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.



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.

Atlantic City

March 25, 2013

Much has been written of late about the declining state of gambling in Atlantic City.  I had not been there for several years until last weekend, when a family wedding in somewhat nearby Philadelphia and a nice offer from the Resorts casino combined to lure me me for a visit.

It appeared that hurricane Sandy had largely spared the city from visible disaster or, if it hadn’t, that a through cleanup had been completed.  I saw a lot of ongoing construction, especially at Resorts, as well as activity relating to maintenance of the beach, which would have been attractive had the weather been warmer.   People were out on the boardwalk during the day, though cool temperatures and strong breezes kept the big crowds away.

Resorts, now being managed  by Mohegan Sun, had a good assortment of video poker machines.  Aided by vpfree2, I found 9/6 jacks or better machines at $.25, $1.00, $2.00 and $5.00, though they were well hidden among 8/5 machines, which predominated.  I also found $.25 pick ’em poker, but not with the full-pay table.  Unlike Mohegan Sun, players at Resorts earn players club points on full pay machines.

Part of the offer I received from Resorts was a player’s club card at the highest (paramount) level.  While checking my points at a kiosk, I discovered that I had been awarded a $100 dining credit (in addition to the room nights, $85 food credit and generous free play promised on my mailer).  My companion and I used the credits on a very nice dinner and a bottle of wine at Capriccio, the gourmet Italian restaurant, at which both the food and service were first-rate.  At the conclusion of our meal, I was as surprised as when I discovered the $100 dining credit to hear from our waiter that, as a paramount card holder, I could have received a free bottle of wine (though not the one we ordered) with our dinner.

I was very well treated by Resorts, and I don’t want this to sound like a complaint, but why would a resort offer a player substantial benefits like a $100 dining credit and a free bottle of wine and not make sure that the player is aware of these benefits?  I find many player’s club programs similarly opaque.  If players knew about all the benefits they were entitled to, they would feel more appreciated.

In addition to checking on the Borgata (still nice, still crowded) and the new Golden Nugget (nice, but not as nice as the Borgata, and not as crowded), I made sure to take the short walk from Resorts to check out the Revel, which impressed me a great deal.  The property is beautiful, with windows admitting light and affording ocean views from the casino.  The smoke free policy (for as long as it will last, which I suspect is not long) is a real blessing for those who, like me, are sensitive to smoke.  I found full pay jacks for a dollar and saw what appeared to be six-deck, stand on 17 blackjack games on the main floor, though the minimum per hand could not be determined because the tables were not open and the signs therefore were not lit.  The only negative I experienced was the lack of any kind of offer for new sign-ups for the Revel player’s card.  It would have been nice to have received a little free play or a coupon for use at a restaurant.  Nonetheless, unless this property is way below average in comps and  mail offers, which some scuttlebutt on the internet suggests is the case,  I can’t understand why it is on the verge of filing for bankruptcy.  It is one of the nicest properties I have seen anywhere, and I hope it can survive and maintain its no smoking policy.

In sum, Atlantic City had attractive properties with better games than I had expected to find.  There are some small annoyances one does not find at other gambling venues — charges of $5.00 to park (waived at most properties for highest level players card holders) and a $5.00 tax per night on comped rooms.  The key is whether, now that it no longer has a monopoly on gambling in the northeast, Atlantic City can differentiate itself to again become a destination.  The Revel as it now is apparently has not done the trick; sports betting might.  For me, it’s worth a stop if I’m nearby, or if I get an exceptional offer, but there usually are equally attractive gambling opportunities for me much closer to home.

Bad omen for expansion of gambling in NY

February 21, 2013

This article in the New York Times  does not bode well for any hope that the new era of expanded gambling “opportunities” for New Yorkers will be in their best interests.  Quick Draw is the most exploitive of games.  It has an exorbitant house edge — 40%, according to the article.  It is fast, exposing the player to that house edge over and over again in a relatively short period of time.  It has high volatility, meaning that it is easy to exhaust a relatively small bank roll before getting lucky.  The only “good” thing about this game is that it can be played for relatively low stakes.

One might argue that, in a game that can be played only by adults, it is up to each individual to decide whether to play, and the only obligations of the government are to provide full disclosure and to run an honest game.  Donald Catlin, a mathematician, analyzes Quick Draw in this article.  He concludes that it, like most other Keno games, is not a good bet.  More important, he claims the Lottery advertises Quick Draw in a misleading way, counting ties (draws where you get your original bet back and nothing more) as wins in advertising the “odds of winning,” which is itself an almost meaningless statistic, the house edge and volatility being far more relevant. Of course, accepting this “buyer beware” argument across the board would mean dismantling many federal and state government agencies and programs whose purpose is consumer protection, a mission that often includes protecting consumers from themselves.  Pennsylvania, in rejecting industry lobbying aimed at allowing it to increase the house edge on its blackjack games, recently indicated an awareness of the need to give the players a decent chance, possibly saving the industry from the consequences of its own avarice (see, by contrast, Atlantic City).  It looks like New York is poised to go in the opposite direction, which will cause more gambling-related problems and fuel for the anti-gambling forces, especially because the minimum age for gambling in New York is 18, rather than 21, as in most other states, which suggests the need for more consumer disclosure and protection, not less.

