A funny thing happens to passengers on airline flights into Las Vegas. They get gripped with gambling fever.
The symptoms are similar to what happens to preteen children as the car Dad is driving gets within eyesight of an amusement park: excess nervous energy, manifested primarily by incessant wiggling of the feet and pumping of the knees; an increased heart rate, resulting in loud, involuntary laughter; and, most telling, a sudden, nonfatal loss of rationality. For those stricken with the most virulent strains of gambling fever, this last symptom usually takes the form of supposedly authoritative--but completely incoherent--dissertations on betting systems, wagering tricks and other "foolproof" schemes to win at otherwise unwinnable casino games.
On most of these Vegas-bound flights, the nonsensical chattering begins about 20 minutes from landing, just as the airplane begins its initial descent. But in extreme cases, the ranting has been known to commence before the flight has even taxied to the runway for takeoff.
For example, on a recent flight to Las Vegas, one could overhear the following conversation between a character we'll call The Expert, a suave, well-dressed older man wearing a diamond pinkie ring, and The Student, an attractive, much younger woman sitting across the aisle. Expert: You gamble much in Vegas? Student: Of course. I love it! Expert: What games do you like? Student: I play the slots a little. But I mostly play blackjack. Expert: Oh, you shouldn't do that. Blackjack is the game where the house has the biggest advantage. Student: Really? Expert: Oh, sure. You're better off playing Caribbean Stud Poker. Much better. Student (wide-eyed): Wow. Tell me about it.
For the next 10 minutes, as the twinkling lights of the Vegas Strip grew ever closer, The Expert managed to persuade his impressionable listener to quit playing a game (blackjack) that averages less than .5 percent advantage for the House to one (Caribbean Stud Poker) in which the House advantage is a stern 5.25 percent--and sometimes as high as 45 percent. Great advice! The Student could now look forward to spending her weekend playing a game with odds at least 10 times worse than her usual choice.
Most gamblers know the games they like, but they don't know if what they like is going to cost them big money in the long run. Few casino visitors realize that not all the games are created equal, that some bets are truly better--or worse--than others. Believe it or not, some of the best bets actually work in the player's favor; these deserve to be inducted into the casino bettor's Hall of Fame. The worst bets are so larcenous they deserve inclusion in the Hall of Shame.
THE HALL OF FAME: THE FIVE BEST BETS IN THE CASINO
NO. 5--Craps, The Line Bet: --1.4 percent
Of all the myriad--and sometimes inscrutable--options on the green felt layout, betting on "the line" is the most basic wager on the dice tables. And easily one of the best deals. Players gamble on whether the shooter (the player rolling the dice) will "make his number" (roll a predetermined number) or throw a losing 7. Conversely, you can bet the shooter won't make his number. This option is called "don't pass." Both line bets are paid at even money: bet $10, win $10.
If you bet the shooter will pass, and his very first roll of the dice--the "come out" roll--is a 7 or 11, you win. (After the first roll, any 7 is a loser.) If the dice come up 2, 3 or 12, you lose. The casino gains its small advantage by taking money from "pass" players on the 12 and not paying off the "don't pass" players. Still, when you make a line bet, with its -1.4 percent expectation, in the long run you will lose only $14 for every $1,000 you gamble.
NO. 4--Baccarat, The Bank Bet: --1.15 percent
If you enjoy the challenge of calling heads or tails on a coin flip, baccarat is for you. Though the casinos toil mightily to imbue the game with enough faux glamour--crystal chandeliers, tuxedo-clad dealers, free-flowing Champagne-- to make even the grungiest gambler believe he's the living incarnation of James Bond, the game requires absolutely no decision-making other than picking "heads" or "tails." Or in this case, "Player" or "Bank." (There is a third bet, "Tie"--but more on that nefarious option later.)
Two hands of cards are dealt. The one with a point total closest to 9 wins. Because of some arcane rules involving how and when an extra card may be drawn, the Bank hand has a slight advantage over the Player's. Alas, if you bet on the Bank, you must pay a 5 percent commission on your winnings. Thus the casino's small edge.
