A short visit to Rivers

February 10, 2017

This morning, I decided to try my luck in getting into the new Rivers casino in Schenectady.  I was able to drive right in, find a good parking spot in the garage, and get on a long line to get my player’s club card loaded with $20 free play for pre-registering on line.  The line moved relatively quickly, and after getting my card I  took a quick walking tour of the casino floor.

As the photos I had seen suggested, the clean modern design was well-executed, and reminded me a lot of the M Resort in southern Las Vegas, a nice property.  The gaming floor was very small, and there were very few video poker machines.  Even at that off hour, all the lower denomination machines were occupied, so it was difficult to ascertain the pay tables.  It was a pleasure not having to deal with smokers, and the ambient noise level – often a sore point with me – was reasonable.

I did see several dollar machines that were not occupied; the jacks or better games on those were of the short pay, 8/5 variety, which is not competitive with the offerings of the Connecticut casinos (9/6) or Turning Stone (8/6 or 9/5).  If you think shorting you one dollar on a flush and a full house doesn’t make much of a difference, you are wrong:

Properly played (using optimum strategy and playing at full coin), traditional “full pay” 9/6 video poker pays back an average of 99.5% of all moneys wagered.  This overall return takes a long time to achieve, since part of it is based on hitting a royal flush, which on average occurs only once in some 40,000 hands, but it’s a useful measure nonetheless, and the best one we have. The overall return  of the “short pay” 8/5 machine (again, based on optimum play at full coin, over a long period of time) is 97.3%, or some 2.2% less than full pay.

While 2.2% doesn’t sound like much, it can add up fast.  Let’s assume play on a dollar machine.  At max coin, that’s $5.00 a spin.  While experienced video poker players can achieve speeds of up to 1,000 hands per hour, and average 600-800 hands per hour, let’s assume a leisurely pace (which I recommend) of 400 hands per hour. That means the player is pushing $2,000 an hour through the machine, which amount is exposed to a house edge of 2.7%.  On average, the house therefore will retain $54 of that amount.  On a full pay machine, with a 0.5% house edge, the house will retain, on average only $10 — more than four times less.  The average hourly cost of playing a $1.00 short pay jacks or better video poker machine is $44 more than a full pay machine.  As we used to say in Brooklyn, “that ain’t nuttin'”.

The blackjack tables I saw on the main floor had $25 minimums, and appeared to use either 8-deck shoes or, on one table, a continuous shuffling machine.  Blackjack payouts were 3 to 2 at those tables.  None was occupied, so further information on playing conditions and rules was not available.  I did not see any of the 6 to 5 double and single deck tables mentioned on the web site, which is just as well.  Unfortunately, I did not have time to look at the other table games to see what the minimums were.  In any event, minimum usually change based on how busy the casino is.  A weekday morning is likely to see lower minimums than a weekend or evening.

In sum, Rivers turned out to offer the mid-level video poker player about what I expected. If it offers the same 8/5 games to quarter players, it is more competitive at that level.  Its main advantage is convenience; unless it extends really good offers and comps to its players, its games are not as good as one can find elsewhere.  And that convenience may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that one arriving at a busier time may not be able to find an available video poker machine or other desired game.  I also have read that, although the casino has a capacity of some 7,000, there are indoor and outdoor spaces for less than 2,000 cars, so parking also may be problem.  When I left a little before noon, the valet already was full, and people were circling the garage looking for spaces.

 

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Before you go to Rivers

February 2, 2017

I.

Its February 8 opening imminent, the Rivers Casino’s public relations operation is flooding the area with advertising and press releases.  The photos I’ve seen of the casino portray a modern, tastefully appointed property that reminds me of some of the nicer off-Strip properties in Las Vegas, such as the M Resort and Red Rock Station.  The restaurants look inviting.  But is it a place where you will want to spend your hard-earned money?

Casinos operate on the principle that they pay out less than the true odds on their games.  An illustration will explain this:  A fair coin, over a large number of tosses, will result in an equal number of heads and tails.  In a game in which you bet on the outcome, the true odds would be even.  Thus, if you bet a dollar on each toss, and lose your bet on heads, but win a dollar on tails, you are paid true odds, and the casino (and the player), in the long run, would break even on the game, which is not a sustainable business model.  Instead, for your dollar bet you may be paid 85 or 90 cents when you win (the casino keeping your dollar if you lose), the difference between the payoff amount and the dollar that would represent fair odds going to overhead and profit.  The difference between true odds and actual payouts can be roughly expressed as the “house edge.”

So, if virtually assured a long term loss, why would anyone gamble?  There are many answers to that question.  However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s choose the most common one – one gambles because of the possibility of “getting lucky.”  While the coin toss will result in equal numbers of heads and tails over a long run, the results are “streaky” — they may come in bunches of heads and bunches of tails, some fairly long.  This volatility can make players winners in the short run.  A well run casino recognizes the necessity of volatility and the winners it produces, and often advertises those who hit large slot jackpots, hoping to persuade others to try their luck.    Because the casino is dealing with a large number of players over a long time, volatility is not nearly as much a factor for it, and it will profit despite the short term winners if its business model is sound.

