Ditching Verizon

January 22, 2014

Whether we realize it or not, every almost every decision we make is a compromise.  Shortly before I retired from State service, knowing I might start a business that would require me to be responsive to clients no matter where I was, I enrolled for Verizon cell service, paying a high monthly price for service and committing myself to a two-year contract, but receiving in return a free Android phone, unlimited data, virtually unlimited texts, and an adequate allowance of weekday talk minutes (nights and weekends, as well as calls to other Verizon phones, do not count against the monthly allocation of talk minutes).  I also received a small discount for being a State employee.

As documented in earlier posts on this blog, things changed, especially for people like me who wanted to keep their unlimited data plans.  The option of a new phone, heavily subsidized, was out.  I also learned that Verizon service uses a system (CDMA) that is not widely used, especially outside the US and Canada (in the US, Sprint also uses it), which means that you almost certainly will need to purchase a new phone, or go on a contract plan, if you wish to switch carriers.  I had less than stellar experiences with Verizon customer service, especially before I went to Europe. On the other hand, Verizon coverage, for both voice and data, is among the best, if not the best, especially in this area.

The final straw came when, some three years after I left State service, Verizon sent me several e-mails requesting that I verify my employment to continue receiving my employee discount.  Having received this discount for some three years after I left State employment, I assumed that the State was not paying Verizon the amount of the discount on behalf of its employees.  I called, explained that while I was not a State employee, I was a State retiree, and asked if that was enough to allow me to continue to receive a discount.  I was told it was not, but was offered a plan similar to what I was on at a similar price – but with unlimited talk and text instead of  unlimited data –  if I agreed to a one-year commitment.

I considered that offer an invitation to re-think my cell phone service. I was paying top dollar for Verizon service with unlimited data, but my $75 used phone was starting to act up and would need replacing soon.  In addition, I did not relish paying $7.60 more per month without the discount, or losing the unlimited data (I didn’t care about unlimited talk and texting, since I use little of each).  Two alternatives especially caught my eye:  Straight Talk from Wal-Mart, for its unlimited $45/month plan, and the possibility of using my present phone, and Consumer Cellular, for its low prices and reputation for stellar customer service, though it does not offer unlimited plans.

In a recent article on cell service, Consumer Reports noted that Straight Talk had received high ratings, though I had read elsewhere that its customer service was terrible.  Its unlimited talk, text and data for $45 a month (like most unlimited plans, the data slows down from 4G to 2G after you use 2.5 G in a month) was very attractive, and I decided to take a chance on it if I could continue to use my own phone, knowing that I would be free to switch to another carrier if I didn’t like it.  Straight Talk is one of the few services that uses CDMA (it also uses the other standard, GSM), and its website advertises that one can use some Verizon phones on its CDMA network.  However, I was unable to verify on the web site that my phone would work, so I went to my local Wal-Mart and spoke with someone there.  She checked a web site on her phone, which indicated I could use my phone.  I bought a starter kit for $60 which included all I needed to register my phone, plus payment for the first month of service.  Skeptical because of my own earlier inability to get the web site to accept my phone, I also obtained assurance that I could return the kit for a refund if I could not register my phone.  As I feared, I could not register my phone.  I returned to the Wal-Mart phone department, received an apology (with some comments that mine was not the first CDMA phone that could not be registered for the service) and was told to go to customer service.  There, I was told that I could not return the kit for a refund, since it had been opened.  I went ballistic and ultimately was given a refund, thus ending my experiment with Straight Talk.

I resigned myself to getting a new unlocked GSM phone, which would give me access to just about every US carrier except for Verizon and Sprint, and which, at least in theory, I could use anywhere in the world with an appropriate SIM card.  I found a Samsung Galaxy S3 new on E-bay for $320, and ordered it.

My decision to try Consumer Cellular required a real paradigm shift on my part.  Having unlimited data, I was used to leaving my wi-fi off and always using the cellular, even when I was home and in other places where secure wi-fi was available.  I also freely streamed music from my phone in the car and elsewhere, and spoke freely on nights and weekends and with other Verizon customers.  I had my e-mail and various other apps set to poll for updates almost constantly.  I certainly personified the adage that one does not conserve what one does not pay for.  Consumer Cellular does not offer unlimited plans, preferring to have you pay for only what you use.  They do allow you to switch between various plans at will and without penalty which, in connection with usage alerts that warn when you are approaching the limits of your current plan, facilitate that goal.  With that promise in mind, I committed to a 200 minute voice plan ($15/mo.), with every call on the meter, regardless of time and day, and a 500 mb data plan with 5000 texts ($20/mo.).  Consumer Cellular provided a SIM card for free, and does not charge an activation fee, so I felt I was taking little risk.

