Advantage players

October 21, 2013

One of the issues New York will have to address as it moves into a new age of comprehensive regulation of gambling is what respective rights it will recognize on the parts of casinos and so-called advantage players.  Casinos are businesses designed to make money for their owners and, through taxation, for various government entities in which they are located.  The fact that government both regulates casinos and derives income from them arguably creates a conflict of interest, but that’s a topic for another post.  While most casino patrons are casual visitors there to take a chance against odds they know favor the house, there are casino patrons who take gambling  seriously and who strive to extract long-term profits from casinos.  They are known as “advantage players,” or “APs,” and casinos do not like them even if, as is the case with the vast majority of APs, they do not cheat or employ any illegal methods.

That casinos go to great expense to detect and neutralize advantage players gives lie to the cliche that “you can’t beat the house.”  I know several people who are lifetime winners at gambling, and a few who make a pretty good living at it (it’s not as glamorous as you might think, and they work a lot harder than you do).

How can one make money gambling?

First, one can get lucky.  All gambling is based on the principle of variance — or luck — that allows some players to win in the short run, while usually preserving a long-term house advantage.  For example, a typical slot machine may be designed to retain an average of 10% of all monies deposited in it, but it will occasionally spit out a jackpot to keep the player interested.  Some of those jackpots are large, and casinos love to publicize them, because in the long run the aggregate of all play by all players will yield a profit to the casino equal to the house edge.  People who get lucky by bucking long-term odds against them are not advantage players, and will, in time, give their winnings back to the house.

Second, one can beat other players in certain games of skill, such as betting on horses or playing live poker.  In those games, the house takes a cut off the top of all monies bet, and the remainder of the pool or pot is distributed to the winners.  Since the winner is taking money from the other players, not from the house, casinos do not fear this type of player, even if he or she is able to establish a long-term advantage over other players and therefore consistently generate a profit.

The third type of player is one who can achieve a long-term advantage against the house.  There are many ways to do this, none of them easy.  Typical is a card counter in blackjack who may establish a small long-term edge over the house if he or she is skillful, nervy and well-financed.  Most card counters cannot achieve a long term profit, because they lack one or more of these attributes.  However, some well-financed card counting teams have taken millions from casinos over the years, and casinos often ban players they detect counting cards from playing blackjack.  Even if the player is working alone, playing the game honestly and by the rules established by the house, it can back him off almost anywhere in the US except Atlantic City.  While I can understand that a casino needs protection against something like the MIT team depicted in the movie “21,” I fail to see how someone  skillfully playing $25 a hand can put that big a dent in a casino’s bottom line.  It also seems unsportsmanlike and hypocritical for a casino to be able to offer a “beatable” game (which is very profitable because it attracts legions of customers who think they can beat it but can’t) and then tell anyone who essentially takes up that offer that he or she can’t play.  But it happens all the time.  Should it be allowed to happen in New York?

I imagine the casinos will argue that they need protection from advantage players so that they can remain profitable and continue to provide employment, stimulus to the local economy through the purchasing of goods and services and, of course, tax revenues to government.  Players could respond that the attraction of gambling — what, in essence, the casinos are selling — is a chance to win money, and that a casino that chooses (probably for competitive reasons) to offer a beatable game should have to live with that choice, at least within reasonable limits.  Were the choice this simple, I would vote that casinos should have to live with their choice.  Implicit in the term “gambling” is a recognition that sometimes the house does have to lose.

However, as Atlantic City has shown, if casinos can’t back off advantage players, they are likely to make their games worse for everyone. How much they can get away with in this regard depends on the competition (Atlantic City was getting away with a lot more before neighboring Pennsylvania licensed casinos and mandated them to offer games with more player-favoring rules, while also allowing them to back off advantage players).  Making the games worse for everyone is bad for business (even suckers eventually find out they can do better — or less badly — elsewhere), as Atlantic City casinos have found out.

In sum, how to allow casinos to deal with advantage players is an important decision New York’s casino regulators will have make, and some outside-the-box thinking on this issue would be welcome.  Given the availability of gambling in most of the states that border New York (not to mention Canada), an outright bar on backoffs could result in games that leave New York casinos at a competitive disadvantage, detrimentally affecting profits and tax revenues.  Allowing backoffs might not prevent short-sighted management from offering poor games anyway, in the hope of maximizing profits, but such a decision might prove costly and therefore short-lived.  Maybe the best course would be to remove some of the discretion casinos have in dealing with suspected advantage players.  For example, maybe the discretion to permanently back off suspected card counters or other APs should be vested in the regulatory agency rather than the casinos.  Involvement of the agency would bring a more neutral perspective to the evaluation of the suspect play, and would certainly reduce the amount of abuse to which suspected APs sometimes have been subject.  Provisional back offs by casino management probably should be allowed, but the suspect should be guaranteed prompt review of that decision by the agency.

Others, I’m sure, could come up with better solutions.  The point is, though, that creative thinking, and a recognition that winning players are not automatically the threat casinos seem to think they are, could help New York survive and prosper in a very competitive gambling environment.  Good luck to those charged with writing the rules.

