can obliterate a bankroll faster than a crooked S&L.
Besides, most people who come to Las Vegas like to gamble for as long as they can without running out of money. These people take their $500 bankrolls and split them into 100 units to make $5 bets, 250 units for $2 bets, 500 units for $1 bets, or even 2,000 units for 25¢ bets. This guarantees plenty of time for the law of averages to even out the fluctuations. On the other hand, it puts the house advantage and the negative expectation right back into the game.
So how do you play as long as you like without the certainty of the house advantage grinding your bankroll into dust?
The Good Bets
The first part of any viable casino strategy is to risk the most money on wagers that present the lowest edge for the house. Blackjack, craps, video poker, and baccarat are the most advantageous to the bettor in this regard. The two types of bets at baccarat have a house advantage of a little more than 1%. The basic line bets at craps, if backed up with full odds, can be as low as.5%. Blackjack and video poker, at times, can not only put you even with the house (a true 50-50 proposition) but actually give you a slight long-term advantage.
How can a casino possibly provide you with a 50-50 or even a positive expectation at some of its games? First, because a vast number of suckers make the bad bets (those with a house advantage of 5%-35%, such as roulette, keno, and slots) day in and day out. Second, because the casino knows that very few people are aware of the opportunities to beat the odds. Third, because it takes skill -- requiring study and practice -- to be in a position to exploit these opportunities the casino presents. However, a mere hour or two spent learning strategies for the beatable games will put you light-years ahead of the vast majority of visitors who give the gambling industry an average 12%-15% profit margin.
Comps, Clubs, and Coupons
Not only can you even out the odds to a certain extent, but you can also take advantage of the various attractive incentives casinos offer so that the suckers will stay and play -- and, in the long run, lose, due either to house advantage or basic ignorance. These available, profitable, and somewhat prestigious incentives are known as "comps" (short for complimentaries) or "freebies." The most common comps are free parking in downtown parking structures (all you have to do is walk into the casino and validate your ticket at the cashier window) and free cocktails (all you have to do is play at any table or machine). Other comps range from a "line pass" (the right to proceed directly into a showroom or restaurant without having to wait in line) all the way to a penthouse suite complete with private swimming pool, butler and chef, and round-trip airfare from anywhere in the world. It all depends on how much you're willing to risk: Comps are calculated by multiplying your average bet by the amount of time you play by the house advantage.
Say, for example, you play at a $25-a-hand blackjack table for eight hours. The casino expects you to participate in 60 hands an hour and lose at a rate of 2% (what the casino calculates as its average advantage). Sixty hands an hour times $25 a hand times eight hours times 2% equals $240. Of that anticipated profit, the house is prepared to return 30%-40% to you in complimentaries in order to "reward" you for your action. Thus, under the described circumstances, you'll qualify for $72-$96 worth of comps, whether you win, lose, or break even.
To be eligible for comps, you have to get "rated" as a player. When you sit down to play, have the dealer call over the pit boss -- the person who supervises the action on the gaming tables -- and tell him that you'd like to have your play rated. The pit boss will fill out a rating card with your name, average bet, and length of play. These data are input into the marketing department computer; based on your "comp equivalency" (for example, the $72-$96 you've qualified for), you'll be provided free food or room or perks. The kings of comps are the "high rollers," those willing to risk a lot of money at high-stakes games.
Slot clubs are another good way to reconcile the house advantage with playing for as long as you like. These clubs, introduced in the late 1980s to give slot and video poker players some high-roller status, are similar to frequent-flier programs offered by the airlines. It costs nothing to sign up for slot clubs and the benefits can be substantial. When you become a member, you're given a plastic card that you insert into the gaming machine you're using; the card tracks your play and you receive points based on the amount of money you risk. Slot-club points can be redeemed for free gifts, food, rooms, invitations to special parties and slot tournaments, VIP status, and even cash. You can join slot clubs at as many casinos as you like, then play at the places that offer the best perks.
Finally, the best bet in any casino is one that is accompanied by a gambling coupon, known as a "lucky buck." These are most often found in hotel "funbooks," small coupon booklets given out free for the asking at casinos; generally all you need is a hotel room key and an out-of-state ID (this prevents locals from taking advantage of the valuable promotions). Most funbooks contain coupons that return 7 to 5, 3 to 2, even 2 to 1 on even-money wagers.
Playing with coupons gives you a decided advantage over the house. In our coin-toss example, you'd wager a dollar of your own and a coupon for another dollar. If you win, I'd pay you $2 (for a return of $3). That extra dollar, though it might not seem like much, would pay my commission on 10 additional coin tosses. Furthermore, because some of the major hotel-casinos and most of the smaller ones distribute free funbooks, you and a partner can collect a dozen of them and then go on a "coupon run." You make even-money bets backed up by coupons, touring a number of casinos while you're at it. Done properly, you could conceivably fill up an entire Las Vegas visit making positive plays with lucky bucks.