I had a good experience with customer service setting up my phone, and I configured the settings to use wi-fi when possible and to only update things like e-mail upon command.  So far, I have used a small fraction of my data allowance, and I anticipate being able to drop to an even less expensive plan if my usage continues to be this low.  Even on my current data and voice plans, however, my new phone will be paid off in a matter of months (based on the difference between what I was paying Verizon and what I will be paying Consumer Cellular). So far, I am happy, though I haven’t yet received my first bill, and therefore don’t know how much in fees will be tacked on to the nominal rates (I should have asked, but neglected to).  Coverage is not as complete as Verizon in this area, but doesn’t work only in very sparsely populated regions.  And, if things don’t work out, I now have a myriad of other options.

Open letter to Mark Gearan

January 13, 2014

Congratulations on your appointment as chair of the New York Gaming Commission, which I hope the Senate will soon confirm.  I read about the appointment in a recent Times Union story, which suggests you have little or no experience in the industry.  While no doubt you will be a quick study, and will rely on staff with industry experience, I hope you also will consider allowing formal representation of the gambling consumer either on your staff or on an advisory committee.  Such representation will provide you with a more balanced view of siting and operational issues, since the industry no doubt will be exerting as much influence over your commission as it can. I also strongly suggest you reach out to the gaming regulators in neighboring states for the benefit of their experience.  In particular, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have somewhat unique policies that apply particularly to blackjack, and you should be aware of them and how they have worked out for both the industry and the consumer.  I hope a hallmark of your administration will be honesty in the form of full disclosure to the consumer.  I also hope that, in addition to and more important than showing tangible concern for problem gamblers, you will seek to educate consumers and potential consumers to help prevent them from becoming problem gamblers.

Gaming regulators face an inherent conflict of interest, since the entity you regulate exists largely to generate tax revenue for the 
State and its subdivisions.  I hope that conflict won’t result in undue deference to the industry, and that New York will become a model for enlightened regulation that entertains and accommodates the views of all interested stakeholders.  


Buyer beware – part two – video poker mistakes to avoid

January 9, 2014

Video poker can be one of the best games for players offered by real casinos (the faux video poker in racinos should be avoided). However, not all video poker is the same, and the bad games can be among the worst, as can the better games if not properly played.

This post lists (and explains) some of the common mistakes I’ve seen video poker players make – mistakes that can cost a lot of money.  What I can’t do in this post is explain the proper strategy for each game.  That you have to learn on your own.  If you choose to, you will be rewarded both monetarily and, I believe, with greater satisfaction and enjoyment when you play.  I recommend starting with jacks or better, which is one of the more popular games, and on which many other games are based. Wizardofodds.com has everything you need to teach yourself the right way to play jacks or better and most other video poker games.

1. As stated in part one of this post, many players assume all machines offering the same game at a given denomination are the same. In a grocery store, all one quart cartons of the same brand milk sell for the same price. In most casinos, this is not the case. A 7/5 jacks or better machine often sits next to a 9/6 machine. The pay table is the price tag. Don’t be the person playing the 7/5 machine. Vpfree2.com can help you find the games with the best pay tables. Don’t ever play on a machine with less than the best pay table for that game and denomination in that casino.

2. Most video poker machines allow you to play one to five coins. Given the same game and pay table, many players wrongly assume the odds are the same whether they play one coin on a $5.00 machine or max coin on a dollar machine. However, a close look at the pay table below (the vertical columns show the payoffs -which include return of your bet – for each hand with one, two, three, four or five coins played, respectively)  shows that the royal flush at max coin pays a large bonus – 4000 units, as opposed to 1250 without the bonus. A one coin royal on a five dollar machine would pay only 1250 (250 shown at the top of the first column times the five dollar base unit). I know of no video poker machine that does not offer at least one payout bonus for max coin. You never should play video poker for less than max coin. If you can’t afford to play a game at max coin, find a machine at a lower denomination that you can afford to play at max coin.


3. Don’t assume that the strategy for one game is the best way to play any other game. The optimum strategy for any video poker game is calculated based on the pay table. Any difference in the pay table requires a different strategy for optimum play. For some games, using the optimum strategy for a different game is not a huge mistake, but for others, it is. Don’t play games you don’t know how to play. They are not all the same.

4. Don’t assume that the pay table on the game you played on your last visit to the casino hasn’t changed. Casinos often change pay tables and move machines without giving notice. Even if a machine you played on a prior visit looks the same, take a minute before you start playing to make sure the pay table hasn’t been downgraded. And be sure to check the payouts for all hands, not just the ones that usually are changed, such as full houses and flushes in jacks or better.