The more often one gambles, and the more one bets, the more one moves from the short term to the long term.  Volatility recedes in influence, and the house edge asserts itself more consistently.  This is why the educational materials addressed to problem gamblers and potential problem gamblers emphasize that “chasing losses” by continuing to bet seldom works and most often leads to more losses.

II.

A great truth almost never addressed by casinos, their regulators or the general news media is that not all casinos are alike.  In addition to offering different games and amenities, casinos have a wide latitude in adjusting their house edge on many games.  On some games, the player can calculate the house edge.  As I have written, video poker is one of those games. Similarly, the house edge in blackjack can be computed.  Other games, notably slot machines other than video poker, do not readily yield their payoff percentages or volatility.  As I previously wrote, the video poker offered by other casinos run by the company that manages the Rivers has relatively high house edges, and I expect the same here, given the high taxes and fees the Rivers must pay the State.  A recent check of the Rivers web site reveals that its single and double-deck blackjack games will pay 6:5 on a blackjack, which sends the house edge for those games into the unplayable stratosphere (the casino also will offer “shoe games” using more decks that will pay the traditional 3:2 for blackjacks; depending on the other factors, those games may or may not have a reasonable house edge).

If you have guests arriving for dinner in a few minutes, and suddenly find yourself out of something you need to finish the meal, you will go to the nearest store and pay whatever the cost, so that you can return in time to have the meal ready when your guests arrive.  That’s the principle behind convenience stores.  However, for your weekly shopping, particularly if you have a large family, you are likely to be more price conscious, even if it means a longer drive to a larger store.

From the presently available evidence, I predict the Rivers will be on the convenience store end of the spectrum.  If you are a casual, low stakes gambler, and the location is convenient, the comps and offers generous (which remains to be seen) and the atmosphere enjoyable, you can enjoy a day or night out at a reasonable cost if you limit the amount you bring, prepare to lose it, and leave the ATM card at home.  However, if you are a more regular gambler, you may wish to take it easy until you have an idea of how you may be expected to do compared to at the venues you presently frequent.

 

 

 

 


Casino smoking update

December 29, 2016

I recently visited Turning Stone, which just completed alterations to its gaming areas.  I think it did a really good job to accommodate both smokers and non-smokers.  It enclosed in glass walls and allows smoking in about a quarter of its main gaming floor, an area that includes a bar and a self-service area from which patrons can get free coffee and soda.  The smoking area contains a large variety of slot and video poker machines and table games.  Also enclosed in glass and reserved for smokers is a separate, small high-limit table games area (there also is a non-smoking high limit table games area next to the high limit slots area).  While there are openings in the glass walls enclosing the smoking areas to allow patrons and staff to enter and exit, there does not seem to be a lot of leakage of smoke into the non-smoking areas.

Turning Stone’s solution, while the best I have seen to balance the preferences of smokers (who seem disproportionately represented among casino patrons) and non-smokers, is not perfect.  The main smoking area is very smoky, since almost everyone in it is a smoker (I didn’t go into the high limit table area, but I assume it’s also pretty smoky).  Though the smokers are there voluntarily, that may not be true of all the staff. The high limit slot area is outside the close and is now in the larger area of the casino in which smoking is prohibited.  I believe the live poker room and keno and bingo areas also are completely non-smoking, so players of those games who are smokers may not be accommodated.

All in all, though, management at Turning Stone deserves praise for responding to the complaints of non-smokers in a meaningful way, while preserving its competitive advantage over the non-native American venues in New York that will not be able to allow smokers to gamble and smoke at the same time. Now, if only management would turn its attention to the noise issue . . .


Let’s see how long it lasts

November 8, 2016

As I suspected, the new State-regulated casinos in New York (as well as those in Massachusetts) will almost all be smoke free.  This good news was reported by the Times Union in a recent item about what Turning Stone is doing to meet the new competition.

While I and many other casino patrons would welcome a completely smoke-free environment, maintaining a ban on smoking may not be economically viable.  There is a high correlation between gambling and smoking, and a complete ban in Atlantic City sent too many customers elsewhere and had to be rescinded.  Smoking will continue to be allowed at Turning Stone and in the Connecticut casinos.  Their customers may stay loyal to those establishments that allow them to smoke, even if new, non-smoking casinos are closer to where they live.

I think the best way to accommodate everyone is to make all public areas of casinos non smoking, with separate (but equal, in terms of games offered and other amenities) gambling rooms for smokers and non smokers.  Foxwoods has a separate non-smoking casino, but unfortunately for me it does not have any of the full pay jacks or better video poker machines I like to play at that establishment, so I have to put up with some smoke to play the better games.  Casino management also should consider accommodating those who are sensitive to noise by establishing some quiet areas.  The more a business can accommodate those with competing likes and dislikes, the better for everyone.


Smoke fee gaming in NY?

April 24, 2016

After reading recently in the Times Union that the casino to be built in Schenectady had posted some job openings, curiosity brought me to its site.  I saw several listings for jobs on the casino floor that listed as one of the qualifications “Ability to work in a noisy environment.”  Does the absence of a similar statement about a smoky environment indicate that the casino will not allow smoking, either by government regulation or company policy?  Time will tell.  Incidentally, if you feel you have to list a noisy environment as a challenge your workers will have to overcome, why not make an effort to quiet things down a bit?