As someone who believes adults who want to gamble responsibly should be given the opportunity, with the concomitant opportunity for the State to derive non-tax income from those who participate in that activity voluntarily, I despise the Lottery for its exploitive games and its implicit misrepresentation of the lousy products it offers, which include not only the “odds of winning” disclosure explained above, but marketing video poker that resembles the decent games found elsewhere but is anything but, as described in a previous post on this blog.

Wendover, NV

March 19, 2012

I recently visited friends in the Salt Lake City, UT area for some skiing and other recreation. I took two trips to Wendover, NV, a small town on the border about 115 miles west of SLC. Its primary attraction seems to be as a gambling destination for citizens of Utah, where no gambling of any kind is allowed.

Wendover appears to have about five casinos, the three largest of which are owned by the Peppermill company. I found lots of low-limit single deck blackjack paying 3:2 for a snapper, and lots of 9/6 jacks or better video poker, including a great $1 progressive machine that registered over $5,000 on the meter for a royal flush (at $4800 for the royal, a 9/6 jacks machine turns “positive,” giving the player an expectation of over 100% return). Unfortunately, the machines were gone by our second trip.

Wendover is similar to other Nevada towns I’ve seen at borders with other states, such as Primm and Mesquite. Capital OTB has outposts based on the same principle near the borders of Canada and Massachusetts. However, with the proliferation of gambling, these outposts may not much longer be necessary, which could deal a blow to their local economies.

On our second trip, my friend and I took a bus. It afforded nice views of the Great Salt Lake and the salt flats, but I was surprised at how much drinking went on (though strictly prohibited). I guess Utah’s strict liquor laws don’t work all that well.

Northeast blackjack update

April 28, 2011

No hit 17

I just read on a gambling message board that Foxwoods – one of the largest casinos in the world, not to mention the northeast United States – is in the process of converting all but its high limit blackjack games to hit soft 17, the evils of which are explained in a post below. Another ripoff perpetrated, no doubt, by the same MBAs who gave you the shrinking contents food containers. Thanks.

Better gambling at home than in Las Vegas?

December 23, 2010

I’m in Las Vegas on vacation. As readers of this blog know, I’m an avid player of video poker. I also enjoy blackjack and, not so much any more, betting on horse racing. In my last few trips here, I’ve come to the sorry conclusion that in many cases, there are better gambling opportunities for me at home than here.

There are video poker machines here that are better than anything in the northeast – in fact, some here pay over 100% on average with perfect play. Many of these can be found just off the Strip at the Palms, which is filled with blue hairs enjoying them during the weekdays and with hipsters and thugs on the nights and weekends. It’s a nice, interesting place, only I think it would do better to match the music with the crowd, rather than play piercingly loud thug music all the time. But I digress – I’m really talking about the Strip hotels and 9/6 Jacks or Better, which is the “standard” video poker game in the US. It returns about 99.5% with perfect play, and it’s readily available at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut at the $1 level. The only place I’ve found it on the Strip at this level is at the new Cosmopolitan (a nice place, but also infected with bad, loud music). I’ve heard New York New York also may have it at the $1 and $2 level, and it comes and goes without notice at other places. It is available off the Strip, at Hooters, the Hilton and some but not all of the locals places, but that may not help you if you don’t have a car or if taking time to travel off Strip just for gambling is not a priority.

Far worse yet is the blackjack situation. Not all blackjack games are the same, and some are remarkably bad. There are four main ways a casino can increase its edge on blackjack games: reduce the payout on blackjack, require the dealer to hit, rather than stand, on soft 17 (a hand containing cards totaling 6 and an ace that can be counted as 1 or 11), increase the number of decks in play, and restrict when a player can double the initial bet.