Buyer beware – part one

January 8, 2014

With the expansion of gambling imminent in our area, it’s time for some advice. Unless you are very serious about gambling, your trip to the casino should be for entertainment, and you should bring with you only as much money as you want to spend on entertainment (gambling, dining, shows, etc.) for that visit. And leave the ATM card at home. Of course, one of the nice things about gambling is that you have some chance of winning, although it is more likely that you will lose. The casino, of course, will do everything it can to separate you from your money, but this series of posts will give some tips that even the casual player can use to do better at the casino.

Game selection

The best games for the player are the ones that require skill, such as blackjack and video poker, but they only are good for you if you know the good ones from the bad ones (not all blackjack games or video poker machines are alike) and know how to play them.  If you like to play blackjack, avoid any games in which blackjack pays six to five (it should pay three to two, and the payout is indicated either on the felt covering the table or on a sign on the table; if you can’t find the payout, ask, and don’t be shy about expressing your displeasure and walking away if the answer is six to five).  It does not matter if the 6:5 game is double or even single deck, and the 3:2 game is multi-deck – the difference in the blackjack payout more than makes up for the slight advantage you otherwise would get in a game that uses fewer decks.  Don’t play video poker in a racino – it’s not the game of skill it appears to be, and the house advantage is far, far greater than a real video poker game.  In a “real” casino, be aware that different machines with the same games (such as Jacks or Better or Deuces Wild) may have different “pay tables,” meaning the payouts may be different for the same hand.  Always look for “full pay” machines – the ones that pay the most for each hand.  For example, in Jacks or Better, a full pay machine will pay nine coins for a full house and six for a flush if you are betting one coin at a time (something you never should do, as I’ll explain in a later post).   Inferior versions paying 9/5, 8/5, 7/5 and even 6/5 often can be seen right next to full pay machines at the same denomination.  I swear I have on more than one occasion seen a person playing a short pay machine while sitting right next to an available full pay machine.  Don’t make that mistake.

Unless you are a fairly high roller, you probably won’t see a roulette table with only a single zero and no double zero.  If you do, and roulette is your game, know that a single zero game will cost you only half what a more typical double zero game will in terms of the house edge, giving you more playing time and a better chance to get lucky.

Slot machines are difficult to assess.  Unlike video poker machines, you can’t tell from the pay table whether one offers more generous odds than another.  It’s probably safe to assume that the odds on most are not good, though generally the higher  denomination machines offer better odds for the player. Penny slots on which you can play multiple lines are still penny slots, with the concomitant low payouts, even though they may cost you a dollar or more a spin.

If you play slots because the skill games intimidate you, why not try baccarat, which requires no decision by the player after the initial bet, and has a very low house edge?  Most casinos have mini baccarat tables at which the dealer does everything.  All the player has to do is put down a bet in the appropriate spot before play begins.  I recommend always betting banker (and ignoring the trends, which many players chart assiduously), which on average returns more to the player than a bet on player or tie.

I don’t know much about craps.  I do know that some players have strong preferences regarding the height and size of the tables. Games that allow players to make larger “free odds” bets – bets that pay off at natural odds and have no house advantage – generally are preferred by players with sufficient funds to make those bets. Pay tables for some exotic bets (which generally should be avoided) may differ from game to game or casino to casino.  If you like making such bets, become familiar with the “full pay” tables and play there.

How to play

Since the house has the advantage in every game, your aim should be to play “low and slow.”  Low means the lowest denomination possible (all other things being equal) and slow means you should relax, enjoy yourself, and expose as little of your bankroll to the house advantage as you can.  Play at a full blackjack table will be lot slower than at one where you are the only player; unless there is a rude player at the table, the full table probably will be more fun.  On machines, take a break once in a while and relax.  No need to hurry.

If you like games of skill, the best thing you can do after learning which games to play is to learn the optimum strategy for each game.  Basic strategy charts and cards for blackjack and video poker are readily available (some are even sold in casino gift shops), and there are reputable sites on the Internet that contain charts and game simulators that help you learn by pointing out your mistakes.  A few minutes’ practice  on each of the two or three days before your casino visit can really help you play better, stay in action longer, and improve your chances of leaving a winner.  For blackjack, blackjackinfo.com contains strategy card generators and a customizable trainer.  Wizardofodds.com has similar information and great video poker trainers, as well as comprehensive information about all aspects of gambling.

Get all you’ve got coming to you

The casino business is competitive, and is becoming more so.  Every casino I know has a player’s club that provides real benefits to players, even low rollers, to cultivate their loyalty.  In addition, most casinos offer free drinks to those actually playing at tables and machines (at some places, the only free drinks are non-alcoholic; in any case, don’t forget to tip your server a buck or two, as you would if you had to pay for the drink at a bar).