Incidentally, the Player bet, with an expectation of -1.37 percent, still less attractive than the Bank bet, qualifies for the casino Hall of Fame.
NO. 3--Blackjack, Basic Strategy: --.5 percent
One of the most popular games in the casino also happens to be one of the best values--if you play Basic Strategy. That's a big "if." Gamblers who make their "hit" or "stand" decisions on hunches, emotions or some farfetched theory their Cousin Jed told them will see their bankroll shrivel faster than a raisin in the sun. Those who master Basic Strategy will enjoy one of the fairest gambles in the casino. Furthermore, if you can find a single-deck game with favorable rules--dealer stands on soft-17, etc.--the casino edge can be reduced to 0 percent. If you learn a simple card-counting system, blackjack becomes a positive expectation gamble: you have the advantage over the House.
Basic Strategy is a set of easily memorized playing decisions based on the dealer's up card and the player's two-card total: Hit your 16 versus the dealer's 7; stand on 13 versus the dealer's 6; double down on your pair of 5s versus the dealer's 8; and so forth. (Reliable Basic Strategy tables can be found in almost any blackjack book written after 1960.) Each play in the Basic Strategy matrix has been tested with billions of computer-simulated hands. Follow the guidelines and you will always be making the unequivocally best decision. You will be playing perfectly. And enjoying a nearly break-even game.
NO. 2--Craps, Maximum Odds: --.018 percent to --.002 percent
After you've made your line bet--No. 5 in the Hall of Fame--you can "back up" your initial wager with a "behind the line" bet, called odds. This secondary bet is paid at true odds; the casino has no advantage on this wager. Many casinos let gamblers bet only twice the amount of their line bet, or "double" odds. The better casinos allow odds bets of 10 times the initial wager ($10 on the line and $100 behind; a .018 percent House advantage).The truly great ones offer 100 times odds. In this case, you are betting $100 at absolutely even money, with no House edge, and $1 at a 1.4 percent disadvantage. The cumulative effect is a bet that in the long run loses only two pennies for every $1,000 you wager.
"If everybody who played dice took the full odds," said Jack Binion, owner of Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, "we couldn't pay our light bill."
NO. 1--Video Poker, Selected Machines: +100.17 percent to +100.7 percent
With perfect play, certain video poker machines return more than $1 for every dollar you wager. That makes them the rarest beast in the casino jungle: a positive expectation bet.
Unlike slot machines, video poker machines are completely random. The casino can't cook the results. In the long run, every video poker machine will produce the correct number of royal flushes, full houses and so on, that the odds say it should. The only way for the House to get an edge, therefore, is to tweak the payout schedule, returning, for example, five coins on a flush instead of the usual six. Savvy gamblers who find "full pay" machines will, in the long run, beat the House.
Dozens of different video poker machines exist, most of which operate with about a 1 percent casino advantage. Two types give the player the advantage: "Deuces Wild" (100.7 percent return) and "Double Bonus Poker" (100.17 percent return).
The casinos can afford to sprinkle these machines throughout their pits, since most gamblers don't play well enough to beat them, even with the built-in edge. To learn expert strategy for beatable forms of video poker, you can consult any number of guidebooks. Some of the best are Bob Dancer's Video Poker Reports, available from Las Vegas-based Huntington Press (800-244-2224).
To find a machine you can beat, you need to examine the pay tables carefully. A "classic" Deuces Wild machine pays as follows: 25 coins for a wild royal flush, 15 for five of a kind, 9 for a straight flush and 5 for four of a kind. Double Bonus machines that give an edge to the player are known as 10-7 machines: 10 coins for a full house, seven for a flush. Play these babies in combination with a slot club rebate and ultimately the casino will be paying you for the pleasure of your company.
THE HALL OF SHAME: THE FIVE WORST BETS IN THE CASINO
Not surprisingly, action-hungry gamblers can find far more bad bets in a casino than good ones. (That's how these places can afford to offer prime rib dinners for $4.95.) Even something as seemingly innocuous as the insurance bet at blackjack (-14.3 percent) is a horrible play. Remember this general caveat: any game that offers a large, sometimes life-changing jackpot, is without exception a terrible bet. Though not quite as kleptomaniacal as state lotteries, which often operate at a 50 percent advantage, most casino games that have an ever-climbing meter attached to them should be avoided. As the "Las Vegas Advisor" newsletter reported not long ago, some of the public's favorite "linked progressive" slot machines (where money from around a state or, in the case of the recently developed MegaBucks, the country, is pooled into a huge jackpot) are among the worst bets in the casino. But not, alas, as bad as our Top Five thieves.