The first and worst innovation employed in Las Vegas was reducing the payout for blackjack in many games from 3:2 to 6:5. If you are at a $10 game playing the table minimum at 6:5, this means you will be paid $12 (instead of the $15 you would get at a 3:2 game) each time you get a blackjack. If you get five blackjacks an hour (a conservative estimate), this one rule costs you an additional $15 an hour. The 6:5 payout is found mostly in single deck games and in other games where it is dealt by scantily clad dealers or in areas near pole dancers and the like. Fortunately, the public is catching on to the 6:5 ripoff and, though still available and “enjoyed” by suckers, most casinos realize they also have to offer something a little better (an exception is O’Shea’s, a low roller joint that pays 6:5 on all its blackjack games). If you ever go to Las Vegas and intend to play blackjack, the most important thing to remember is that you’d be far better off playing a $10 or $15 “shoe” game (a six or even eight deck game where the cards are dealt out of a plastic “shoe”) than a $5 6:5 single deck game. Incidentally, the local gaming regulations require prominent display of blackjack payouts (usually found on the sign displaying the minimum and maximum bets allowed or on the felt surface on the table), so if you find yourself shorted on a blackjack, ask to see where the payout is displayed. If it isn’t, tell the supervisor you expect to be paid the regular 3:2 or you will complain to the gaming authorities.

Increasing the number of decks employed in the game increases the house advantage (why it does so is complicated and not worth explaining here), all other things being equal. That’s why you won’t see any single deck games on the Strip (except those paying 6:5, which more than makes up for the difference between single deck and 8 deck, the most I’ve seen used). What’s distressing is the number of 8 deck shoe games on the Strip, where the standard used to be six. The difference in house advantage isn’t that great, but it’s another way they take a small bite out of the unsuspecting player.  The number of decks used in a shoe game usually isn’t displayed.  If you’re not sure, ask, and don’t hesitate to express displeasure if the answer is eight.

Next in the quartet of blackjack ripoffs is requiring the dealer to hit soft 17, which increases the house edge on a typical shoe game by about .2%. That may not seem like a lot, but when the house edge without this rule is only about .4%, it’s a 50% increase in the cost of playing the game. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to avoid hit soft 17 games in Las Vegas unless you play for $25 and up per hand. The MGM Strip properties probably still have the most stand soft 17 games, but they are becoming a rare breed.

I have seen almost no 6:5 or hit soft 17 games where I play in the northeast, though I’ve heard that hit soft 17 is becoming the norm in Atlantic City (and perhaps is another contributor to that city’s decling gambling revenue, especially since Pennsylvania mandates that all blackjack games stand on soft 17). I understand that it’s a subtle rule change that probably eludes most casual players, and that’s why casinos do it. However, a player who gets burned by this rule will not like it.   A few years back, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas changed its mid-level ($25 and $50 six deck shoe games) from stand to hit soft 17.  I recall a customer who had taken out a $3,000 marker to play (meaning she had a line of credit at the casino) getting beaten by a dealer’s three-ace-three-three when she had 18 or 19. That brought the change to her attention, and she was not shy about expressing her displeasure, unfortunately to no effect. I hope she voted with her feet and found a stand 17 game elsewhere, as I did.

The last Las Vegas ripoff – another rarely found in the northeast – is restrictions on doubing one’s bet. In blackjack, there are two situations in which a player may increase his bet after seeing his initial two cards, and these opportunities, if employed correctly, can decrease the house edge on the game. If dealt a pair (two cards of the same value), a player may add a second bet and split the pair into two hands. If dealt two cards (whether a pair or not) that look like they have the dealer beat, the player may “double down” – add a second unit to the bet, and receive only one additonal card on that hand. Traditonially, a player is allowed to double her bet after receiving the second card on a split hand, which is known as a double after split. Many Strip casinos do not allow double after split, which of course is to their advantage. However, when this restriction is displayed (and, at most Strip casinos, to their credit, it is, though it is not required to be), it sends a message to the customer that he is being ripped off. Even a player who does not understand the effect of the rule must assume a sign that says “no double down after split” is prohibiting him from doing something he otherwise would want to do. Why tell a customer “no” if you are running a customer service business? The most exciting blackjack hands are those in which a player has multiple bets down because of split hands and doubles. When a player wins such a hand, tips for the dealer often result, and excitement rules. The bean counters in Las Vegas just don’t understand that. Even worse is when the restriction applies but no warning is given. This happened to me a few years ago at Main St. Station, an otherwise nice casino downtown (not affiliated with the local chain of Station casinos), where my attempt to double on a split hand was rebuffed by the dealer, despite the absence of a sign noting the prohibition. Why an establishment would do this is beyond me.

Too many people think all gambling depends only on luck, and that it doesn’t matter where they play or what they do. That’s why, I suppose, slot machines are so popular, though their payouts are secret and there’s nothing the player can do to increase his chance of winning. However, if you like games of skill, where decisions do matter, such as video poker and blackjack, finding a game with reasonable rules and full payouts is as important as learning how to play the game. If you play the best games well (and there are plenty of strategy guides available), you will stay in action longer –maybe even long enough to overcome the house edge and score a victory.