Little signs – buyer beware

April 24, 2016

An old saying advises “what the big print gives, the small print takes away.”  And it seems to me that the smaller the print, the more that is taken away.  A recent trip to a Las Vegas Strip casino revealed, on every blackjack table on the main floor that I saw, a very small sign that advised “Blackjack pays 6 to 5.” Anyone familiar with the game knows that a blackjack should pay three to two, and that the difference is not insignificant, costing the typical player (in addition to the much smaller expected loss already built into the better game) three dollars a blackjack on a $10 bet, or some $12 to $20 per hour, depending on the speed of play.

The worst small print is that which directly contradicts the large print, such as coupons from retailers that offer __% off everything in the store in large print, but in small print contain a long list of excluded items, usually including the one you want to buy.  Retail clerks seem immune to my argument that when two statements directly contradict each other, the one in more conspicuous type should be honored. I’ve never tried my luck in court with that argument.

Recently, I booked a rental car on the Southwest Airlines web site.  In addition to the usual fictitious rate for the rental, there was an estimated total cost, which included taxes and fees, and was, as is typical in the industry, more than 50% higher than the quoted rate.  When I got to the rental office, I was presented with a multi-page agreement, printed in microscopic type, which somewhat prominently quoted the base rate that had appeared on the Southwest site.  However, as I carefully examined that document (which I suspect most people, fresh off a tiring flight and eager to reach their ultimate destination, don’t), I found the total cost, displayed much less conspicuously.  It was about $100 more than the estimate that had appeared on the Southwest site.  When I pointed this out to the agent, he backed down pretty quickly, but I imagine that his company (and perhaps others) get away with this trick (unless it was an honest mistake, which I doubt) more often than not.

As I have so often pointed out in this blog, buyer beware.  Conservatives who decry big government ignore that fact that many, if not most, government regulations in the consumer protection area are the result of abuses of trust by companies selling goods and services.  If the plutocrats who run those companies were a little more forthcoming, there would be less need for the big government they decry.  Consumers also, unfortunately, deserve part of the blame, both for being unwary, which arguably they should not have to be, but also for being fixated on an often fictitious “price,” to which fees often are added, the fees being nothing more than an additional charge for the item to which the price is attached.  I have been advised that consumers, given a choice between an item forthrightly priced at a given amount, will prefer buying the same item for a lesser quoted price, even when added fees bring the price up to the same amount.


Girding for the competition

March 3, 2016

The two casinos in southeastern Connecticut, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, will soon be facing competition from new casinos to be built in the Boston and Springfield areas of Massachusetts, closer to where many of their existing customers live.  How to maintain the loyalty of those customers who will soon have options involving far less travel is a challenge, to say the least, especially since the new competition will be run by experienced, quality operators (Wynn and MGM, respectively).

I recently visited both existing casinos, and noticed a lot going on.  Mohegan Sun is changing its mix of shops and restaurants (what the new ones will be is not readily apparent); I was surprised to see its Tiffany’s store shuttered.  It also is building a new hotel.  Foxwoods has added an entire Tanger outlet mall to its property and is changing the mix of games on its floors.  Both continue to run promotions, including drawings, tournaments and the like; Foxwoods is running a series of events tied to its 24th anniversary.

The outlets at Foxwoods impressed me, though I am not much of a shopper.  The mall provides a strong attraction for non-gamblers, in addition to the restaurants and entertainment found at both resorts.  More importantly for me, most of the shops in the mall accept Foxwoods player’s club points at face value for purchases, opening up a whole world of shopping opportunities.  A serious gambler is always looking for ways to spend those points on the necessities of life; typical casino shops focus on high-priced luxury goods.  One can buy gas and gift cards at Foxwoods, but at a 50% premium (i.e., a $100 gas card costs $150 worth of points), and free play requires payment of a 100% premium (i.e. $100 free pay costs $200 worth of points).  The outlets appear to be selling things I need, such as everyday clothing and shoes, at “street” prices, in addition to life’s nice extras.

Although the new hotel at Mohegan Sun is still under construction, and judgment on it therefore must be reserved, it’s hard for me to see how it’s a better investment than the outlets at Foxwoods.  Certainly there are times (holiday periods, headliner shows and other events) when the existing hotel is sold out, but it’s not clear to me that the excess demand is enough to fill another hotel on enough nights to make it profitable.  Of course, that demand can be increased with more events to draw more people, but the number of people a given event can draw is limited by the size of the facility in which it takes place.

In my experience, casinos have responded to competition or economic downturn in two contradictory ways, sometimes simultaneously.  One way has been to tighten the games by changing the pay tables on video poker, changing the rules on blackjack (the most notorious being reducing payouts on blackjacks to 6:5, which no player should accept), and the like.  Another way has been to offer more, especially to regular, substantial players, in terms of free rooms, free play, dining credits and the like.  Serious gamblers probably should expect both at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.  As always, buyer beware.