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.
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.
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.
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