To join the club, simply present your driver’s license at the player’s club booth, and you will receive a card that looks like a credit card. Be sure to ask about special offers for new sign-ups.  Whenever you play at a machine, be sure to insert your card in the slot, and make sure the display indicates your account is active.  With your card in the machine, all your play will be tracked, and you will be awarded points that you can use for meals, show tickets and other amenities, and you may qualify for other offers that will be mailed or e-mailed to you.  When you sit down to play a table game, hand your card to the supervisor, who will track your play.

The freebies casinos give to players are called comps, and are designed to reward you for playing at that establishment and to keep you coming back.  Don’t be shy about taking advantage of what you’ve earned, and about asking what you’re entitled to. Just don’t make the mistake of playing only for comps, as the “free” drinks and meals could wind up costing a lot.  Instead, play as you otherwise would, and regard the comps you earn as a nice little extra.

I don’t know of any reason not to use a player’s club card when you play. Slot and video poker machines do not “know” whether you are using a card and cannot change your gambling results to recoup the cost of the comps the casino is giving you.  If you don’t hit a taxable jackpot, the casino is not going to report the results of your play to the IRS, and if you do hit one you will have to supply identification whether you are using a player’s card or not.  So don’t cheat yourself by ever not handing your card to the table game supervisor before you play or by not having your card in the machine when you play slots or video poker.

Money management

In the long run, the house edge will grind you down, but in the course of an afternoon or evening at a casino, you are likely at some point to be ahead.  If your jackpot comes near the end of your visit, you have no problem – you leave a winner.  But if it comes early, you have a dilemma. If you keep playing, you may lose it back (though you could win more), but if you stop, you will forgo the entertainment activity that was the reason for your casino visit.  The answer to the dilemma is different for every person.  If you only brought with you an amount you were prepared to lose (as I advised at the outset of this post), and want to go double or nothing, that’s fine, though you may regret it when you go home empty.  What seems to work best for most people is to put away either what you came with, or a little more, and play with the rest, guaranteeing you will go home a winner or at least not a loser. Another option is to find something else to do until it’s time to leave, and save your winnings for the next trip, which then will be a “free ride.” The important thing to understand and remember is that no system of money management will overcome the house advantage in the long run.  In other words, while you may get lucky during one casino visit, over the course of a lifetime of casino visits the house advantage will assert itself.  More than one novice gambler has learned you can’t make a living at the casino by quitting when you’re ahead on the days the casino gets even by never letting you get ahead, not even for a minute.

You will learn from experience to play at denominations appropriate for your bankroll.  If you bring $100 with you, you do not want to play at a $25 minimum blackjack table.  The likelihood of being wiped out by four losing hands in a row right after you sit down simply is too great.  A bankroll of that size may be adequate for $5 blackjack.  Especially for beginners, whatever your bankroll, play for the lowest denomination you can find on an acceptable game.

Casino etiquette

While it probably would occur to most people to tip a cocktail server, it may not be so obvious that dealers, like servers, work primarily for tips. If your dealer has been helpful, courteous and has made your experience enjoyable, consider leaving a small tip when you leave the table or making a small bet for the dealer once in a while during your play.  However, be careful not to over-tip, especially when you are winning, as you will regret it when the worm turns and you are out of money.  Meal comps never include a tip for the server; in casino restaurants, you should tip the same percentage of the check you would anywhere else regardless whether your or the casino pays for the meal.  At a buffet you can tip a little less than you would at a full-service restaurant.

Blackjack players often think they know how to play even when they don’t, and they often freely criticize those whose play they disagree with, even when they are wrong (I’ve wrongly been criticized by dealers, too — remember, they are required to know only how to deal the game, not how to play it, though some are excellent players and give excellent advice).  If I find myself at a table with someone who makes me uncomfortable, I’ll usually get up and find another table.  When people ask me how to play a hand, I usually beg off or reply “I believe the book says to [hit, stand, split, double], but it’s your money and you should play how you want.”  What many poor players don’t understand is that bad players help the others at the table as often as they hurt.  Don’t worry about how others play; concentrate on your game.

If you find a vacant machine with money in it, don’t sit down and play the credits – they belong to another player or, if the player has left, to the casino, not to you.  Remember, you are constantly under surveillance in a casino (except when you are in the toilet).  Advise a slot attendant of the situation.  

If you hit a taxable video poker or slot jackpot that requires a hand pay, it is customary to tip the attendant who brings you your money.  If you win a very large jackpot, you can ask for a check (it will take you a little longer to get paid), which you should endorse “FOR DEPOSIT ONLY” as soon as you receive it.  If you take a large jackpot in cash, feel free to ask security for an escort to your car, and remember to tip the officer for the service.

Next:  Don’t make these video poker mistakes