NO. 5--Baccarat, Tie Bet: --14.4 percent
The tuxedo-clad dealers who shill for the tie bet--"Anyone betting a tie? Tie bet, anyone? Place your tie bet!"--are not paid a commission by the House. But they ought to be. This one is a huge moneymaker for the casino.
Often you'll see big baccarat players studying their charts, trying to discern a pattern in the past results, forgetting, of course, that these results have no bearing on the future. You can almost see the epiphany flashing across their minds: "My god, there hasn't been a tie for twelve hands! I should bet the tie." Well, actually they shouldn't. Ever. This bet is 11 times worse than wagering on Player or Bank.
NO. 4--Craps, "Any Seven": --16.7 percent
As good as the "line" and "odds" bets are, that's how rotten the proposition bets are on a dice table. You'll find an array of these come-ons in the middle of the table. The worst of these one-roll wagers is the "Any Seven," in which a gambler bets that the next roll of the bones will produce a total seven.
Anybody with a grade-school aptitude for math should see that this bet only pays 5 for 1, when the true odds should be 6 for 1. But gambling fever tends to affect eyesight as well.
NO. 3--The Big Wheel, Average Bet: --19.1 percent
The Big Wheel, or Big Six as it is often called, looks like a salvage job from a long-shuttered carnival: "Spin the wheel, win a prize!" Casinos frequently employ their peppiest "people" persons at the Big Wheel, where, management hopes, ignorant gamblers will get caught up in the simulated carnival atmosphere.
There's nothing worth gambling on here. If you see anyone parked in front of this spinning money drain, you can be sure he is either very drunk or very stupid. The "best" bet, on the $1 spot, gives the casino an 11.1 percent advantage. The worst, on one of two Jokers that pay 40 to 1 (on a 50-to-1 shot), skims 24 percent. Everything else in between is just as bad, producing an average edge for the House approaching a criminal 20 percent.
NO. 2--Keno: --28 percent
This number may be slightly generous. Some keno games give the casino an advantage of over 30 percent.
The House picks 20 numbered balls out of a bowl of 80. Players attempt to match as few as one of the numbers or as many as all 20. In every configuration of the game--Pick Five; 20-Spot Special, etc.--the casinos skew the payouts so wickedly that you would think the wretchedness of the game would be painfully obvious. (You would be mistaken.)
Just remember this the next time the fellow next to you on the plane boasts of his latest keno triumph: anyone who claims to have a system for beating keno is either sadly mistaken or a congenital liar.
NO. 1--Caribbean Stud Poker and Let It Ride, Bonus Side Bet: --47 percent
It's just a dollar. One measly extra dollar, and--who knows?--it could make you rich.
That's what the casino's hope gamblers are thinking when they play Caribbean Stud Poker and Let It Ride: If I bet the extra dollar and the dealer gives me a royal flush, I'll win $50,000, or $100,000, or maybe a couple million. If I don't bet it, I can't win the big bonus.
Here's the facts: you'll receive a five-card royal flush about once every 640,000 hands. At Caribbean Stud tables, generous casinos will pay you upwards of $100,000 for this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence; stingy ones pay as little as $10,000.
As for Let It Ride, when you make a straight or royal flush, a winning $1 bonus side bet earns you little equity, only a spot in a nationwide tournament, where the ultimate winner takes home millions. Unfortunately, you are probably more likely to win your state lottery than the Let It Ride tourney.
Think of it this way: every time you see someone plunk down a dollar on either of these bonus side bets, he is, in effect, asking for change. But instead of getting back four quarters, he happily accepts 53 cents. That, it seems, is the price one pays to cure a bad case of gambling fever. *
Contributing editor Michael Konik is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.