Ditching Time Warner (partially)

October 15, 2013

I wrote earlier about my experience with Time Warner, and how I was able to actually wrangle a better deal on phone service after my initial promotional offer expired.  This time, I was not as lucky.  At the end of my promotional year, I received an e-mail from Time Warner announcing “We are pleased to extend you additional savings”.  “Whoo-hoo,” I thought; they must be responding to competition offering internet phone service for as little as $10.00 a month, and they must therefore be reducing the price I pay.  As I read further, however, I was disappointed to find out that the additional savings actually amounted to an increase of $5.00 a month — the additional savings were from the “list” price for phone service (which I am sure few, if any, people actually pay), albeit at a rate of $5.00 per month less than the discount I had been receiving.

I called Time Warner, expressed my displeasure that their e-mail announcing I would be saving money actually was sneakily disclosing a $5.00 per month increase, and reminding them that in the past year they already had increased my monthly internet access fee by $5.00, and that they had introduced, and shortly thereafter doubled, a modem rental fee that was now up to $6.00.  I expressed the opinion that these increases (totaling about 20%) were enough for one year, and that I would like to continue paying the same amount or else I would have to consider buying my own modem to save the monthly rental fee and looking at other phone service providers.  After a lot of wrangling and attempts at up-selling me combination packages and higher speed internet service, the best the rep said she could do was give me a $3.00 a month credit for six months as a good will gesture.  I confirmed that I was not on any sort of contract and that I was free to both obtain my own modem and discontinue my TW phone service.

After perusing the compatible modems on the Time Warner web page, I found a new Motorola model for $68.00 plus tax on the Wal Mart site; it was shipped to my local store the same day.  In one year, it would be paid for by the savings on the rental fee (sooner, if TW has the nerve to raise the fee again); as long as it lasts after that, it will be free.  Finding suitable phone service was a little tougher; I started by looking at Basic Talk, at $9.99 a month, but found it did not allow one to forward calls, which was a deal breaker for me (when I go out, I like to forward my home phone to my cell, so I don’t have to give out my cell number).  Ultimately, I decided to take a chance on VOIPo, a company I had never heard of, which, if accessed through the NextAdvisor web site, offered 26 months’ service for $185.00, prepaid, including all taxes and fees, for a total cost of a little over $7.10 per month.

Replacing the cable modem wasn’t difficult, though Time Warner makes it harder than it should have been.  If you have Time Warner phone service that you wish to continue, you have to get a device from Time Warner  (for free) that connects to the modem; you also need to buy a splitter and some cable to connect it to the modem.  Since I had decided to discontinue my Time Warner phone service, I left my home phone forwarded to my cell and just hooked up the modem.  According to the web site, all I had to do was call Time Warner, read off the MAC address (a code consisting of letters and numbers on a tag affixed to the modem), and the new modem would be activated.  However, the phone number the web site listed did not allow me to get through to a human being;  use the local number instead (518-869-5500).  Also, if you are using a cell phone (which you will have to, unless you have old-fashioned wired phone service), you may want to attempt this at night or on a weekend, as the inevitable holds could deplete your monthly cell phone minutes.  The web site also is a bit misleading, as it suggests activation is instantaneous; actually, I was told it would take 30 to 60 minutes.  In my case, it took a while longer because of a problem on the Time Warner side, which eventually (after several more phone calls) was rectified.  Even after your new modem is working, you may experience problems with some web sites, which get overwritten by a Time Warner page listing the MAC number of your modem and suggesting you need to activate it, even though you already have.  I learned from a Google search that you can solve this problem by clearing your browser’s cache, which did the trick for me after I restarted my computer.  After I was satisfied that everything worked, I returned my modem to Time Warner’s Colonie Center location.  I had to wait a little while to see a very laconic and bored agent, but at least he didn’t attempt to up-sell me.

Changing phone service was not too bad.  I enrolled on the VOIPo site, paid for my 26 months by credit card, and shortly thereafter began receiving e-mails outlining the remaining steps.  I filled out a request to have my present number “ported” to the new service, which would take about 10 days (there’s a form you have to fill out and either scan and e-mail back or fax back, with a copy of your latest phone bill).  I received in the mail an adapter that I hooked up to my router and to my phone.  I received a temporary number to test the system, and it worked.  I could forward calls to my cell; unlike the Time Warner service, which charged extra for voice mail (and which I therefore did not have), VOIPo’s service includes voice mail with a nifty feature:  when you get a message, it e-mails you with the number of the caller and an attached .wav sound file of the recorded message.  Therefore, if you have a smart phone, you can retrieve messages and listen to them without wasting cell phone minutes.  I did have a few problems getting everything working, but each e-mail I sent was answered promptly, accurately and comprehensibly within a few hours, even on nights and weekends.  It was a refreshing change from dealing with the service reps at Time Warner who respond with scripted answers that may or may not be relevant to the question you have asked.

The number I had been using with Time Warner was “ported” to my new service on schedule.  After I verified that, I called Time Warner to discontinue my phone service with them.  After several unsuccessful attempts with different service reps, I finally got a supervisor who told me that the phone service would automatically terminate after the porting process was completed.  I checked on the web site, and saw that indeed it had been.  Therefore, I suggest that if you do switch from Time Warner to another phone carrier, you wait until a day or two after your porting date and check the web site; only if it still shows you are subscribing to phone service will you have to endure Time Warner customer service hell.

Unfortunately, no viable alternative to Time Warner’s high speed internet service exists in my service area.  However, with a little work and a small financial outlay,  I was able to deprive Time Warner — whose business practices and customer service I despise — of about half of what I had been paying them each month, while getting phone service with more features that has so far been entirely satisfactory.